If you’re a person who’s reached the glorious age of No F***s Forties, then you’re already probably familiar with the groundbreaking Alanis Morissette album Jagged Little Pill. In fact, if you’re a woman of a certain age, many of her songs were likely your high school or college anthems. Whether it’s the rage in “You Oughtta Know” (and yes, Dave Coulier has admitted it’s at least partly about him) or the non-irony of “Isn’t It Ironic,” you’ve probably hummed a lot of these songs to yourself over the years. If you’re a huge Alanis fan, then you’re probably one of those people questioning whether or not a musical based on the album is going to be a hit or miss. My friends, it is a hit. It is a 120% hit. If I had to describe the show, I’d basically call it “if Rent and Dear Evan Hansen had a beautiful queer baby.”
Go further not, lest ye be spoiled. Trigger warning: sexual assault, rape, depression, drug overdose.
And, in case that wasn’t enough of a warning, let me be straight up clear: to explain why this musical is so important for parents and tweens/teens to watch together, I have to explain a lot of the plot. If you want to go in blind, do not read any further.
As we walked into the theater, the ticket collector looked at my kid (short for 11) and said, “the show is recommended for kids 14 and over.” While I appreciate both the warning and slight judgment, I also know that in our family we have been discussing many of these themes. I also know that in our family, my kid listens to a lot of pop and hip-hop music that discuss things like sex and drugs. We answer questions. If you’re that kind of family, the earlier you can take your kids to see this, the better. If you’re not, that’s fine—and then this may not be the show for you. However, the show’s themes are things that our kids—some good, some bad—will experience.
As a mom and former teacher, I think that talking to kids about difficult issues is sometimes easier through fiction. At the end of this article, you’ll find some discussion questions that can help guide you through the important conversations about the issues, events, and character decisions that, hopefully, help open communication between you and your kids based on the shared experience of watching the show.
Reason 1: Queer Representation
Let me be “straight” with you, I am a cis-presenting, heterosexual, non-binary identifying person. One thing I’ve always told people is that “my brain is a man, but my body is a woman.” When the term nonbinary started showing up in media, my first thought was, “that is me, finally.” However, I do not have body dysphoria. I do, however, have a lot of queer friends with a lot of different presentations—gay, lesbian, trans, nonbinary, bisexual—you name it, they’re in my contacts list. It was one of my queer friends from law school who told me, “you have to see this musical.”
Everything—and let me be clear—everything in this show is about normalizing varied queer identities that our youths hold. We have, represented as high schoolers, a:
- Bisexual main character
- Nonbinary main character
- Straight main character
- Lesbian main character
Frankie starts the show as Jo’s girlfriend. (We’re going to talk about Jo in a minute, just chill your beans.) Over the course of the show, she meets Phoenix and falls in love. When she tells her parents she’s bisexual, the dad says “okay, that’s out there” (or something to that effect, but totally nonphased) and the mom tells her that she’s too young to know anything.
In other words, you get the full gamut of parental response in a single conversation.
Jo is life, my friends. They are life. Although the show leaves the character’s gender identity vague, they can be interpreted as transgender female-to-male or nonbinary. Dressed mostly in fitted masculine-styled clothing, Jo screams in frustration at one point, “I’m NOT JOANNA!”
Additionally, to further the interpretation of Jo as nonbinary, the show mentions several times that their Christian mother attempts to dress them in pink, feminine clothing while their pastor gives a sermon about how “being gay is fine as long as you don’t act on it.”
In other words, Jo’s non-conforming gender identity indicates that by being “gay” they do not identify fully as male. However, they do, given the physical acting indicate that Jo is uncomfortable with their top half, hinting at body dysphoria.
Despite the ungendered name, Phoenix is the male-romantic for Frankie. During “Head Over Feet,” he explains, “let’s be best friends, best friends with benefits.” His sexuality is never questioned, nor does it need to be. He acts, in some ways, as the foil for Jo and, in a way, as a plot device for bringing in Frankie’s bisexuality, as her parents finding out that she had sex with him becomes the catalyst for her to scream out that she’s bisexual.
And there’s still more queerness!
While the show as a whole is a sensory explosion, paying attention to the chorus matters. Male-presenting performers wear kilts and skirts. Female-presenting performers wear traditionally masculine-looking baggy clothing. The ensemble’s aesthetics keep the audience focused, even if only subconsciously, on the gender and sexuality spectrum.
Why Tweens and Teens Need to See This
The LGBTQ+ statistics are disheartening. According to the Trevor Project:
- 39% of LGBTQ+ youth seriously consider suicide
- Less than 50% of LGBTQ+ youth were out to adults at school
- 59% of trans/nonbinary teens share their gender identity with straight friends
- 35% of trans/nonbinary teens share their gender identity with classmates
For queer youth, the representation validates their identity in popular media. Even more importantly, the interactions between straight and queer teens in the show normalizes acceptance. The lack of peer acceptance often prevents queer teens from openly discussing their identities, making these relationships important for both queer and straight tweens and teens.
