The other night I sat down in the intimate Bush Theatre in London to watch The B*easts, a one-hour monologue on a minimalist set, written and performed by Monica Dolan.
Dolan plays a middle-aged psychiatrist called Tessa, who tells the audience a captivating story about a case she’s been working on with a mother and her daughter. Her story-telling is concise, humourous and image-heavy, interwoven with long and elaborate lines that always have a clever punch at the end.
Monica Dolan as Tessa (Source: Bush Theatre)
The story is dark. Lila, an eight-year old girl, becomes obsessed with getting a new set of breasts. Eventually, after much wearing down of her mother, the two take a ‘holiday’ to Brazil, and Lila comes back four cup sizes bigger.
What follows is a series of reactions to these new breasts. Teachers ask Lila to cover up. Young boys ask her to send explicit photographs of herself. She becomes this freakish, front-page news story, utterly sexualised despite her shockingly young age. When her mother is arrested for neglect, Lila is placed into care, and she is raped by one of her care workers.
Here, the narrator pauses, describing a run-in with an M&S customer who she overhears saying: “Well, she was asking for it, wasn’t she? What else did that girl get those breasts for?”
Dolan places an innocent minor before us, and she insightfully highlights the ways in which our society corrupts her, over and over, unashamedly heaping a sexualised gaze onto an eight-year-old girl without even thinking about it. Lila is a deliberate mirror to us all, created by Dolan in order to make us think and reflect on how we see our children in this day and age.
In just one hour, Dolan does a brilliant job of dissecting our blame culture, which lives and breathes in our day-to-day even if we don’t see it.
For me, this fictional, Black Mirror-esque tale reminded me of a very real example of toxic blame culture: the 2004-15 Rochdale child sex abuse ring.
(Source: BBC News)
The main correlation for me was the nature and treatment of the victims. The girls in Rochdale were just young teenagers, being groomed and abused by a ring of nine male taxi drivers. It took over ten years before the men were stopped.
One of the biggest issues of this case, as highlighted by the dramatised BBC retelling Three Girls, was the refusal of the authorities to deem these girls credible witnesses. The underage girls continued to be abused, because authorities were convinced that the jury would blame the girls themselves, rather than their rapists, for the abuse they endured.
Three Girls, broadcast on BBC One in May 2017 (Source: BBC)
Monica Dolan’s words rung true here in her play: “We have a very unhealthy and frightening addiction to “I told you so” in this country”.
Dolan rightly calls out blame culture as an externalisation of our own guilt in the face of an ugly truth. We are all guilty of sexualising the world around us, including our children. The girls of Rochdale, the eight-year old Lila in Dolan’s story, they are all assumed by the authorities to be in charge of their own sexualities, despite being underage. This vilification of the victim is what breeds child grooming and institutionalised paedophilia.
We’ve seen it in all measures and severities. Dolan references the Vanity Fair cover of Emma Watson that went viral. The image sparked fierce debate as to whether the public were sexualising Watson, or whether she herself was. Dolan irksomely points out amid all of this, that Watson came from a children’s film series – we watched her grow up from the age of just eleven!
Emma Watson’s controversial cover (Source: Vanity Fair)
Dolan reflects on why it is that women are repeatedly expected to be responsible for their own body parts and the way onlookers sexualise them. She muses that “the overriding opinion seems to be that you are in charge of them somehow.”
In the context of outrageous TV channels such as MTV, endless adverts of faceless half-naked women, and obscenely rich vloggers who are paid to look immaculate, Dolan’s fictional story of an eight-year old girl asking her mother for some new breasts doesn’t seem so far off.
“You see,” Dolan admits, “I think we always knew that sex sells effectively, but now it has just got to the stage where we no longer feel confident to sell anything without it.”
But sex shouldn’t sell to children, no matter how profitable it can be, and we shouldn’t see children as part of this adult, sexualised world. Dolan’s story is a lesson to us all, and we should listen up.
The B*easts finishes by asking the following question: “What do you do with that bit of a female child that wants to be a woman?” This urge to grow up is normal – in fact, some of the Rochdale girls were convinced at the time that their abusers were their ‘boyfriends’, a common result of child grooming.
It is the way in which the world responds to this urge that matters.
We end on the following note: the girl in Dolan’s story “just wanted to be a big girl, but ‘it’s the jungle out there’ that has changed.” We are the jungle. We are responsible for the sexualisation of our children, and with provocative, sinister plays such as The B*easts, playwrights can help us see this, understand it, and take full responsibility in a bid to change it.