"Today you can fight for equal rights and still enjoy being a woman," says Elisabeth Moss, star of TV's "Mad Men," back on Broadway in the revival of Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Heidi Chronicles. In fact, she says, "You can have a strong female character who is slightly f**ked up."
This season Moss joins several other women playing roles that question the role of women in society; characters ranging from the bad-ass Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall to the wise-ass Alison Bechdel in Fun Home.
Just Released! The First Pics of Elisabeth Moss, Jason Biggs and Bryce Pinkham in Broadway's The Heidi Chronicles
"I covet my independence," says Wasserstein's heroine, a line that could easily emanate from any of the three, as well as from Moss's best-known part, "Mad Men"'s groundbreaking copywriter Peggy Olsen. Both Peggy and Heidi confront the women's liberation movement of the 1960s, though "Peggy wasn't even aware that she was making strides," Moss says. "She felt like she deserved it but no one was telling her that it was something that she should want." Contrast that with Heidi Holland, whose activist cohorts would be appalled by the play's pink logo and rom-com style ad campaign, which recall third-wave feminist Pinkfloor's comment, "It's possible to have a push-up bra and brain at the same time."
As a child actor in LA (she played Baby Louise opposite Bette Midler in the televised Gypsy) Moss grew up unaware of feminism. "My generation had it better," she says, "though women still don't make as much money as men."
In the some-things-never-change category, Moss admits, "When you get into your thirties, there's this thing that happens — there's this question on the table that everyone asks: When are you going to have kids?"
"That's why it's such a good time for a revival," she adds. "There's Heidi's line at the end about hoping things get better for her kid. When the play was written, we didn't know how things would turn out but, in fact, things are better today."
Concern for the next generation provides the central conflict of Wolf Hall, the Royal Shakespeare Company's two-part retelling of Hilary Mantel's best-selling novels adapted by Mike Poulton. Set in 16th-century England, the play portrays the political intrigue surrounding King Henry VIII's inability to produce a male heir. British actress Lydia Leonard scored rave reviews in London for her "sharp-toothed" portrayal of Henry's second wife Anne Boleyn, who is determined to keep her daughter (the future Elizabeth I) as "England's only heir."
"I am Perseverance," says Anne, another line that could apply to all three women. "The men around Anne assume by helping her she will continue to be a pawn in their aspirations," Leonard says, "But what I find fascinating — and admirable — about her is that she has no intention of relinquishing the status and power she has gained."
Exercising that power includes an opportunity to engage in stage combat, a rare opportunity for women onstage. "It's the kind of thing you spend ages learning at drama school, and haven't used since," she says. "It's satisfying to pull off a really good slap!"
Anne's rise to power makes her a target of vicious slander, including attacks on her appearance. She's frequently referred to as "the flat chested one," a physical characteristic Leonard says is difficult to achieve in a corset "as everything is pushed upwards." Also in the some-things-never-change category, Leonard points out that 21st century women receive the same treatment. "Sexual slurs on a woman's character are still the most effective way to shut down a woman today." Sexual slurs are just what actress Beth Malone experienced while riding her bike in New York City recently. Having cut her hair short to play lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel in the musical adaptation of Bechdel's graphic memoir Fun Home (book and lyrics by Lisa Kron; music by Jeanine Tesori), Malone reports that "someone with an amazing grasp of the obvious" yelled, "Dyke!" at her. The slur made Malone recognize the bravery of lesbians who reject the cultural norm of femininity and female beauty. "When you present as butch, your identity in the world changes."
Malone, whose work in TV commercials has given her "more husbands and boyfriends than any lesbian I know," describes herself as "part dude, part lady, full-time lesbian." In terms of discrimination she admits, "I've gotten off easy. I can 'pass' in my real life." But now, with her regulation style haircut, Malone "can't shake this identify off when I leave the theatre."
Fun Home makes history as the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist. Prior musicals have included lesbians as supporting characters, as in Rent and Falsettos, but a butch lesbian has often been treated as the punch line or the butt of the joke, (think Roz in 9 to 5 and the lighting designer in "Keep It Gay" from The Producers).
Even more groundbreaking is that the character defies traditional gender roles by appearing so masculine. "Some people think I'm a man until I start singing," Malone says. Her characterization of Bechdel is so true-to-life that "People wonder whether this is a cartoonist they roped in off the street."
All three of these roles question the role of women in society, each breaking boundaries for future generations. As Fun Home's Alison says (in yet another line that any of them might express), "Wow. I had no idea what was coming."