I hesitate to use the word “authentic” to describe any book, but that’s precisely how Catherine Hernandez’s Kilt Pins felt to me. Hernandez writes about a group of girls in a Catholic high school in Scarborough, who explore their developing sexuality amongst the teachings of the Church that they’re inundated with daily. The story revolves around Dee, her classmate Anna and Anna’s boyfriend Chris, and the series of events that kicks off when Dee realizes Chris is attracted to her.
I love how Hernandez depicts Dee’s hesitation and uncertainty in her desire for Chris. Their story is punctuated by a chorus of girls reciting “rules” about sex that they claim to be certain about, even as they can’t help but reveal how unreliable and at times contradictory the rules actually are. Take for example how after a scene where Chris and Dee have sex, three of her classmates recite Rule #6: “You are in complete control.” The girls continue in this vein for a few more lines, until one interjects, “Unless you’re in the back of a car,” and the others follow up with a few other exceptions until the girls finally conclude in a chorus:
TERESA, ANNA & ASHA: But otherwise, you are under complete control. Rule #2:
DEE: There’s no turning back. [pp. 6-7]
It’s such a real portrait of being a teenager and being curious about sexual desire but hearing from adults only that you shouldn’t be having these feelings in the first place. As a result, you have no one to turn to but your friends, who are likely as clueless as you are.
Rule #6 in particular may sound naive, but also echoes the gendered double standard girls are taught about sex, that boys naturally have sexual desire and therefore it’s the girl’s responsibility to keep things from going too far. Thankfully, with social media, more people are pointing out the fallacy and sexism of that adage, but seeing the girls in this play repeating it as if it were gospel is a powerful reminder of how insidious it can be to teach such double standards to children.
I also love the scenes with teachers talking about sex, which reminds me of things teachers at my Catholic high school said, and which Hernandez treats with wonderfully light irony and humour. In one of my favourite scenes, Sister Grace is talking to the class about “Excuses Your Boyfriend May Give You for Having Sex and Arguments Against It.” First, I love that she uses a transparency on a projector! And second, the dialogue is hilarious: Sister Grace argues that people may think sex is good exercise, but in reality, penetration burns only 100 calories. A student asks the logical question: What about everything else?
STUDENT #1: Like the kissing and touching beforehand. What kind of sex only burns one hundred calories?
SISTER GRACE: The kind of sex that creates a child. [p. 38]
It’s a funny throwaway line, but it’s also a reminder of the Catholic Church’s teaching that the purpose of sex is procreation, not pleasure. It’s likely the Church has loosened up somewhat on this since I was in school, but I certainly remember being taught that masturbation was a sin because it was selfish, and it was selfish because it was only about self-pleasure and not at all about using love to create a child. So this scene really hit the mark.
Beyond the critical eye on rules and teachings around sexuality, Kilt Pins also explores the way boys and romance can wreak havoc on teenage hormones and how genuine all the emotional turmoil feels when you’re a teenager. Anna turns full on mean girl bully on Dee over Chris, and Dee in turn realizes how Chris is very much not worth the hassle but it doesn’t stop the bullying. I love how Anna isn’t a one dimensional villain and how Hernandez shows her vulnerability, which is very much tied to her motivation for wanting to hold on to Chris.
In her introduction to the text, Hernandez asks anyone putting on the play to “approach the characters with the utmost respect,” and resist turning any of the characters into caricatures. The text itself certainly doesn’t lend itself to caricature, and I’m impressed at how complex and textured Hernandez was able to make these characters in such a brief amount of time. If you grew up Catholic, you will likely see your teen years reflected in these pages. It’s very well done.
Thank you to Playwrights Canada Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.