How do I write an essay about sexual harassment in Oleanna? How Mamet has used language/ experience/ allegory/ society to relate with sexual harassment? How do I break down the argument of Oleanna...

How do I write an essay about sexual harassment in Oleanna? How Mamet has used language/ experience/ allegory/ society to relate with sexual harassment? How do I break down the argument of Oleanna in textual evidence?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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An interesting approach to write about regarding the sexual harassment in Oleanna is to discuss it in terms of what it means to have power.  The drama shows how sexual harassment is a condition of power, and it has as much to do with power as much as anything else.  In Act I, Carol sits in John's office and lacks power.  She is unable to understand the world in which she operates, a world in which John and others operate with ease:  

"Nobody tells me anything.  And I sit there … in the corner.  In the back.  And everybody’s talking about “this” all the time.  And “concepts,” and “precepts” and, and, and, and, and, WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?  And I read your book.  And they said, “Fine, go in that class.”  Because you talked about responsibility to the young.  I DON’T KNOW WHAT IT MEANS AND I’M FAILING…"

Carol lacks power in the First Act.  She does not come to John's office because of a Socratic notion of wishing to enhance an intellectual dialogue.  She lacks the language to even participate in it.  This is seen in the fact that the language between both John and Carol is stilted and interrupted.  The only coherent element relayed is that Carol is completely lost in the course and everyone else speaks a language foreign to her:

No.  No.  There are people out there.  People who came here.  To know something they didn’t know.  Who came here.  To be helped.  To be helped.  So someone would help them.  To do something.  To know something.  To get, what do they say?  “To get on in the world.”  How can I do that if I don’t, if I fail?  But I don’t understand.  I don’t understand.  I don’t understand what anything means … and I walk around.  From morning ‘til night: with this one thought in my head.  I’m stupid.

It is clear that the background in which sexual harassment operates is one in which language has failed to authenticate voice.  The result is that there a striking lack of power.  Mamet depicts a world in which sexual harassment takes place as one where someone speaks from a position that lacks power against a structure that fails to understand and account for such power imbalances.  John fails to validate Carol's condition.  This is seen in his language that fails to authentically her situation and in the constant interruptions with the phone.  If Carol is shown as someone who needs to be taught and needs restoration of an unequal power condition, than John is someone who "needs an answering machine." 

The opening act clearly establishes the background for sexual harassment. Sexual harassment has become the result of a power inequality.  In writing a paper about sexual harassment in the drama, I think that one has to speak about how the lack of communication between both Carol and John.  Sexual harassment emerges because neither side understands the other.  Neither side is able to make a conscious attempt to move past their own limitations enhances by lexical ambiguity and find a realm in which power can be restored as an equally participatory and shared element.  Writing a paper on sexual harassment would have to include the initial power relationship between both Carol and John.

Mamet's depiction of sexual harassment is one where Carol seeks to find a refuge from feeling "stupid."  It is in this where power is flipped in her accusation.  The power relationship in the First Act is inverted in the subsequent acts.  Writing a paper on sexual harassment has to include this particular process detailing, as well.  

It is through the accusation of sexual harassment that Carol is able to establish some semblance of power.  As Act II begins, John lacks the language to understand what is happening:  "I asked you here to ... in the spirit of investigation, to ask you ... to ask ... (Pause) What have I done to you? (Pause) And, and, I suppose, how I can make amends."  In this, John lacks the language to articulate the world around him.  He pleads to Carol in much the same way she pled to him in Act I.  In much the same way the woman begged for validation, the man begs her for validation.  

Sexual harassment becomes the tool in which power scales are balanced out. Yet, the restoration of power does not create a setting where both parties are understood and validated. Rather, it creates a setting where both people hurt and both parties suffer. Carol has been able to develop a stronger grasp of language and John begins the process to lack such language.  Yet, the reality is that neither is closer to understanding one another.  Power is not shown to be a quantity that is shared.  Sexual harassment has been used to establish power at the cost of another.  Neither one still understands the other.  Whereas the lack of communication was intellectual and academic in the previous act, in the subsequent acts, the lack of communication exists in legal and social realms.

Such a reality is extended into the final act.  Carol's power has extended into the realm of language when she repudiates John for calling his wife "baby." The turn on language is significant.  It was language that initiated the power imbalance. Now, it is language that causes action to transcend language. John repudiates this language of "political correctness."  When John lifts the chair over Carol and beats her, it is almost a primal expression of power that seeks to move past language. The very same language that John used in the opening of the drama has now abandoned him, complete in the derogatory terms regarding women he uses to describe her.  

In writing a paper about sexual harassment in Oleanna, I think that showing how language changes in terms of who controls it becomes critical.  The role of language as a shifting reality that different individuals are able to appropriate for their own power is critical.  Sexual harassment becomes another form of language in which one seeks to appropriate for purposes of power.  The final words in which Carol says, "That's right" is a moment of lexical ambiguity. There is an absolute judgment, but the scope of it remains unclear.  In the final analysis, this is where the audience is left in understanding the reality of sexual harassment.  Language has been created in the hopes of restoring balances of power, only to find that someone else is "the outsider" and inclusive models of sharing power and control are still denied.

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