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Sensitive Guys

"Fierce without being morally prescriptive, trigger-warning-level confronting"

Audrey review: MJ Kaufman's brilliant satire highlights the insidious language and systematic silencing coded into people and institutions.

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Sensitive Guys

Date: 2 May 2019

One of the strengths of the #MeToo movement is how it has forced recognition and accountability for what most of us always knew was true.

For instance: groping women is not okay. Nor is sex without consent or using euphemisms to describe rape.

But what the recent wave of allegations, court cases, media coverage, personal testimonies and the occasional conviction has also made clear – and what is harder to grapple with – is that sexual assault is never a clear-cut matter.

Survivors rarely have a dossier of evidence to support their claim. All rapes don’t look alike. And then there’s the unsettled question of whether a perpetrator can attain or deserves ‘redemption’ – and under what timeline.

It’s the messiness of real-life stories that MJ Kaufman’s brilliant social satire works through, along with the insidious, systematic silencing that is coded into people and institutions, and doggedly attempts to delegitimise these tales.

Sensitive Guys has its Australian premiere in the capable hands of director Blazey Best, with a top-notch all-female cast playing roles of both genders.

Fierce without being morally prescriptive, trigger-warning-level confronting, and laced with comedy through rapid, interweaving dialogue, this powerful Cross Pollinate Productions staging is one to see.

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The audience is placed in a small liberal arts college, invited into the safe spaces of two affiliated campus groups.

One is an all-female sexual assault survivor group, the other, a men’s peer education group. Each has formed out of a commitment to transformative justice, with the aim to actively dismantle a culture of male entitlement, violence and privilege.

The earnest efforts to accomplish this are often hilarious, jabbing sardonically at society’s overanxious attention to sensitive language, which can so often pass as a substitute to actual behaviour change. To give one example, Danny tells Tyler not to use the word ‘step forward’ but ‘move forward’ because the word ‘step’ is ableist.

Then it comes out that one of the women, a new recruit named Leslie, was assaulted by one of the allegedly sister-supporting bros. After seeking help from university management, she was angrily advised to take a semester off.

The scene, imprinted onto memory through Sophie Bekbilimli’s high-contrast lighting, encapsulated everything abhorrently wrong with a university administration motivated primarily by the terror of letting truth sabotage public reputation.

Sensitive Guys is asking important questions:

How far from a frat boy is the man versed in liberal progressive rhetoric if a fundamental resentment towards women remains?

Is male collaboration towards a feminist future a realisable ideal, or is it just a strategy to gain control over shifting power structures in uncertain times?

Is the expectation to receive female praise for behaviour change (like not gagging during a conversation on free bleeding) just another, era-adapted symptom of male entitlement?

“Will you even be there for my thesis screening?” Jordan yells at Amy after she tells him she wants to go on a break. Further context: Jordan has also just said he probably wouldn’t report a group member who’d confessed they’d assaulted a woman.

In the wake of the scandal, the identity and agenda of both collectives is tested. Which comes first: the group or the individual? What sacrifices have to be made? In the background, we witness agents of authority – desperate to keep the grand narrative wholesome, simple and inspiring – become toxic enablers of the very culture they vow to depose.

The young performers all do justice to Kaufman’s script. Nancy Denis impresses with a particularly strong and versatile performance. The same can be said for relative newcomer Natasha Cheng. She plays her dude so well.

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