Intimate Apparel

by Lynn Nottage

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Examine the theme of feminism in Intimate Apparel.

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I don't think you can understand the play's stance on feminism independent of its stance on race. The main character, Esther, lives a life circumscribed by her identity as black and female. Fiercely independent, Esther earns her living "by her needle," sewing lingerie. The play includes many elements that deal with the issue of feminism:

The boarding house: Esther lives in a boarding house "for women," and she is distinguished from the other residents of the boarding house by staying single and accumulating a cash horde for herself. At the same time, the boarding house is a kind of dead end—short of marriage, there is no place else for Esther to go.

Her clients: Esther works for wealthy white women on the one hand and black prostitutes on the other. In a way, these two classes of people can be understood to represent the boundaries of Esther's life. Since she is neither white nor a prostitute, she inhabits a kind of lonely middle ground, the unattached independent black female.

Marriage: Esther's romantic ambitions are similarly divided between an impossible "good" relationship with the Hasidic shopkeeper and her pen pal George. Significantly, Esther is illiterate and carries on her correspondence with George through intermediaries. She is, in a way, "blind" about George and who he presents himself to be; when he finally pays a visit, he victimizes Esther, exploiting her need for affection by squandering her money.

Dreams: Esther's dream of opening a beauty parlor for black women is an expression of a find of feminist utopia, a place free from the influence of men where women are able to care for each other and celebrate their beauty. Esther's belief that such a place is possible is what drives her forward, even after George's betrayal of her trust.

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