Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Straight White Men

I'm pretty sure this is a first: I've reviewed video games, cartoons, bad direct-to-video superhero films, and books, but never a play. Today we'll be looking at Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men, staged in Philadelphia by the InterAct Theatre Company, which I had the pleasure and (ahem) privilege of seeing last week. This is also one of those rare occasions where I'll be issuing a spoiler warning: if you're fortunate to live in or near a city that is or will be hosting a production of Straight White Men, you'd be much better served buying a ticket and seeing it without any expectations or preconceptions.

During one of my last evenings at the Quaker center in August or September of 2013, I went out for pizza with my friend/colleague/firecracker Yen, my minion Steve (for the record, he bestowed the title on himself), and Steve's older sister Jean, who had just returned from a visit home to Korea and was visiting Pennsylvania before the start of her sophomore year at Columbia.

I don't recall the trajectory of the conversation, but at one point Jean looked at me and said—I forget her exact phrasing—said, in effect, that it was amazing that I was a white hetero cismale who turned out to be a good person.

"Well fuck you too," I would have liked to have said. But I didn't. I couldn't.

Here's the thing. If you're a straight white male with a moral compass aligned towards progressive social politics, you basically have to forfeit your license to point out that substituting the "white hetero cismale" in Jean's statement with a member of any other group—"black person," "transgender female," "devout Muslim"—would be tantamount to hate speech. But you have to let it go because you're standing in as a representative of the oppressor. You're the bad guy, you're the problem, and people who look like you have said and done far worse to people of color, women, and LGBTQ folk, so when you're offered humble pie, you have to eat it.

Even so: the implicit essentialism that creeps into these discussions can get tiresome (and it is almost always malapropos to say so), as does the sometimes acute sense that the Venn diagram of your skin tone, gender, and sexual preference amounts to a crime for which you've been found guilty and can never atone. (Below: why it is never advisable to mention this.)

"Cool story, bro."

Certain fields of the contemporary social justice conversation present a kind of catch-22 for the straight white male who might not always appreciate being told his problems and struggles are by default unimportant/nonexistent, but who also has absolutely no desire to file in with those who would very much prefer to dispense with pluralism altogether and routinely blame the victims of oppression for the boots on their necks, thank you very much.

If any of this qualifies me as a shitlord non-ally asshole who understands nothing, I apologize.

Hmm. I love the word "shitlord" because it epitomizes the tenor of the contemporary conversation about identity politics: this is the lexical age of the shitlord and the cuck, the SJW and the MRA, #gamergate and #diecisscum. Staged against such a background, one could reasonably expect a play written by a Korean-American woman and titled Straight White Men to be a takedown piece, a caricatural horrorshow staged as a Quema del Diablo for the Tumblr faithful. But it isn't. Nor is its message "HOORAY AND THANK GOD FOR WHITE HETEROSEXUAL MALES," which would be much worse (and terribly confusing). Young Jean Lee treats the questions of privilege, responsibility, and culpability with an masterfully balanced mixture of farcical comedy, empathy, and an anthropologist's attention to context and detail in this opus of a problem play (problematic play?) that transcends the bad faith and tribalism of the hashtag era.

The scenario: three adult sons (presumably in their late thirties and early forties) are celebrating Christmas with their father.

The setting: the house in which the boys grew up; everything we see occurs in the living room, which is a veritable diorama of the middle-class Anglo-Saxon Protestant's suburban abode, replete with track lighting, books, shelves, and VHS tapes, wood panel baseboards climbing halfway up the walls, the triumvirate of sofa/lazy boy/coffee table, and so on.

The (unnamed) wife and mother of the family is absent, having passed away some years ago. She is missed. Though the men mention her only on occasion, she is characterized as having been a staunch and passionate social progressive who did everything in her power to educate her children and husband about the realities and costs of the social perks they enjoy. Early on, we're introduced to one of the tools she used to this end: a pedagogic game called "Privilege," played on a heavily modified Monopoly board, in which, for instance, the player who chooses to represent himself with the clothes iron gains an "undervalued domestic labor bonus."

Excessive? Well, in her boys' words, how else were they all going to learn how not to be assholes?

The viewer has to judge for him or herself how successful she was. The first two of Straight White Men's three acts are largely played for laughs, and the jokes are on its straight white male subjects. Reunited with each other and their father in the old family home, the boys regress to the juvenile behaviors of their youth. They wrestle, they administer purple nurples, they pantomime excretory functions, they say YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE to each other like every four minutes, they prank and provoke, they indulge in fond brotherly homoeroticism. Interspersing the horseplay and obscenity are unexpectedly lucid and increasingly heated discussions about social privilege, which are just as often negated by some remark or subtle action exposing holes in the self-awareness in which these men clearly take a lot of pride.

