THERESA REBECK 1990
Theresa Rebeck’s Spike Heels was the first play by this multitalented writer to gain wide notice. Originally staged as a workshop piece by the New York Stage and Film Company at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1990, the play was first produced in New York at the Second Stage Theatre in 1992. That first production starred the well-known movie actor Kevin Bacon as Edward. The play explores issues of sexual harassment, the control and use of women, self-determination and identity, and changing expectations of men in a feminist era. Its discussion of sexual harassment was particularly timely, coming as it did soon after Anita Hill was hostilely questioned by Congress about her assertions that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had harassed her. Although the important New York critics were not universally fond of the play, it was a success in that over the next decade it was produced all over the country. As Rebeck has gone on to fame and recognition as a screenwriter for television and film, the play remains an important early milestone in her career as well as an intelligent examination of issues that are as important today as they were in 1990.
Theresa Rebeck has had success writing for television, film, and the theater. Originally from the Page 274 | Top of ArticleCincinnati, Ohio, area, Rebeck moved to Boston to attend college and graduated from Brandeis University. While writing plays, Rebeck began also to write for television for such shows as Brooklyn Bridge and Dream On and later for the critically acclaimed show NYPD Blue. Rebeck won a Writer’s Guild award in 1995 for the NYPD Blue episode “Girl Talk.” At the same time she was also having success with her screenwriting career, and coauthored the screenplay for the major motion picture version of Louise Fitzhugh’s book Harriet the Spy. “Theatre, film, and television,” she once remarked, “are all modes of storytelling, and many of us are fortunate enough to move freely among them without feeling that we’ve ‘left’ or need to ‘go back’ to one or the other. In fact, if the theatre is to avoid a brain drain, this type of fluidity is increasingly necessary.” Because of her versatility, she is an inspiration to many young screenwriters today.
Act I, Scene 1
Spike Heels opens in Andrew’s apartment. Georgie, his neighbor, arrives home from work in a foul mood. She is wearing her work clothes, including a pair of spike-heeled shoes. She changes her clothes in front of Andrew, which makes him uncomfortable. As she complains to Andrew, she lets him know that her boss, Edward, has made unwanted sexual advances to her and threatened to rape her. Andrew gets very angry, and Georgie tries to seduce him, unsuccessfully. When Andrew lets Georgie know that he has informally given Edward permission to pursue her, Georgie gets furious and storms out.
Act I, Scene 2
The second scene also takes place in Andrew’s apartment, one day later. Edward arrives unexpectedly, dropping by to see his friend before picking up Georgie for their date, and Andrew lets him know that he is not welcome. Andrew and Edward argue about Edward’s conduct toward Georgie. Georgie arrives, dressed provocatively, and Andrew gets Edward to leave for a minute so that he can talk to Georgie. As he tries to remove her spike heels, they kiss passionately. He pulls away. Georgie and Andrew argue about their relationship and Andrew, in anger, lets it slip that he believes that he “made her.” Deeply offended and angered, Georgie returns to her apartment to wait for Edward.
Act II, Scene 1
The second act takes place in Georgie’s apartment. Scene 1 opens later the same night. Georgie and Edward have returned to her apartment and are making out on the couch. She is attempting to seduce him but he resists, and wants to talk with her about her relationship with Andrew. When she refuses, he becomes insulting and she gets upset. They are interrupted by a pounding on the door: it is Lydia, who is very angry, thinking that Georgie is having an affair with Andrew. Edward leaves, and Lydia and Georgie discuss Lydia’s relationship with Andrew, who has just postponed their wedding. They end up dancing with each other but stop when there is a pounding on the door—it is Edward and Andrew. Edward convinces Andrew to tell Georgie he loves her. This upsets both Lydia and Georgie, and the two women leave.
Act II, Scene 2
As the scene opens, the two men are waking up in Georgie’s apartment. They continue discussing the events of the previous night and Andrew admits that he and Lydia had slept together while she was still together with Edward. Georgie returns, and after getting Edward to leave, Andrew expresses his feelings to Georgie again, but she rejects him. Andrew leaves, Edward returns, and the play ends with Georgie and Edward discussing whether they will become involved with each other.
Andrew is a professor of political philosophy at a small college in Boston. He lives alone in an apartment and has befriended his neighbor Georgie, appointing himself her “teacher.” He is engaged to be married to Lydia. As the play opens, Andrew is fastidious, cautious, and tends not to take risks. However, during the course of the play he becomes less restrained because of Georgie’s influence on him.
Edward is an old friend of Andrew’s. Their personalities are very different, though; Edward is aggressive, extroverted, demanding, and at times a Page 275 | Top of Articlelittle sleazy. He is a criminal defense lawyer and, as a favor to Andrew, has hired Georgie to be his secretary even though she has not attended college. He dated Andrew’s fiancee, Lydia, before Andrew began dating her.
