God, I’m so sick of male critics, Part 2

Title occasioned by seeing A Doll’s House, Part 2, a play which is irritating to me in several ways: 1) it’s fanfic, which is fine, except it’s 2) fanfic written by a man that 3) despite being not as clever as it clearly thinks it is, was 4) nominated for best play: I mean, this thing where male playwrights write boring conventional fanfic and are lauded while women write wildly original and transformative fanfic and are mocked for it has really got to stop. Lastly, 5) I knew right away that it had been written by a dude who is not a feminist thinker, because it is deeply CONFUSED between STRUCTURAL OPPRESSION and “FEELINGS.”

Ben Brantley in the NYT notes that the play’s set features “a small table with an anachronistic box of tissues, such as therapists usually keep around for emotional patients,” and he’s right, but he doesn’t see how utterly offensive that is, because Part 2 tells us straight out (it’s key to the plot), that Nora Helmer still doesn’t have full rights of personhood under the law as a married woman: she doesn’t control her own money, can’t enter contracts, can’t seek a divorce etc. etc. So this fucking therapized bullshit the play is serving up – “courageously” asking the question of “wouldn’t it be braver if Nora had stayed and talked it out rather than–boo!–‘self-actualized’?” – is actually, patently offensive; I mean, I would love to see the 19th century race play version of this, where we (courageously!) ask whether or not plantation slavery was really so bad if only the masters and slaves had stayed to talk things through. The play is set up so as to confirm the biases of it’s mostly married, mostly conventional audiences, so that there’s applause when Nora’s daughter insists that, despite her mother’s analysis of the downsides of 19th century marriage, she wants to get married anyway: “Your wants are not my wants,” –which is the worst sort of “choice” feminism, where we can “choose” whether to have human rights or NOT. The play also routinely assumes that marriage is around as the default state of things – there are big laughs when Nora suggests that maybe in 20 or 30 years, marriage won’t be the default contractual arrangement for two people in love – but this is in fact the case in Europe and has been for ages? I mean, the play is bizarrely American-focused in its idea of things and makes no sense in a context in which traditional marriage is actually outmoded for millions of people worldwide, gay and straight.

All this said, the play has one great moment that was a total home run for me, though it didn’t do enough to counter the “fair and balanced” discussion of whether or not women should enter contracts in which they are statutorily disadvantaged. (Solved: no!) Three quarters through the play, Nora – having reverted to her past self as if the house is infecting her, which is to say, scheming to convince her maid and her daughter to convince Torvold to give her her freedom – suddenly realizes that the scheming is beneath her and that she has to walk out of this house AGAIN and try to change the bad laws that constrain her personhood: that is, she realizes that if living as a full human being has placed her outside the law, she has to stand up and say, YES, I AM A CRIMINAL BECAUSE THE LAW IS WRONG. And that moment was powerful for me – the moment where she realizes that Torvold can’t “give” her her freedom by divorce, she has to take it. The play does stick with this ending by having Nora leaving again to try and change the law and the world, but the rest of the play conspires to have us feel sort of sad that, you know, those crazy kids couldn’t work something out. A piece in the New Yorker on The Feminist Consultants for the play eavesdrops on Elaine Showalter and Carol Gilligan’s post play conversation: while they apparently consulted, Gilligan at least noted that the answer to the playwright’s question, “Could Nora be sympathetic if she had left her children?” was a definitive “no,” because the crowd was cheering for Nora’s conventional daughter against her mother. (Compare, say, to Susan Glaspell’s 1921 play The Verge, in which a defiantly convention-shattering mother overtly disdains and disowns the conventional, regressive daughter she has abandoned.) At the end of the day, Part 2 really makes you appreciate the original play – come back, Henrik, all is forgiven! – and joins the ranks of other male “fix-its” to those very few works – Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” is one; EM Forster’s Maurice is another, for gay men – where a woman escapes the text more or less scot free.

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