Learning How to Drive as the Patriarchal Subject: Examining the Crimes of Patriarchy in a Postmodern World 

The Elephant Calf, Everything We Touch, Battle Hymn, and Saint Joan of the Stockyards are all fantastic pieces of dramatic work but they also have another common denominator.  All four of these plays share the common theater structure of being epics. What is an epic? One’s mind might drift to thinking about the eighth-century B.C. poetic works of the Odyssey and the Illiad written by Homer. In both of these works, the stories focus on a Greek war hero and his journey through war and his return home. Through the telling of this man’s journey he, as well as the reader, learns lessons from the Gods and the people around him. So, for a person to allude to the idea that a piece of epic theater is comparable to these two poetic works they are not entirely wrong, but rather they are on to something and are close to the understanding of epic theater.

Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht but more commonly known as Bertold Brecht was a twentieth-century German playwright and is the Godfather of epic theater and what he also called dialectical theatre. For those living in twentieth-century Germany, was a period of enlightenment in philosophy and social consciousness. During this time Brecht was exposed to and immersed in thoughts of Marxism. 

Karl Marx in 1848 in his own manifesto simply titled The Manifesto of the Communist Party conceptualizes the idea of ‘marxism’. In this manifesto, Karl Marx attacks and makes critical critiques of the class structure in Germany and the industrial complex. It is in these attacks and critiques that he speaks to the class division that created economic inequality and social inequality saying “ It (the bourgeoisie class)  has agglomerated population, centralized means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary of this was political consequences of this was political centralization. Independent or but loosely connected provinces with separate interests, laws governments, and systems of taxation, become lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class interest and one customs tariff” (Marx 258). Marx here points out that due to the privilege of the bourgeoise they live in a separate world from the subalterns and they control the world in which the subaltern occupy. This critique and “The influence of Marxism has been fundamental in challenging the claims of law to be eternal, of the bourgeoise to represent the interests of the entire nation, of individuality and freedom to be universal. It has also been important in the analysis of women’s oppression as an economic factor structurally integral to capitalism”  (Habib 534).  Karl Marx’s influence is seen and reflected in Brecht’s work.

What Brecht does in his work is something amazing. Brecht uses the theater to make critical critiques about society. Brecht makes these critiques by creating the epic theater or dialectical theatre. Essentially,  Brecht’s epic theater is a piece of theater that is interested in understanding human behavior. Through this interest, Brecht points out flaws in society both economic and societal.  Brecht attacks these flaws by using dialogue between two or more characters. This discourse is usually between characters with different views and unique perspectives. These differences allow the characters to question each other leading to a critique of society and the flaws of humanity. It is this dialogue that he uses which leads to the alternative name of the dialectical theatre. Brecht’s influence can not be and should not be undermined because his epic theater is still and will be utilized by playwrights. One artist that has successfully adapted Brecht’s epic theater is Paula Vogel. Vogel in her 1997 play titled How I Learned to Drive used Brecht’s epic theater to question the subjectivity and the history of sexuality to suggest in a system of a patriarchal society that women’s bodies have become the subject of modernity. Ultimately, in this work and the use of the epic theater, Vogel uses a postmodern view to dress the women characters of this play as what I define as”patriarchal subjects as a way to describe the defense mechanisms they must develop to survive in this dangerous patriarchal structure.

Paula Vogel is a contemporary American playwright hailing from Washington D.C. Vogel has had an amazing career thus far her resume is not something to glance over. After receiving her Bachelor of Arts from the Catholic University of America she went on to become a playwright. Early on in her career, she had little success several works were rejected. However, it was because of these early challenges in her career she “believes that these were good things because they made her learn her craft in a difficult way — and original way” (Jacobus 1492). This new attention to originality is the catalyst to a new level of success in her career as she used originality to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for How I Learned to Drive. Vogel in this work explores the idea of sexuality, abuse, family, the patriarchal structure, and the idea of the agency of women.  