Let's begin with Ed, the boys' retired father. He's a rather passive figure for most of the play, as he was for much of his life. By Ed's own admission, his successful career as an engineer came about as pure happenstance: he got good grades in high school, went to university on the advice of his guidance counselor, and wandered from there into a booming industry that kept him employed his entire working life. It's clear that all the doors were standing there open for him; all Ed had to do, and all he did, was walk through them.

Drew, the youngest of the brothers, is a professor and bestselling novelist whose books, according to a Times reviewer, wage "a radical attack on the crassness of American materialism." (His brothers affectionately call him "shitbaby"—which could be a shitlord's larval stage.) The three most important things to Drew are "achievement," "service," and "happiness." He feels it his responsibility to not squander his privilege, to use it become the most he can be, and he believes he makes a positive impact in the world through his teaching and writing.

The middle brother, Jake, calls this outlook "selfish self-actualization." He has nothing but cynical disdain for the noblesse oblige Drew (perhaps unwittingly) endorses: "our success is the problem, not the solution." Jake is also a very successful banker who, by his own admission, is only making the world worse. It is for this reason that Jake admires his older brother Matt, who (according to Jake) is making the one right and moral choice the rest of them don't have the strength of character to pursue themselves.

And what about Matt? He is the eldest brother. His father and both brothers concede he's the most talented and intelligent of the bunch. Matt appears to have taken his mother's admonitions about how to not be an asshole very deeply to heart. As a young man, he got a lecherous high school teacher fired for sexually harassing female students, disrupted an all-white production of the musical Oklahoma! with an ironically racist parody of its titular song-and-dance number, and once taught his brothers a humiliating lesson when he found them playing a homophobic dare game called "gay chicken." Then he got his undergraduate degree at Harvard and spent ten years afterwards earning a doctorate.

But after that? Well, he's living with his father, for one thing. He doesn't have any friends and never dates. (No, he's not gay—and one of his brothers remarks that Pride would be too corporate for Matt.) His unpaid student loans are devouring him alive. He takes on menial temp jobs for community organizations advocating for the rights of women, people of color, and LGBTQ folk. When he's not reverting to his childhood role of alpha male to his brothers, Matt is diffident, quiet, and subservient: he dotes on his father like a nurse, he cooks for and cleans up after his brothers. He is prone to bouts of withdrawn moodiness that seem to come out of nowhere.

What's wrong with Matt? Drew asks Jake when they're alone. Jake insists nothing's the matter with him. Drew suspects depression and wants to persuade Matt to get therapy.

The question takes on some degree of urgency when Matt unexpectedly bursts into tears during the family's traditional Christmas Eve dinner (Chinese takeout). A straight white male crying is an appalling and confusing spectacle—particularly to other straight white males. A concerned and deeply unsettled Drew resolves to get to the bottom of Matt's "problem."

As the drama continues and increases in seriousness, its lens zooms in on Matt, though he himself is reluctant to say much about himself or where he's at. Usually, he will acquiescently sit back while Drew and Jake tell his own story for him—which is fitting, insofar as straight white men have historically availed themselves of a license to write other groups' narratives for them. Straight White Men is a tangled and very ambiguous piece of work; that which can be definitively stated about Matt shrinks dramatically if we gainsay the words his brothers (particularly Jake) put in his mouth.

Jake interprets Matt's ethos thusly: Matt has given himself over to a regimen of socioeconomic asceticism. He refuses to participate in institutions that benefit people like him (straight white men) at the expense of everyone else. He wishes to be a good "ally" by taking up as little space and making as little noise as possible, and refraining from slapping the world in the face with his dick like the rest of his undeservedly privileged kind.

What little Matt reveals without Jake's "help" appears to synch up with his brother's evaluation. When asked and strenuously pressed about what he wants to do most with his life, he answers that he just wants to be useful; he wants not to make things worse. Of his time in academia, he says he became preoccupied with certain theoretical problems, and struggled to figure out how to put theory into practice.

"I don't know," Matt repeatedly answers his family's questions. "I don't know."

Incidentally, after arriving home from seeing Straight White Men I checked Twitter and found this kindhearted and well-intentioned advice retweeted on my timeline:

Matt has not only internalized such arguments, but followed them to their logical conclusion: as a straight white male, there is nothing he can do that is not problematic. To wield his privilege in any way, to throw his straight white male weight around, is essentially an act of oppression. Any position or prestige he earns would amount to positions and prestige denied someone more deserving of them; there are no goals or ambitions he can achieve because every success of his would represent a victory for the status quo. He can't lend material support to worthy social causes because he'd have to make money first, and he can't do that without buying into a system that creates wealth by exploiting the disadvantaged (and he'd be robbing someone of a job opportunity, besides). He cannot be an activist because he has no right to talk about oppression he has not experienced (and is in fact guilty of perpetuating), no right to speak on anyone's behalf, no right to tell anyone else what to do, and no right to participate in the articulation or advancement of any social justice agendas because he is not entitled to any seat at any table but the problematic straight white male table. He deserves nothing that has been or might be made available to him through his straight white male privilege, and since there is nothing circumjacent or accessible to him that does not intersect with this privilege in one way or another, he deserves absolutely nothing. There are no actions he cannot undertake in the world that will not in some way serve his problematic straight white male self-interest, so his only course of action is total inaction, making himself into a truckling doormat who does his utmost not to make waves because any waves he can possibly make will just be more unwanted straight white male turbulence that women, people of color, and LGBTQ folk didn't ask for and will have to deal with.

