Merri Biechler interview, with Kathleen Dennehy
Merri Biechler’s play, Real Girls Can’t Win, is one of those theatrical delights that just sneaks up on the reader/audience with its cumulative power and very modern punch. As a mother of a daughter, and someone who lives in Los Angeles, which I'd call the Ground Zero of 'slut power', I am constantly aware of how women portray themselves in order to get what they want- or think they want. Biechler’s play is deeply spot-on and slightly terrifying about the social media-induced moral universe our young women are creating as well as being victimized by. And yet, the play is funny and not preachy and it perfectly mirrors political theater as well as tying in the sexism inherent in beauty pageants! Somehow she powerfully and lightly connects all the above. Now I'm terrified of my daughter's teen years.
On to the questions:
What inspired you to write this play. I imagine it's many different experiences that created the inspirational 'perfect storm' of your play's plot. So, feel free to take your time in your answer.
I came to Ohio University in 2004 to get my MFA in playwriting. At that time, OU was the #2 party school in the nation. I taught a large non-theater majors Intro. to Theater class and experienced these intelligent, creative, beautiful young women in my class. Some of these same young women proudly spent their weekends uptown bar hopping and drinking to the point of blacking out. Many talked about a hook-up culture, but it’s hard to know how much was talk and how much was action. What they did speak about was their ambivalence of the idea of feminism. Their moms were feminists so the fight was over.
In 2006 Janet Reitman wrote a shocking article for Rolling Stone about the aftermath of the Duke University lacrosse rape scandal. Reitman interviewed intelligent, ambitious female students who admitted that at Duke it was more important to be hot than to be smart. I felt compelled to write about these young women who equated their own power to have sex when and where they wanted, with whom they wanted, to be the outcome of their mothers’ struggles for equality.
Then I saw Ariel Levy on The Colbert Report talk about her book “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture” about young women embracing the raunch culture. Levy believes that many women of this generation think sexual liberation means imitating strippers and porn stars.
But my play is a comedy! It HAS to be a comedy or we’d all end up in a puddle on the floor.
It also happened that right about this time five incredibly talented actresses in the OU theater department had not been cast for the spring semester so I wrote a show for them! Because I was never the ingénue in my own life, my entire undergrad acting career had been playing grandmothers, frumpy aunts, and ethnic characters. I would have KILLED to play an age appropriate lead in a comedy in college. So I wanted to write that play.
Did I mention it’s a comedy?
Did you create the concept of Real Girls vs Copy Girls or is this something that exists in college life?
I knew I wanted to pit the idea of “Real Girls” again the popular girls. The term “copy” kept coming up for me, so that seemed like the logical name for the popular girls. I quizzed my friends: back in high school we labeled girls “sluts” who didn’t fit the social norm. What was the contemporary equivalent? Everyone agreed, the word was still “slut”! The idea of Slut Power and the Slut Movement wasn’t a national trend yet, but I loved the idea that Dakota and Montana were taking back the word, even if they didn’t know what that meant entirely.
How did you research the dynamics of modern college life?
I was living the dynamics of modern college life! And don’t get me wrong, I love college students. I have huge hope for the future. These young people are passionate and compassionate, they are driven. They want to change the world. Are their parents a little too involved in their lives? Probably. But I have no doubt we are in good hands.
I really like the feminist dialectic that your play puts forth- the idea of Slut Power, or using your feminine wiles to 'rule the world' instead of one's brain... your play shows these sexy girls are not stupid, just misguided or raised to maximize their exterior over their interior... hello, Los Angeles, I'm talking to you! Where do you fall on the 'Slut Power' debate?
I think the Slut Movement is incredibly complex. I still have such a negative reaction when I hear the word, which I realize is part of the point of taking it back. I have a difficult time wrapping my head around the entire issue. I hear the term “rape culture” and I know it exists on my campus. But I truly believe this generation of women has the ability to address it for themselves. Naming it, shining the light on it, has to be the first steps toward change.
