Sexual Violence and #metoo:
Josefina López takes on Bill Cosby in Drunk Girl
2017 will surely go down in history for its monumental strides forward in creating awareness of sexual violence due to #metoo #niunamenos #niunamás and the hashtag’s many other iterations. Some attribute that year’s social media phenomenon to the so-called Weinstein Effect, which apparently served as a catalyst for activism against sexual violence. The social media campaigns harnessed the public rage of other growing movements, such as the Women’s March, which exploded in response to Donald Trump’s claim that his fame gave him permission to grab women by their genitals without asking. #metoo #niunamenos and #niunamás built on a long history of feminist organizing against sexual violence, Weinstein perhaps serving as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Two years before the Weinstein issues came to light, East LA Latina playwright and social activist Josefina López wrote a play about sexual violence called Drunk Girl. Here, I will discuss how her characters’ (and potentially her East LA audience members’) position as victims of sexual assault is further problematized because of the intersectionality involved in being Latina, likely poor, and also potentially undocumented. Many feminists over the past decades have worked toward an understanding of how different subject positions, both visible and invisible, inform each person’s experience, making it impossible to equate “all women.” Below, I will refer specifically to how law scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw explains intersectionality; but even before Crenshaw, Deborah King recognized that women of color faced “multiple jeopardy,” experiencing discrimination on the basis of both race and sex in ways that are different from both black men and white women (King 1988). Later, Latina feminists Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga also recognized the complicated relationship between identity, experience, and structures of power (Moraga and Anzaldúa 2002).
In 2017, media mogul Harvey Weinstein, was officially accused of sexually harassing, assaulting, and raping more than 80 victims, including high-profile actors such as Rosanna Arquette, Daryl Hannah, and Selma Hayek. Weinstein was co-founder of Miramax pictures and a multiple award winner for his Hollywood productions. The so-called “Weinstein Effect” involved many other familiar and popular figures being taken down through public revelations of what happened behind closed doors—#metoo unveiled atrocious abuses of power by men we loved, and allowed, figuratively, into our living rooms and even our bedrooms via television. Matt Lauer, the former Today Show “darling,” reportedly coerced multiple coworkers repeatedly into sexual acts, and had a secret button under his office desk that would strategically lock in his would-be victims, forcing them into sexual relations. Even Kevin Spacey was confronted with inappropriate treatment of a young costar. In recognition of all the stories coming out, Time Magazine named the “Silence Breakers” its 2017 “person of the year.” The New York Times and The New Yorker shared accolades for shedding light on the ongoing problem, winning together the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Despite actors like Catherine Deneuve and more recently Angela Dickinson claiming that the movement was putting a damper on romance, most would agree that stopping sex as a fringe benefit for those in positions of power is a step in the right direction.
While the social media reaction was not quite as thunderous, just two years prior, another beloved figure entered into the public eye as a sexual predator: Everyone’s father, Bill Cosby. Cosby, whom we all knew as the wise, successful, silly, bumbling, and loving patriarch on the eponymous sitcom, was exposed for being responsible for dozens of harassments, assaults, and rapes spanning a period of some 40 years, and using drugs to sedate his victims into submission. Playwright Josefina López confronts the Cosby scandal head on. “In my latest work, ‘Drunk Girl,’ I candidly explore the very serious topic of physical abuse,” she writes. “The current scandal surrounding actor Bill Cosby, who is in headlines around the world, has brought the topic of rape to the forefront, and was the inspiration” (San Fernando Sun 2015).
Taking on difficult issues is at the heart of Josefina López’ work. Her first theatrical success came in 1987 with the critically acclaimed (and PBS nationally-broadcasted) Simply María: or, The American Dream. Since then, López has worked tirelessly to create an artistic space in theatre, film, and other arenas for Latinxs. She is most famous for writing the play and screenplay for the 2002 movie, Real Women Have Curves, but recently, her artistic space, Casa 0101, located in Boyle Heights (which is her own East LA neighborhood, where 56% of the population live below the poverty line), has offered plentiful opportunities for people in the community to display their art in the gallery, participate in writing and painting workshops, learn about costuming, play roles on stage, and celebrate family and cultural events at the adjacent restaurant/bar, Casa Fina. Having come to the US young and without papers, López knows first-hand about the struggles young Latinas face. Her plays deal with many of these challenges: cultural and social expectations, gender bias, machismo, expectations from the Church, fear of being caught by the migra, endurance of abhorrent working conditions, difficult and contentious familial expectations, and more.
