Not Safe for Women: The End and Beginning of Objectification
By Brent Stansell, Dramaturg
This January, when British tabloid newspaper The Sun printed an issue without its infamous topless Page 3 girl, some activists said the move marked the end of an era of blatant sexism. Many critics also declared feminist progress when British “lad’s mags” Loaded and Nuts (with their nude photo spreads and raunchy articles) had recently gone under. Did the end of a few publications showing topless photos of women mean genuine progress?
Lucy Kirkwood, an up-and-coming playwright from across the pond (her Olivier-winning Chimerica will appear at Studio Theatre next season), suggests in her hilarious play NSFW that topless photos of women are only one symptom of the sexism saturating our culture. Although the play specifically scrutinizes the indecency and callousness of the British tabloid and fashion industry through its examination of fictional magazines Doghouse and Electra, the situations the play represents expose the ridiculous reality of contemporary social and cultural values. NSFW satirizes a world in which class and gender inequality pervades every human transaction and where women participate willingly and unwillingly in their own objectification.
The bad behavior these characters engage in to great comic effect is actually, most significantly, fueled by the grim economic realities they face. As a scathing satire set against the backdrop of an economic recession, NSFW presents characters living in a world (that looks much like our own) dealing with increased welfare, a widening gap between the rich and poor, and increased competition between young people vying for financial security. Kirkwood’s characters must each make a decision about what they are willing and not willing to do to make a living—with the ramifications of those decisions providing commentary on the extent of our collective desperation and inextricably linking our human worth to our wealth.
Although NSFW was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2012 before the economic collapse of “lad’s mags” and the end of the Page 3 girl, Kirkwood’s play anticipates questions about whether the age of the Internet and social media have expanded our capacity for sexism and objectification. Even though print journalism is hanging on for dear life, Internet publications, YouTube channels, reality television shows, and online porn sites disseminate and perpetuate the same images and values of their handheld forbears. Have we truly grown tired of the kind of sexist and misogynistic material generated by tabloid journalism or have new media adopted the same content and put it in a shinier package? With women’s magazines adopting the same pervasive values, has our culture’s exploitation of women gone past the point of no return? Does the end of a few objectionable magazines mark the beginning of progress or simply the beginning of endless objectification?