There were ten men in an audience of about a hundred at How To Date a Feminist, a new play by Samantha Ellis (the author of How To Be a Heroine) at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston. As a feminist, I was naturally curious to find out what it means to date me. But it quickly became clear that the feminist in question in Ellis’s play is a man.
Steve is down on one knee and about to propose to his girlfriend Kate when he says: “Before you say anything, I want to apologize for the patriarchy . . . . Don’t laugh. I just think if we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together, we don’t want to have that hanging over us”. He goes on to mention female genital mutilation, domestic violence and unequal pay.
In a flashback to their first kiss, Steve asks “May I kiss you?”, and then, “May I kiss you with my tongue?” While Kate gets increasingly irritated, he explains that he’s looking for “explicit verbal consent”. We learn that Steve, a baker, grew up on Greenham Common and was raised by a fiercely feminist single mother. After the proposal, his mother asks him if he apologized for the patriarchy – a suggestion of hers. Kate, meanwhile, grew up with an “old-fashioned” Jewish Israeli father whose wife left him after reading Germaine Greer. He encourages Kate to “wear dresses and heels – to look more like a woman”.
Kate is the only female journalist on her news desk, and confesses to Steve that she likes lipstick, cupcakes and “bad guys” such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Steve declares that he wants to change her, and “save her from all of that”; and so the couple plan their wedding. (The only songs they can think of are inappropriate: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”, “Will you still love me tomorrow?” and “Love will tear us apart”.)
The acting is outstanding. Sarah Daykin (Kate) and Tom Berish (Steve) play all the roles, including Kate’s father, Steve’s mother, Kate’s promiscuous, macho ex-boyfriend and Steve’s former lover, who still shares an allotment with his mother. Scene changes are just a question of moving the furniture around, and costume changes take place on stage too.
At the wedding, Kate’s father and Steve’s mother hit it off despite their different world views; they kiss on the dance floor and leave the party together. Their children are in shock. “He just grabs what he wants!”, Steve says of Kate’s father. “She wanted it! And sometimes I wish you could grab what you want”, Kate retorts. “Make decisions, choose wine, open doors, drive a car, use a drill, eat steak, be a bit rapey when we go to bed.” She immediately retracts that last bit, but it’s too late: “You’re not the person I thought you were”, he says, abandoning her just an hour after their exchange of vows. Kate is comforted by her father, while Steve goes back to his boring ex-girlfriend.
Droning on about the patriarchy, it seems, does not a feminist make. Steve’s feminism turns out to be a narrow interpretation of his mother’s, and manifests itself mainly as mansplaining the concept to Kate.
Below that veneer of self-righteousness, he doesn’t seem to stand for anything in particular; he doesn’t even treat the women in his life particularly well. Kate’s job and personality, meanwhile, say more about her than do her literary crushes – but the picture is nuanced: we wince slightly when she confesses that she has taken a whole day off work to get ready for a date.
The question of what it means to be a feminist – and in particular what it means to be a male feminist – looms large throughout the play. I have yet to encounter a type like Steve, who struck me as a caricature, but in presenting him to us Ellis underlines what we all ought to know: that feminism is – or should be – integral to a person’s moral compass, not some auxiliary feature of it.
How To Date a Feminist will be showing at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, on October 21, and at Watford Palace Theatre on November 4.
Originally published in the Times Literary Supplement on 20 October 2016: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/how-to-date-a-feminist/