Miss Julie and The Timeless Art of Slut-Shaming

org_img_1366920767_LApparently, some things never get old.

Neil LaBute, screenwriter of such movies as a remake of the 1973 film The Wicker Man, about crazy, man-killing witches, has adapted the misogynist classic Miss Julie, written in 1888 by August Strindberg. (If you haven’t heard of Strindberg, think Rush Limbaugh as a 19th-century Swedish playwright: avowedly sexist, angry as hell and determined to use his platform to debunk such radical ideas as “women are human beings.”)

Miss Julie is often praised as one of the best examples of Naturalism in the theater, which strove to present humanity without any veneer in all it’s sexy, shitty, greedy glory. It takes place in 90 minutes, set in one location and features only three characters: an aristocrat named Miss Julie, her father’s valet, Jean, and the cook, Christine, who is also Jean’s fiance.

On a midsummer night at Julie’s father’s estate, the patriarch is away and thus the servants are at play at an offstage party in the barn. Miss Julie takes a break from dancing with her servants, which is scandal enough, to flirt with Jean and have a few drinks in the kitchen. An overt display of sexuality and mutual seduction culminates in sex, after which Jean proposes they run away together and open a hotel. When Julie says she wants to go with him but cannot supply him with the seed money (the money is all her father’s, obviously), Jean turns cold, calling her a whore and proclaiming:

You lackey lover! You bootback tramp! Shut your mouth and get out of here! … I’ve never seen anybody in my class behave as crudely as you did tonight … I’ve never seen the like of it except in animals and prostitutes!

And then he convinces her to kill herself.

LaBute has set his adaptation—currently playing at The Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles—in 1929, dresses Julie as a flapper and makes Jean into John, whose Long Island accent never lets us forget his class. Unfortunately, these choices do nothing to improve on the intentions of the original. In fact, they serve largely to betray the playwright’s inability to accept that, despite Strindberg’s predictions, feminism hasn’t actually destroyed society. In both versions, Miss Julie’s inappropriate sexual behavior is the result of a radical mother who raised her “to believe in equality, the independence of women, and all that;” taught her “everything a boy learns;” and even dressed her in boys’ clothes. LaBute’s setting simply replaces the feminist boogeymen that inspired Strindberg—a growing societal belief in women’s right to education, legal recognition that women could own property and plays like fellow Scandinavian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in which a woman dares to assert her humanity—with the success of the suffrage movement, the growing availability of birth control, the New Woman and her daughter, the flapper.

LaBute does nothing to address the historical inconsistencies that this creates. Whereas Strindberg’s Miss Julie’s behavior represented a radical departure from that of her peers, LaBute’s Miss Julie, as signified by the flapper dress, is part of a massive, culture-wide trend of women taking their lives and their sexuality into their own hands. Additionally, as Lisa Hix recently pointed out on The Ms. Blog, despite the prevailing image of the flapper as Gatsby‘s wealthy Daisy Buchanan, the flapper movement actually originated among the working class. Nevertheless, LaBute slut-shames his Julie just like Strindberg does, and she, accordingly, hates herself, just as if she were a Victorian aristocrat.

While Strindberg’s characters do go back and forth between extreme and seemingly contradictory behavior, these contradictions remain internal to the characters and in fact become clear only when considered in relation to the stringent social mores and resulting hypocrisy of the time. LaBute’s context provides no such throughline. On the contrary, it only makes it more baffling that these two people carry around this much guilt. Lily Rabe as Julie furthers the confusion by affecting an accent and timbre of voice obviously modeled off of Katherine Hepburn. Sounding like the epitome of the self-defined woman that Hepburn was, while doing and saying things that neither Hepburn nor any character she ever played would do or say, only makes this Julie even more anachronistic, especially since Hepburn wasn’t popular until the ’30s. On the other hand, the choice does drive home the fact that the playwright thinks women in pants are a bad idea.

Perhaps because the parallel doesn’t actually work, LaBute doesn’t address the period other than through Julie’s costume. During an hour-and-45 minute play in which both characters’ main action is “to drink,” he never once refers to the fact that at the time during which he set the play, alcohol was illegal and not in small part because of strong women asserting their cultural influence through organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. While Strindberg’s play features a company of reveling servants who enter the kitchen and dance while Jean and Julie fuck offstage, LaBute’s version fails to take advantage of the fact that a little Charleston or Snakehips could have done a lot to contextualize the offstage action as well as serving, as Strindberg’s dance does, as a visceral metaphor for sex. As a result, the only thing the adaptation adds to the original is running time.

