We’ve all heard of the old axiom that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” While the expression appears innocently empowering, making a point that beauty is subjective and allowing beauty to come in all colors, sizes, and shapes, the phrase in fact does the opposite—it authorizes the Beholder to be the judge of beauty and reduces the Beauty to a measurable object. But have we ever asked if the Beauty wants the Beholder’s gaze, let alone the opinion?
The power dynamic between the Looker and the Looked-Upon is explored in “Man of God,” a play that Jessica and I recently watched at the Geffen Playhouse. The well-written, contemplative, and thoroughly enjoyable production delves deep into the Male Gaze as four teenage girls from a Korean Christian girls’ youth group in Southern California discover that their pastor had hidden a camera in the bathroom of their hotel room while on a mission trip to Thailand.
The play deserves applause in many ways. Importantly, it showcases an all-Asian cast. Their personalities straddle across the spectrum of teenage girl “stereotypes.” We have a goody goody who does the 10+ step K beauty routine nightly; a super-achiever who is only thinking about getting into Ivy League institutions; a drama queen who has an angst with everyone, especially her Asian Mom, and a social media addict who might be sadly posting Insta stories and pictures that no one follows.
Playwright Anna Ouyang Moench wastes no time delving into the story’s central conflict, starting the play with Kyung-Hwa announcing that she has found a spy cam pointing up near the hotel bathroom toilet. Naive Samantha is in disbelief and personally wounded that their pastor is less than a perfect Man of God. Super-achiever Jen is worried about how, if leaked, filmed footage might affect her college applications. Fiery-tempered Mimi is just out for blood. And then, “good girl” Kyung-Hwa thinks they should let it go because, well, “boys will be boys.”
The show manages to be horrifying yet hilarious, as it interweaves interludes of the girls’ revenge fantasies. Samantha defeats Pastor after prolonged exchanges of sword fighting (wushu style of course); Jen takes out Pastor in a Godfather-like fashion, a gunshot after spaghetti; Mimi sadistically removes Pastor’s kidneys, sells them (because they are in Bangkok) and leaves him to die.
Anyone picking up that there is an absence of a description of Kyung-Hwa’s revenge fantasy? Without divulging too much of the play, the seemingly sweet and dutiful teenager in fact has a dark past that involves more than just having an eating disorder.
The four girls each represents a different perspective of the multi-faceted teenage girl coming-of-age journey. In particular, Jen’s very first experience with the male gaze strikes too familiar of a tone:
Driver’s license, check. Just turned 16, sweet. First solo trip to the grocery store, hell yah! And then, as she is loading up the groceries… Honk honk, “NICE ASS!!!”
Jen is silent. Despite knowing that she should probably tell the creep off, she is unable to say anything. There is the discomfort that somehow her getting the cat call is her fault. That her ass has simply gotten too sexy for her own good. There is also the guilty pleasure of being complimented. All of a sudden, just because a creep said “NICE ASS”, she registers that her ass, which was exactly the same pre-cat-call and post-cat-call was, well… sexy.
I also remember a moment similar to that of Jen’s. I remember my first male gaze. It was in junior high. I was uncomfortable. I was uncertain if I was even beautiful. Frankly, before the “moment,” I never even questioned how I appeared in the eyes of the opposite sex, let alone what it meant to be deemed “bella” by some random men across the street in Italy.
Shouldn’t a girl’s coming of age, or more specifically, coming into awareness of her sexuality, be of her choice? Not only do I believe firmly that a girl should decide when and how she comes of age, I hope that when she encounters the male gaze for the very first time she is well-prepared to decide what she wants to do with that scrutiny.
Now if you are expecting the pastor to be punished, perhaps the ending will feel less than satisfactory. But what the ending does feel is real.
This is a play about celebrating female friendship and empowerment. The girls, despite fighting and screaming at one another as they work through their pastor’s horrible betrayal, were also able to gain strength through their communal experience and dialogues.
Hence, the Hsieh With You verdict is… highly recommend!