Sophia Kaufman: Stickin’ It to the Man: A Field Trip Lacking in Feminism

Monday, September 12, 2016 - 5:08pm

For the past two summers, I’ve worked at a month-long arts camp for kids from six to fifteen-years-old in NYC. That’s a wide range that encompasses different learning styles, senses of humor and educational backgrounds, so each year when we take the kids to a show the camp always tries to pick something that the older kids will like, but won’t be too complicated for the little ones to understand. This year, we saw “School of Rock” on Broadway.

I hadn’t seen the movie “School of Rock” in several years, but it was a staple in my household when my brothers and I were little. For anyone unfamiliar with it, here’s the basic plot: Dewey, a couch potato who moonlights as a musician, is kicked out of his band while living in the apartment of his tweedy friend Ned and Ned’s girlfriend, Patty. The latter, sick of Dewey’s bullshit — he doesn’t pay rent, doesn’t clean up after himself, is a bad influence on Ned, is generally aimless and annoying — tells him to find some rent money or get out. Desperate, Dewey takes a job meant for Ned as a substitute teacher at a prep school for kids, teaches them how to play rock music and kidnaps them to perform at Battle of the Bands, having used the power of Stevie Nicks’s music (and beer) to manipulate the principal into saying yes to that “field trip.”

When all the prep school parents storm the school, they discover all their children are at Battle of the Bands with Dewey, after Dewey tells them how great their kids are. The sappy moral lesson is that sometimes adults don’t listen to their kids and project their own priorities and desires onto children. But there’s a second lesson I realized that a whole generation walked away with, while I watched the story unfold on a Broadway stage.

And it’s about The Girlfriend.

The worst part about “School of Rock” was the depiction of Patty, Ned’s girlfriend. The trope of the nagging wife is ubiquitous and one of the most easily glanced over. The one joke of the entire show that got the biggest laugh from the kids was when Ned, who went to Battle of the Bands to support Dewey, rounds on Patty and tells her loudly, in a voice full of frustration, to “Shut UP!”

There was a laugh break lasting almost a minute. It’s the ultimate PG “bros before hos” moment. And I get it — Patty is annoying, and a bit of a control freak. But she’s also right. Dewey has been exploiting his friendship with Ned for who knows how long, and thus mooching off Patty. Dewey is the one in the wrong here, and in any real-life scenario, it’d be easier to see. Yet, the audience is led to sympathize with Dewey and gleefully hate Patty in every scene they share.

There were a few jokes that were packaged as commentary on the status of women in the music industry, or women in general, but they didn’t go over well. They were quick and the kids I was sitting with didn’t pick up on them. For example, there was a joke about women only making 75 cents to every dollar a man makes — but none of the kids from my camp group laughed. Not even the older kids understood the reference — I know, because I talked to them about it afterwards. There were a few jokes that the kids did laugh at; when Dewey asks the students what the point of rock is, one kid quips “to get chicks” and Dewey agrees before remembering that that’s not exactly the point he’s trying to make at that time. One girl refuses to be a groupie because she googled them and found out they are “sluts” who sleep with the band. (“Slut” is an ugly word to hear out of the mouths of middle school girls, especially in that context when it was so unnecessary, but that’s almost another article on its own.)

The best scenes in Broadway’s “School of Rock” by far are the group numbers in which all of the kids sing together, either about loving music, “sticking it to the man,” or about how their parents don’t listen to them. The script and score aren’t particularly strong, but that makes sense given the source material.

I’m not saying that “School of Rock” doesn’t have some good messages; I’m glad we took the kids to see it. But the writers had a chance to create a more nuanced character in Patty for the sake of the little girls on the stage and in the audience, and they didn’t  — and that would have meant much more and had a much deeper effect than the throwaway quips about the wage gap. Kids aren’t necessarily educated about the wage gap; it’s not something you can pick up on on your own. That’s why there are still people who deny its existence.

But the kinds of tropes that the character of Patty embodies saturate our media. We can’t get away from them, and we absorb and internalize them from a young age. And yes, women can be just as annoying as men — I’m not here to claim that any criticism of a female character is an attack on women. But you do have to wonder about the speed and depth of internalized stereotypes about men and women when a bunch of five-year-olds laugh harder at a man telling a woman to shut up than anything else in an entire show.

Kaufman is The Daily’s new Gender & Media Columnist. Email her at sophkauf@umich.edu