Drunk Girl is a 90-minute performance of 16 serious yet sometimes humorous vignettes, each depicting situations involving victims of sexual violence, harassment, rape, and assault. While López wrote most of the sketches, two other playwrights, Lizbeth García and Rocío Díaz, also contributed. Some of the sketches place tragic past events alongside the quotidian: In “Pink Scars,” three different women share stories of being raped at 6, 9, and 16 years old—each describing their painful experiences as they simultaneously relate what they were wearing, how their hair was combed, and discuss whether or not to have pollo loco for lunch. Some of the pieces are hilarious. In “Devil Inside Her” three women at a bar roll eyes about the horrible behavior that ensues when their fourth friend Debbie undergoes a Jeckyl/Hyde transformation if she drinks alcohol, literally turning into a she-devil, chewing off the ear of a suitor at the bar and trying to eat him!
The last sketch, “Let’s Have Sex!” tips the scales into absurdity as the cast members rally into a song-and-dance number, dispelling the words of a politician claiming most accusations of sexual assault and rape to be false:
POLITICIAN: Many women lie about being raped. Because when it’s legitimate rape a vagina shuts down and won’t allow a pregnancy to occur. Too many women change their minds about having a sexual experience and then blame the man. So many men’s lives get ruined by women who cry foul. (López 2015, 52)
The performers sing “Yes, Let’s have sex!” as they parade around the stage, using self-defense moves and banging garbage can lids. The final line of the show proclaims a woman’s right to decide about her own body: “I own my body. I own my mind. I own my feelings. I own my voice. I own my right to be a full human being and the right to live the life I choose free from rape and violence” (López 2015, 53).
Not only are most of the victims in Drunk Girl women; they are also all Latinas. Their ethnic/cultural identities further intersect and problematize their status as victims. During the 2018 movie award season, actor Ashley Judd used the term “intersectionality” in reference to the Weinstein cases, giving the term what may be its first 15 minutes of household fame. The term has existed in academic circles since the nineties when feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw explained the importance of overlapping categories of oppression. The characters in López’ play, suffer violence exponentially because of their intersecting experiences of gender, ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomic status.
In the opening skit, “Life is not a fairy tale,” a Mexican mother gives her daughter a beautiful pink party dress, but then warns her not to go to a dance, fearing she will be drugged and raped. When the daughter shrugs her off, the mother describes a story from her own youth, when she snuck out of her house to go to a dance, and was drugged and raped by none other than the girl’s father. The mother had no choice but to leave her home because of the shame that would have fallen upon her: “I couldn’t get an abortion in Mexico and so I knew I couldn’t continue living in the rancho where my parents lived because they would be shamed into forcing me to marry a man I did not love” (López 2015, 6). The rape derailed this woman’s entire life, ripping her from her traditional family in Mexico and forcing her into a life as a single mother in the unknown United States.
One way that Drunk Girl works against erroneous myths about gender violence and its causes is by repeatedly overturning the rape culture narrative that purports that women are always “asking for it” by the way they dress or dance, or by being drunk. The very title Drunk Girl underlines the many cases of rape that go unreported because of the shame involved (and the weakened credibility) of women who are vulnerable to sexual violence as a result of overindulging in drugs or alcohol.
