Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Taming of the Shrew - Kate the Prom Queen

Shrewd colleagues,

Let's set the misogyny aside for a moment. Let's talk male fantasy. One of the comments I hear often when discussing Shrew is how hard it must be to stage it these days. So right or wrong, people have a perception that the play embraces values we are no longer comfortable with. Tacit in this assumption is the self-congratulatory thought: we've gotten over that. After all, even The Stepford Wives (the 1975 original) is a horror flick, suggesting that we will no longer stand for scripting such a transformation for laughs or, more important, as unironic smug male wish fulfillment.


So I've got the TV on, and I'm watching a tepid teen romance with Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Rachael Leigh Cook called She's All That (1999). In it Zach's (Prinze) gorgeous girlfriend, Taylor, dumps him. Attempting to help him get over it, his friend Dean makes a bet with him that he can turn any girl in high school into a prom queen. Dean then picks ugly duckling Laney (Cook) and Zach goes to work. Transformation ensues when Laney loses her glasses, lets her hair down, and puts on a little makeup. Voilà! Instant swan.

You're groaning. You've recognized one of the biggest clichés in television and film. It's Humphrey Bogart removing the glasses of a bookshop employee in The Big Sleep (1946), and discovering a hidden beauty that makes her worth seducing. It's Sean Connery's James Bond ju-jitsuing mannish Honor Blackman out of her lesbian proclivities and into a roll in the hay in Goldfinger (1964). It's Molly Ringwald's Claire giving a makeover to rebellious antisocialite Allison (played by Ally Sheedy) in The Breakfast Club (1985), causing jock Emilio Estevez to fall for her. It's Andrew Keegan bribing Heath Ledger to get him to woo uber-hellion Julia Stiles so that her newfound social conformity will free her sister to date in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999).

The cliché has come so far it even has its own parody film – Not Another Teen Movie (2001) – in which the school principal announcing the prom winners says, "And now the moment every popular guy who's made a bet to turn a rebellious girl into prom queen has been waiting for." And of course you recognized the 10 Things I Hate About You example as a modern adaptation of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.

So how far have we come? What these comedies, and the countless other movies and TV shows that have also used the same commonplace, suggest is that, first, women achieve their true selves (there's Gil's argument) when tutored or molded by men. This is, of course, Shaw's Pygmallion as well as its subsequent popularization My Fair Lady (again, a wager is involved). Not too long ago, my daughters went through a period of watching Hollywood musicals – An American in Paris, Kiss Me Kate, Wizard of Oz. I got them My Fair Lady because we'd started it one night before bedtime, but owing to its three-hour length, they weren't allowed to watch all of it. And when we sat down for the whole thing, I remember feeling pretty uncomfortable with the scene where Eliza returns to Henry after the really awful way he's treated her. I thought, that's no lesson for three little girls to see! It is also exactly the way I felt reading Kate's last speech in Shrew.

Second, these moments also suggest that women must give up something we now recognize as important -- their individuality or "rebelliousness." In its simplest form this rebelliousness is mere ugliness. But ugly makes women unattractive to men. Can't have that. Not if they want to be happy. In its more pernicious form, their rebelliousness is non-conformity of a more political sort that attacks the male gaze: not interested in dating (Kat), not interested in men (Pussy Galore), not interested in arranging herself within a narrowly defined high school clique (Allison). Is Eliza's true self revealed by her schooled breeding at the hands of Professor Higgins? Actually it's not. My Fair Lady very clearly demonstrates that Eliza remains true to herself in spite of her transportation to the upper crust because she fails to become an insufferable bore. However, her transformation from grubby flower girl to empire-waisted arm candy is what makes her attractive to desirable men.

And so it is with Kate in Shrew. She tells us in the final scene:

"A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty,
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it." (5.2.142-145)

Fountains, I would point out, are ornamental things, although Kate alludes to their practical use (thirst quenching). And it is this absence of ornament in the simile that makes the woman unworthy. I also find the implications of "moved," which means ill-tempered according to my Signet edition, compelling. The opposite is "unmoved" or static, and that is what Petruchio makes of Kate, a woman whose natural movements become restricted, not unlike an ornament. For this, Petruchio has received a significant reward, the result of his own "wager" with Baptista Minola – if he can woo and marry Kate, he gets the dowry of half Minola's lands and 20,000 crowns. No one actually bets him he can't do it, but few expect him to pull it off. That he does gives all the males cursed with uppity girlfriends hope.

And up in the balcony, while this male fantasy plays out, there's Christopher Sly, nodding off. "My lord," his attendant says, "you nod; you do not mind the play." Perhaps that's because, with his subscription to Netflix, he's seen this story before.


No comments: