Hillary, Melania & Nora: What A Doll's House Part 2 Says About Gender Roles in 2017

Laurie Metcalf, as Nora, commands a room that also includes Chris Cooper (Torvald) and Jayne Houdyshell (Anne-Marie) in <em>A
Laurie Metcalf, as Nora, commands a room that also includes Chris Cooper (Torvald) and Jayne Houdyshell (Anne-Marie) in A Doll’s House Part 2.

My mother is the only person I know who really didn't like A Doll's House Part 2. She often has odd takes on things, particularly if they involve Jews. For example, she somehow thought The Lyons was anti-Semitic because she couldn't imagine a Jewish mother behaving like that while her husband was dying. (And don't get me started on her opinion of Tovah Feldshuh's opening Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song.) Yet, even with that background, her obvious coldness to this play, which has no Jew in site, was surprising to me. After all, the two friends of mine whose taste she respects above all others, think it is by far the best play on Broadway. But as we walked out of the Golden Theatre, I know she did not feel the same.

So why? Well, many moments of A Doll's House Part 2 are humorous. My mother doesn't find anything to laugh at in a story about a woman who left her children. Because Nora's envisioned world--the world in the play she believes will exist in 20 years from 1904--does not exist. I would take odds my mother wouldn't feel this way if it was a father leaving his children.

Of course, no character who leaves her/his children is ever sympathetic. We blame them--we want people to take care of their children. Society depends on it to a great degree. But my mother's utter lack of comprehension of Nora's choice wouldn't exist if she was Norman.

Gender normative roles have been talked a lot about in the last year thanks to the election and its result. Hillary Clinton snapping is worse than Donald Trump doing the same. Her disbelieving head shake seen as more condescending than his. Everyone I know was outraged that Melania Trump chose to live apart from her husband for months (partially because of the security bill and NYC congestion, but it was more than that). Those same people barely remember that there was talk Bill Clinton might not live in the White House. If that had happened--would it have been okay? Because it is still, many years after Nora's feminist stand, more acceptable for a man to live on his own.

After A Doll's House Part 2, and my mother's reaction to it, I couldn't help thinking about all of this. That same day video came out where Melania slapped away Donald's hand, much the same way Nora swats away Torvald. And that is something we're now used to--not when the First Lady does it, but, in general, women swat men away, even if they happen to be married to the man in question. That is something that was not acceptable when A Doll's House was written. Then again A Doll's House Part 2 is of this time. Lucas Hnath did not write it in 1879 or 1904--he wrote it with our norms in mind. He wrote it knowing that Nora's famous door slam in the original A Doll's House, so controversial in its time, barely causes anyone to blink now. Yet it is also clear from the text he knows the audience viewing the play does not think of men and women as totally equal. In fact, many of the laughs come from assertions that they are or will be sometime soon (sometime soon being in the early 1900s based on when the play takes place). The play succeeds by playing off the tension between what exists now and what you could see someone like Nora thinking might exist. When Vassar went co-ed in the late 1960s, its head made a statement that essentially said the school was a pioneer and the other Seven Sisters would follow its lead. Well years later all-women's colleges remain. In much that same way, Nora walks out and, in Hnath's version, forms her own life, blazes her own trail. She is a success. She doesn't need marriage and that proves no one does. So it is no surprise she thinks others will follow her lead. And, to a great extent in 2017, we've seen that happen. There are so many successful women. But do we live in a world where there is perfect equality and marriage is no longer an institution? Nope. Hnath wrote A Doll's House Part 2 knowing that of course, and playing that up to great effect.

In the end, I continue to be surprised by my mother's reaction. If she didn't like it, okay, she doesn't like everything. But the reason she didn't like this one I find surprising. In 2017. For a 90-minute play that we know isn't based in reality. Nora, as she exists in the theater, is like many real women today, but she is also a woman many women still cannot understand.

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