(Mostly) In Defense of RENT

Here’s a story:

Our characters are a diverse bunch (although the leads are likely white men, but also we’ve got some variety in sexual orientation and race and gender) who don’t like paying for their living situation.  They’re kind of artsy and liberal across the board, maybe some of them do drugs, though certainly not everyone, and there’s a reasonable percentage of them who’ve come from a solidly middle class background, but who go around telling everyone how poor they are, and overall, you could say they’re pretty content.

But wait!  Here’s a kink in our plot!  Some authority figure who our characters thought they could trust wants to disrupt things and to build a bougie creative space it’s unclear if anyone actually wants, but goddamnit, they’re gonna do it.  Cue creative if ineffective protests, grumbling, name calling and displacement.

Now here’s the question: is this the plot of RENT, or is it about the “entrepreneur space” being built on the second floor of my college library?

Ha!  Trick question!  The answer is both!

You’re thinking, “Amber, where are you going with this?”  And let me tell you, just stick with me, it’s going to be great.

My school loves the hell out of a good controversy.  Our most recent and most vehement issue on campus is the creation of an entrepreneurship space, not just any old place, but on the second floor of the library, where, you know, people study and find books and stuff.  The administration seemingly dropped it out of the sky and put the wheels in motion before anyone had to much chance to protest.  When it did come to light, it became clear that at least 50% of the study body wasn’t pleased.

Because ‘liberal arts’ and ‘well-rounded education’ are not quite the buzzwords they once were, it’s become something of a trend here to emphasize the less ‘arty’ parts of ‘liberal arts’.  The STEM, economics, and comp sci departments have boomed over the past four years – more funding, more focus in recruiting, etc., etc.  When I arrived way back in 2013, internationalism was the name of the game.  But the selling points have changed.

The entrepreneurship space has been advertised as a ‘creative space’ for… well, we don’t really know.  Rumor has it there will be a sewing machine and maybe some Legos, and perhaps some fun shaped tables to be inspiring, I guess.  They’re taking suggestions, so I hear.  Part of the problem is that nobody really knows what’s going on.  The humanities side of the college, however, is feeling pretty PO’d because this project represents the growing privileging of business on campus and the diminishing support by the admin of the humanities.  And they’ve plopped it in the library, the spiritual home of the humanities.  Where are all the books currently occupying that part of the floor going to go?  What’s going to make up for the loss in storage and study space?  I’ve personally been to the dumpster where they’re chucking backlogs of journals and unused books, and can only speculate that they’re probably connected.

And now to return to where we began: RENT.

The similarities between the entrepreneurship center and the crux of RENT’s first act struck me one day when a group of friends and I were walking home from getting drinks.  We were complaining about all of the above, when I stopped in my tracks and said to myself, “Isn’t this the plot of RENT?”  I asked my friends this and they laughed and shrugged.

But one of them said, “No, RENT is about a bunch of people who have the unrealistic expectation that they don’t have to work to pay rent.”

I mean… fair point, honestly.

(Note: I swear this is the one and only time I’m going to pull a “well, technically….”: Mark and Roger (and presumably everybody else in that building) had been paying rent until Benny bought the building and promised them they didn’t have to.  It’s not like they just started refusing to pay out of the blue.  Then Benny shows up and demands a full year’s rent by Christmas!  Christmas, I tell you!  Nobody is going to be able to come up with a year’s worth of rent out of nowhere, especially when you were promised you didn’t have to think about it.  I’m just saying.)

It’s RENT’s 20th anniversary this year, and I’ve seen a lot of mixed feelings about it.  People argue that the music/the story/the characters are dated, or that it’s a ridiculous plot because of course you have to pay rent, duh (which is, again, true.  See note above).  People criticize primarily Mark (and to a lesser extent, Roger) for being a white middle class, heterosexual, all around pretty privileged man, who chooses to be poor and disadvantaged, who we know has a supportive and stable family situation, but who play acts at poverty for his art.  And you know what?  That’s also completely accurate.

But I find a kind of irony in the criticism my friend pointed at RENT, because no small percentage of us at this school are in a similar boat.  Majority white, majority well-enough-off, protesting a change to our holistic liberal arts, while professing the truth that I kid you not every college student has said at least once, “I’m poor, I’m a college student.”  It’s easy for us to say, because we don’t really mean it, forgetting that there are some who do.

RENT is not problem-free.  Not at all.  But I think it’s useless to get caught up on the “we’re not going to pay rent” thing (and as for Mark… we’ll get back to him), because the show was and continues to be revolutionary in so many other ways.  So let’s make a list!

