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Essay

This is a Man's World

By Sarah Lunnie, Literary Director

"If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament."
–Gloria Steinem

In the garbage fire that is our current political landscape, it’s hard to know where to point one’s outrage, these days, but here’s one place: the Trump administration has just announced it will roll back the contraceptive coverage mandate, a policy that currently gives 55 million American women access to birth control without copayments through employer-provided health plans under the Affordable Care Act. The new rules would exempt employers who cite sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions against covering contraceptives, separation of church and state be damned. Meanwhile, earlier this week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would ban abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy, based on unsubstantiated, anti-scientific claims that contradict the consensus of the medical community and violate the guarantees of Roe v. Wade.

Kentucky made headlines last month for being at risk of becoming the only state without a clinic that performs abortions, when a federal court heard arguments in a lawsuit filed in response to the Governor Bevin’s most recent attempt to shut down the EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville. His campaign to close the center, like similar attempts by state governments around the country, is grounded in TRAP laws — “targeted regulation of abortion providers.” Where they have passed, these laws require clinics to meet various burdensome, medically unnecessary guidelines covering everything from ambulance services and transfer agreements with local hospitals to the size of janitors’ closets or parking spaces. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, such regulations are rooted in ideology rather than science and, “under the guise of promoting patient safety, single out abortion from other outpatient procedures and impose medically unnecessary requirements designed to reduce access to abortion.” Or, as Dan Cox, a Louisville attorney representing the EMW center put it, “They could just as well say everyone who wants an abortion has to wear a red handkerchief. They’ve got as much proof for that being helpful to women’s health.” The center is the last remaining provider in the state; if Governor Bevin prevails, the effect will be to force women seeking abortions to travel across state lines or to put themselves in danger with illicit procedures at home.

This is not new. We’ve been here before. 

“Here’s the thing about history — it repeats itself over and over and over,” wrote Roxane Gay in her 2012 essay “The Alienable Rights of Women,” in the midst of another flurry of national conversation about restricting reproductive healthcare. “The witch hunts, and the demonization of contraception and abortion and the women who provided these services from the 14th and 15th centuries, is happening all over again.” It’s a wide-ranging, historically informed, forceful piece of writing, one that toggles between uneasy familiarity (“Thank goodness women don’t have short memories”), weary indignation (“What this debate shows us is that even in this day and age, the rights of women are not inalienable. Our rights can be and are, with alarming regularity, stripped away. I struggle to accept that my body is a legislative matter. The truth of this makes it difficult for me to breathe... I don’t feel free.”), and moments of spiky, hilarious truth-telling (“What is more troubling than this oddly timed debate about birth control is the vehemence with which I have seen women needing to justify or explain why they take birth control — health reasons, to regulate periods, you know… In certain circles, birth control is being framed as whore medicine so we are now dealing with a bizarre new morality where a woman cannot simply say, in one way or another, ‘I’m on the pill because I like dick.’”), and ultimately prophesies the possible future need for an underground birth control network. What strikes me as particularly relevant to the premise of Robert O’Hara’s new play, though, is the observation with which Gay launches her essay — of the absence, in high-stakes public conversations about matters of women’s health, of women themselves.

“Lately,” she writes, “I read the news and have to make sure I am not, in fact, reading The Onion. We are having a national debate about abortion, birth control, and reproductive freedom, and men are directing that debate. That is the stuff of satire.”

To which Robert might reply, indeed.

Mankind, his outrageous, irreverent dystopian satire of, among other things, capitalism, cultural puritanism, religious hypocrisy, voyeuristic mass-media, geopolitical violence, and the manufacture of myth, imagines a future in which the female body has been quite literally legislated out of existence. In a world increasingly hostile toward their safety and liberty, women have gone extinct, and men have evolved to carry and deliver children.

It’s a premise in keeping with Robert’s penchant for maximalist, envelope-pushing social satire. The play crackles with humor, much of it arising from the seeming absurdity of the situation itself. But if the play begins by engaging restrictions of reproductive freedom, it doesn’t stop there. It would be unfair to spoil the characteristically unhinged twists of Robert’s plot; suffice to say, the bone he has to pick with the patriarchy turns out to be much bigger and more far-reaching. (The play brings to mind Rebecca Solnit’s vigorously researched, painfully urgent essay “The Longest War,” a difficult but necessary read. “Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality,” writes Solnit, “but it does have a gender.”) It’s a play interested in the civilizational, sometimes fundamentally conservative function of storytelling itself, how history is recorded by the powerful, and how myths — even those that seem to promise revolution or rebirth — are often used as tools to enshrine culturally ingrained hierarchies, to maintain the status quo. Having inherited the world they seem hell-bent on destroying, Robert irreverently suggests, the men of Mankind no longer have anyone to blame for their troubles but themselves.

In her essay, Roxane Gay also invokes Lysistrata, and when I think about that play in conversation with Mankind, the connective tissue that unites them strikes me as much as their conceptual opposition. There are no women in Robert’s play; on the other hand, it makes me laugh to imagine a kind of mass rapture as the ultimate form of civil protest. I’m struck, too, by what it does to an audience to consider the existential threat posed by restrictions to reproductive freedom when all the players are men. On some level, does the fundamental injustice of laws that circumscribe reproductive liberty announce itself more nakedly when the body being legislated is male?

“For me, laughter is the blunt instrument of satire,” Robert told
@ This Stage magazine, in a conversation about the West Coast premiere of his play Barbecue. “When one laughs, it instantly indicts them into the scheme that is happening in front of them. And if you can indict the audience then you can start to slowly challenge that laughter. There is nothing more exciting than having an entire audience laughing at one moment, then questioning their laughter the next. Like laughing at someone tripping, then realizing that they just lost an eyeball. Now that laughter turns into something else.” Dystopian fiction, like satire, has long been an effective delivery system for civilizational danger signs, and it’s tempting to read Robert’s dramatic project as oracular; is he distilling and magnifying past and future history in order to warn us? Yet, as the play’s conflicts escalate to an increasingly outrageous pitch, I’ll confess my experience of the situation it describes is increasingly, eerily one of recognition as much as imaginative leap. Is Robert showing us what our world might become — or, by tilting it askew, revealing it, hilariously, brutally, as it already is?