This 1997 piece of work tells the story and dark secrets of a poor white rural family living in the countryside of  Maryland. The time of the play is set in the late 1960s through the 1970s  and throughout the time span of the play the time jumps back and forth via flashbacks that are experienced by the protagonist of the play named LI’L BIT. LI’L BIT in these flashbacks tells the readers how she learns and experiences sexuality and womanhood from the women in life from her mother, grandmother, and aunt Mary. In addition, to learning from these women LI’L BIT also learns repulsively through her Uncle Peck’s  ‘driving lessons’ in which he sexually molests her. Everything is tied to sexuality with this family even their names. The members of this family get nicknames from their genitals, for instance, LI’L BIT’s little brother is nicknamed B.B “For blue balls” (Vogel 1497). And, as her mother explains LI’L BIT’s nickname comes from seeing what biological gender her child was saying “ I just had to see for myself. So we whipped your diapers down and parted your chubby little legs — and right between your legs there was– Just a little bit” (Vogel 1497).  In addition to this over-sexual family, there are serval choruses in this play that help to reinforce the lessons LI’L BIT learns and also to teach her new ones. Vogel uses these characters to speak to the negative human behaviors of sexuality that are a result of the evolution of sexuality to call out the flaws in the modern system of patriarchy that violently pushes women to become patriarchal subjects as a survival technique.

The women in How I Learned to Drive are not only living in a patriarchal society but they are also being suffocated by the crippling effects of patriarchy. Sociologist bell hooks in her 2004 book The Will To Change speaks extensively on this idea of patriarchy. hooks defines patriarchy as a “ political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence” (hooks 18). And, it is this political-social system in a world that creates a hierarchal structure where men hold superiority and force women and their bodies to become the subject of violence and oppression.  Vogel using a postmodern lens calls out this system using characters who are not inherently postmodern agents but in doing so she creates postmodern subjects.

Understanding postmodernism or post-modernity is very difficult to understand because there is no thin line drawn to seperate modernism from postmodernism. However, postmodernism can be thought of as simply “ anything resisting or deconstructing common culture” (Bordo 278).  In essence, postmodernism is a field of study that challenges views, practices, behaviors, and ideologies that are commonly accepted and held. Therefore, postmodern subjects are the bodies who do this challenging. In the case of How I Learned to Drive the postmodern subjects are the characters. Written in 1997 but telling a story of the late 1960s and 1970s the characters are not necessarily postmodern subjects because they do not challenge the system and they actually participate in the system of patriarchy. However, the way in which, Vogel uses the characters to tell the story and draw out their flaws she turns them into postmodern subjects to challenge patriarchy and what is considered normal given the history and evolution of sexuality.

The history and evolution of sexuality has many contributions because it lays the precedent for what is permissible and assimilable.  Michel Foucault in his 1976 book titled The History of Sexuality discusses the laws of sexuality based on its history and evolution. He writes “ On the list of grave sins, and separated only by their importance, there appeared debauchery (extramarital relations), adultery, rape, spiritual or carnal incest, but also sodomy, or the mutual ‘caress’. As to the courts, they could condemn homosexuality as well as infidelity, marriage without parental consent or bestiality” (Foucalt 684). These grave sins are abnormal and unlawful when they are done in public and revealed to the world. However, in this play the sins that are committed are behind closed doors and are kept secret. This shielding of these crimes in the play violently forces the women to become what I am calling the “patriarchal subject”. 

In grammar, the word subject has two purposes. The first purpose of the subject is to describe the what. Meaning, what is going on? And second, the subject is the agent or the body that takes action. Therefore, the first purpose articulates what is happening and secondly, the subject tells us who is doing what. In How I Learned to Drive the what is the idea of patriarchy which creates the possibility for sexual violence, abuse, and the grave sins of sexuality to happen behind closed doors. And the subject agent is more than one figure in this case because Uncle Peck is committing these heinous crimes however he and the system of patriarchy are being protected or not seen by the women and men in the play who act as other agents. This is what I am calling the patriarchal subject which is the idea that women are placed as victims in the system of patriarchy and they are also expected to be agents of patriarchy in order to survive in this system. And, this is no fault of women but it is entirely the fault of the patriarchal structure which normalizes and enforces these attitudes. Vogel with a postmodern view is using to call out the patriarchal structure and its terrible presence.  So how does she make these critiques?

