Thursday, 20 January 2011

Accidentally a Misogynist: What the Press said...

I was very excited about The Boy James opening, almost in a childish way because it was the first play I’d written being performed in London. For me this felt important, at least for me it was important.

The other three boys have already had their shows run at Southwark Playhouse and so each have had to deal accordingly with the Press. This is, of course, true of any run. It is inevitable that you will get some good reviews, others bad; some that are fair and others that read like they were watching an entirely different show. I was prepared for this. In Edinburgh The Boy James and my adaptation of Antigone both received wildly varying responses. I have begun to think that the style of my writing might be a love or hate type affair.

However, the Press for The Boy James have levelled an opinion that I had never expected: that a strand of the play is misogynistic.

The first review which mentioned any possible misogyny was the glorious Tracey Sinclair from, who seemed to hate everything and so I took it with a pinch of salt: ‘It feels vaguely misogynistic; if only it wasn’t for all those rapacious females and their evil ways, the boys could stay uncorrupted and have fun forever!’ (Read the full review here).

However the accusation came again in Sam Marlowe’s review in The Times: ‘There’s also a whiff of sexism to the girl’s portrayal: in her demands to play house or mummies and daddies with the fearful and reluctant boy, and her threat to burn down Barrie’s study, there’s a faint suggestion that women are the natural enemy of male creativity.’ (Read the full review on our blog).

The third came from Ought To Be Clowns: ‘Lucy Farrett, with a great entrance into the show, coped admirably with what comes across as a rather uncomfortably misogynistic role’ (Full review here).

And finally a slightly less overt inference from British Theatre Guide: ‘She has only knocked him out but she thinks violence and hurting people can be exciting and then attempts to introduce him to sex: the female in the biblical tradition of Eve as the instrument of corruption.’ (Again, full review here)

Of course I am not a critic and everyone’s opinion is entirely valid. And obviously I know ‘The Death of The Author’ exists, but is it bad of me to read the above and think ‘You’re wrong, the play isn’t misogynistic’?

I know people interpret things in different ways, but The Boy James hasn’t a hint of misogyny in it. My main way of backing this up is simply because I am not a misogynist in any way shape or form.

There are two ways of approaching my defense, through the topic of the play and through my reasoning around it.

If you’ve seen the show you know what happens. A girl enters the world of James’ childhood self and effectively rapes him. This is violent and upsetting. A little girl rapes a little boy. Yes, this does resonate with the occasional discomfort of being unsympathetically brought in to the adult world by the forces of Time, and of the relative changes that come with that. It does not suggest that all young men are corrupted by young women. Surely if the Boy raped the Girl, that too is misogynist and sexist, subordinating the power of the female?

Sex is, and I’m sure noone will dispute this, a powerful tool and a powerful force. Just look at the amount of sex that is selling products in the media, it is something that adults are drawn to, seduced by, enchanted and obsessed with. Children don’t have this overt obsession. The introduction of sex in to someone’s life is a clear shift from childhood to puberty and to adulthood, not just physically but socially and politically too.

Of course in the play the symbol of this is the Girl, and the change happens rather quickly, but this is due to writing a play and not making a documentary.

Perhaps the above is the disputed point. Perhaps it is merely that the symbol of this shift and change is a girl, instead of a boy.

There are two characters in the play: James as a boy and James as a man. Although the events are not biopic, James is obviously a shadowy symbol of J M Barrie. Here again I split in to two arguments, one of his life and one of his fiction, as The Boy James mingles both.

J M Barrie was heterosexual. Some say a-sexual but he was married to a Mary and later became socially involved with the Llewelyn Davies family and the children’s mother, Sylvia. Apparently his marriage to Mary was unconsummated and also apparently he and Sylvia were engaged when Sylvia died.

There has been speculation as to whether Barrie had a paedophilic relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys, but this speculation is by no means involved in The Boy James. However, had the Girl been another boy, had a more dominant male interfered or raped a little boy then suddenly The Boy James is about J M Barrie being a paedophile. This was never going to factor in The Boy James.

Considering the above points about any biopic sense in the play, it makes sense for the symbol of adolescence or danger to be a girl, not a boy.

Secondly and, perhaps more importantly, we come to the fictional allusions within The Boy James. In Peter Pan there is a boy who doesn’t want to grow up and a girl who wants him to. There is a boy who wants to remain forever young and careless and a girl who wants to kiss him. There is a boy who wants to stay in adventureland and a girl who wants him to come back to her house. There is Peter Pan and Wendy Darling.