Georgie is Andrew’s neighbor and Edward’s secretary. She comes from a working-class background and has not attended college. She is lusty, earthy, sarcastic, and fatalistic, especially in her relationships with men. Six months before the play begins, Andrew has decided to become her friend and to try to diminish her self-destructive tendencies. In befriending her, Andrew has also tried to “improve” her by giving her books to read and encouraging her to speak more properly. She has responded to Andrew’s friendship by falling in love with him.
Lydia is Andrew’s fiancée and Edward’s ex-girlfriend. She is from an old, upper-class Boston family. In many ways, she is described as the opposite of Georgie, and the characters talk about her a great deal before she ever actually appears. Edward describes her as cold and unemotional, and Andrew wants to keep her pure, in a way. When she does appear, she is quite fiery, convinced that Georgie is trying to steal Andrew from her. Georgie comes to like her when she sees that Lydia is not the “vampire” Edward has portrayed her to be.
One of the most important themes of Spike Heels is power. Each of the characters has a form of power and attempts to wield it, with results that are not what the character was hoping for. Andrew’s power is as a teacher—he is a college professor, and taking the role of the teacher in his relationships is natural to him—and he uses this power to “mold” Georgie into a different person. Although he wants to feel that he is simply helping her, at one point in the play his true feelings come out: “I made you better than that,” he tells Georgie. Edward also has power as a lawyer and as a boss, and he uses it crudely in an attempt to get Georgie to sleep with him. Georgie has little power, she feels, and therefore uses her sexual attractiveness (symbolized by her spike heels) and her foul mouth to establish her power. Lydia, the most powerless character of the play, in the outside world would have a great deal of power due to the fact that she is from an old, established family and presumably has a great deal of money.
The irony of the play is that each character’s use of power backfires. Andrew wants to establish an enduring relationship with Georgie through his tutoring and, later, wants that relationship to become romantic, but, by laying bare the mechanism of his power over her, he loses her. Edward’s use of power—his sexual harassment—backfires, and he must use another form of power (his ability to grant her a raise) to win her back. When Georgie tries to use her sexual power with Andrew and Edward, they both reject her. And Lydia’s only exercise of power, her arrival at Georgie’s apartment, gains her nothing and may have helped in her losing her fiancée.
Male and Female Roles
At the heart of the play’s plot are the differing roles that men and women play in society. In this play, as is often true in society at large, the men have the power and the women are acted upon by that power. Andrew takes the role of the father or teacher figure, directing Georgie’s life—telling her what to read, how to talk, even where to work. Edward plays the role of boss and of sexual predator. He is aggressive, insulting, and demanding. By contrast, the women are acted upon. Georgie realizes halfway through the play that Andrew and Edward were treating her like a commodity that they trade between themselves—Andrew gives Edward permission to come on to Georgie, and Edward seems to feel that Andrew’s permission is more important than Georgie’s interest or even acquiescence. Lydia, as well, is acted upon—like Georgie she is traded between the men, and she is also subject to the approval of her (presumably male-dominated) family.
The genders’ differing relations to sexuality are also important themes in Spike Heels, and this difference is nowhere better illustrated than in Rebeck’s use of the symbol of the spike-heel shoes. At the very beginning of the play, Georgie storms into Andrew’s apartment, complaining about how uncomfortable the shoes are. She argues to Andrew that the only reason women wear such impractical shoes is that they make women’s legs more attractive.
Yet for all of her feminist consciousness of this, she still wears them because she feels that being sexually attractive is her only way to have power. She must embrace the role of temptress that the shoes give her in order to have any power. Andrew, who wants to remake her and diminish her sexuality, tells her to stop wearing them, but later in the play he admits that he, too, finds the shoes attractive. Lydia also examines the shoes curiously. She does not rely on her sexuality to obtain power, and both disdains and envies women who do. “I guess you don’t wear them for comfort,” she tells Georgie. “You wear them for other reasons. You wear them because they make your legs look amazing.”
Spike Heels is set in two apartments in contemporary Boston. The play does not make much use of the city; however, Rebeck cleverly structures the play in two parts, and the division is also indicated by the locations of the two acts. The first act is set in Andrew’s apartment, the second in Georgie’s. As the play examines very carefully some important differences between men and women, setting the two acts in apartments belonging to the two sexes allows the setting to mirror the theme. Rebeck also uses music to contribute to the theme and to reinforce our impressions of the characters, indicating in the text what music should be playing in each apartment—classical in Andrew’s, Elvis Costello in Georgie’s.