It's also powerful to portray the Real Girls who try to win with only their brains- as well as their anxiety-rich relationship to their bodies and each other and food and men. You've also endeavored to make them more complex- is there a Real Girl in your past?
There are Real Girls in my past and present. The truth is, we’re all Real Girls. I love the online campaign whoneedsfeminism.tumblr.com, started by…wait for it…female students at DUKE UNIVERSITY! I think a tiny tear in the Matrix just occurred, or maybe Duke simply needs to stage this play! But I check this website whenever I need a boost of awesomeness because we all need feminism.
Beyond our complicated attitudes regarding feminism and how women tend to treat each other as the enemy if there are fundamental differences in life choices, is our dependency and addiction to social media- and how we can use it to defame and mislead others, not just socially, but politically as well. Are you more interested in the morality and ethics of social media, or making a commentary specifically on political theater?
I wonder what the tipping point will be with the cruelty of social media. Will our grandchildren prefer to talk to people one on one? I hope so! That’s why I think theater will always be necessary; I believe it’s a human need to gather together and tell our story. I suspect in the near future we’ll be treating addictions to social media the way we treat substance addictions today. It is incredibly seductive and is no doubt rewiring our brains in an unhealthy way.
Despite the drama in the play it's also quite funny. It's almost like if "Mean Girls" went to college. I went to all girls Catholic school for elementary school and high school and let me tell you, those girls could be so incredibly inventive in their viciousness towards each other. I utterly related to the oneupmanship, and how one day I'd be a hero and the next day a zero. Are you writing from personal experience or is this pure imagination and poetic license at play?
Of course I’m a Real Girl! And some of my closest friends at first glance appear to be Copy Girls. The interesting thing is that the actresses playing the Copy Girls have all had a profound experience in rehearsal because they have to admit that they’ve used their bodies in the past to get their way. Somehow it’s more acceptable to use our brains because we seem DRIVEN to put everyone in a category, a box to be checked off. Maybe we feel that there can only be a limited number of women in any given situation who can succeed, so we feel compelled to tear down those who aren’t like us.
Has the play been produced? If so, what was the audience reaction?
I’ve had the great joy of seeing all four college productions of this play and every audience talkback has included at least one person saying: am I a bad person because I want to be a Copy Girl? No, of course not! The Copy Girls GET THINGS DONE. They are smart, sexy, ambitious. They know what they want and they get it by any means possible but there is a price to pay for that.
I had one mother admit that she had been raised a Copy Girl and had raised her daughter to get a husband at college at any cost. We had a group of sorority girls invite their entire house to the show because they loved the Copy Girls. The play has been used as outreach to talk about violence towards women on campus. A university president said the play made him think about student life on their campus and how to create a larger dialogue about its party culture.
What (or who) inspired you to become a playwright?
My super talented actor friends who weren’t getting cast. At some point, I started to think…I’ll just write for you! It’s impossible for me to tease apart acting from playwriting, they each inform the other completely.
Who are writers, or plays, or books that drew you into a writer's life?
Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg. Lanford Wilson, Craig Lucas, Paula Vogel, Sam Shepard. Chekhov. Winnie Holzman, Deborah Brevoort, Peter Hedges.
Tell me about your education, and how that impacted your writer's life?
I attended the Professional Actor Training Program at North Carolina School of the Arts and was cut from the program after my sophomore year because I was fat. I can laugh about it now, but at the time of course, it was devastating. It was the 80’s when everyone in acting school was supposed to be able to play Juliet. But NCSA gave me an understanding of the professional theater and introduced me to friends who are my artistic soul mates. I moved to NYC and studied acting with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse and at his private home on the island of Bequia, West Indies. Sandy Meisner was the master teacher in my life. He said that it takes twenty years to be an artist. I spent twelve years in Los Angeles writing and acting but mostly working at a law firm. I wanted to teach. So I came to Ohio University to get my MFA in playwriting. Here I met my next master teachers, Charles Smith and Erik Ramsey, who helped me find my voice as a writer. I work with the amazing artists of Brick Monkey Theater Ensemble, and now consider Southeast Ohio my artistic home.