A related example is a vignette featuring John, who is serving prison time for rape. John is certain his partner had given consent to sex simply because she had not said “no.” He describes how he “knew” she wanted him by the way she dressed and danced:
She was wearing a smoking hot red dress and looked so ready for me to make love to her. We were on the dance floor and she wanted me. I could tell by the way she moved and looked at me that she really wanted to make love to me. I felt like the luckiest guy at the party because I was going to get lucky that night. Her hips moved in a way that told me without a doubt she really wanted me. (López 2015, 18)
This little sketch is probably, theatrically speaking, one of the most successful in Drunk Girl because it underlines visually how perpetrators’ perception of consent contrasts with victims’ reactions to their perpetrators’ advances. While John performs his boastful monologue, a silhouetted pantomime of his narration is enacted in the background. At some point, the actions no longer match his description; they become violent and depict what is clearly a case of rape. John goes on to explain in his monologue that what happened with him and the woman in the red dress couldn’t possibly be rape—he describes being raped in prison and screaming “NO!” with blood and bruises. That, he contends, is rape. Not what happened between him and the woman in the red dress.
Reception and Reviews
In many ways, Drunk Girl reads like a PSA for awareness of sexual violence, quickly jumping from sketch to sketch, leaving many of the topics dangling with no resolution, and often featuring characters that lack depth and dimension. Adding to the “PSA” effect, López even hosted a question and answer session following the final performance of the play, with a panel of speakers that included cast members and community experts, making the event seem more like an educational/support group activity rather than a play.
LA Weekly’s theatre critic Jenny Lower finds it problematic that only a superficial treatment of each incident happens before the play skips on to the next episode. In addition, she points out that the fact that the show is not “remotely depressing” is a weakness. She thinks that the topic of sexual violence should be addressed in a less comedic way (Lower 2015). There is nothing funny about rape culture—and the use of humor stands in stark contrast to the brutal gravity of sexual violence.
However, Drunk Girl does address the intersectional problematics associated with López’s characters, whose sociocultural location and ethnic identity often inhibits them from coming forward or dealing retroactively with their painful victimhood. The play encourages and actually invites conversation on a difficult and frequently avoided topic: sexual violence. If an upper-middle class, highly educated white woman such as Christine Blasey Ford could be publicly humiliated, challenged, and even have her life threatened for describing an alleged rape while a teenager by now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the Latinas from Drunk Girl (and in the real world) will likely suffer all the more for their abuse being doubted and dismissed.
Josefina López encourages victims of sexual violence to come forward and conversations to occur. Her play Drunk Girl is an artistic endeavor that seeks to change the rhetoric surrounding sexual violence, recognizing the agency of perpetrators committing crimes. Though staged before the #metoo social media campaign, Drunk Girl certainly was born of the same frustration and impetus that drove feminists to push for the awareness of sexual violence garnered through that movement. If playwright López has her way, drunk girls should not have to encounter sexual violence, and nor should women in tight clothing, children, or old women—and this applies whether women are Latina or not, or residents of East LA or elsewhere. If women are the victims of sexual violence, then they should have the chance to bring their assailants to justice. To reiterate the last line of Lopez’ play, “I own my body. I own my mind. I own my feelings. I own my voice. I own my right to be a full human being and the right to live the life I choose free from rape and violence” (López 2015, 53).
San Fernando Sun. 2015. “Casa 0101 Theater Presents Drunk Girl.” October 8, 2015. http://www.sanfernandosun.com/news/article_91555e8c-6dca-11e5-b344-db8fcb8cbb97.html.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6: 1241- 1299.
King, Deborah K. 1988. “Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology.” Signs 14 (1): 42.
López, Josefina. 2014. “Boyle Heights: Immigrants Enrich.” TEDx Video. https://youtu.be/RGgoICmtCic.
------. 2015. Drunk Girl. Unpublished manuscript.
Lower, Jenny. 2015. “Drunk Girl isn’t Even Remotely Depressing About Rape, and Here’s Why.” LA Weekly, September 29, 2015. https://www.laweekly.com/arts/drunk-girl-isnt-remotely-depressing-about-rape-and-heres-why-6096726.
Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa. 2002. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Berkeley, CA: Third Woman Press.
Reyes, Paul A. 2017. “In Her Neighborhood, Playwright Josefina López Creates a ‘Casa’ for the Performing Arts.” NBC News Latino. May 7, 2017. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/her-l-neighborhood-playwright-josefina-lopez-creates-casa-performing-arts-n755411.