Picture it: Women, mostly white, clutch forks with lettuce or other vegetables on them, laughing hysterically. Until writer Edith Zimmerman pointed it out, few people realized there were literally thousands of these images stored in stock photography websites, ready for use in advertisements or articles. The deluge of images of women smiling while holding one of the world’s less appetizing foods seemed… well, absurd. It’s this concept that inspired a play.
Women Laughing Alone With Salad will debut at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C. on September 7 as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival around the country. This particular play might find an audience with avid readers of feminist websites, which have been poking fun at the absurdity of stock photography for years. Of course, having seen the meme isn’t a prerequisite of the play, as playwright Sheila Callaghan told ThinkProgress in an interview.
“I’m always amazed at how few people are familiar with it. People are like, ‘I love the title!’ and I’m like, ‘What do you mean? It’s based on something, it’s not just the title,’” Callaghan said. “You don’t need to know anything about the meme in order to understand how stock photography is used to market things… The play uses the meme as a jumping point.”
Indeed, for a play inspired by a blog post, Callaghan’s work wades into some meaty subject matter. Based on an early reading of the play and a preview event attended by ThinkProgress, the play tackles everything from the vast influence marketing has in swaying our perception of who we are to a critical read of gender itself.
The play, which started out as a series of monologues from three different women, has evolved into a two-act play with a man named “Guy” as its central character. The director, Kip Fagan, is also a man. While that may seem like an odd choice, Callahan’s work may lead the viewer to realize that the influence of idealized femininity in stock photography can’t be tackled without also examining how men are also influenced by these images.
ThinkProgress spoke with Callaghan, who also writes and produces the Showtime show Shameless, about her new work.
The “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” phenomenon has gone from blog post to internet meme and now to your play. Could you think back to when you first read that post and remember your reaction? What about it inspired you?
It’s always enjoyable when somebody points out how absurd an aspirational idea of femininity is and how that idea is being used to market things to people. And that’s what the stock photography imagery is, you know, its function is to present those ideal versions of femalehood in order to sell products. By curating this list, Edith Zimmerman was saying, hey guys, this is awfully silly, let’s all laugh at it. And I can get behind that mission.
I was sort of interested in the women behind the pictures, in a way. Because they’re objectified, right? They’re dehumanized. There’s nothing going on in those pictures except a projection, so I was sort of interested in what they were projecting over, what they were hiding behind and why. So I made three monologues for this festival in a nearby college in Baltimore. Then when they performed them, I realized I wasn’t done thinking about it. It felt even more relevant. It was also a very one-sided point of view. Okay, let’s uncover the secret lives of salad models, and that seemed a little bit superficial. I wanted to have a conversation about the culture around selling products as aspirational ideals. So I added a character who was a man.
That was going to be my next question, about how the play evolved.
I wanted to have a deeper conversation than just, this is kind of bullshit. I wanted to know why it exists in the first place. If you’re going to talk about feminist issues in our culture, you can’t not talk about them as perceived by men. It just seems like a one-sided conversation. It’s not placing blame or pointing fingers. It’s not women only at the mercy of these images. Men are also at the mercy of what these images do to women, men who are involved in women’s lives. So our man is victimized in a way, too, by these images. He wants to connect with these women who for whatever reason are shamed into not being who they need to be.
One of the things I’m really excited about seeing in the play, after seeing the preview, is how you integrate so much of marketing language into the dialogue. It really demonstrates how this language subverts the way we talk and think. How did you think about incorporating marketing language into the play?
Well first off, it’s basically a man going from woman to woman trying to figure how why he feels so fucked up and why he feels shame for the things he wants based on their reactions to the things they want. The second act, which I don’t want to give away too much on it, but the second act deals with this exact question. Complete shift in tone. Complete shift in story. We’re shifting characters for the most part; there’s one character that makes his way into the second act, but everybody else is new. Basically this addresses the exact question you’re asking. The language of marketing and its origins and its eventual future.
Without revealing too many spoilers, there are some elements of gender-bending that happens in the second act of the play. Do you think this will help the audience really deconstruct the ideas behind gender? Is that what you were going for with these elements in the second act?
The point of the gender bending in the second act is to really take your attention away from masculine and feminine tropes… I don’t think men and women have universal experiences, necessarily, when we’re talking about this kind of thing. But I’m trying to take the blame off of gender and make it about the point in time where we’re at. So trying to lift the burden of men and women I think helps us see the issue more clearly. That’s my hope, anyway. Maybe it’s confusing (laughs). But it’s also fun. There’s a message in the play, obviously, because it’s a feminist play, but I’m not interested in not entertaining people. I want people to find joy in the conversation. It’s a play! I’m not running for office!
You also write and produce on a show I’ve loved watching: Shameless. Do you feel like you get as much of a chance to explore similar themes on that show? What has it been like working on the show versus working on something like this?
The show is based on a poor family in Chicago and so poverty is at the center of it in the way my work isn’t. I deal with class a lot, but not to the same degree. And some of those issues find their way into my show. Because the show is about family, but the moral center of the show, whose name is Fiona, she is a female, but her issues are less about being a woman and more about being broke and trying to support a family that was dumped in her lap by an alcoholic father. So it’s a little bit different. But thematically, I’m interested in liberal hypocrisy. Both my play and the show traffic in a critique of that.
What are some of the things you really hope people take away from this play?
I’ll be happy if they go away thinking about their relationship to some of the the issues in the play. I’ll be happy if they’re not thinking about the play, if they’re thinking about themselves. I’ll be happy if they laugh. Again, I’m really an entertainer. I’m terrified of people being bored. Some people might not like it but as long as they’re thinking, that’s something useful. I want them to understand just enough that they don’t feel frustrated by the experience because it’s not conventional writing and often people have these expectations about what a play should be before they sit down. So I hope that doesn’t frustrate anybody because it’s not that kind of play. That’s all of my questions. Is there anything else you want to add?
I’m happy you didn’t ask me if I like salad.
(Laughs) Do people ask you a lot?
Yes. Salad is not the enemy! I don’t want them to be thinking any extra about salad. But I do want them to be thinking about their relationship to the media.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.