Theatre Critic and Journalist

Selfies on Stage: Girls Like That

Selfies on Stage: Girls Like That

Published in the Guardian, 4.11.2014

On YouTube, Amanda Todd holds flash cards up to a webcam, detailing how, at 14, she was blackmailed into exposing her breasts online. A screengrab of that moment then followed her from school to school, and, eventually, all the way to suicide. One card says it all: “I can never get that photo back.”

Two years after Todd’s death, her story has inspired a new play, Girls Like That, which opens this week at the Unicorn, a theatre for young audiences. In the play, a co-production between the Unicorn and Synergy Theatre Project, a girl called Scarlett, who is much the same age as Todd, finds a candid cameraphone image of her being shared among her schoolmates. Scarlett the Harlot, they call her.

Prior to its Unicorn run, Girls Like That was performed in schools, which, according to Synergy’s artistic director Esther Baker, has led to some lively post-show discussions. “Everyone’s got something to say. They all recognise it. You ask who’s on social media and everyone is. They’re all on Snapchat, Whatsapp. It’s part of the culture, which is fantastic, but it can be exploited.”

What fascinated playwright Evan Placey about the Todd case was the media response, which seemed to place the blame entirely on the male blackmailer. It’s more complex than that, he says. “We’re all to blame. It’s not just about who sent the photos, but how everyone else reacted. It’s about joint responsibility.” He wrote Girls Like That for a chorus, with events recounted by Scarlett’s peers. “It’s not any [particular] one of those girls that’s to blame. It’s all of them and none of them.”

Complicity extends beyond the classroom. Placey cites the paparazzi’s topless shots of Kate Middleton – “I had to stop myself from looking” – and an “age-old double-standard: men applauded as Casanovas, women denigrated for the same thing.” One of his characters puts it like this: if a key opens many locks, it’s a good key; if a lock opens easily, it’s a bad lock. “I stole that line from a kid. This girl said it so casually.” She’d picked it up from her brother.

One recent scientific study has declared that sexting might be a “new ‘normal’ part of adolescent sexual development.” But normal does not mean harmless. “I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with sending a naked photo,” Placey tells me. “We say things like, ‘Don’t send naked photos. Don’t look at porn. Don’t do this or that.’ But those things are happening, so we need to be having a conversation about them. What are those images in porn? What do we think about them? Why send a photo? Do we feel pressure to do that? How do we react?”

The point, for Placey, is that adults aren’t taking the lead in those conversations. “We’re still really afraid of anything to do with sex,” he says – particularly so when it comes to young people. “To have conversations about naked photos and security, we have to admit that young people are sexual. That’s really difficult.”

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