Gender Trouble in the High School Hallway and in Viral Web Spaces: Stage West’s New Production in Fort Worth, TX

like a billion

What appealed to me about Stage West’s current offering of Like a Billion Likes wasn’t only the production’s biting critique of social media’s troubling influence on teenagers’ lives today. Certainly, that dimension of Erik Forrest Jackson’s script is both engaging and timely.

For me, however, what pushes this inventive production into more complex territory is its additional focus on questions about gender. Set in a Texas high school, Like shows how our personal performances of gender take on a heightened significance when played out in public arenas. Being caught in someone’s widely distributed selfie, as one character learns, can change our lives if we’re seen violating appropriate gender norms there. Yet, perhaps even more dangerous, in the end, are the ways we carry out gendered performances day to day, over time, when they interact with other aspects of our identity that put us at risk.

As Jackson’s most determined teenage advocate of flexible gender identity, Jacey Collier (played by Evan Michael Woods), notes, the many ways we enact our gendered identities—including in the clothes we wear—can resist simple binaries. Jacey’s own choices—such as wearing a skirt in contradiction to most adolescent guys’ avoidance of anything that would label them as feminine—don’t actually signal an announcement of gay identity. Rather, he tells Alix (Mikaela Krantz), one of the play’s two young girls whose lives will interact with his in increasingly high-stakes ways, he was aiming to embody, and to advocate for, fluidity in gender identities.

If I were already teaching the course on gender that I’m preparing for fall 2018, I’d have my students read the script for Like a Billion Likes alongside excerpts from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. Butler’s feminist rhetorical analyses of gender performativity has become a staple on many college syllabi. But Butler’s dense scholarly prose can be hard to navigate. Jackson’s new play makes her ideas visibly clear in the thought-provoking  performances for the World Premiere of Jackson’s play in Fort Worth.

Part of that clarity emerges through generational differences among the play’s five characters. Alix Benson (Mikaela Krantz), Jacey’s intellectual equal, and perhaps the play’s moral center, easily grasps his point about wanting to counter fixed gender expectations (so much so that she quickly slides into recognizing and encouraging his sexual attraction to her). But Like’s two adult figures aren’t so aware. Their repeated missteps (with each other and with the students) encourage the audience to set Butler’s “gender trouble” concept in even starker view. Principal Perry Segars (Aaron Roberts) and guidance counselor Collen Benson (Dana Schultes) repeatedly act out gendered stereotypes in scenes where they’re trying to do their jobs. He’s the tough-guy male administrator. She’s the caring mother figure who will bend the rules to help a troubled kid. Equally tied to gender stereotyping is the worn-out affair the two, both married to others, are having. He’s pushy to the point of domineering, and she’s conflicted.

The play’s critique of gender norms is heightened by Garret Storms’s direction. Roberts’s almost-over-the-edge bluster invokes the powerful white male authority figures we still see, all too frequently, in such hierarchical settings as a high school. Not only does Mr. Segars bully Misty (Delaney Milbourn), a new student whose fumbling efforts to gain attention by taking on the role of LGBTQ ally land her in the principal’s office. He also tries to bully Colleen into sticking with a relationship she no longer wants. In the dialogue Jackson writes for these two, but also in the specific scenery set-ups when they are on stage, in their costuming and their distinctive body movements, this production repeatedly positions Colleen and Perry to underscore that they, too, are performing gender roles. If their enactment of gender identities comes off as clichéd, that’s because, coming from a different generation, they’re less aware than Alix and Jacey of options available now for resisting male/female stereotypes.

