What "The Heidi Chronicles" Gets Right About Feminism And Gay Men
Wendy Wasserstein's iconic play, now being revived on Broadway, underlines important truths about the need for gay men to support women — a point Patricia Arquette, and others, have struggled to articulate.
It's been more than 25 years since Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize–winning drama The Heidi Chronicles premiered, and the fact that the play remains as relevant as ever is more than a little depressing. The iconic feminist text — currently on Broadway in a revival with Elisabeth Moss in the title role — chronicles Heidi Holland's life from 1965 to 1989 as a fervent activist for women and an accomplished art historian. The play's concerns about female representation and society's skewed expectations for women are as pointed now as they were then, but there's something particularly pressing about the way The Heidi Chronicles addresses the fraught relationship between women's rights and queer rights.
One of the most important men in Heidi's life is her best friend Peter Patrone (played by Bryce Pinkham in the revival), a gay pediatrician who comes out to Heidi in the first act. As the play goes on, Peter advocates for his own rights and acceptance, and ultimately struggles to maintain his composure as AIDS takes a devastating toll on his community. While The Heidi Chronicles is not a play about LGBT rights, the relationship between Heidi and Peter is central — particularly in terms of how the friends support each other in their separate quests for agency and respect. The play posits that for gay men who want the support of their heterosexual female friends, fighting for women's rights is equally essential.
That's something many gay men in 2015 need to be reminded of, and it's what Patricia Arquette was trying to get at in her Oscars speech and her controversial remarks in the press room in February: "It's time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we've all fought for to fight for us now." Arquette was criticized for ignoring intersectionality — naturally there are plenty of queer people and POC who are also women — but if her remarks can be taken, in part, as a call-out to gay men in particular, she's not entirely off-base. In November, Rose McGowan also drew ire when she called gay men "misogynistic" in their failure to campaign for women's rights. And just last month, Madonna declared, "Gay rights are way more advanced than women's rights. People are a lot more open-minded to the gay community than they are to women, period." Her point, however muddled, was that women need the support of gay men more than ever before.
In The Heidi Chronicles, these issues play out in a scene in which Peter comes out to Heidi while she's protesting the need for more women in art. "Heidi, I'm gay, OK?" he tells her. "And my liberation, my pursuit of happiness, and the pursuit of happiness of other men like me is just as politically and socially valid as hanging a couple of god-damned paintings because they were signed by someone named Nancy, Gladys, or Gilda. And that is why I came to see you today. I am demanding your equal time and consideration."
It's true that Heidi initially has trouble accepting Peter's sexual identity — it's 1974, after all — but she quickly corrects herself and embraces him, while also telling him she'd like to meet his boyfriend. At the end of the scene, they're joined by a cute waiter named Mark, and Heidi asks the two men to march with her, despite the fact that Peter was previously turned away from the "women-only" protest. Handing Mark a picket sign, Heidi echoes Peter's earlier statement: "I am demanding your equal time and consideration."
It's just one line, but it's a staggering statement that informs the relationship between Heidi and Peter for the remainder of the play. They stand behind one another, and when one of them falters, the other calls them out. The Heidi Chronicles stresses the importance of constant support between women and gay men. As Peter later articulates, Heidi is a member of his chosen family: She is tasked with being there for him in a way his biological family has not been. By that same token, when Heidi feels somewhat abandoned by the family she has chosen — left behind by friends who have decided to settle down or otherwise move on with their lives — it is still Peter she turns to.
Twenty-five years after Heidi and Peter's story first played out onstage, some of the concerns of feminism and queer rights have shifted, but other issues, sadly, have stayed the same. Women's health in particular has seen a period of regression, with constant new laws enacted to turn back the clock on reproductive rights. And, as Patricia Arquette noted in her speech, women earning less for doing the same jobs men do is, somehow, not an embarrassing relic of the past. This is not to say that the struggles of queer people need to take a backseat. But while many straight women have proudly marched for marriage equality, for example, gay men are rarely heard speaking out for equal pay and abortion rights. There's a clear disparity at play.
We can pick apart statements made by Arquette, Rose McGowan, and Madonna, because they ultimately do fall short of their intended goal. But on a far more basic level, a woman asking her gay male friend for his "equal time and consideration" is both an inarguable concept and essential to shared survival. Wasserstein understood this when she wrote The Heidi Chronicles, and a quarter century later, in the first Broadway revival of any Wasserstein play, those words echo with profundity.