In 2011, Edith Zimmerman posted an article to The Hairpin sans comment, and called the Internet's attention to a dubious phenomenon. It rapidly went viral, with over 206,000 Facebook shares and 15,000 tweets. Zimmerman highlighted the proliferation of stock images depicting women laughing alone with salad, and a meme was born.
Now, premiering at Woolly Mammoth as part of DC's Women's Voices Theater Festival, playwright Sheila Callaghan's latest work brings women—banished to the lands of pretending to enjoy their boring salads— to life. Women Laughing Alone With Salad is simultaneously laugh out loud and painfully poignant in its exploration of the ways women interact with media, advertising, and the many messages we're sent about the things we're supposed to want.
At the center of the story is Guy (Thomas Keegan), a 29-year-old waiter and aspiring writer. There are three key women in his life: Tori (Meghan Reardon), his girlfriend; Meredith (Kimberly Gilbert), the woman he wants to sleep with; and his mother, Sandy (Janet Ulrich Brooks), towards whom he has a lot of pent up anger. Having a man at the center of a story about women seems strange, but as they interact around and with him, Guy's role develops into that of a foil to their projected selves. In a preview talk about the show, director Kip Fagan shared that in early drafts Callaghan sent him, Guy had appeared just as an unnamed guy watching, literally standing in for the male gaze. But as time went on and the women developed around him, he became a character in his own right.
Guy is an obviously troubled, crass, and often cruel man who says in the very first scene, "Whoa, I am dead inside." His role is primarily reacting and being reacted to by the women in his life, but that role feels crucial. So much of the show focuses on the impressions women want to project not for themselves, but for men. Seeing them interact with Guy, being rejected by him and trying to challenge him, creates a tension that otherwise would have been difficult to create without weighing down the plot. Can we have more critique of Guy as a character? I understand he's just a swath for the three ladies to develop, but there must be more to him to pick out and delve into. Do you think he's necessary? Could the play have existed without a male protagonist's eyes perceiving this world?
Decadence is fantasizing about French toast, but never actually eating it.
It's through Guy and his sparring with each woman that the skewering of culture truly takes place. When he meets Meredith in a bar, he's immediately drawn to the overtly sexual and seemingly rebellious woman. Meredith is a Betty Page pin-up;, the antithesis of the woman laughing alone with salad. To a degree, her persona embodies an image of liberation, the woman who doesn't buy into all the hype. Yet she quickly claims her favorite food is salad. Why? Because the media has told her that men like women who eat salad.
At the opposite end of the supposed spectrum is Tori, Guy's girlfriend. Tori is #blessed come to life—she's an aspirational Pinterest board made manifest. Dressed head to toe in Lululemon and rattling off the brunch menu at the restaurant she wants to go to, she's living out a version of the life sold to us by the women laughing alone with salad. For Tori, decadence—a recurring theme in the play—is fantasizing about French toast, but never actually eating it. Despite wanting that French toast, she would feel guilty if she actually ate it. She's not supposed to want it, and that knowledge alone is enough to taint the experience should she decide to cave. Talking about eating the French toast is fine, as long as she never makes good on her claims.
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Guy's mother, Sandy, is a moneyed older woman with an activist background and, by the end of the play, no fingers. While Meredith and Tori struggle to carve out their own identities, circling the images they see every day about what a woman is, Sandy is trying to beat back the signs of aging. With total nonchalance, she lets fish eat away her fingers as part of a three day anti-aging treatment, because hands are the true marking of a woman's age. Even she struggles to see past her own insecure vanity when her son tells a jarring story about his childhood, involving a sexual encounter with her former assistant. Her worry was less about her son, clearly upset, and more about her impression of the assistant. Did he really snort coke? He never seemed like the type.
Much of the power of the show rests in the extreme stereotypes the women portray, and in Guy's sometimes harsh rebuttal of their supposed power. When Meredith forces him to his knees and grabs him by the hair to deliver an impassioned monologue about making him fear her, it's easy to get swept up. But soon, Guy is back on his feet, reminding her that, "None of this is real." She's insecure too, the kind of woman who wants to go back to his place but wants him to think it's his idea. They both know it, and in that moment of confrontation she's brought back down to Earth.
Tori has her own fantasy, which she shares with Guy when she casually mentions that older men have been looking at her more. Suddenly, Kanye West is blaring and Tori is being draped in gold, lip synching as she controls Guy like a puppet and fully realizes her own power. But that's the thing—she feels powerful when being seen, validated by the male gaze. Meredith, despite her short bangs and pencil dresses, is no different. She's been sold the same story by the same media, and although she's responded to it by positioning herself in a place she perceives is in direct opposition, but she's still defining herself by the impression she leaves on those around her.
With total nonchalance, she lets fish eat away her fingers as part of a three day anti-aging treatment, because hands are the true marking of a woman's age.
There's no faux-sisterhood in the world of women laughing alone with salad. Similarly to the truths of womanhood in reality, women judge each other just as harshly as they judge themselves, questioning what the other woman's existence can mean about their own. What does it mean that Guy is with Tori but wants to sleep with Meredith? Does that make her so unlike Tori, whatever that even means? Both women see themselves as complex, and they might actually be. But they subjugate those parts of their identity in favor of the myth being sold by advertising.
Because that, in the end, is what the women laughing alone with salad meme is all about. It brings into perfect clarity the inanity of the cheap marketing ploy used to sell us a lifestyle, rather than a product. These ads are aspirational; promising happiness via health. In a faux-commercial between scenes, an innocent sounding commercial for salad quickly darkens into brainwashing, telling the audience they, "must, or should eat salad." It's the "should" that's really dangerous, planting the hints of guilt when what you want doesn't fit with what you've been told to want. Fitting into the ideal means eating salad, or being really bad at drinking water, or any other host of images with which we're inundated every day. Outside of that norm is the less than perfect, and less than happy, woman.
The second act, featuring the same four actors, swaps the genders. Guy is back, played by the actress who had played his mom. It's four years later, and he's in marketing, a "coward and liar" who has turned into the thing he loathes. The scene is brief, but poignant in juxtaposition with the first act. When their armor has been dented, the women in the first act fold in on themselves, become smaller and reach for salad to soothe themselves.
But as men, they expand in every direction. Their confident swagger and strangely earnest maleness gets larger and larger the more insecure they feel. They, too, have been sold an impossible promise. The difference between the two ideals, though, is that the men have been promised it all for very little, while the women have to settle for very little in exchange for their entire identity. After all, men are never told that happiness is laughing alone with your salad.