Jo Bonney, who has worked with LaBute before, directs this world premiere. Though Bonney often gets pigeonholed as the woman director who works on really masculine plays, at least half the playwrights she’s worked with have been women. Here Bonney does the job of a director on a new play: She brings what LaBute wrote faithfully to life. But though a director has no control over what the characters say and do, she does have some influence over why. Bonney could have structured the cause and effect of the performance to tell the story of a woman shamed into an unnecessary death rather than that of a woman doomed by her mother’s feminism.

Strindberg would later suffer no fewer than three psychological breakdowns—one for each marriage—during which, for example, he accused one wife of trying to drive him crazy by sending rays through the walls. (Some scholars credit these breakdowns to drug-induced experiments he performed on himself as part of his dabblings in alchemy and the occult.) Perhaps history will provide us with some insight into LaBute’s obsession with stories that punish strong women and warn society against the dangers they presumably pose. I was hoping his Miss Julie would be more than yet another incarnation of his same old thing, but alas.

Unfortunately, slut-shaming still sells.

Photo by Michael Lamont of Logan Marshall-Green as John and Lily Rabe as Miss Julie in Neil LaBute’s world-premiere adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie at The Geffen Playhouse.

Comments

  1. neil labute says:

    ms. derr:

    i’m sorry you found so little to enjoy in our adaptation and production of “miss julie.” you write well and persuasively but you also make great generalizations in your work. theater is always about ‘the possible’ and a young wealthy woman, isolated on a large estate on long island in the 1920′s (no matter her style of dress), is not THE representative of the women of her era. Julie does, in fact, take her sexuality into her own hands and ultimately her life into her own hands as well. If you’re implying that her story couldn’t happen in that era in America then i disagree with you wholeheartedly; if you simply didn’t like what you saw and heard at the Geffen, i would just put that down to a bad night in the theater and i would call the box office to ask for your money back (unless, like many critics, your ticket was free).

    • Actually in many ways I did enjoy myself. The performances were great, and I really wish the production photography showed Julie’s real dress because the color, in contrast to the set, was part of a great design. I don’t have to like the message of a show to appreciate its art; in fact I enjoy being provoked. I do wish that there had been more to situate the play in the period than the dress. Your program note mentioned that you wanted the audience to be aware of the impending financial crisis, but without any internal reminders of the economy, the period seemed more vaguely “the 20s” than 1929 and I had no reason to think about the stock market. My argument is not that the story couldn’t happen in America in that year, it’s that this production didn’t really make it happen then.

      As to Miss Julie being the subject of her own action, the story you told was the same one Strindberg did. In keeping with the Naturalist desire to show people as the products of their environments and desires, Strindberg’s Miss Julie is destined by her upbringing for sexual aberrance. A version as firmly situated in 1929–or 2013 for that matter–as Strindberg’s was in 1888 would instead have told the story of a confident woman with a normal sex drive who is bullied and harassed into suicide.

      Thanks for your thoughts and for continuing the conversation.
      -Holly

      • neil labute says:

        holly:
        i can walk out onto any street today and find a woman without confidence (and probably twice as many men). i would think that number would increase significantly if i were to walk out onto said street in 1929. i also venture to believe that a person who is a product of a strange and difficult upbringing–coupled with high expectations and a class system driven by ‘old money’– would be doubly susceptible to guilt and disgrace (and i do think our “julie” is both bullied and harassed by “john” on top of that). you do imply that a woman of that era, be it 1929 or simply the 20′s, would not act the way “julie” does and i continue to believe as long as her behavior is ‘possible’ then it is more than welcome on the stage. as for a clearer representation of the exact year, i will write to jo and myung tonight and ask that a wall calendar be mounted in the kitchen asap (as long as one can be located in tones of grey and white, in keeping with their strict color scheme for the set).

  2. prudence powers says:

    Mr. LaBute,

    With all due respect, defending your work here is making you look a bit less than gracious. Like, you’re coming across as really defensive.

    Perhaps you should consider being open to the intelligent, well-informed and well-considered feedback that you are receiving.

    If you can’t see why hanging a black-and-white calendar on the set won’t solve the anachronistic problems created by this adaptation, then there are bigger fish to fry. However, I do think you see why, and that your comment was intended in a snarky and sarcastic voice. Too bad, because the author of this post is being extremely gracious and respectful in her comments.

    Too bad.

    I wish you all the best, and may you have balanced and respectful interaction with persons across the gender spectrum in the future, and be inspired to create art from that starting place.

    Wishing you well,
    Prudence

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