I had never heard of The Heidi Chronicles, which is now playing on Broadway as a revival of Wendy Wasserstein's 1988 Tony-winning play. My mom got us tickets and mentioned something about having seen the original in the '80s and that I'd like it because of its humor and feminist themes. I expected to laugh, even to relate, but not to tear up during a monologue by Elizabeth Moss, who played the title character, or to leave the theater with a pit in my stomach, reciting the mantra nothing has changed.
Heidi follows the story of a woman, based on the playwright's own life, through the second half of the 20th century. Heidi's story begins when she is in high school and ends in her 40s, when she decides to be a single mother and adopts a daughter. The play illustrates Heidi's deep friendships and her unhealthy relationship with a man, all the while incorporating the overarching theme of growing into herself as a woman, a professor of art history, and a feminist.
The play spoke to me for the obvious reason of my feminism and my interest in the period in which it was set. I read a lot about the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1960s in high school, a period of social change that most of my friends had never really heard of. It was overshadowed in our history textbooks by the Civil Rights Movement and even by the Gay Liberation Movement. But in my free time, I loved learning about women's lib, the ERA, and The Feminine Mystique. I always said that if I could live through any period of history, it would be Gloria Steinem's revolution. I was excited that a play on Broadway was dedicated to this period.
At the play, my fifty-year-old mother nudged me when Heidi and a few friends met for a consciousness-raising group -- a catalyst of the Women's Liberation Movement that I had researched for a history paper about Gloria Steinem. I laughed along with my mom and her two friends at the repeated line "you either shave your legs or you don't." But my politically correct, 21st century mind internally countered with, That's not true. You can shave your legs and still be a feminist.
I stopped laughing during a heartbreaking scene between Heidi and her long-term on-and-off boyfriend from college, Scoop Rosenbaum, a Jewish lawyer played by Jason Biggs. Scoop has always cheated on her and is always rating people and things with a letter grade. The scene takes place at Scoop's wedding to another, more "bland-ish" woman than Heidi. And before kissing Heidi in a side-room of the reception hall, Scoop admits that he married the other woman because he "didn't want to come home to an A+" every night. If he had married an ambitious, intelligent, witty woman like Heidi, he thought he would have had to compete with his wife, which is something that he didn't want to do -- something that his ego couldn't handle.
When the lights came up at intermission, my mom's friend turned to me and said, "What's your opinion about that scene as a member of the next generation?" And unfortunately, I realized that the only difference is that now, in the 21st century, I've been trained by my family and teachers since the age of five to be the A+. I've been taught to lean in, to have it all. Heidi's ambition is no longer the exception. But what is all this A+ training for? For men to be too wary of competition and settle for my less driven peers? Because while the scene between Scoop and Heidi took place in the 80s, in reality, nothing has changed. Maybe I haven't been dismissed for being an A+, in those exact words, but I've certainly been told that I'm "a lot to handle" and "high maintenance" because I am opinionated and will argue my point. I noticed that in high school, while my friends were smart, driven, and beautiful, the boys seemed not to choose us; they seemed to go for the beautiful but the less smart and driven.
Another family friend that went to the play with us, a man in his 60s, responded that perhaps men are just too intimidated to pursue the A+'s. But that's the problem -- why are men intimidated by being with women at their own level? Because they are low in confidence and feel emasculated? That thought saddened me even more.
And then came the second half of the play, during which Heidi grows increasingly less happy as her feminist friends from the 60s get married and pregnant and move to LA to become movie producers. I cried during Heidi's monologue, giving an address to a university about the future of women, when she breaks down and admits that sometimes, she doesn't even feel comfortable with other women. She doesn't fit into the groups of women around her. She feels stranded by not only the ones who gave up careers and got married, but also the ones who gave up ideals and sold out. She herself is still devoted to getting female artists throughout history recognized.
The play ended on a melancholy note. After a long scene between Heidi and her longtime gay male friend and a culminating exchange between her and Scoop, she sits in a rocking chair with her newly adopted baby girl and sings to her "Darling, you send me" as the curtain falls. The ending, and the theme of the play in general, convey that women live in a world of either-or. Either they marry young, sacrifice their career, have a family, and don't end up as an A+ but instead serve men's ambition, or they, like Heidi, pursue their dreams, lean in, and are then forced to live alone. Perhaps the polarization of these two lifestyles was more pronounced in the '80s, but I'm afraid that it hasn't disappeared. Because the truth is, from the women I talk to, it is hard if not impossible for women to have it all.
I want to be a lawyer, but at the law firm I interned at this past summer, a female attorney came into my office, introduced herself, and then proceeded to tell me not to enter the field. She told me that my job would consume me, I wouldn't be able to have a family, and that if she could go back, she would change career paths and focus on her children. I will seriously consider my value of family when deciding whether or not to become a litigator, like I originally intended. I haven't heard any boy my age worrying that the career path he's pursuing isn't conducive to being a father.
After the show, we ran into my twenty-three year old cousin and her friend, who had also just seen it and were as affected by it as I was. They echoed what I was wary of: that there are some men who appreciate ambitious and successful women, but that they are "gems" and hard to find.
My mom and her friend, both in their fifties, two twenty-three year olds, and I, at 18, were surprisingly affected by the play in very similar ways. We all laughed, got choked up, related a little too much, and wished that the lessons from The Heidi Chronicles could change the 21st century. I wish that as a woman, I didn't have to choose between a career and a family - but then again, perhaps choosing one or the other is pressure that I put on myself. Moreover, I wish that men would not be intimidated if I choose to follow the more tenacious, career-oriented path. I want them to catch up and learn to love the type of A+ that I intend to be.
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