The play is in large part about self-discovery and the way that we grow to understand and learn new things about other people, and Rebeck uses the development of her characters to reinforce that theme. With the exception of Georgie, all of the characters in the play are both presented to us and described to us by other characters while they are offstage. We get a very negative impression of Lydia before she ever arrives on the stage—Edward describes her as a vampire—but when she does Page 277 | Top of Articleshow up she is much more animated and sympathetic than we suspected she would be. Edward seems like a monster in the first scene, but when he makes his first appearance he is less so (although he is certainly unsympathetic and arrogant). Andrew appears quite sympathetic when he is presented directly to us, but when he is off-stage—when Edward or Lydia is talking to Georgie about him—we learn things about him that are unflattering. Rebeck’s use of direct and indirect characterization underscores her point that we cannot make hard and fast judgments about people based solely on how they first appear.
As indicated by the play’s title, the most important symbol in the play is Georgie’s spike-heeled shoes. The spike heels represent a number of aspects of women’s roles in contemporary society—as sex object, sexual predator, working woman, and homebody. As the play opens, Georgie arrives at Andrew’s apartment, complaining about how badly her spike heels hurt her. Women on the job, Rebeck indicates, are expected to dress attractively or even in a way that accentuates their sexuality. Men’s work clothes hide the body, she suggests; why do women’s emphasize their bodies? In addition, women must endure pain to appear professional or attractive. High-heeled shoes, worn consistently over a lifetime, can cause permanent malformation of the foot, and the spike-heeled shoes (taller and, because of their narrow heels, transmitting more impact to the foot) are especially dangerous for that.
Women are expected to wear high heels to work, but spike-heeled shoes, connoting sexuality, are rarely appropriate for work. So why does Georgie wear them? Georgie is from a working-class family and has little experience with the white-collar world. The fact that she wears these shoes to work indicates her inexperience in the business world. And, as a secretary, she feels powerless. Sexuality has always been her source of power, and the spike heels represent her sexual power—something that Lydia comments on. Georgie uses the spike heels to lure Andrew and Edward, but they limit her, make her just a sexual object. In that sense, when she doffs them—as she does on stage—it emphasizes her powerlessness and her lack of a defined place in the world. But, as she says herself, the spike heels are also an entirely nonsexual way for her to obtain power. “I like the way they make my legs look kind of dangerous,” she tells Edward and Andrew. “And I like being tall. I like being able to look you both in the eyes. It’s the only chance I get, when I’m wearing these things.”
The 1970s were a time of great change for American women. Through the turbulence of the 1960s, women’s roles in American society went largely unquestioned. Even the revolutionaries of the period dismissed questions of women’s liberation and feminism. But, led by such theorists, writers, and political figures as Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bella Abzug, women in the 1970s began to demand different treatment.
There has been much talk about the “Sexual Revolution” in American society. Although it is very difficult to make generalizations about such a vast transformation of social attitudes, we can confidently say that beginning in the 1920s and lasting into the 1950s a small but increasingly vocal minority of Americans wanted their Puritanical culture to talk frankly about sex. The “carefree” 1920s were characterized by groups of young people who had much different attitudes toward sex than did any generation in American history—for the first time, sex was being regarded not simply as a dirty secret for married people to keep but as a recreational activity. In the 1950s, a decade whose image today is dominated by middle-class American values, the movie star Marilyn Monroe and the magazine publisher Hugh Hefner, among many others, forced America to confront its hypocrisy about sexuality. And in the 1960s, the various countercultural groups of young people often made sexual liberation or “free love” part of their program.
But for all of the changes in American attitudes toward sex, American attitudes towards women had changed little. This “Sexual Revolution” often made women into sexual objects, existing only for the pleasure of promiscuous men. Even the invention of the birth control pill, which allowed women to experiment sexually without fear of pregnancy, was a mixed blessing for women in some ways. Tired of the disdainful attitude toward women demonstrated by the self-described radicals of the 1960s, Friedan and Steinem organized a women’s movement that sought to secure equal treatment for women in society. One of the most difficult problems this movement faced was how to fight for the Page 278 | Top of Articlesexual freedom of women without seeming to make women into “tramps” or “sluts.” There was no model in Western culture for the woman who was in control of her own sexuality; as Steinem often pointed out, Western women were inevitably portrayed as virgins, whores, or mothers, with no other roles available to them.
American society spent much of the 1970s and 1980s debating the question of women’s liberation. What were appropriate roles for women at home? In the workplace? How should a woman use her sexuality? By the early 1990s, most jobs and careers were open to women, although a “glass ceiling” often existed that effectively prevented women from advancing to executive positions in government or business. An especially thorny and enduring problem was sexual harassment, or unwanted sexual advances at work, especially those made by a male superior to a female employee. Many men dismissed the issue, but the legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon—mentioned by Edward in Spike Heels—helped draft legislation to define such conduct and make it illegal.
