Characters in the play refer to the nameless woman as "tart," "bitch," and "tramp," throughout. She is a threat to the protagonists' dream of utopia — a farm where they can live in peace surrounded only by animals. The fear and revulsion of this woman in the world of the play is unwavering, and, as Meester points out, was clearly Steinbeck's own commentary on the social climate of the time. Yet, "the further along in the production we go," she continues, "the more I realize that the audience agrees."
In terms of their reaction, Meester notes that the audience audibly protests when a dog is killed. And yet, her own death scene, "is often accompanied by the uproar of laughter. She is violently shaken, rendered lifeless. It doesn't seem to get less painful for me, less terrifying, less tragic with time, yet our unusually young audience seems unfazed, if not amused by the savage act." Laughter is not an unusual reaction during scenes of horror, particularly during live theater, but it's hard to argue with Meester's assumption about the viewers' feelings about her. After hours of hearing her demeaned as a troublemaker and called-out as a tramp, the audience is assured of her role as enemy, baseless as it is. That, she says, is the subversive genius of this play. "...To this day, it forces you to see yourself, to expose the depth of your own intolerance, prejudice, cruelty, and naiveté."
It's not just the audiences either. Renowned New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley noted that while the character of Curley's Wife is written as "a slatternly, provocative sex kitten," Meester didn't come off like a tramp on stage. Given her grisly fate, he concludes, "this may have been a conscious choice" just in case the audience was left thinking, "'Well, she was asking for it.'"
Perhaps it is obvious to point out the inherent sexism of characters in Of Mice & Men, and even that of contemporary audiences. But, if we're still worrying over whether a woman might be "asking for it," then we still need op-eds saying why they're not, and why they never have, and what might have given us that idea in the first place. A piece like this from Leighton Meester might seem surprising — so, read it and be surprised. You may think of her as a starlet in a headband, but that's another image worth challenging today.
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