However, Like a Billion Likes avoids the simple dichotomy that this generational contrast between Perry and Colleen, on the one hand, and Jacey and Alix, on the other, could have become. And here’s where Jackson’s critique of social media takes on its own performative dimension in the character of Misty.

alix and misty

It’s also another aspect of this play where academic study of gender can help us appreciate the script’s complexity. Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s influential concept of intersectionality has been used mainly to underscore the need to avoid the kind of over-simplification of gendered experiences associated with ignoring differences in women’s actual lives. Crenshaw’s 1989 essay, along with a 1991 article for the Stanford Law Review (“Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color”) called on feminists to recognize that we must not overgeneralize “women” and their gendered experiences based on white women’s situations. To do so, Crenshaw’s first essay explained, “marginalizes those who are multiply-burdened and obscures” the heightened patterns of discrimination they face (140). More recently, Crenshaw has followed up her initial scholarly intervention by underscoring other ways that intersectionality should contribute to cultural analysis. For instance, in a TED talk, she contrasted the attention paid to black males who’ve been victimized by police violence with the relative inattention to black women encountering parallel oppression.

 

 three high school characters What Like a Billion Likes presents in the troubling fifth character of Misty—a confused, desperate-for-attention newcomer to the play’s high school—is a version of intersectionality where differences in social class status and familial structures promote her misguided efforts to affiliate with gender fluidity. Misty wants so much to be “liked” that she tries to perform an ally stance based in her flawed understanding of gender roles as flexible and evolving among her peers—particularly Jacey.

She tries to launch a Vlog identity for herself as a supporter of “those” people (gays) but winds up generating a slew of online attacks rather than praise. Both Misty’s desperate forays into media spaces and her confused view of the other characters are grounded in the limitations of her own intersectional identity. She’s a high school girl like Alix, whom she longs to have as a genuine friend, but, having lost both parents, she has been moving from place to place with an aunt who is most notable in the play for being entirely absent from the stage. Where Alix’s references invoke social-class-related markers such as taking AP courses, Misty works part-time, wears ragged clothes, and has only a tired-looking I-phone rather than a laptop like Alix’s as her only link to the social media universe so important to their generation’s performances of identity. When a contrived effort to enact a heroine role results in tragedy near the end of the play, the audience shouldn’t be surprised. The culmination of Misty’s loser role could probably have been predicted by many high school principals and guidance counselors—even Perry and Colleen, had they been less self-absorbed.

One reviewer of Like a Billion Likes has suggested that the play isn’t yet ready to “go viral,” while another wishes just such a fate for the script. Their use of the “viral” term aligns, allusively, with its oft-invoked current meaning of massive connectivity through the myriad paths of today’s social media. For me, though, the more significant “viral” dimension of this play’s content taps into an older meaning: what the online Merriam-Webster still gives as its first definition: “of, relating to, or caused by a virus—a viral infection.” At the intersection of youthful confusion about gender that’s exacerbated by social class-related constraints on her world view and self-understanding, Misty both catches a moral virus and, ironically, does “go viral” on the internet, taking Jacey along for the ride in both literal and metaphorical terms.

I was saddened by the play’s ending. But I found it realistic, maybe because I spent over a decade teaching in several different secondary schools. I recognized the principal character, as well as the guidance counselor. I recalled some students whose troubles I didn’t fully recognize in time help them enough. The productions well-conceived sets—using brick walls that could rotate between scenes yet never stopped constraining the characters—underscored that theme of constraint and an associated tone. Lighting and music choices effectively reinforced the play’s main ideas through such choices as having emojis pop up on the brick walls at key moments and shifting the stage itself into darkness between sub-scenes. Assigning the five actors the added role of shifting desks, beds, and other key set elements around on stage between scenes emphasized the script’s focus on performativity as an inescapable aspect of our lived experiences.

Despite (or because of?) its dark ending, this play has prompted me to watch out for any students whose calls for attention might echo Misty’s, or others whose experimentation with gender self-presentation might benefit from a better informed brand of support than Misty gave to Jacey. Having seen the intensely thought-provoking Like a Billion Likes, I’ll be looking for ways to shift students beyond counting their online “likes” to more genuine brands of empathy around gender and other ways they are trying to perform who they want to be.

 

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