In 1991, many women’s frustrations about sexual harassment came to the fore in the so-called “Anita Hill case.” President Bush had nominated Judge Clarence Thomas to serve on the Supreme Court, and, during his confirmation process in the United States Senate, a lawyer who had worked under Thomas, Anita Hill, accused the judge of sexually harassing her during the time they worked together. The stories Hill told of Thomas’s behavior were very familiar to millions of women, but the Senators questioning her in the hearings concentrated instead on Hill’s sexual history, her conduct, even her clothes. The Senators’ obliviousness to the seriousness and pervasiveness of sexual harassment in many women’s lives, and their tendency to “blame the victim,” caused those women to conclude publicly that “they [the Senators specifically, but in a larger sense men in general] just don’t get it.”
Rebeck draws on women’s problematic, expanded sexual freedom and on the issue of sexual harassment in her play. Georgie uses her sexuality as a way to establish power, but her sexuality apparently backfires. In the play, though, we see that Edward and Andrew have been treating her like a commodity, almost as if they have traded her—something they have done before—for Lydia. The thorny issues of sexual harassment, women’s liberation, and changing gender roles are at the heart of Spike Heels.
Theresa Rebeck’s play Spike Heels, exploring issues of love, gender roles, sex, and sexual harassment, did not receive great reviews when it was initially produced but has since been produced to acclaim all over the country. When the play was first staged in New York in 1992, Rebeck was already known in the New York theatre world for her one-act plays, but Spike Heels was her biggest success to date.
In the world of contemporary American theatre, the most important city is New York. Although many plays have their initial productions in small theatres around the country, it is not until they are produced in New York that they are taken seriously. And as befits New York’s central place in theatre, the theatre critics for the city’s most influential daily newspaper, the New York Times, have become America’s leading theatre critics. Frank Rich, at that time the paper’s head critic, could make or break a play by his review.
Rich attended the 1992 staging of Spike Heels, starring Kevin Bacon, and was unimpressed. He saw the play as a modernization of the “glossy Hollywood comedies of the unabashedly sexist 1950s” in which the men, not the women, are “virgins and tramps. The idea is wicked and promising.” But, Rich felt, “the play is a letdown.” Rich found the dialogue excessively profane, writing that “the lines that are not funny frequently try to get by on scatological bombast.” The play was too heavyhanded, he continues: “When really stuck, the playwright takes to pounding in her points. There is too much talk about how men view women as property, or want to be in control of every situation, or try to pass themselves off as sensitive even as they are being manipulative.”
When the play was staged the following year in Boston, the Globe’s critic Louise Kennedy was similarly unimpressed, but for different reasons. The play’s cardinal sin, for Kennedy, is that for a comedy, it just is not funny. “It just isn’t any fun,” she gripes. “Every character. .. is unbelievably annoying. The actors are not well-served by the script’s ridiculous plot twists and implausible shifts in character.” Kennedy also felt that in this ostensibly feminist-minded play, Rebeck undermined her own feminist principles. “Maybe it’s hysterical to have a woman threatened with rape by her boss, then turn around and go out to dinner with him to make his best friend jealous, then declare her love Page 279 | Top of Articlefor the best friend, then have a fleeting bonding session with the friend’s fiancee, then windup going back to the harassing snake. If it really does sound fun to you, go anyway—maybe you can tell me what I’m missing.”
Similarly negative was Alvin Klein, who reviewed a Stamford, Connecticut, production in the New York Times in 1993. “In case the audience doesn’t figure out that Spike Heels is a contemporary, multicultural Pygmalion knockoff, don’t worry; one is bopped over the head with that allusion. There is more he says-she says attitudinizing here than an organized forum on the gender wars can accommodate, but hardly enough wit, balance, sense of craft or coherence to sustain a play.” Klein also disliked what he saw as the ultimately antifeminist contradiction of the play, writing that Georgie’s success at the end is really a “Pyrrhic victory. . . back to square one.”
Later reviewers in other cities were more enthusiastic. Reviewing the Victory Theatre’s production of Spike Heels in Burbank, California, Madeleine Shaner of Backstage wrote that the “delightfully fresh play is like a sip of sparkling champagne after a steady diet of city water. . . funny, touching, crazy, unpredictable, and as insightful as it is entertaining.” In 1994, Nelson Pressley of the Washington Times compared the play with Shaw’s Pygmalion, calling it “Shavian with blue language” and praising the play’s “wry characters and nervy, earthy dialogue.” “Miss Rebeck is a writer to watch,” he concludes.
Barnhisel holds a Ph.D. in American literature. In the following essay, he discusses the structure of the play and how that structure relates to and helps construct its themes of gender relations.
Theresa Rebeck’s play Spike Heels is a humorous meditation on contemporary gender roles and romantic relationships. It explores feminism, sexual harassment in the workplace, the teacher-student relationship, and even social class. Some of its critics have taken the play to task for undermining its own feminist message or simply for not being funny. Whatever its shortcomings, though, Spike Heels boasts a sophisticated structure that Rebeck expertly uses to reinforce the themes of the play.