How I Learned to Drive is a play with scenes that are titled driving lessons that are filled with sexual abuse, pedophilia, and the sustainment of patriarchy. Beginning early in the protagonist’s life LI’L BIT is the victim of pedophilia and sexual abuse at the age of 11. When her Uncle Peck is teaching her to drive he feels her breast. When LI’L BIT tells her “Uncle Peck —  please don’t do this” (Vogel 1518). In which her uncle responds “ Just a moment longer” (Vogel, 1518). It is in this moment that this type of behavior is acceptable and normalized because it is an authoritative male figure who she trusts and it is behind closed doors forcing LIL’ BIT to become a patriarchal subject.  This behavior and sexual abuse continues for the rest of LI’L BIT’s adolescent years until her 18th birthday when she cuts it off.  However, her Uncle Peck is not the only person that normalizes these actions but the women in her life subconsciously normalize these actions. 

When LI’L BIT is out to dinner with Peck he suggests that she should get an alcoholic drink. It is at this moment that a female chorus appears and delivers a song called “A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking”. The very first line of this song is as follows “ A lady never gets sloppy — she may, however, get tipsy and a little gay”(Vogel 1500). Essentially this song from the chorus is a guide for women of how to drink safely and to avoid being sexually assaulted by men. This song is so crucial because it demonstrates how women have to drink in particular ways just to protect themselves, rather than men being accountable and responsible and not committing these types of crimes. But, it is because of the patriarchal system that women are expected to know this guide so that they can survive in this system. A guide like this is created by the patriarchal subject, as a result, being the victims of such crimes and being forced to take action which unfortunately sustains the patriarchal structure. 

Using this guide LI’L BIT orders a martini. And after, her third one she wants another one. At this request, Uncle Peck responds “I think this is your last one” (Vogel 1501). Following this response are carefully written stage directions Vogel writes “ Peck signals the Waiter. The Waiter looks at LI’L BIT shakes his head no. Peck raises his eyebrow, raises his finger to indicate one more, and then rubs his fingers together. The Waiter sighs, shakes his head sadly and, brings over another empty martini glass. He glares at Peck” (Vogel, 1501). Knowing that LI’L BIT has had too much to drink he goes against his conscience in compliance with the patriarchal structure and adhering to the “secret code” bringing LI’L BIT another glass for a martini. This last drink proved to be dangerous because it made LI’L BIT sick and led her to be vulnerable and to be assaulted. Despite knowing right from wrong the waiter protects patriarchy and sexual abuse by bringing LI’L BIT a glass and putting her in harm’s way. The problem with the patriarchal structure there are the criminals who commit these heinous crimes but there are also people like the waiter who buy into the system which endorses these kinds of behavior. And once again, women become the patriarchal subject as a result of a flawed hierarchal system that does not value the lives of women. 

Furthermore, the social-political system of patriarchy is a hierarchical structure that holds men superior to women. However, the history of sexuality prohibits certain practices and behaviors of sexuality, but these types of behavior can be deemed as acceptable and normalized as long as they are done behind closed doors and by an authoritative male figure.  Paula Vogel in her 1997 play How I Learned to Drive uses Brecht’s idea of the epic theater to critique the patriarchal structure. Taking a postmodern stance to tell a story with characters who are not necessarily postmodern, to begin with, to challenge the modern patriarchal structure. Using this stance she turns the characters from modern to postmodern by pointing out the flaws in human behavior that exist as a result of such structure. Ultimately via this transformation, Vogel displays how women are forced into becoming the patriarchal subject. This patriarchal subject is a duality in which the structure makes women vulnerable to heinous crimes of sexuality and simultaneously then they must become the who or agent of patriarchy in order to survive this nasty hierarchal structure.

References 

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and The Body. 10th ed., University of California Press, 2004.

Foucault, Michel. “The History of Sexuality .” A Critical Cultural Theory Reader, 2004, pp. 90–95.

Habib, M.A.R. “Marxism .” A History of Literary Criticism From Plato to the Present, 2007, pp. 527–534.

hooks, bell. The Will to Change. ATRIA BOOKS, 2004.

Marx, Karl. “The Manifesto of the Communist Party.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, 1848, pp. 256–261.

Vogel, Paula. How I Learned to Drive : [a Play]. Jacobus, Lee, The Bedford Introduction to Drama.



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