This year OCR included a question about the presentation of women in Butterworth’s play. In a play which is so masculine, the women can seem semi-peripheral – after all around Johnny Byron, everyone is somewhat reduced in presence.
I don’t want to write a model response to this question, but I thought some ideas might be useful to point students in the direction of a response.
Taken in turn, the women emerge as certain types: Fawcett – powerful and dominant and a threat to Johnny’s idea of his future; Pea and Tanya – not just comic relief, but having to tone down their femininity in order to fit in; Dawn -the mother of Johnny’s child and still struggling with motherhood despite having a new partner. She seems trapped by her child and by her fascination with Johnny and his drugs; Phaedra -victim, yes, but whose?
Fawcett: from the outset, Fawcett is caught between femininity and the need to project something beyond her fundamental power due to her position. Her first interaction with Parsons and Johnny shows her as powerful and commanding, yet also needing to apply her make up and later to look good for the camera. Parsons assumes that she needs protection – “we can cut that out” – rather than simply helping her to address Johnny in the manner required. She is in charge and she is trying hard to show it. Recently, studies of women in power and the perceptions of them have shown a marked difference in response to female authoritarians when compared to men – women are “shrill, strident bitches” whereas men show authority: what we call women
It’s also clear that Johnny, who has little respect for anyone, sees Fawcett as someone who he needs to belittle. There is humour in the Jack in the Beanstalk story of wandering hands in the stalls, but it hides another aspect of the unfair attitude to women shown by the patriarchy: Johnny’s sexual conquests are seen as heroic and as an aspect of his character which amuses and impresses the gathered group of “onlookers”. Fawcett may have had an affair – the only evidence is the male’s wandering hands – yet Johnny uses this to attack her and to put her on the defensive.
This trait is seen in Pea and Tanya as well. The two teenage friends first emerge from under the caravan covered in shit – much innocent humour ensues as they try to identify the animal. Gradually we see them as a pair but with one crucial difference. Tanya seems obsessed with the idea of giving Lee a “free one” before he goes. It is as though her friendship is focused on achieving a “masculine” attitude to casual sex. Interestingly Lee seems embarrassed by this and the audience pick up on the difficulty implied by a teenage girl who needs to use sex as a bartering tool for friendship. Conversely, Pea does not engage with this banter at all. She then becomes the victim of Troy’s vile sexist abuse – his use of sexual lexis is designed to scare and embarrass a girl who seems innocent. It develops my thinking that he is a threat to Phaedra and to all innocent girls – a male who lust to desecrate purity is different to an amoral philanderer and these two allow the audience to pick up a crucial difference between Troy and Johnny.
In the deeply patriarchal woods, sex is the domain of the male – animal and predatory alike. Women are not seen as more than sexual objects of desire. However for Tanya to wish to act on her desire is enough for her to be an object of comedy – it is the pure “feminine” of Pea and Phaedra that is at risk of being defiled.
Dawn is of a different group. we know little of the past relationship, yet it is clear by her use of Johnny’s real forename and of her care for him that there has been genuine affection between the two and that Marky is not simply the product of physicality alone – at least on Dawn’s part. As ever, Johnny is enigmatic and is quick to use his power – “look into my eyes” – to achieve control over Dawn. This is woman in thrall to man. Dawn is trapped by her motherhood and her feminine gender in this man’s world. Marky is an obstacle to her new relationship and a link to a past she would be better off without. In the course of a single day she is let down by Johnny, takes drugs with him and then fails to keep Marky safe at the fair – he is able to wander off to the woods in Act 3 – the next generation of males is shown as swiftly moving away from his mother and seeming to cope well. It is not clear, as he leaves the clearing in Act 3, where he is going – back to his mother may just as well refer to Nature – a wild “Byron boy”- as to Dawn.
Finally Phaedra. She is a victim of unwanted masculine sexual aggression. As the Queen of the Fair she is objectivised as a sexual object despite her youth. Indeed for many of the men who comment and who we assume saw her that day, her youth and innocence is the prime attraction for many, as Johnny is quick to point out to Troy – “is she in your dreams, boy?” Much of the text engages in tales of sexual congress and the notion of under-age sex is rife – Johnny and Wesley share the memory of losing their virginity at the age of 12.
What Phaedra introduces is the grey area between societal response and reality. No one knows what has happened. Much sexual abuse is undertaken by men known to the girls they prey upon. It is rarer for the abuser to be outside the family unless the internet is being used to groom the victim. This is not the case here. Yet we tend to assume that Johnny must be in the wrong since she is in his caravan. There is no direct evidence. For me, Phaedra is used by Butterworth partly to focus on the issue of underage relationships as opposed to actual physical abuse. She seems mature and dominates the short scene with Johnny prior to his branding – she leads him on, not sexually, but with a quiet assurance. Troy has already shown himself to be a vile sexual bigot in his treatment of Pea, it seems fair to assume that the innocent and fragile Phaedra is precisely the sort of young girl on whom he might prey. Johnny will bed half the adult female population of the town in the amoral manner of the alpha male leader of a pack of dogs. I am not sure that the women who pay for his services as a decorator are victims, they know full well what they are letting themselves in for. Phaedra has not reached this age and should not be needing to seek shelter from her step-father. She is still young and fragile – a child and a child who needs a St. George to protect her.