Rebeck’s play does an effective job of anatomizing and questioning gender roles and the easy dualisms into which we divide the world. Although it does rely perhaps too heavily on stock characters, it is an interesting, and at times even funny, updating of Bernard Shaw’s famous story.
Rebeck structures her play as a complex of dualities. Everything works in opposed pairs that are turned upside down or switched at some point before or during the play’s action. Most obvious of the pairs are the two sexes. Although there is no trans sexuality (i.e., nobody actually switches genders), one of the attributes that the play gives to the characters does get switched: at the start of the play, the two males are friends and the two females rivals, but by the end, Andrew and Edward are fighting and rivals for Georgie, while Georgie and Lydia strike up a friendship and their rivalry disappears when Georgie rejects Andrew.
The roles that the genders are supposed to play are also implicated in this complex of dualities. The male characters, Andrew and Edward, represent two poles of stereotypical male behavior. Andrew is the teacher, the father figure, but he is also almost utterly asexual. When Georgie returns from work at the opening of the play, she quickly sheds her
clothes, walking out to the front room in only her underwear, but Andrew shows no temptation, even when she makes it clear to him that she would like to have sex with him. In a way, he is slightly feminized (at least in relation to Edward) because of his passivity and even by his choice of drinks—tea or zinfandel, as opposed to the Scotch the rest of the characters drink. He also wants her to minimize her own sexuality; “you’re making a spectacle of yourself,” he tells her. He is dry and pretentious, dropping names of philosophers like Hegel and Nietzsche and quoting James Joyce—“history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”—when discussing Georgie’s personal problems. Yet even though he is not an aggressive male in the way that Edward is, he is still stereotypically male in the way that he attempts to control Georgie. He is “remaking” her, much like the professor of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. But Georgie resists: “I’m confused, but I do know that I don’t want to be the person you keep trying to make me.”
Edward, by contrast, is the young wolf, the tomcat, the aggressive male. He is an outspoken lawyer, an obnoxious “snake,” as one of the play’s reviewers calls him, and a sexual predator. But he, also, has his identity undermined over the course of the story. When Georgie comes on to him, he refuses her. The playwright seems to be suggesting that Edward can only be sexual when he is the aggressor—Lydia’s statement that “he always wants it,” when taken with Edward’s description of Lydia as cold and passive, reinforces this. Frank Rich, of the New York Times, felt that Rebeck was reacting to, and reversing, the “glossy Hollywood comedies of the unabashedly sexist 1950s” in which women are always “virgins and tramps.” This would be yet another example of Rebeck’s transformed dualisms—Andrew as the virgin who leaves his fiancée for the exciting and dangerous woman from another social class, Edward as the tramp who in the end acts like the virgin.
Given Rich’s formulation, the women would have to then be respectable, if boring, suitors and rakish, rebellious, earthy interlopers. At first glance, this is exactly what they are. Lydia is almost a stock character when described by Edward and Andrew—the character of Lilith from the television show Cheers is an example of this type—and Georgie is, as well. But when Lydia arrives she is warmer, more fiery and emotional than we would have suspected. Georgie, the character who is at the center of the play, transcends her stereotypical role, as well. The women, who are traditionally under the control of men, gain control in this play to some extent. In the end, nobody is in control: the end of the play is a negotiation. As Georgie says, “it’s always about what you guys want. And I’m just like some thing just spinning in the middle of it all. I can’t even think, you know?”
The women also embody the class dualisms common in American drama in stock ways. Lydia, the upper-class woman, is initially portrayed as dry, cold, and condescending. Georgie fears her because she represents the qualities that she feels Andrew is trying to cultivate in her, and when she mockingly tries on Lydia’s dress Andrew gets very upset—he resents the way she is undercutting the distinction between the two women. Georgie is figured as working class in many ways: she is profane and crude, she is sexually loose, she is street-smart but not (yet) book-smart, she is aggressive and extroverted. Both men comment dismissively and insultingly on her working-class upbringing, also.
The relationships around which the play revolves are also structured as a series of amorphous dualities. The play encompasses numerous kinds of emotional relationships. There is a relationship that Page 281 | Top of Articledefinitely existed in the past and definitely ended then: Lydia and Edward. There is a relationship that could have existed in the past but definitely ends during the play: Georgie and Andrew. There is a relationship that definitely existed in the past and may end during the play: Lydia and Andrew. There is a relationship that does not exist during the play but may in the future: Georgie and Edward. There is a relationship that existed in the past and will continue to exist in the future: Andrew and Edward. There is even a relationship that is merely suggested, even though it neither existed in past nor will exist in the future: Lydia and Georgie, who are friendly and even dance “erotically” until the fighting men enter Georgie’s apartment.
