Today’s post is about Evan Placey’s Pronoun! It has some potentially difficult themes of transgender transitioning and references to drugs and alcohol, but it’s a pretty powerful play for anybody interested in gender performance, gender identity, or British youth culture.
Plot: Dean faces difficulties as he transitions into the person he is meant to be.
Initial thoughts: I didn’t go out looking for this play; instead as I was searching for Tribes in the bookstacks, I saw the title of the play and knew I had to read it. Being a gender variant person myself, it’s a rare rush to see a book that explores issues you can relate to and has a main character (or any character at all) that is like you. There’s a lot in this play that is really special to me because of that, and at the same time, there’s a lot that I feel odd about reading.
Though it’s clear that Placey did his research to write the play, many of the events seems exaggerated or inconsistent. Dean is a minor, so I wonder how he was able to get approval for testosterone or have the money to replace his entire wardrobe. Such things are the reality for minor aged trangender youths who do not have the emotional or monetary support of their families. At the same time, you could say that many of the events don’t go far enough. T is mentioned, but none of the effects like deepening voice, hair growth, enlarged clitoris, menstruation, etc are explored. It’d be different to see a performance where the medicine progressively materializes the masculinity Dean desires instead of the masculine presentation remaining the same from the start of the play to the beginning. That said, such topics can be viewed as invasive. This play is clearly “a transgender play,” but it focuses more on topics of violence and transitioning at the expense of other experiences transgender people face. There is no “right way” to transition, so nothing is inherently wrong in the actions within the play. However, many of the conflicts focus on how family and friends react to Dean’s transition, expressing feelings of loss and frustration that seem to support the entitlement of Dean’s family and friends at the expense of Dean’s personal frustrations. Although this is critiqued throughout the course of the play, much of the play focuses on these feelings instead of how suffocating these reactions are to Dean.
Some of the staging could be reworked to be more effective. As the action plays out, there are interludes of Mum and Dad reflecting on Dean’s transition with two opposing viewpoints (Mum isn’t supportive and Dad is accepting). Mum is played by a male and Dad is played by a female, presenting gender difference which is then inverted again at the end of the play when the performers switch role so that Mum is played by the female and Dad by the male. Placey states that the performers “needn’t worry about playing the gender or age of the their character, merely the truth of that moment” (6). I find this to be at ends with the “truth of that moment” because these scenes battle gender essentialism and performance. Dressing up and performing gender is a big part of this play, so I understand what Placey was trying to do, but I think it would be more effective for these performances to switch the roles every scene or to incorporate blurring of gender in a different way.
Itty Bitty Research: The obvious research choice is to look into Britishisms, but I think gender and the fascination with the 1950s is more interesting. USA 1950s culture is prevalent throughout the play, represented by the likes of James Dean, music, fashion, the wedding, and gender restrictions. One has to ask, why the 1950s? My theory is that it’s because the 1950s was a time of rigid gender roles (which has residual echoes today) that Placey hopes to dismantle in the play. “Men age like red wine. Women age like milk,” Laura says, and Amy responds, “Did you actually just – you can’t say things like that any more, this isn’t 1950” (20). Indeed, it’s not the 1950s anymore, but attitudes about and performances of gender remain alive and relevant.
“Everyday” (1957) by Buddy Holly is featured twice in the play. Music and lyrics here. I personally really like the inclusion of the song because it’s an optimistic, upbeat in counterpart to the rejection and frustration surrounding Dean’s transition. The song speaks about love, which I like to think of in relationship to Dean’s speech in scene 14. Suddenly the hum of “Love like yours will surely come my way” means a lot more when thought about the love – not tolerance – that Dean years for. And every day, it is getting a little bit closer, even though that journey is rough and quick, just like the roller coaster Buddy Holly sings about.
Another thing from the 1950s is the growing information about transgender people. Christine Jorgensen became the first famous transgender person to undergo sex reassignment surgery, gaining fame around the early 1950s. The 1950s also documented (incorrect) mental health information about transgender people in the DSM 3. The DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. As such, it is the standard handbook for mental health. Scene 8 is one of the most accurate representations of medical and social pressures gender variant people face. It begins with listing the likes of “Gender Dysphoria,” “Gender Identity Disorder,” and “Gender non-comformity,” all of which have a basis in the DSM 3 (37). The DSM 3 wasn’t published until 1980, but the use of terms like transsexual, transgender, and gender identity disorder began to be circulate in the 1950s. The DSM 5, the latest version, has been updated to reflect current understandings of transgender people. Huffpost talks about what these changes mean, but the gist of it is that the way transgender mental health is viewed today reflects viewing these people as having natural feelings instead of a mental illness.
Another part of 1950s culture that is significant to the play is cinema. The doctors are named Monroe, Brando, and Bogart, the last names of major performers of the 1950s (Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Humphrey Bogart). Rebel Without a Cause is the most noted influence, though Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Grease (1978) are mentioned as well. While both of these movies are later than the 50s, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was originally a book published in 1958, and the themes are contemporary to that period rather than the 1960s. Similarly, Grease is set in 1959, and the strict social decorum of the 1950s reverberates throughout much of the musical. Grease is, after all, named after Greasers, which are a subset of 1950s youth culture. Both the actors and movies referenced enforce strict gender regulation in society. The distinct rigidity in separating how women behave and look like from how men behave and look like is obvious. Grease also has a transformation from “good” girl into “bad”girl, almost an echo of Rebel Without a Cause. In regards to Dean, these references represent a world that has failed to detach from strict gender conventions despite 2013-14 UK society being more liberal with gender presentation and roles.
The featured image today is a post from Rebel Without a Cause, which plays a crucial role. At first I thought the movie was chosen just because James Dean is a paragon of masculinity, which he is, and because he is a model of the masculinity Dean would like to embody, even taking his name from the actor portraying the main character. As this poster depicts, one of the taglines is “the bad boy from a good family,” which metaphorically applies to Pronoun as well: Mum’s struggle with Dean’s gender identity replaces badness and goodness with masculinity and femininity. Instead of asking why this boy is bad when he comes from a good family, Mum questions why Dean is a boy when he was raised perfectly fine as a girl. There is no cause, but it doesn’t make Dean’s gender any less inherent or natural.
In scene 16, James Dean dons a poodle skirt and walks away, representing a corruption and collapse of the strict gender roles and attitudes associated with the 1950s. Ultimately, beautiful.
Works cited: Placey, Evan. Pronoun. London: Nick Hern, 2014. Print.