Or: maybe this was his conclusion at one point. But as the third act commences, we discover that Matt's deliberate self-erasure has taken even his reason and resolution from him. He is not making a statement, not anymore, not acting in accordance with any plan or principle. He has intellectualized away every shred of his self-worth. What he really wants, it seems, is to just disappear. He has become a figure as abjectly pitiful as Melville's Bartleby, and like the scrivener, appears bound to waste away in paralysis and despair. (It is strongly implied that Matt is or will soon be a suicide risk.)

I'll not give away how the drama concludes—but after Matt is asked point-blank why he hasn't done anything with his life, things get pretty rough. Ed and Jake, who advocated and apologized for Matt, turn on him with a harshness that is very much unexpected. The white heterosexual male of the United States, suckled on the Protestant work ethic and American Dream, has nothing but contempt for losers, and Matt's complete disinterest in advancing or even standing up for himself finally clinches his loser status.

There is a lot of meat to digest in the last act—particularly in the area of our culture's definition of "success"—but one cut we can chew on here is in Drew's last exasperated words to Matt before he storms offstage for good. Social progress is happening, he says, regardless of what Matt thinks he's doing. You're not helping anyone, Drew tells him, and warns him that the members of the advocacy nonprofits for which Matt quietly makes photocopies all day don't notice him, won't ever thank him, and certainly won't respect him for being the milquetoast he's made himself in order to serve them better. This is interesting because we don't ever get to watch or listen to anyone from these organizations speaking to or about Matt. Only straight white men appear in this drama.

BUT—if we look to the genesis of the play, maybe we can get an idea of how Matt's bosses might feel about him. This excerpt is from an NPR piece on Lee and Straight White Men, aired when it first debuted in New York back in 2014:
Young Jean Lee writes by listening. When she started working on Straight White Men, she took advantage of being a playwright in residence at Brown University.

"I asked a roomful of women, queer people and minorities, 'What do you want straight men to do? And what do you want them to be like?'" she recalls.

Lee wrote down all of the answers. It boiled down to this: They wanted the straight white male character to sit down and shut up.

"When you hear that around the table, you just feel yourself sinking slowly into the chair," remembers James Stanley, who plays the character created from the list. The character, named Matt, is a sort of idealized straight white male. He works for a not-for-profit and is guided by a sense of trying not to——in his words——"make things worse." Lee and Stanley workshopped the character in front of the students. Who hated him.

"Hated him," Lee said, clearly still surprised. "And I realized that the reason why they hated him was——despite all their commitment to social justice——what they believed in most was not being a loser. [Matt] is exhibiting behavior that gets attributed to people of color: not being assertive, not standing up for himself, always being in a service position."
Let that sink in. A group of women, people of color, and LGBTQ folk had the chance to design an ideal straight white male to their own specifications, and the result was a "loser," a figure who disgusted them.

To be clear, this isn't me saying hah! so you see straight white men do have it just as bad as everyone else! No. Come on. Men generally don't have to worry about rape, white people generally don't have to negotiate systemic biases against them, straight people never stay up at night worrying about if, when, and how they should come out as heterosexual. The statistics still look pretty good for the fair-skinned, the bepenised, and the cishet.

But what gets lost in a lot of these conversations—and what Lee nails—is that straight white men are not statistical generalizations, nor is the individual a corporeal proxy for the institutions from which his demographic has historically tended to benefit. Attitudes that treat a group of people as a problem to be solved instead of as, well, people tend not to foster good outcomes.

But what do I know? I am a straight white male, all of this is self-serving, and I can't deny it.

But it must be reemphasized that Straight White Men does not let my demographic or the American kyriarchy off the hook, and it shouldn't. Its cardinal virtue isn't in its willingness to give some sympathy to the devil or its expertly unflattering portrayal of him as a ridiculous shitbaby, but in its unlikely synthesis of both: Lee simultaneously portrays the straight white man as a member of an advantaged class prone to acting like an oblivious asshole and as a well-meaning human being trying to muddle through the vicissitudes and ambiguities of this life as best he can. Straight White Men's crowning success is its being fair, unapologetically profuse in its roasting of the "oppressing party" as in its empathy for its members.


