Must it be this way

21 April 2019

Aimee Dickinson questions violence against women as a plot device

Watching A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was not easy for many reasons. 

The one woman show presented a visceral and painful evocation of the life of a young woman speaking to her younger brother growing up in a stifling Catholic household. Much of the play centred around this character’s sexual abuse and her subsequent unhealthy relationship with sex. While fantastically performed, these scenes did raise a question that has been bothering me for a while, especially with some of the theatre that I have seen produced by universities over the last few years: why is sexual abuse at the heart of so many plays centred around the female experience?

This is by no means a denial of the reality that women are much more likely than men to be victims of sexual assault, or in any way suggesting that the voices of these women should not be expressed. But I would argue the presentation of this issue in theatre has moved beyond an exploration of this serious issue, and instead become a lazy plot device.

In this new trend, plays around female experience are less interested in exploring the female characters than presenting a voyeuristic and almost fetishized presentation of violence. This has the insidious effect of reducing women to victims who must constantly protect their bodies from the men who threaten them, making the plays instead about these male characters.

It almost seems to me that for playwrights, sexual abuse has become a sure-fire way to create vulnerable female characters in a way that is certainly not done with male characters. This is an issue that was also raised in Yen, another play in which sexual assault is used as a plot device to complicate the male driven plot. To make a man a sympathetic character and evoke emotion from an audience, a play would be much less likely to jump to sexual assault. Instead, a playwright is much more likely to focus on career failures or family dissolution as a cause for emotional turmoil.

While I am in no way suggesting erasure of these experiences in theatre, I think we need to seriously consider presenting women as fully rounded characters rather than reducing them to victims.


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Photo credit: Beatrice Debney