Reason 2: Rape and Agency
This show is heavy. It’s an emotional assault from start to finish.
The central event holding the show together is Andrew raping a drunk, unconscious Bella. Although brought in as an ancillary character at first, Bella becomes pivotal across all the characters’ lives. Bella, Nick (Frankie’s brother and the “Golden Son” who starts the story being accepted to Harvard), Andrew (Nick’s swim team buddy), Frankie, and Phoenix all attend a high school party. As the part continues, Bella, Nick, and Andrew become progressively drunker. Meanwhile, Frankie and Phoenix head off, not into the party scene. The next day after pictures of a passed-out Bella with her shirt over her head hit the teens’ social media, Frankie and Jo learn that Andrew raped Bella while she was passed out. They bring the information to MJ, Nick and Frankie’s mother, who at first refuses to help the girls but later befriends Bella.
Before delving into how the narrative handles rape, we need to do a quick history lesson. (Those of you who remember the ex-Stanford swimmer rape case from 2016 can just move on to the next header now.)
The story parallels much of that concerning the 2015 rape of Chanel Miller. Miller, raped by a Stanford swim team member, was left behind a dumpster after being sexually assaulted. The rapist earned only 6 months’ jail time, which sparked a national controversy. (I specifically choose not to name the rapist as we should not give them the press mentions.) In June 2016, Ms. Miller’s victim impact statement went viral, which many #MeToo activists credit as the start of the movement.
Similar to Ms. Miller’s rapist, the two boys involved in the rape storyline are swimmers. Nick begins the show having just received his Harvard acceptance letter. Andrew, the rapist, is also on the swim team. Similar to Ms. Miller, Bella is raped while unconscious, passed out from too much alcohol. The parallels between the plot and the real-life events give additional context that helps unpack some of these themes.
Frankie and Jo, once they hear Bella’s story, talk the survivor into reporting the assault to the police. Bella, like most young women, fears no one will believe her because Andrew’s family is wealthy and powerful in this small Connecticut suburb.
The staging highlights the way in which rape survivors are often treated as criminals. All the activities with the police take place almost as an aside in a darkened stage left. Highlighting how life continues for others but not the survivor, several events are going on across the stage, with the “police station” situated in a darkened stage left. Bella, with Frankie and Jo, tells her story, but the body language indicates that the officer dismisses her claim. Meanwhile, later, Andrew faces the same officer, but the body language indicates that the officer respects the family. Unlike Bella, who faced a dismissive officer, Andrew gets smiles and handshakes.
This staging gives credence to Bella’s fears—no one believes her because she lacks social power.
Blaming Rape Survivors
Again, bringing forth a problem facing society, MJ, the matriarch, blames Bella for the assault. The attendant “she shouldn’t have had so much alcohol” blame comes from her mouth. In this case, MJ acts like a middle-aged foil to Frankie, who feels that Bella should be supported rather than blamed.
Long Term Effects of Rape
Unbeknownst to MJ’s family, however, she was raped in college. Bella’s rape brings on a downward spiral of repressed trauma that leads MJ to delve deeper into her drug addiction, as she cannot handle the memories and attendant guilt. In fact, MJ’s shame is so great, she never told her husband of 20 years about the rape.
Bringing the #MeToo Movement to the Forefront
Angry at the way the town treats Bella, Frankie organizes a rally, underscored by the song “No.” The scene turns into an angry Rent-esque anthem unifying the entire cast, all of whom hold #MeToo signs. The #MeToo signs provide calls to action, from “listen to survivors” to “rape happens to men” to “end rape culture.”
Importantly, at the end of the show, Bella’s story comes about as full circle as you can get in two hours and thirty minutes. The narrative, told in a semi-voice-over, explains that she’s going to be the witness in the trial against Andrew. Giving this closure, even if we don’t see the end result, once again normalizes the way that we should be treating rape survivors. Believe them and support them.
Why Tweens and Teens Need to See This
While we’d like to say “this won’t happen to my child,” the reality is that 1 of 9 female teens and 1 of 36 males teens reported sexual dating violence. Again, while we’d all like to say, “my kid won’t go to a party with alcohol” or “my kid knows better than to drink underage,” I think that most of us recognize how unrealistic those thoughts are.
The reality is we need to prepare our kids for both the possibility of what can happen at a party and how to act in the aftermath. Jagged Little Pill addresses both the survivor’s struggle and the way that the people around her can support her.
We often see narratives about rape—whether it’s something like a fictional crime show or the news. Those stories tend to focus on the event itself or the immediate aftermath.
Jagged Little Pill shows the entire cycle of rape—the event, the immediate aftermath, the support for survivors we should be giving, the impact both short and long term, and the way we should be holding rapists accountable.
Once again, normalizing these responses is the only way to move past our current rape culture and prevent rape.
Reason 3: Responsibility
Halfway through the show, we learn that Nick walked in on Andrew raping Bella. Neither Andrew nor Bella realized this, and Nick does nothing to stop Andrew. He walks in, then promptly walks back out.
