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.