Anyone who has seen Dogfight at the Southwark Playhouse, or even been aware of it, will also be aware of the divisive twitter it’s gotten critics in. Some, like myself, loved the show, whilst others found it to be offensive in it’s apparent excusing of misogyny. So, I’ve decided to wade into the argument (late) with my own thoughts as the show closed at the weekend.
Where’s the Offence?
I was actually quite shocked to hear that some people had found the show abhorrent, even going as low as 2*s from The Evening Standard. I consider myself a male feminist, so was a little taken aback at the whole debate, and was panicked at the prospect that I missed something quite dire. I thought it was fantastic, and whilst my review wasn’t a full 5*s, I think there’s so much here that’s worth praising and was genuinely some of the best new musical theatre to have hit London in a long time.
Particularly, I loved Peter Duncan’s book, based on the film by the same name. Gone is the fairy tale/Hollywood transformation and shallow redemption of a protagonist bee-lining towards a happily-ever-after, and instead we get a tale that’s awkward and a resolution that’s rocky and incomplete. The number “First Date, Last Night” wonderfully encapsulates this less than perfect character development.
But I’ve been trying my hardest to think about what could possibly be offensive. The easiest thing I could find offensive were the marines themselves. I myself describe them as “odious” in my review. And I think that’s the point: you’re supposed to hate them. They’re chauvinistic pigs of the highest order, even going as far to rape a prostitute, forcing her to have sex against her will by using the threat of violence. I would loathe to meet anyone who didn’t find them deplorable! But just having them present and behaving such doesn’t mean this celebrates or excuses them, does it? At least, it shouldn’t.
What I think may enshrine this as a misogynistic show in some people’s minds is that they don’t get their just comeuppance. Eddie, on the cusp of a moment of self-awareness and self-respect, literally throws it away for pride and bully-boy camaraderie. He doesn’t learn, and it’s infuriating. But in the very last scene, we see Eddie return to San Francisco, and is embraced by Rose. There are two possible ways of interpreting this. Either we praise Rose for being a most forgiving, intelligent, and humanitarian character that sees the good in everyone and tries to educate them to being better people. Or we scold Rose as someone who suffers patriarchy, and/or is too shallow, cowardly, or stupid (!!!) to give Eddie the scorn he justly deserves: thus misogyny wins.
Other Misogynistic Theatre
Though I can see at least one way of interpreting Dogfight as misogynistic, what makes me titter about this debate is that there is far more misogynistic theatre out there. For example, the solid but lengthy recent musical adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles isn’t exactly a feminist war-cry. The whole crux of Hardy’s story is, “patriarchy sucks, but there’s bugger all you can do except die by it,” which is probably more uneasy to accept than Eddie’s difficulty in changing into a civil citizen. Then there’s Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. Whilst the last thing I want to do is wander into the debate surrounding people who chose to stay with their abusive partners, neither do I wish to belittle their reasons, I find this a bigger excuse for misogyny (and domestic violence) than Dogfight. Also, there’s the production that the fringe forgot, The Last Ever Musical, which was out-rightly the most offensive and misogynistic thing I’ve ever seen. Two hours of singing songs and making schoolboy jokes about menstruation almost had me storming out of the theatre and forfeiting my review because I was so aghast.
So why has Dogfight received the brunt of criticism? I think it’s because the misogyny here is so explicit; it’s not shielded away from, and shocks because of this. In contrast, a quite easy way of looking at Carousel is that it’s a piece exploring difficulty in consoling love and violence, dressed in some great music and a lot of high-romantic ideas. But Dogfight is balls-out outrageous regarding the disrespect the marines have for women. It’s far more visible, therefore easier to be offended by it.
Male v Female?
The majority of critics who loves the show have been male, and the majority of critics who disliked the show were female. But this is no means, “Oh, well that explains it!” It’s a red herring, if anything, and probably says more about male critics than it does female. But is this really a male v female situation? I think not. It’s more of how a person, regardless of gender, interprets the show. Indeed, there are plenty of females who see the show in a similar light as I and many others.
Worth reading is Rebecca Trehearn’s, who plays Marcy, blog post that brilliantly tackles the debate: one of the most intelligent and objective looks at the argument, where she ultimately takes a positive view of the show. But I also took the time to ask one of the most prominent female theatrical figures in London for her views, who also just happens to be Dogfight’s producer: Danielle Tarento.
“I’ve been astounded by [the debate], to be frank,” claims Tarento. “Firstly, just because we don’t like something, doesn’t mean that a) it doesn’t exist or b) that we shouldn’t look at it. And secondly, surely the show is the opposite of this! Yes, the boys behave badly, but in each instance the girls come out on top. Yes, there was bravado and bad behaviour but to hide the fear and ignorance and to bond as a group. That may not make it right, but that’s no reason not to not confront it.”
Yet I want to do is use Tarento’s words to justify a dismissal of those who think otherwise. As much as I hate the phrase, “check your privilege,” I think it’s important here. I’m a white(ish) lower middle-class male. I am probably going to default to a more to a rosy view of the show than others with less privilege than I, and that’s something I need to bear in mind. Therefore, even with Tarneto’s backing, I recognise that I may not be the best person to have an opinion on the issue. Thus, I’ve actually found my rethinking of how I view and interpret the show a thoughtful experience as a result of this debate.
Elsewhere, I think too many people have looked to put weight their own, and only their own, opinions on the subject. Particularly, Paul Taylor and Mark Shenton (I use these as two as of the most prominent current critical voices) were quick to come to the show’s defence and fend off the cries of misogyny, neglecting to try to actively engage in their articles with those who oppose their thoughts, even missing a trick in getting in contact with any authoritative females voices, such as Tarento.
I’m disappointed with their responses. Taylor ultimately says that people should see it again and try to see it as not a misogynistic piece, suggesting they “resisted” the first time around, thus implying there isn’t any other viable way to interpret Dogfight. Shenton, though a little more balanced, concluded that, “perhaps some have proved blind to what the show is trying to show.” Whilst I agree that people have seen something quite different to what Tarento has said about her vision in her own words, I think saying that they’re “blind” is a bit too dismissive. I think Taylor and Shenton’s defence of the show is too defensive which hasn’t helped the discussion. Even if difficult to understand and/or agree, these dissents are at worst interesting and at best important, and shouldn’t be shrugged off with such ferocity. Misogyny in entertainment should be an important discussion, and one approached without such polemic dialogue.
The Real Question
Whilst I think it’s right that we’re having this debate, and I think it’s right that people have seen it the way they have, I think the real question is whether audiences should be sheltered. Should producers be putting on shows that offend?
Offence is something that Tarento isn’t worried about. I asked her what she would do if she was given a piece that was potentially offensive. Although being very clear that she does not find Dogfight offensive, she says, that:
“Should I actively be choosing a show because of its potential to offend, I would serve the text as honestly and as fully as possible by giving it the best possible production and letting the audience decide.”
As Tarento’s response shows, theatre should challenge and it is up to us to take whatever we will from it. Producers and directors shouldn’t shy away from putting on shows that may offend, within reason and proper context, especially if they spark much needed debates such as this one. But in doing so audiences and critics should not scoff at the fact that something some people might be offended, even if it didn’t offend them: this approach only stymies debate.
In summary, to me Dogfight is just a show about misogynists, and not a show that is misogynistic. I think the fact that Eddie and his marines are hideous human beings, really colours the show and makes it different and engaging, especially as it doesn’t end the way we’d like it to. But just because you disagree, does not make your opinion invalid. In fact, I’m more than interested to hear what you think, and have my own perceptions of the show challenged.
Dogfight played at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD between 8 August – 13 September 2014.