Structure of the Play

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Last Updated on May 20, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1577

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. A playbill for the Second Stage Theatre production of Spike Heels.

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 transsexuality (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 definitely 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. Barnhisel holds a Ph.D. in American literature.

Power Feminism

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Last Updated on May 20, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1605

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 have 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 a 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. Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina.

Battle of the Sexes

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Last Updated on May 20, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 780

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: whether 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.

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Critical Overview