When I watch or read Peter Pan I never think of Wendy as a symbol of misogyny.

The Boy in The Boy James is not a rewrite of the part of Peter Pan and the Girl is not a rewrite of Wendy Darling, but the parallels are there and they are clear and obvious. Wendy wants Peter to grow up, she wants him to kiss her and she plays Mummy to all the Lost Boys. But Wendy is not a misogynistic role.

In The Boy James the Boy wants to play, to go on adventures and make magic things happen, the Girl wants him to kiss her, to look at her, to play Mummies and Daddies. But here the Press have said the Girl is a misogynistic symbol.

I have to say that I disagree.

Alexander Wright

Writer of The Boy James and Co-Artistic Director of Belt Up Theatre

The Boy James runs at Southwark Playhouse until 28th January.

Extra performances have just been added due to popular demand.


  1. I haven't seen the piece yet, but I am very excited to (am hoping to get to see the 28th showing if I can get down to London).

    If your description is accurate, and I trust as the writer that it would be, then I can *see* the argument for misogyny, but think it would be so weak that it would have to be dragged in from the wings by the same kind of reviewer who would claim that Alice in Wonderland was a misogynist novel because the Red Queen likes cutting men's heads off (now there's an essay topic to impress the examiners).

    I prefer to reserve judgement until after I've seen a play, and try to avoid reviews prior to seeing it. But as this was technically a review of reviews, I think I'm safe for now. ;)

  2. I think the problem between the Girl/Boy relationship and the Peter/Wendy parallel is that in Barrie's ‘Peter Pan’ works Wendy does want Peter to grow up, but without necessarily overt sexuality. There is no force involved. However in The Boy James The Girl literally forces sexuality upon The Boy. The audience can read the play as suggesting the only way The Boy can grow up is through violence and force. Wendy is sensible in how she matures, in the epilogue ‘When Wendy Grew Up’, Peter to me seems quite pathetic. He has forgotten all their adventures, forgotten Tinkerbelle and forgotten Captain Hook. He loves telling and hearing stories about himself (Jam Jam Production’s ‘Following Wendy’ also in C Venues last year explored this). In contrast, the final line from Wendy is her relishing the idea that children will continue to grow up so they can have children who can have adventures. This is not a selfish Wendy, she is happy for the next generation to have the pleasure of Never Never Land (i.e., fun!). So therefore there does seem a discrepancy between the way Wendy matures as sensible and in control and a loving mother and The Girl’s idea of maturity being sex and violence. But I think Barrie’s Wendy’s presentation of maturity has a warmth, Barrie’s Wendy a representation of the need to grow up (just like Alice, Dorothy, Coroline, Bilbo/Frodo, Haroun and countless others) whereas the ‘growing-up-ness’ and maturity the girl represents is all negative.

    You’ve said Wendy wants to play Mummies and kiss the Lost Boys, but this is out of love. The Girl wants to play Mummies and fuck The Boy, her sense of maturity is unhealthy, warped and (especially when one considers the theatrical space) uncomfortable. Therefore perhaps some of the reviewers and audience had problems with The Boy’s lack of choice and how the options and portrayal of maturity and growing up are presented.

    The play is based on ‘representations’. The space ‘represents’ Barrie’s home, The Boy ‘represents’ young James, and the man ‘represents’ Old James. Old James is not literally writing Young James a letter (unless I missed something ). So this means that The Girl, too, is not necessarily a character but a ‘representation’. And some audience might be able to read that if The Boy is the representation of imagination, creativity and innocence, she represents the very antithesis of this playfulness. Of course sexuality is not the antithesis of creativity, but the play seems to read that sex (and therefore physically interacting with the opposite sex) is the antithesis and destroyer of creativity. Certainly The Man (older James) has rejected fun, playing and being a kid.
    So perhaps any sense of misogyny the press or audiences have read from the text comes from this uncomfortable idea of what The Girl’s aims and ambitions are in contrast to the completely shrivelled and slightly pathetic Boy. Quite simply: Growing up, kissing and having sex are all portrayed as negative within the play, and it is the female that embodies all this negativity whilst the Boy inhabits none.

    I quite liked The Boy James when I saw it in Edinburgh, and I’m not in the least calling you misogynist Alex in the least. Just offering some opinions and thoughts on the text, hope it’s of use.