I saw Buzz: A New Musical the other day. I liked it a lot; it was genuinely laugh out loud, had great music, strong actors, a feminist message, and put female characters centre stage to tell their stories. But one thing about the production really bothered me.
Buzz tells the story of Angie, a woman dumped by her boyfriend because he needs space to pursue his rock-band dream (yes, it’s familiar territory, but handled well). She begins a journey of sexual discovery, learning all the aspects of female sexuality she never got round to learning, having spent most of her adult life in unfulfilling relationships. This plot is artfully interwoven with comedic portrayals of female pleasure and sexuality throughout history, from Cleopatra’s bee-driven vibrator, through the hysteria days, to today.
It was all going great. I’d picked Buzz as part of my “Fringe Forecast”, and it seemed the perfect vehicle to explore the under-discussed topic of female sexuality. Then came a scene where Angie’s boyfriend unexpectedly turned up at her flat and wanted to hook up. Angie is uncertain, repeatedly saying she’s not sure it’s a good idea, but the boyfriend is insistent that they should get it on, and spouts the horny bullshit you’d expect in this circumstance. This goes on for a bit. He comes close to her, she backs away.
The production portrays these events with a Will she? Won’t she? It’s getting hot in here! vibe. There are even ensemble members clicking their fingers and winking cheekily to the side. They are jubilant when Angie finally agrees, exclaiming “We’re just animals, anyway, right?” And then she and her boyfriend have very rough sex in a musical number that made the audience blush.
So, what’s the problem? Well, the message of play is that women should embrace their sexual appetites without shame, and without needing a man in order to be satisfied, which is awesome. But the hookup scene depicted seemed to me to border on sexual assault. In a play about feminism, this very rape-y scene is not addressed at all, rather, painted as a moment when a girl saying “no” is portrayed as playing “hard to get”.
Now, I was sitting there in the audience, thinking: This bothers me. But I’m a man, and this is a feminist show about vibrators, and no one else seems uncomfortable. Am I crazy? Perhaps the writer is perfectly aware of the dodgy nature of the scene and deliberately wrote it to portray a type of abusive relationship that is depressingly common. After all, Angie’s inability to get over a man who is the most blatant arsehole since Biff from Back to the Future is both familiar and relatable. But the fact that the play didn’t comment on it at all felt almost as disconcerting as the conversation I had with a male audience member after the show.
“I came out of it thinking, yay, women“, he said.
“Yes,” said I.
“It’s one of those plays that educated you, but not in a preachy way, y’know?”
“Cos normally, I see a play is feminist, and I think oh no, cos they’re gonna beat me over the head with it.”
It occurred to me that perhaps men shouldn’t come out of a feminist musical about vibrators thinking, “I’m glad they didn’t get TOO feminist”, as if we needed to be eased gently into the concept of feminism, like ducklings into a stream.
I think there are two interconnected issues here. First, that Buzz focuses so intently on the discovery of female pleasure, and barely on how men have tried to control and suppress it for centuries. Portraying the boyfriend as a villainous, cheating caricature actually undermines the fact that most women are treated badly by men we would consider “normal” and “nice”.
Secondly, the play should do more to avoid glossing over sexual violation, and certainly not portray it as normal or natural. It’s the same problem we have in James Bond films, where Bond approaches and the woman resists, but Bond insists because, supposedly, she’s secretly into it. This portrayal of assault as romance is so common in our entertainment, that even feminist writers recycle these unhealthy dynamics into their characters.
To be clear, Buzz is a great musical which I recommend. It discusses important issues around female sexuality, proudly showcases female characters who drive the narrative and portrays the history of the vibrator in an entertaining and enlightening way.
I encourage everyone to see Buzz and enjoy it for all the brave, daring things it has to say, while realizing we have a long way to go. Part of understanding that female pleasure is important and should be embraced, is understanding how men abuse, oppress and manipulate women all the time. Perhaps as men, we can stop pretending that we inherently get it, and have the humility to listen to women’s stories, without dismissing them as “preachy”.