  • We have depictions of drug use that do not come with immediate moral condemnations.  Roger is a former user (and we can still see how it’s affecting him) and Mimi uses throughout the play, but neither are portrayed as evil or morally debauched.
  • Speaking of Mimi, guess who’s super sex-positive and works at a strip club but isn’t shamed for it or denied happiness or inclusion?
  • Not to mention Mimi is traditionally a Latina character.
  • Maureen is canonically bisexual,
  • And in an interracial relationship (albeit not the most healthy of relationships).
  • But look at Joanne – a gay, black, female lawyer who rocks at her job and is powerful and smart.
  • Collins is a black intellectual.
  • And Angel, the darling of all our hearts – there is some disagreement as to whether s/he is transgender or a drag queen.  But I think of how much trans rights have entered the media since twenty years ago, and in any case, she is the radical beacon of love and hope and acceptance at the center of the play.  S/he and Collins have the most functional and powerful relationship of all.

This all goes without mentioning the running undercurrent of AIDS, which not only killed millions in the 80s and 90s when RENT came out, including the creator of RENT, Johnathan Larson, but was also horribly and tremendously stigmatized, leaving many to die in fear and shame.  They were kicked out of hospitals, denied treatment, and people quite literally were afraid to even touch them.

Mimi, Collins, Roger, and Angel all have AIDS.  But Johnathan Larson tells us they are all deserving of love, redemption, forgiveness, family, no matter their identity or their contraction point.

And yet somehow, despite the argument that the play makes for the validity of diverse identities, we’re still talking about how it’s stupid to teach theater goers that rent should be free.  I feel like somebody missed a point somewhere.

If you want to talk about rent, talk about how the play employs it as a metaphor for our limited time on Earth together, our inability to ever completely control the circumstances of our own lives :

I think they meant it
When they said you can’t buy love
Now I know you can rent it
A new lease you are my love
On life, oh my life…

— “I’ll Cover You”

Or how about the sense that the modern age does not provide us the means to ever truly own ourselves, how we must make meaning by fumbling through the actions, and expending ourselves for those little moments:

So I own not a notion
I escape and ape content
I don’t own emotion, I rent

— “What You Own”

Maybe Mark and the gang don’t pay literal rent, but they make up for it in emotional tolls.

(Get it?  Clever, right?)

And – oh yeah – there’s Mark, again, our problem child.  What do we do with Mark?

It’s true Mark comes from a lot of privilege.  He has the option to decide at any moment his suffering is too uncomfortable and then pick up and leave, which is something the other characters can’t do.  His mom calls – she gets him a hotplate – and it’s clear from the beginning that his ‘starving artist’ is more like a ‘dieting filmmaker’ kind of deal.  Mark thinks he can do this with impunity, that he can use poverty as an exotic inspiration for his art.  I don’t want to excuse this or diminish its problematic-ness in any way.

At the same time, I wonder how many people going to see this on Broadway had much, if any, firsthand experience with poverty and AIDS.  I could see Mark, particularly when the play first came out, as a sort of audience surrogate.  He is the entryway into the play, literally, from the first scene, and his camera work is a method of showing the audience a different world.  I don’t have any statistics on Broadway audiences, but I’m willing to bet that like Mark, it’s majority white, stable financially, and artistically minded.  My theory is that maybe his problematic-ness is intentional in some way.  (Whether or not this makes it acceptable is up to you.)

And it’s not as if RENT is blind of Mark’s privilege.  Several characters call him out on it, most notably, when he is attempting to film the police harassing a homeless woman. Once the police leave she turns to Mark:

Who the fuck do you think you are?
I don’t need any goddamn help
From some bleeding heart cameraman
My life’s not for you to
Make a name for yourself on!

Just trying to use me to kill his guilt
It’s not that kind of movie, honey
Let’s go – This lot is full of
Motherfucking artists
Hey artist
You gotta dollar?
I thought not.

— “On the Street”

Much more so in the play than in the movie, RENT addresses poverty and recognizes the hypocrisy of its own characters’ beliefs.  Many of the short songs in between the well known hits are sung by a chorus of people on the street, often suggesting people who are homeless or sick or struggling to get by.  It isn’t one of the main points of the musical, but RENT is aware that Mark and the chorus inhabit different worlds and that there is conflict and condescension inherent in their interactions.  Perhaps by the end Mark is supposed to have learned something about this, or perhaps he continues in his ignorance.  It’s an ambiguous point.  But if we can say anything about it, comparing his first awkward-as-heck visit to the life support meeting and his deepening embrace of Angel and her identity (such as his pronoun correction in “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)”, or the featuring of Angel at the center of his film that ends the play), we can at least guess Mark might be getting somewhere.  And hopefully, so has the audience.

