What do you call a married man who seduces two schoolgirls from difficult backgrounds, gets one pregnant, and then wheedles both into a polyamorous relationship? “Great subject for comedy” isn’t, perhaps, the obvious answer. But when Rita, Sue and Bob Too came out in 1987, that’s how it was greeted: as a bawdy, fresh, rollickingly funny drama.
The storyline itself was clearly shocking – the two girls meet seedy old Bob through babysitting his children, and at 16 are virtually children themselves – but somehow it managed also to be thrilling, if only because Rita and Sue weren’t like the female characters we mostly saw on screen.
Tough, exuberant and resourceful, they didn’t come across as victims; and it was their friendship with each other, not their fling with Bob, that formed the emotional heart of the film. Although in hindsight, I suspect not all the men glued to the infamous threesome scene in the back of his car were getting that early feminist message.
But anyway, Andrea Dunbar wasn’t holding them up as role models. Rather, she was making a point about what Thatcher’s Britain did to working class northern communities and about the meagre economic options available to girls like Rita and Sue, for whom a randy older man with his own house and car could have been a ticket out. She was simply asking audiences to understand that sometimes life is complicated.
And now, it is more complicated still. This week the Royal Court theatre, whose artistic director, Vicky Featherstone, has led campaigns against sexual harassment in the industry in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein affair, cancelled a touring production of the original play on which Rita, Sue and Bob Too was based, on the grounds that staging a story about “grooming and abuses of power on young women” under its roof felt “highly conflictual”.
What was lost in the subsequent furore about artistic censorship was that the Royal Court wasn’t saying the play was morally beyond the pale, or shouldn’t be staged anywhere. It was simply acknowledging the elephant in its own room: the fact that the play has close associations with Max Stafford-Clark, formerly artistic director at the Royal Court, who would have co-directed this revival, too, had he not been accused of sexually inappropriate behaviour himself. It’s not hard to grasp why, in a climate where actresses are being publicly asked to defend working with Roman Polanski or with Woody Allen, it felt compelled to take a moral hard line.
But theatres haven’t stopped staging Othello because of its racist overtones, or banned The Taming of the Shrew because it now reads like a tale of emotional abuse. They’ve simply found new ways of staging old texts that challenge some of the underlying assumptions. In the same way, our greater understanding of grooming – the knowledge that girls who come across as tough and resourceful can still be vulnerable, that exploitation isn’t always recognised as such by its victims – shouldn’t spell the end for stories like Rita and Sue’s. Rather, they should mark a new beginning.
How many women, in the wake of the Weinstein allegations, have started to see their own pasts in a sharply different light? Things you wouldn’t have called sexual harassment 20 years ago, but would now recognise as exactly that; teenage relationships which on reflection look horribly unsavoury. Those girls at school whose older boyfriends picked them up in flash cars and whisked them off to pubs and clubs the rest of us couldn’t get into underage, seemed so sophisticated when I was growing up in Essex in the 1980s. But “sophisticated” is hardly the word for grown men in their 20s chasing starry-eyed kids in uniform. Why weren’t they off pursuing women their own age? Presumably they found 16-year-olds so much more malleable, more easily impressed.
And that’s the dark underbelly of the “hot younger woman falls somewhat implausibly for older man” trope so deeply embedded in western culture, where it drives everything from grand literary midlife crisis novels to chirpy romcoms in which a craggy male lead plays opposite a woman young enough to be his daughter. The reassuring message it sends insecure middle-aged men is that hey, they’ve still got it. But more queasily, it also teaches them that even when women their own age reject them sexually (as Bob’s wife does in the film) there’s always the option of one too young to know better.
It’s precisely this fantasy that Cat Person, a short story about a 20-year-old student’s awkward sexual encounter with a man in his 30s, which went viral this week, so brutally punctures. The story itself is icy-hearted, and neither character enormously sympathetic. But its cruel genius lies in inviting the reader to see that familiar “hot young woman/older man” story through the girl’s eyes.
She is inwardly disgusted by his flabby body; she laughs out loud when he assumes she might be a virgin, given she’s evidently far more sexually proficient than him. But most of all, she’s repelled by his desire to see her again, when she only went through with the sex out of politeness and a vague fear that otherwise he might turn nasty.
What makes this story so unsettling for male readers is its suggestion that younger women are nowhere near as dewy-eyed about them as popular myth pretends – that even the compliant ones might be secretly laughing behind your back, or grimly putting up with it for their own reasons, or just waiting for a chance to get out. Would Rita and Sue too have eventually grown as tired of Bob as his wife did? Interestingly, while the film ends with all three jumping into bed, Dunbar’s original play has a different ending which smacks less of gratified male fantasy. She’s said to have been furious when it was changed for the big screen.
The Royal Court may not be the right place for it. But a smart revival that stays true to Dunbar’s original, brings out all the moral ambiguities of Rita and Sue’s story, and uses a contemporary audience’s squirming discomfort to make us think about what has changed in the last three decades – well, that would be a timely contribution in itself to the post-Weinstein era. Times and mores change, but in the hands of sensitive directors good stories can evolve with them, acquiring new patinas of meaning. It seems odd, when so many women are revisiting the stories of our own lives from a changed perspective, not to allow the theatre to do the same.