Tracy Lett’s play “August: Osage County” is a modern play that covers the story of what happens to a family when the father goes missing. After the disappearance of Beverly Weston, his family is brought back together after having gone their separate ways. With the reunion comes old wounds and the drama ensues. Barbara returns from Colorado with her husband and daughter, and attempts to hide that her marriage is crumbling and that her daughter is rebelling against her by using drugs. It turns out that Barbara’s mother, Violet, has become a drug addict, abusing prescription drugs to deal with her recent development of mouth cancer. From screaming arguments to incest and sexual assault, the play is filled with family tension and unspoken (but soon to be told) secrets. At the end of the day, it seems that once the darkest secrets have been revealed to the world, the characters find themselves alone and fending for themselves.
Although the play takes place in 2007, at times it seems incredibly backwards in the actions of the characters as well as the themes that we often believe don’t exist in families in today’s world. Through the eyes of the feminist literary theory, this play can easily be seen as a negative in regards to positive female interaction and depiction. While mother/daughter themes are rampant throughout the play, they are all extremely negative and often aggressive and violent. The play itself is predominantly a female cast, and the male roles are minimal or only displayed as antagonistic characters. But none of the women are easy to cheer for because as soon as they showed a sympathetic side, they quickly followed it up with nasty, derogatory comments to each other.
One of the most complex characters of the story is the mother of the central family, Violet Weston. She’s recently discovered she has mouth cancer and to retaliate against the pain, she has become addicted to prescription drugs. On the level of pro-feminist, she is a very independent character who sees through the lies and mess of people and society. At one point, she’s talking with her sister Mattie Fae and her daughter Ivy about how in reality, women lose all appeal once they get older and that men will only ever be attracted to younger women. In response to why that means she won’t wear a certain pair of shoes, she responds, “Even if I didn’t fall on my face, can you imagine anything less attractive, my swollen ankles and varicose veins?” This is both a calling out of what is perceived as attractive, as well as showing that she believes that this is a determining factor of her clothing choices. Feminists typically fight against the idea that women (or men) should choose their clothing based purely on how society will perceive them. Swollen ankles and varicose veins can be common aspects of growing older, and because it doesn’t fall under the stereotypically thin and beautiful desired image of women, society scorns it and urges older women to dress conservatively so that we can’t see those physical changes. So while Violet understands get that there is a “problem” and that she would be looked down upon for wearing something that shows her natural human body aging, she doesn’t fight against it and conforms to societal pressures of what she should wear.
Earlier in the play Violet also mentions what appears to be a stereotype of women’s appearance when she remarks to Ivy, “Your shoulders are slumped and your hair’s all straight and you don’t wear makeup. You look like a lesbian.” With feminism, both literary theory and the modern belief, there is the concept of open sexuality—not defining a person by his or her gender. Here, Violet is pushing the societal norm of what a lesbian should supposedly look like. She’s claiming that these traits, such as poor posture and a lack of makeup or hair styling, translate to defining Ivy as a lesbian. In reality, and an argument pushed hard by feminists, is that you’re a lesbian only if you are sexually attracted to a woman. Clothing choices or anything related to attire are simply personal choice and do not define one’s sexuality. It’s in this scene that Violet proves herself to be from an older generation of ideals as well as a part of our society that looks at sexuality through a narrow viewfinder.
A common tool of feminist critical theory is the use of the Bechdel Test. The test is most often applied to movies (a place where female representation is painfully limited) but can also be applied to TV shows and plays. It focuses on three simple points. Are there at least two named women? Do the women talk to each other? And if so, do they talk about something other than a man? In retrospect to the play, it passes the test with flying colors. The cast is female-dominated and many of their issues revolve around themselves, not just with the men in their lives. However there is still a central theme that focuses on a man’s disappearance as well as many of the marital problems and secrets involving the men. However the role of male-related topics is kept to a minimum, which allows the women to focus on themselves and the issues they have with each other. However, passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t determine how good the female relationships are. One could argue that any interaction can be seen as positive, but the interaction in this play is so negative that is most likely more detrimental than good. Overall, there is not a single positive female/female or mother/daughter relationship throughout the story. There are moments of bonding but more fighting quickly breaks them up. The danger of this is that when something bad happens to one of the women, “she gets what’s coming to her,” and the audience cheers. At one point, in between the swearing at each other, the audience laughed when some of the women were humiliated in front of the others. Where is the female power in this? Do we really want to have women portrayed as purely villainous while their husbands remain passive aggressive victims? There is a looming danger to presenting women in only a negative light and negates years of effort to producing strong, positive female characters on both the stage and on screen.
There is also one small scene in the play that features a big issue that feminists across the board are fighting against. The attempted sexual assault of Jean, Barbara’s daughter, perpetuates the concept of society’s rape culture; both in the actual act as well as Barbara’s sister, Karen’s attempt to blame Jean for it. Karen is so distraught that it’s her fiancé-to-be, Steve, who attacked Jean that she lies to herself in an attempt to convince herself that she can still achieve her happy ending. Her lashing out at Jean and claiming that maybe it wasn’t “entirely one-sided,” is her attempt to push the blame off of her fiancé, and onto Jean the victim. Similar to the recent Ohio Steubenville Rape Case, this is a case where it’s too uncomfortable for people to singularly place the blame on the perpetrator(s). The idea of ruining one man, Steve (or in the Ohio case, two young male teens) is too difficult for us to imagine. Society struggles with accepting that these men are fully aware of their actions and that they ignored the lack of consent from the victim’s side. Jean repeatedly pushes Steve away, calling him a “perv” and forcibly telling him no. But he ignores her and forces himself on her. And though the audience is able to witness this, and it is even described to the family by Johnna, the family’s young maid, Karen refuses to accept that her fiancé has full responsibility for his actions. Instead she blames Jean, insisting that somehow she had a part in this. The horror of victim blaming in cases of rape continues saying that women are at fault in some way, often leaving them to be shamed by society. It’s too difficult for some people to accept that men have that much power and need for sexual power, and they instead find blame in the female victims to fuel the idea that women should learn how not to be raped, rather than to teach men not to rape.
Overall, “August: Osage County” is a riveting, sardonic black humor play. There’s subtle humor to the dialogue amongst the screaming and swearing. Maybe we’re laughing because we see a bit of our own dysfunctional families in the Weston family. Unfortunately even the high percentage of female characters can’t disguise the fact that the women are horribly represented in the story making this play fail in the eyes of feminist critical theory. Openness to sexuality is looked down upon through the mocking of Ivy, as well as the pressuring women into what should be their traditional roles based on society’s expectations. There’s not a single positive female character within the story, but instead come across as fearsome, wicked women who make us cheer for their shortcomings. The family accepts rape culture rather than realizing the danger that Steve presented to fourteen-year-old Jean. As a whole, the play is cringe-worthy to watch as a feminist. The reunion brought about by the disappearance of the father could have reunited the women of the Weston family. Instead as their dark secrets came to light, the family continued to struggle under the weight of broken family ties and the shattered female relationships.