Another thing to add:  Mark is canonically Jewish, which in case we’ve forgotten, is a group also traditionally subject to intense and violent prejudice.

All in all, my point being, despite the fact that RENT gets shit from the exact same kind of person that they’re giving it shit about featuring, it’s a fantastic musical.  It’s beautiful and emotional, features acceptance and diversity, and negotiates the subtleties of class and status to a 90s rock and roll soundtrack while looking a lot like a couple of love stories.  It’s not perfect, but that’s the point.  We’re meant to accept it, like its characters, flaws and all.


Reclaiming Myself: Thoughts on Tattoos and Depression

Nearly anyone you ask who has tattoos will tell you it’s kind of addictive.  I can confirm this, because in two weeks, I have an appointment scheduled to start on my third.  I’m not sure what it is about getting one that is so magnetic, but I remember I’d barely left the shop after finishing my first before I decided that I would be back.  It was only a matter of time.  I loved the process, the hum of the needle drumming against skin and muscle until you’re achy and numb, the smell of the ink and the antibiotic ointment, the plasma, the plain soap and unscented lotion I use for months afterward.  I just frickin’ love the smell of new tattoos. And (although maybe that’s kind of weird), I know I’m not alone in this drive to fill my body with art and drop hundreds of dollars while I’m at it – I’ve had this conversation many a time.


Tat #1, back a couple of years when it was new

What is it about tattoos that’s so special?

Obviously, there’s no single answer.  But personally, my newest ink coincides with another major life change, meaning that as I’m counting down the days til that new tattoo smell, I’m also just a few weeks away from graduating college.

Let me explain why these are related: I’ve gotten a tattoo ever year since my sophomore year.  That was also the year of a deeply traumatic breakup that coincided with the manifestation of my depression and general anxiety (but just so we’re clear, the tattoo did come first in that sequence of events).  It’s not surprising, because statistics show that most mental illness seriously presents between the ages of 18 and 22.  But contrast this fact with the image we circulate in American society that your college years are supposed to be some of the best years of your life – see an issue?  Not only was I depressed and only just beginning to realize that anxiety was eating away both at myself and my interactions with others, but I have also felt deeply and grievously guilty that I was not having the proper college experience.  In fact, I’m willing to say that I hated it about as equally as I enjoyed it.  And that’s normal.

I got two tattoos, I got (and am still getting) help.  And now college, this symbol of my first struggle with major depression, is coming to an end.

A while back, I read this article by John Donovan, where he discusses the results of a study by Jerry Koch, a Texas Tech sociologist who studies body art.  Koch argues that women who have 3-4+ tattoos often have higher self-esteem, but also have struggled with mental health issues, namely suicide attempts.  And even though Koch acknowledges that by no means is this a fully comprehensive survey (obviously not every tattoo aficionado is horribly depressed), he says, “We’re speculating that there’s a connection there, that the acquisition of body art up to that point might be an effort at a sort of emotional restoration…”

To steal a little more from Donovan’s article, Koch goes on to speculate, “I would suspect that part of why people seek to attempt suicide is they get the idea that who they are isn’t worthy of life… and once they survive that, maybe they’re saying, ‘Hey, screw you, I’m worthy, and here’s the proof. I’ll adorn myself and present myself, maybe in a pretty dramatic way, just so you know for sure that I’m who I am.’”

(A side note: if you are now opening a new tab to Google something like “women + depression + tattoos”, stop what you’re doing and… no, just stop.  There are some fantastically misogynistic posts on this subject.  Be careful out there, friends.)

Personally, I’ve never attempted suicide.  I know and have known people who have, and I’m so thankful that most of them are still with us.  If you are looking for a sign to stay alive, right here, right now, I’m telling you: please, your pain means something, we care about you, and as much as it feels like forever, nothing truly is.

Personally, on the other hand, I have spent my fair share of time in passive suicidal thoughts, the sort of thing where I think, “I really would rather be dead right now,” or “If I could just not exist for a little while that would be great,” or “I feel so screwed up I might as well be dead.” (As I write this, I feel like I’m exaggerating – that I don’t want the folks at home to think things are this bad.  And they’re not – most of the time.  But given that these are all thoughts I have literally had, they don’t really qualify for the exaggeration realm.)