Meanwhile, MJ’s response is twofold. First, she screams at him for not stopping Andrew. Then, when Nick wants to speak to the police, MJ tells him not to get involved because it might make him an accomplice and jeopardize his Harvard acceptance.
Nick, torn, finds himself dealing with his guilt, negotiating his next steps, and trying to make difficult decisions. In the end, Nick does tell the police and becomes a witness in Bella’s case. However, once again, this isn’t where the show stops. Bella, after Nick makes his police report, screams that it’s not fair. Why does she have to have a witness? Why is his report more important than hers? Why doesn’t anyone believe her?
Why Tweens and Teens Need to See This
Given the statistics about date rape and teens, more likely than not, our children will be faced with similar situations at some point in their lives.
In this, I want to be a little bit clearer. For those of us raising sons, we need to teach them to hold their friends as accountable as they hold themselves. Rape culture ends when everyone prevents it. Even looking at the reported statistics, girls are four times more likely to experience sexual violence than boys. Not only do we need to discuss the whole “don’t rape period” concept, we need to make sure that our kids are holding their friends accountable.
Nick’s guilt over not preventing the rape highlights the responsibility we have to one another to protect each other, whether male or female. Meanwhile, his final decision to defy his mother and make a police report highlights the way that tweens/teens need to take responsibility, even if it goes against what we tell them they should do.
Reason 4: Social Media/Texting
Although not a direct storyline, teen mobile device use is brought up as a problem. Pictures of Bella’s unconscious body, with her shirt up to her neck, swarm social media the morning after the party, leading Frankie to check on her, which is how we learn about the rape. After Bella makes her police report, another scene shows a line of students looking down at mobile devices, clearly texting one another things like, “she shouldn’t have gotten drunk” or “she’s always been wild.” The wave of judgment across social media and/or private texts gives valuable insight into how tweens and teens use their devices.
Why Tweens and Teens Need to See This
Teens use social media in ways that parents don’t always understand. According to one January 2020 report on Statista, a snapshot of September 2019 data indicated that 25% of teens used Instagram, 24% used Facebook, and 22% used Snapchat. Although this connectivity is not really different than large groups of kids hanging out in malls, it comes with different problems. The constant barrage of media—whether texts or social media—doesn’t stop when kids leave a building, it follows them. Moreover, many teens hide their social media accounts from their parents, unless the parents have researched ways to monitor teen social media use for red flags.
Problematically, according to UNICEF data from September 2019, one in three young people said they had been cyberbullied. Bella’s experience with social media and texting leading to an in-school viral post of her passed out on the ground is not, sadly, an uncommon experience for many modern age teens.
For young people who have been cyberbullied, these scenes provide a level of catharsis that can make them feel less alone. For young people who may have not realized that passive actions like reading texts or social media have emotional repercussions on others, these scenes can create empathy that changes how teens use social media.
How Parents Can Start Discussions With Teens and Tweens After Viewing Jagged Little Pill: The Musical
I used to teach first-year college students, and I filter a lot of my parenting style from that experience. For a lot of us, talking to our tweens and teens is a struggle. Whether it’s the hormonal changes that make them want to “rage Rage RAGE!” or just the general psychological development stage of asserting independence, the little babies who shared every detail of Pokemon with us now grunt or hide themselves away in their bedrooms.
And this is why Jagged Little Pill: The Musical is something parents should be seeing with their kids, if they can. (I am aware of the financial privilege attending a performance requires, but if your family can attend a showing now or when it ultimately travels, you should.)
As I’ve done with She-Ra, I’d like to give a few high-level discussion points for parents looking to open the door to meaningful discussion.
Parents’ Guide to Jagged Little Pill: The Musical
- How realistic do you feel this story was? Why?
- What aspects of this reminded you of your school?
- Which character’s story affected you the most? Why?
- How would you have responded if you had been Nick?
- Why do you think Frankie was so angry? How do you feel about her decisions?
- How do you feel about the way Bella’s peers treated her?
- If you could change any single plot point, what would it be and why?
We had a lot of these conversations here after seeing the play. Some of my kid’s answers were enlightening. For example, in theory, our kids know that Nick probably should have done something to help Bella “in the moment.” My child said as much. However, when pushed further as to why Nick might have chosen to do nothing, my child noted, “He was overwhelmed. I mean, he just saw his friend raping another friend. He couldn’t process that quickly.” You know what? My kid probably isn’t wrong. While we know what we should do, we may not always cognitively be able to do, in a given moment.
As a parent, that response was a big learning moment for me. I would hope that my child would attempt to stop an act of sexual violence. However, I also need to understand that mentally processing something like that would be difficult in the moment.
And, perhaps, that’s the reason that having conversations like these with our children matter. As parents, we guide our kids the best we can. Some days, maybe we’re just “the okayest” parent in the world. But understanding our children and finding common ground for discussing difficult topics is one way that we can try to find the spaces in which we help our children grow into the adults we want to see them be.