Sexual Repression and Heterosexual Normalization in Spring Awakening

By Logan Smith

 

Editor’s Note: This issue features essays written by students in FG110 Introduction to Feminist and Gender Studies taught by Dr. Heidi R. Lewis in Block 3. FG110 teaches students how to examine, power, inequality, and privilege along the lines of gender, sexuality, race, socioeconomic status, age, physicality, and other social, cultural, and political markers using multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary approaches. These essays respond to Spring Awakening, a Tony-award winning show set in the 19th century about a group of adolescents navigating the complexities of sexuality in an era where they have limited access to information,  hosted by Performing Arts at CC and Music, Theatre, & Dance.

 

 

 

Spring Awakening emphasizes the repercussions that come as a result of the clinging to the “innocence” of teenagers so much so that their ignorance and sexual repression creates extremely toxic and unsafe situations. The show emphasizes the dangers that come as a result of sheltering teenagers from issues of sex and sexuality through shame—giving us situations of suicide, rape, teenage pregnancy (followed by a dangerous abortion) and homelessness.

In the textbook, Everyday Women’s and Gender Studies Introductory Concepts edited by Ann Braithwaite and Catherine M. Orr, sociologist Jyoti Puri writes about a nation’s monitoring of citizens’ sexualities in her piece “Sexuality, State and Nation.” She writes, “Nationalism’s greatest impact on matters of sexuality is by defining what is normal and abnormal, what is respectable and what is deviant” (Puri 286). We are shown instances of this in the show in the scenes that take place at school. Throughout the show, the adult figures are shown trying to control everything that the teenagers read, learn and think about.  They are shown what is “respectable” and “normal” through the actions of the adults in their lives. Their parents and instructors teach them that in order to be considered good citizens, they must live their lives in the ways they are expected to, prioritizing faith and schoolwork over everything else.

Because issues of sex and sexuality are never addressed by the adult figures in the show, the teenagers create their own assumptions and ideas on these topics based on what they witness and begin to consider “normal.” There is a moment towards the beginning of the show where a group of teenage girls are talking about who their husbands might be when they grow older. They address their crushes and talk about how it might be to marry them—which is the only form of sexual expression that is made visible through their parents. Braithwaite and Orr’s textbook also includes “Privilege” by Devon W. Carbado where they quote Keith Boykin explaining that, “heterosexual sexual orientation has become so ingrained in our social custom, so destigmatized of our fears about sex, that we often fail to make any connection between heterosexuality and sex” (Carbado 142). While sex as an act is stigmatized and rarely acknowledged, hetero-normative performance

is often openly displayed. Carbado says that, “This socially constructed normalcy of heterosexuality is not due solely to the desexualization of heterosexuality in mainstream political and popular culture. It is due also to the sexualization of heterosexuality as normative and to the gender-norm presumptions about heterosexuality—that it is the normal way sexually to express one’s gender” (Carbado 143).

With the limited information they have about sexuality and sex, the teenagers in the show begin to make assumptions based solely on what their society indicates as being normal and what is not. These assumptions lead to ill-informed decisions, like having unprotected sex without knowing that pregnancy might be a consequence, and unhealthy and toxic repressions of sexuality that lead to depression and eventually suicide for one character.

Spring Awakening is a cautionary tale about how the consequences of sexual repression manifest themselves. Every drastic consequence in the show—Wendla’s death, Moritz’s suicide, Ilse’s homelessness—can be tied back to the sexual repression that the adults in the show inflict. It is painful to realize that all of these consequences could have been prevented, had the parents and teachers in the show taken a second to sexually educate their children.

 

 

 

Queer People of Color in Sausage Party

theresaBy Carlie Gustafson

One of the issues that came up quickly while watching Sausage Party was the depiction of Teresa (the taco) as an intensely sexualized woman of color. But while I continued watching the movie, this depiction became only part of the issue, as her character simultaneously perpetuated the idea of queer aggression while reducing her character to simple heterosexual eroticism of lesbian relationships. In this way, it remains clear that queer people of color are threatening to the straight while male culture, which is why they are often reduced to a fetish.

The idea of eroticizing women of color is not new. In “Racialized and Colonial Bodies,” Margo DeMello writes, “Even today, non-white women are often thought to be more sexual, erotic, and exotic than white women” (87). Teresa is clearly depicted in a much more sexualized way than Brenda (the bun). For example, Teresa is initially introduced as a sexy character, but once her sexual desire for Brenda was revealed, it became her defining characteristic, whereas the other characters have more depth. As described by Devon W. Carbado in “Privilege,” her “homosexuality signifies ‘difference’ – more specifically, sexual identity distinctiveness” (142). This distinction is enough to define her character, whereas heteronormative characters are afforded something more to describe them.

On top of the fact that she is eroticized and reduced to a mere sexual orientation, she also perpetuates an idea of queer aggression. White men have been threatened by men of color stealing their women, as illustrated when DeMello writes, “For many whites, African Americans are still considered to be threatening” (83). Sausage Party depicts a similar pattern in being threatened by queer women. Teresa is very forward and aggressive in her pursuit of Brenda. It really isn’t mutual at all. Brenda remains the prize and Teresa must compete with Frank and other men to “win” her. In this way, she presents a threat of beating Frank and stealing Brenda from him. There is no conversation about Brenda’s sexual orientation she is simply a body to be fought over.

It seems odd to think about the fact that a queer woman of color would be depicted in a film clearly created for male hegemonic audience until you actually see the movie and realize that she has been totally skewed and simply put there to entertain the male gaze. Her relationship with Brenda is not a hopeful representation of lesbian relationships in mainstream media. Instead it plays into the idea that lesbians relationships are for the pleasure of the male viewer. Much like lesbian porn clearly created to viewed by straight men instead of actual queer women. Teresa’s character is not helpful to the community she represents as she is shown in a very shallow way that does nothing but perpetuate negative stereotypes.


NOTE: This essay was written by a First-Year Experience (FYE) student in FG110 Introduction to Feminist & Gender Studies taught by Professor Heidi R. Lewis. FG110 teaches students how to examine power, inequality, and privilege along the lines of gender, sexuality, race, socioeconomic status, age, physicality, and other social, cultural, and political markers using multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary approaches. Near the end of the block, the students visited a local theater to screen Sausage Party, and this essay was written in response.