The play captures these relationships at a point at which they are being transformed in ways that also transform the people involved. During the course of the 36 hours of the play, an engagement ends, two people admit their unrequited love for another, a sexual Lothario finds his sex drive absent, and one long-term friendship is severely tested. The dualisms of the play extend to its setting. The play takes place in two apartments in the same building, apartments that are, in the words of the stage directions, “identical.. . but in all particulars different.” The apartments share the same space but they are distinguished from each other by music, degree of mess, and appearance of lived-in comfort.
But in the end, for all of the shifting identities and roles that the characters take on during the play, at the end the situation really changes very little. Georgie’s last scene, in which she rejects Andrew and “negotiates” the terms of a potential relationship with Edward, is clearly intended to show her coming into “ownership” of her life. Ironically, Andrew may have succeeded in remaking her, for at this point she is more in control than at any other point in the play. But the resolution is troubling, even if it does show Georgie coming into her own. The viewers or readers question Georgie perhaps more than the playwright does—what is this woman doing, getting involved with a man who threatened to rape her? Yes, she is intending to do this on her own terms, but the issue (of rape and sexual harassment) brought up earlier is so serious, and tossed away so flippantly, that we question if the playwright is simply wrapping things up artificially. Edward tells her that he is not the “enemy,” but this is unconvincing. He is still a jerk, an arrogant grasper who has threatened her—and who is, let us not forget, still her boss.
Rebeck’s play does an effective job of anatomizing and questioning gender roles and the easy dualisms into which we divide the world. Although it does rely perhaps too heavily on stock characters, it is an interesting, and at times even funny, updating of Bernard Shaw’s famous story. But for all of its feminist overtones, it does not really transcend the gender roles of the Hollywood comedies to which Frank Rich alludes. Yes, at first the men do play the traditionally female roles—but the end of the play brings us back to the old model, in which a rakish man gets the girl and the frigid woman is quickly and patly written off. Perhaps this is just another overturned dualism, in which Rebeck at first plays with but ultimately reaffirms the gender roles of Hollywood and the pre-feminist United States.
Source: Greg Barnhisel, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina. In the following essay, she discusses “power feminism” and Rebeck’s Spike Heels.
In his essay “Power and Knowledge,” Michel Foucault wrote, “What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse.” Foucault means that power, even dominant power, is not bad, but actually enticing. Recent feminists Page 282 | Top of Articlehave adopted the Foucaultian idea of power as both attractive and compatible with pleasure, in a new form of feminism called “power feminism.” The term “power feminism” was coined by Naomi Wolf, who offers it as a healthy alternative to the “victim feminism” that focuses on paternalistic oppression and denies women’s sexuality. Victim feminism concerns itself with retribution against oppressive males, and victim feminists act militant by effacing their femininity. Wolf is applauded by Camille Paglia, the outrageously outspoken academic who calls herself the “Feminist Fatale,” whose shocking book Sexual Personae(1990) led many erstwhile feminists to revamp their beliefs. With Paglia, many contemporary feminists no longer find sexiness incompatible with power, or with feminist thinking. Paglia considers the nineties to be a time of “feminist reform.” In the shifting arena of gender politics, every woman must come to terms with her own sense of sexuality and the ways in which she interacts with men. Theresa Rebeck’s play Spike Heels showcases one woman grappling with issues of beauty, intelligence, and sexuality in the post-women’s-movement era. Her play explores the confusion that surrounds sexual relations as young women negotiate a new brand of feminism, one that embraces sexuality and feminine attractiveness, as well as power.
The play’s title, Spike Heels, portends an attitude toward the bondage of style that women endure in the interest of pleasing and enticing men. In this regard, the play manifests “victim feminism,” which finds fault with the trappings of the cultural oppression of women. The uncomfortable spike heel shoes, Andrew tells Georgie, “look like some sort of medieval torture device.” However, in the next breath he says that wearing them has put her “in a bad mood.” Thus, on one hand Andrew seems enlightened (in “victim feminist” terms) in his view that women should not abuse their bodies to look attractive; but on the other hand, his trivialization of her distress as “a bad mood” marks him as hopelessly chauvinistic. A feminist of the 1970s or 1980s would find fault with Andrew for his apparent insincerity. He further condemns himself by his paternalistic attitude toward her. Georgie suffers from social and gender bondage, according to Andrew. Georgie discovers that he has made a “pygmalion” project of her, hoping through books and conversation to transform her street-wise smarts to sophisticated intellectualism. “I am your teacher,” he tells her. He wishes she were calm; “there’s no peace in you,” he complains, and he adds, “I made you better than this.” He wants to raise her up from her lower class life, where she “came home drunk after every shift sleeping with every guy who looked at you.” He presents his re-make project as social philanthropy, but he expects her to make herself a tabula rasa for his ideas. Georgie resents this. It does not take book learning for her to recognize that his project is not an altruistic one; “this is about sex!” she exclaims as she departs for her rendezvous with Edward. She objects to his usurping her own authority, and retaliates by enticing Edward to sleep with her, to make Andrew jealous, “to teach you something for a change, you could learn from me.” Tired of being “in the receiver’s position,” she takes control over her own body and mind. She also does so without feeling compromised by her body, and without the necessity of denying the power of her feminine sexuality. Her tactic is ultimately successful, as it breaks Andrew out of his reformer’s mode and puts him on her level.
