Flirtation or harassment? Toxic culture or “not that serious”?
Playwright Ken Kwek responds to the #MeToo movement with a play that explores issues of consent, appropriate workplace behaviour and sexual misconduct.
This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls, staged by Pangdemonium and directed by Tracie Pang, features a cast of eight, including actor Adrian Pang.
The 39-year-old playwright was working on a different project with the theatre company when Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was accused by multiple women of sexual assault in October 2017.
As more women and men came forward with their accusations against powerful media figures, Kwek shelved the earlier play and began work on a response to #MeToo.
Though the play is fictional, he interviewed more than 100 women before penning the first word.
Many were strangers introduced by friends and acquaintances. Some were introduced by the Sexual Assault Care Centre run by the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware). He also attended a workshop to learn about the manifestations of trauma in sexual assault survivors.
He says: “Not knowing what it’s like to live in a woman’s body, I felt it was necessary to talk to as many women as possible, women from very different professions and walks of life, to understand the difficulties and threats they face daily, in a world still largely dominated by men.”
Rather than stories of sexual assault and abuse that have clear-cut villains and heroes, This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls explores issues that director Tracie Pang notes “are not simple and straightforward”.
“We’re talking about the grey areas in relationships, like workplace relationships when they sour. It’s quite clear that there’s no easy way out and everyone gets hurt at the end of the day,” she says.
“As a society, we’ve buried things in the sand for so long that nobody has talked about it. We need to talk about it, we need to discuss the grey areas.”
Other stories covered include a flirtation between an undergraduate and a lecturer, as well as the emotional toll when consent is not properly discussed.
For this play, Kwek spoke with some men who had been accused of some form of inappropriate sexual behaviour, though only one of them had been publicly accused.
He says: “None of them felt they were guilty of what they had been accused of. One of them confided that he didn’t remember the alleged incident, which had taken place a long time ago. But he was nonetheless very apologetic towards his accuser for upsetting her.
“He was very much in tune with the change in attitudes post-#MeToo.”
The zeitgeist has led Kwek to consider his own past behaviours as well.
“The #MeToo movement is primarily – though not solely – about how men too often feel entitled to women’s bodies. So, of course, men should take this opportunity to reflect on things, to redefine for the younger generation what it means to be a man,” he says.
“As a man, you would question yourself. I do question whether I behaved inappropriately in past encounters, whether I was sexist or took a woman’s consent for granted. I wish I was 100 per cent sure that I was a perfect gentleman who behaved impeccably at all times. But I’m not.”
He adds: “As a parent, I will teach my son things that my parents were less aware of or felt too awkward to talk about.
“My parents never sat me down and explained how one asked for consent. It’s not their fault. Back then, sex education was left to schools and schools talked only about biology and anatomy, not about issues of consent.”
This article was originally published in The Straits Times.