On Sunday, November 18, I attended the play “Back the Night” written by Melinda Lopez. The play depicts the painful story of two young college students and their broader community as they cope with surviving assault in their own unique roles. The two characters, Em and Cassie, experience assault in different ways and eventually find their own methods of empowerment. Cassie is described as a queer social justice activist, who sustains an injury from an unknown assailant and posts about the instance on her blog, where it quickly becomes a social media sensation. Cassie’s attack sparks a social movement towards the end of fraternities on the college campus as well as greater respect for women. Em is quieter and feels conflicted over her relationship with fraternity member Brandon, who initially seems to be more kind and thoughtful than the “frat boy” stereotype. At the beginning of the play, Em does not recognize her assault as being committed against her will, in order to lessen her trauma. As the play progresses, however, Em begins to cope with the mixture of emotions surrounding her experience – including self-hatred, traumatic memories, and sadness at the situation.
For me, this play was eye-opening in multiple ways. I had never fully realized the role of the toxic societal norm of teaching our daughters to avoid being sexually assaulted rather than teaching our sons not to commit sexual assault in my own life. I didn’t realize how pervasive this ideology had become in my own life – I rarely walk alone at night, and make the instinctive choice to call someone or text when I am leaving a particular location. I scan parking lots before walking out to my car, and I have experienced the fear and discomfort that comes from unwanted male attention. I remember walking to lunch during a Model United Nations conference with some girlfriends at age fourteen and being casually and vulgarly catcalled while crossing the street. When I got my driver’s license at sixteen, my mother and I had a conversation about how men enjoy yelling at a young girl in a convertible and what to do if someone started to follow me. I never truly saw these actions as what they are – the actions of a human being who feels more like prey in her own community – until the play pointed out the correlation between women being “safe” and women being “scared.” I was struck by the terrifying universality of my experiences and the way I had been taught to ignore these acts for self-preservation. Would I have received the same explicit warnings against committing any of these acts if I had been born male? Nearly every woman has had an experience in which she feels the same fear, and this fact fills me with a complex mixture of emotions. Much like Cassie, I feel anger and want to help to create a world in which this experience is less common. Despite this, I also connect with Em’s distrust of the effort to help the abstract “Women” without any concrete goals, and like Em, I believe in the importance of helping one person in order to create a broader change. I believe that (at least in my interpretation) the two female leads in the play express the duality of female experience and desire for change. Another eye-opening aspect of the play was the fluid nature of truth expressed within the narrative. There is ambiguity as to whether or not Cassie was truly attacked by another student, and Em struggles with this ambiguity while coping with the remaining trauma from her own assault. The ambiguity of the situation, and the idea that positive change could result from a movement possibly based in a false premise was striking to me – how exactly could this be rationalized as a positive, not self-serving action? This ambiguity expresses the nature of sexual assault allegations and their role in our society – the audience moves from believing that Cassie is telling the truth, to suspicion of her statements, back to believing that something happened to her. This caused me to investigate my preconceptions surrounding the Me Too movement and other similar movements that have developed recently – at what point does the “Believe women” idea become carte blanche? How can justice be served to survivors of assault in a respectful manner? These are questions that I continue to study, but would not have considered without the play.
I also stayed after the play for the actor’s panel in concert with the Davidson Rape Awareness Committee, which provided further insight into the roles of the actors and their connections to the play and the characters. One interesting point expressed in that conversation was the idea of the “monolithic Theta” in the play, with a single fraternity representing the failings with the entire system and all of the assaults that had occurred on the fictional campus. This conglomerate was critiqued as being insufficient to portray the nuances of experiences with fraternities, and caused me to think on my own views towards the fraternity system. For me, I do agree that the social norms and traditions surrounding the fraternity system can be highly toxic – hazing of new members and a complicity with sexual assault in order to protect one’s “brothers” seems unjust. However, I do agree that individual members and even organizations at a particular university could be completely different from the broader perceptions.