Both social and the sexual issues are played out over the spike heels. Andrew begs her to let him take off the heels she wears for the date with Edward. Andrew thinks they look “sad and ridiculous,” but Edward says “it’s perfectly delightful” that they let her look men in the eye. The question becomes, are the spike heels a form of gender bondage imposed by men, or are they an equalizing weapon Georgie can use so that her “legs look kind of dangerous”? For Georgie, the shoes express the new feminism, that allows her to use her feminine beauty in the service of achieving equality with men. As Camille Paglia summed it up in a 1997 essay, “Since Madonna, younger women no longer feel that makeup and sexy outfits are incompatible with feminism.” Georgie wants to wear the spike heels to entice and thereby regain control with Edward. She succeeds with him through a combination of powerful attractiveness and giving in. She returns to clean out her desk and then submits to his authority in a public showdown when he demands that she come to his office. “It’s like this dare it’s like this f—ing dare, and everyone goes real quiet, just waiting to see what I’m gonna do,” Georgie tells Andrew. As a reward for giving in, Edward gives her a $2,000 raise and makes a dinner date. To Andrew, accepting a date with someone who threatened to rape her is absurd. But she is using Edward as a pawn in her game with Andrew. The power of the spike heels, combined with the knowledge that she is using him, proves emasculating for Edward, however. After dinner, in her apartment, he suddenly withdraws from their embrace and engages in Page 283 | Top of Articlea series of power struggles with her: over her loud music (which he turns down), over what to drink (tea and not scotch), over making love (the ultimate power struggle). Edward objects to Georgie’s lack of “subtlety,” because he prefers to take the role of aggressor. He desperately seeks control, washing her dishes, using her toothbrush. In his attempt to recover the dominant position, he refuses to go when she tells him to leave. He tells Andrew, “This woman makes Godzilla look like a Barbie doll.” Rather it is the reverse. A Barbie doll has taken on the power of Godzilla, and is in the process of deciding whether to use it for destruction or for good in the gender wars.
The Status of the Gender Wars in Spike Heels
The spike heels figure in the final scene, when Georgie brandishes them as a weapon. Though to Edward they are “delightful,” he leaves it up to Georgie whether she keeps them. “Do whatever you want,” he tells her about the shoes, and regarding their relationship, he defers too: “I accept your terms.” He has “gone through” a lot of women, as Andrew reminds him. Edward is the male, profligate Mary Magdalene to her Christ, a male prostitute reformed by her truth. Her endorsement of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as “nerdy,” with a message of “Resurrection” that is “nice,” is not accidental, nor is the fact that she offers their books to Edward. She is a prophet—of the new sexuality. Andrew massages her feet, in the ritual stance of a disciple towards his master, but she decides to “negotiate” a relationship with Edward, who never had a civilizing mission for her and who accepts her terms.
Women’s relations with other women are also affected by the new feminism. Georgie adopts Lydia into her sisterhood. But because Lydia is a “vampire,” one who (symbolically) drinks blood, she must be transformed. First Lydia drinks Georgie’s scotch, thus replacing blood with the drink that breaks down social barriers. Now she is open to change. Next, Lydia tries on the spike heels. While wearing them, the women discover another connection besides loving Andrew: through Edward, who used to date Lydia. Georgie chastises Lydia for feeling superior to people like herself, from a lower class, saying “shame on you.” When the two dance together, they discover a mutual eroticism that is not lesbian, but rather an appreciation of feminine sexuality. They nearly decide not to let the men in when they knock. Georgie is tired of “spinning” around trying to be what men want. The victim feminists
bonded through mutual resentment against men. Power feminists share that bond, plus the bond of appreciating each other sexually. It is not that competition does not exist between women, any more than it does for men, as evidenced by Andrew and Edward’s relationship.
This new generation of women are both threatening and enticing to men. The threat is partially because these women resist pygmalion makeovers, but it also consists in a confusing form of feminine power, power that entices. This power is as enticing and confusing to the women who wield it, as it is to the men learning to relate to power feminists, feminists of the real world. As Camille Paglia says, it is now time to “shift the center of gravity away from academic feminism toward real-life issues.” Theresa Rebeck’s play Spike Heels takes the feminist movement to a new ground, away from books and shaved eyebrows, back to the streets, bars, jobs, and bedrooms, where women appreciate and use their power of enticement. Now at stake is the negotiation of the terms of relations between women and between women and men, as the play aptly demonstrates.
