Bedtime Stories for Girls at The Butterfly Club is an ‘acid reflection of the cartoonish femininity imposed on women’, says Robert Reid
Bed Time Stories for Girls presents teenagers as monsters. Terrible, heartless, destructive, sniggering, screaming monsters.
Genevieve Atkins’ new one act play, presented at The Butterfly Club as part of their One Act Play Festival, stages the social rituals of prepubescent and early teenage girls. The short work exposes these behaviours as machines that grind the girls into the shapes demanded of them by patriarchy and, if they refuse or can’t fit into those shapes, grinds them out of existence.
Of course, the girls presented here aren’t real girls. They’re hyper-real characterisations, acid reflections of the cartoonish femininity imposed on women as their identities are forming, unrelentingly superficial and designed to erase the individuality of the real. It’s cruel and withering in performance and writing. Like all monsters, they are exaggerations to illustrate the horrors of the real world.
Four unnamed girls shriek their way into a sleepover and enact the roles they’ve already begun to learn from tv, school, teen magazines, Barbie dolls and their mothers. They excoriate their friends and enemies from the playground in absentia, sharing gossip and starting rumours about who’s too thin, who’s too fat, who’s ugly, who’s a lesbian, who’s a slut. They play out carefully structured hierarchies and almost immediately establish status amongst their group based on popularity.
The sleepover progresses within the first few minutes from who likes who most, to discussing nascent masturbation experiences, with attendant “ewws” and condemnations of “that’s dirty”. Other girls argue that it’s not dirty and, even if it is, who cares ‘cause it feels good. Tellingly, the strongest of these opinions are shaped by their mothers, as the shame and fear of their own bodies is passed from generation to generation, and it’s the most popular of the four, the “alpha” girl, who is most vocal in her revulsion.
The sleepover progresses through rituals of beautification, combing hair and doing make-overs, which function equally as rituals of exclusion and as reinforcements of heteronormative body and beauty standards. Even the simple, childlike play of these girls is anything but, as everything is balanced on a knife-edge of social capital. Who’s in and who’s out shifts from moment to moment, usually at the discretion of the leader of the group, a nasty preening heather of a girl who uses her popularity as a weapon.
The night flirts around the edges of violence and there is a constant undertone of sex, breathless, giggling and fragile. They dance and sing and chug vodka (Absolut, so someone’s parents has enough money for the middle of the road stuff) until they become drunk and sick and the alpha, who can’t hold her booze, hurks at the front of the stage. I expect the girls to find her and laugh – they’ve already been so horrible and this seems like a great opportunity to take the alpha down a peg – but instead they hold her hair and put her to bed on all the pillows, swaddling her in a sheet. Monsters caring for the head monster among them.
A sexuality like broken glass pervades their discussion of individual boys they like, what they don’t like about boys (they’re dumb and they like gross stuff like fighting and sweating) and the inevitable game of truth or dare. Confusedly uninformed ideas about menstruation and pregnancy are discussed with wide-eyed awe and summed up as gross. The girls hope they never grow up, never get pregnant, never get breasts, even as they aspire to have thin bodies and perfect figures and kissable mouths. Those who don’t conform are held to ridicule for being criers, babies and lesbians.
There’s no relief from the terribleness of these girl monsters, though there are moments of pathos when my heart goes out to those outside the magic circle. Their gossip becomes increasingly personal and their play increasingly physical. A discussion of who’s anorexic turns physical on one of the girls when they hold her down and force feed her snake lollies. She begs to be let go and they explain that they can’t let her go because they care about her. Because they’re worried for her.
As the night grows long and dark their discussion becomes more focused on who’s having sex and how to have it. Barbie dolls get pregnant and are forced into having a series of abortions. Dolly and Cleo magazines describe in graphic detail how to give a blow job. Personal secrets of the girls are outed and crescendo in a terrible act of violence. But throughout they smile and remind each other insincerely how much they love each other and how they’ll be friends for ever.
The downstairs room of the Butterfly Club is a difficult one for theatre; the seating makes for difficult sight lines, especially as much of the sleepover takes place lying on the floor, and the acoustics swallow the voices of the girls a little, muffling them in pillows on the ground and the empty air above. Nevertheless, all four of the performers have boundless energy and push the frenzy of the late night confessions and rites of passage out over the sound of patrons feet in the bar above.
I’m told that teenagers at this age are still developing their understanding of other people. They struggle with their pain and egos but aren’t capable of fully recognising the pain of others. I can’t say how true this is, but it fits my recollection of the unhappy days I spent as a teen: they become weaponised humans, designed to carve the softness out of each other in order to survive in the unkind future ahead of them.
I wouldn’t be a teen again for a million dollars.
Bedtime Stories for Girls, by Genevieve Atkins, directed by Kate Cameron, assistant directed by Sandy Whittem, lighting by Jason Crick, sound designer/composition by Josh Cake. Performed by Chanel Rodway, Natalie Fenwick, Serena Meltzer and Genevieve Atkins. At the Butterfly Club. Until Saturday March 2. Bookings
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