My main point is that when you spend all that time suffering, isolated by an invisible illness, besieged by the weight of your twisted perceptions of reality, battered by your brain into the belief of your own worthlessness, you don’t even feel like a real person anymore.  You get confused about who you are, why you’re even on this planet (or any other, not judging), what the value of your individuality is – what is the worth of my soul?

And so, Koch’s conclusion make sense to me, because they are the conclusions that I too have come to.  I have felt for so long that this body is not my home, angry that I didn’t choose it, didn’t choose to be alive in it, didn’t choose to fill it with strange and crushing sadness.  I have felt as if my life has been inhabited by a stranger who goes through the motions of day-to-day living, this gray, vague fog that has made this skin dull and un-enthused.

When I choose to put something on my body, I have chosen a little bit more of myself to voluntarily stay in the world.  It’s as if 90% of my body was taken hostage by this illness, and each tattoo, each quantity of skin I cover, I take back for myself.  I bump it down.  80%.  75%.  It’s like saying to my depression, “You don’t own me.”  These tattoos are the parts of myself choosing life, on my terms.  I would like to think of them as my movement towards a more authentic life, becoming braver and bolder and learning to stand up for myself and my enough-ness.  They are pictographs of the person inside of me, working her way to the surface.  Or I guess, from the surface, into my skin. (Ha, it’s a tattoo joke, get it? Because the ink has to settle… Never mind.)

Tattoos have been permanence when I am faced with upheaval, markers of strength when I don’t feel so strong.  It feels fitting to add another to my collection as I reach the denouement of my college career and turn toward the future.

Plus, they’re just cool.

Of Eaten Plums & Love Poems


“This Is Just To Say”, by William Carlos Williams, is one of my favorite poems in the entire world.  I have a deep love for the sparsity of William’s style, the way he creates evocative images by refraining from complication, allowing his words a certain purity, the verbs and adjectives standing for themselves, un-harried by figurative language.  They evoke in me the same feeling I get when staring especially at impressionist paintings – you know that in the real world, that shadow they’ve painted is not actually violet on a cream-colored sleeve, but it looks so true, so honest to the very nature of the thing that it seems even truer than reality.  It’s the kind of simplicity and frankness of vision that almost always makes me want to cry from its beauty.

If William Carlos Williams doesn’t ring an immediate bell, you might know this poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

It’s perhaps his most popular, most-studied-in-schools poem.  But just look at the way he breaks up words to make their images strike you: ‘wheel/barrow’, ‘rain/water’, ‘white/chickens’.  Look at the most perfect use of the word ‘glazed’ ever put to paper – ‘glazed with rain’, how much feeling is in its simplicity, this little verdant farmyard, these living things, the world of rain and white chickens and red wheelbarrows.

But I’m getting off-topic.  Here is the poem in question:

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Now the story goes of this 1934 poem, that Williams wrote this as a note to his wife, after eating her plums, I guess, and then picked it up later as a piece of ‘found poetry’.  It’s absolutely so mundane, that interpretations of it have run the gamut, from “literally, he’s just apologizing to his wife, the dude ate her plums” to biblical Adam-and-Eve apple, sin, sexuality, ‘academia’ types.

I certainly am in no better position to judge Williams’ intentions than anyone else, but in my mind, this is a love poem.  I guess it’s not a popular opinion, or even a faintly common one, but it feels so intimate, so personal, that I can’t help feeling that we’re made privy for just a moment, to the inner workings of a relationship, a gesture of subdued passion between lovers.

“This Is Just To Say” implies such familiarity, an ‘oh, by the way’.  He knows the recipient’s (his wife’s) habits – that she is saving the plums for breakfast, in all likelihood.  And yet there is also this moment of impulse, that the plums were “so sweet/ and so cold” that he could not help himself, could not stop himself from eating them, and the quiet passion he describes them with: “they were delicious/ so sweet/ and so cold,” as if it were the way he were describing a lover in the early morning.

The interplay Williams achieves between passion and restraint, longing and satisfaction is perhaps to me what makes this a love poem, understated as it may be.  He writes this to her because he loves her, and everything about it feels organic – that it was not written as a poem, but was created from truth, that his actions are not thought through but natural, as if characterizing also their relationship, its tenderness and its earthiness and its spontaneity and its rightness.  It rings so intimate in its mundane subject, as if saying, these, these are the small moments where love is found.

Or, you know, might just be about plums.

(Postscript: It is a true fact that I tried plums for the first time in my life completely because of this poem.  They are indeed wonderful fruits.)