Source: Carole Hamilton, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she examines issues of objedification and power in relationships between the sexes.
On her date with Edward, Georgie wears her gold spike heels; these shoes function as the central
symbol of Theresa Rebeck’s plays Spike Heels. Georgie wears these shoes to make her more sexy, but as she says immediately after putting them on, when she “staggers” after rising to her feet, “I haven’t worn these things for a while and you have to get used to them, you know? It’s kind of like walking on stilts.” Georgie’s admission suggests not just the physical lengths to which women go to entice men, but also suggests to the communiques and relationships that are played out by the play’s four characters. Georgie, Edward, Andrew, and Lydia all are walking a symbolic tightrope, crossing over the chasm of stereotypes to try to reach each other and form meaningful connections. As Marsha Mason writes in her introduction to Women Playwrights, The Best Plays of 1992, Rebeck “pounds, picks and chisels away at the mountain of sexism and class with Georgie’s spike heels.” This empowerment is not freely given, however. Georgie earns it by coming face to face with Andrew and Edward’s treatment of her.
Throughout the play, Andrew and Edward clearly perceive of Georgie as an object to be desired, subdued, and possessed. Georgie recognizes this truth early on: “You gave me to him?” she asks Andrew, speaking of Edward. Although Andrew protests, explaining that Edward only spoke of her because he thought a relationship might exist between the two, the ensuing conversation between the men demonstrates their attitude toward women. Every reference the men make to Georgie—and to women in general—show that they believe in a woman as object, not as an individual being, whether she be a protege, a secretary, or a sex symbol. Edward openly acknowledges this, reminding Andrew, “I got clearance from you, pal.” Andrew realizes that the way they are talking about Georgie is wrong. He reminds Edward, and himself, that Georgie “is not some thing we can pass around between us,” but he continues to participate in the conversation, showing that he does not truly believe his own admonition. While it is Edward who openly shows his objectification of Georgie, Andrew’s protests are feeble. For example, when Edward says, “[Y]ou’d prefer that no one else had her?,” Andrew responds to Edward’s use of language—“everything sounds so sleazy coming out of your mouth’’—instead of the message inherent in his words.
The challenge between the men is who will win control of Georgie—under whose domination she will submit. The bet that they make symbolizes this.
Edward: How much time you do you need?
Andrew: I don’t.
Edward: It took me five minutes to get her to come back. How much time do you need to get her to quit again?
Georgie: (Knocking.) Hey, are you guys in there?
Edward: Ten minutes? Will that do?
Andrew: You know, Lydia really is right about you.
Edward: I’ll give you fifteen. That’s ten more than I had. And I’ll bet you, you still can’t do it. How about it, Andrew?
Andrew: I’m not going to bet you
Georgie: (Pounding.) You guys
Edward: You’re on....
This exchange shows the basic relationship between the men: Edward proposes some “sleazy” idea, and Andrew protests, but not enough to put a halt to Edward’s proposition. Indeed, when Georgie enters Andrew’s apartment, Andrew sets about to get her to leave her job. His strategies start off with his promise to be of further assistance to her: “I can get you another job,” he tells her. “Last night I called some people in the department and found some leads.” When that does not work—as Georgie points out “I can take care of myself: I been doing it for years”—Andrew appeals to her emotions. “Last night you said you were in love with me,” he says, implying that because she loves him, she should do what he wants her to. Finally, Andrew resorts to pointing out that she is going out on this date with Edward, and dressing sexy and seductively, in order to make him jealous. Georgie, however, points out that, while she may be hoping to do so, these men render her essentially powerless. “I live in a whole different world from you,” she says. “I’m in the receiver’s position. I do what you guys tell me to: Page 285 | Top of Articlewhether it’s reading books or f------g. I always manage to do what you say. That’s the way we survive.”
Source: Rena Korb, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Kennedy, Louise, Review of Spike Heels, in Boston Globe, May 8, 1993, p. 27.
Klein, Alvin, Review of Spike Heels, in New York Times, Connecticut Edition, November 14, 1993, p. 18.
Pressley, Nelson, Review of Spike Heels, in Washington Times, September 21, 1994, p. C16.
Rich, Frank, Review of Spike Heels, in New York Times, June 5, 1992, p. C3.
Shaner, Madeleine, Review of Spike Heels, in Backstage, December, 1999.
MacKinnon, Catharine, Only Words, Harvard University Press, 1993.
MacKinnon examines sexual harassment and explores the legal issues involved with legislating against it.
_____, Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination, Yale University Press, 1979.
Sexual Harassment of Working Women is one of the first works to identify sexual harassment as a social problem that needs to be addressed.
Phelps, Timothy M., and Helen Winternitz, Capitol Games: Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, and the Story of a Supreme Court Nomination, Hyperion, 1992.
This work is a long and careful look at the Anita Hill case and its effects on American society and politics.