  1. I just spent 15 minutes cooking up a metaphor likening the moribund state of certain art forms to the evolution of neutron stars. It was pretty cool and I thought you'd like the subject matter, but something's just occurred to me and now I can't think about anything else.

    The father in this play is an engineer who says he walked through an open door and into a successful career. If the author of those words could walk her way through engineering school in ten years I will bite off my left pinky.

    I think you let the safe-space cadets worry you unduly. They're a syphilis epidemic. Maybe you know the story: syphilis was... discovered in the New World and brought back to the old, where it did terrible things because nobody had any resistance to it. Over the next few centuries it became progressively less virulent until antibiotics reduced it to an embarrassing inconvenience. Today hardly anyone has it long enough to start getting holes in their brain.

    So it is with politically correct zeal. In time it will evolve into a system of inter-communal etiquette that will be necessary in a globalized world in which the person sitting next to you is as likely to come from Karachi as from ten miles away. But for now the ideology is still virulent. It will have all it can take. The one-upsmanship of sensitivity this play nods to is just what we might expect from an idea in its land-grab phase. But sooner or later it will keep someone from fucking or making money and the pushback will begin. There will be debate, which all sides will complain about in the entitled way Westerners adopt when potentially explosive social tensions are defused without loss of life. (In more repressive places there will be loss of life, and it won't make them any less repressive.)

    In the end, we'll have a new system of social understandings that won't be too onerous to any of the parties to the big debate. They will come to seem so perfectly normal that many people will never really understand that things ever were otherwise. And there matters will rest until the whole thing happens again.

    So, like I said, I think you're too concerned about this. It's like you're on a sinking ship and trying to decide what to wear for dinner. It doesn't matter. Pretty soon it'll be swimwear for everybody.

    Good review, though.

    1. Re: Ed—I was paraphrasing. It's not that Ed's education and career were necessarily a cakewalk. He just had the good fortune to be able to progress without obstruction, or really without thinking too hard about what to do with his life. If, say, a black woman had demonstrated potential in math and science during her high school years circa 1960-something, she likely wouldn't have received the same encouragement that Ed did, would have had a very different university experience (Google tells me that in the late 1960s, 80 percent of black undergraduates in Purdue's engineering program dropped out during their freshman year), and would have had a VERY hard time getting the same job that Ed wound up with. The point wasn't that science and engineering are EASY, but that Ed didn't have to fight tooth and nail to gain a place in the industry.

      Your identifying a lot of the bad noise as part of an ideological land grab is pretty spot-on, though. But I do have to take a lot of it seriously because I see it helping to fuel a lot of the even worse noise coming from, say, the Trump campaign and its supporters.

    2. I would still appreciate the neutron star analogy if it's still at the tips of your fingers.

    3. Start with something you might remember from science class: if an atom were the size of a football stadium, each electron would be about the size of a football, and the nucleus, containing 99.99% of the mass, would be about the size of a marble.

      When a massive star can no longer sustain fusion, there is no longer any force opposing its gravitational attraction to itself. The core collapses inward, squeezing protons and electrons together so tightly that they become neutrons. This liberates a colossal amount of energy, and the outer layers of the star are blown away in a supernova.

      What's left is a ball of neutrons, essentially a giant atomic nucleus, about ten miles across and weighing between five and eight solar masses. A neutron star.

      Neutron stars are preposterous objects, but you have to love them. If you drop a marble on one from a height of one meter, it will be going fast enough when it hits the surface to ignite fusion. The resulting explosion will be comparable to a hydrogen bomb. Some of them spin -- all five-to-eight solar masses' worth -- between two and ten times a second.

      This is how art forms die. I say die, anyway. You could also say that they go into hibernation, waiting to be rediscovered. But that assumes a continuity that just isn't there in many cases. What we think is poetry, what the Grand Si├Ęcle thought was poetry, and what the ancient Greeks thought was poetry are all very different things.

      Either way, the death of an art form is very much like the birth of a neutron star. There is the initial failure to sustain the creative spark, the ejection and scattering of the audience to the four winds, the hard core's turn inwards, and a remnant that is by turns fascinating and preposterous in comparison to its former mass appeal. I think this happens a lot: Jazz, opera, "classical" music, painting and sculpture have all responded to declining popularity by becoming recondite. Poetry is no longer read by people who don't write it.

      I don't think any of this is bad. In a world where you can shoot up threatening virtual brown people twenty-four hours a day if you want, and many people do, it's healthy to have a lot of other options, and some, you'd hope, that you have to work for. There is a price for that: audiences who are willing to tolerate less accessible works are more willing to indulge creators' more way-out ideas, under the theory that they are good for you. But it's a price worth paying for entry into the high country of the mind.