Playwright revisits Margaret Mead's ‘Coming of Age’ backlash

Almost a century after American anthropologist Margaret Mead published her controversial book Coming of Age in Samoa, a playwright has revisited the backlash that she faced after publishing her study.

In a stage adaptation titled ‘Exposing Margaret Mead’, playwright and novelist Lynne Kaufman “uses an anthropological tempest as context to explore Margaret Mead’s reaction to her character assassination,” reports Berkeleyside.com, a Californian news portal in the U.S.

The one-person 45-minute play premiered last Saturday on MarshStream, a broadcast platform managed by The March San Francisco, the American city’s breeding ground for new performance, reports The Marsh website.

The classic anthropological text, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation, was first published in 1928 when Mead was 27.

“The groundbreaking book described how young Samoans enjoyed casual premarital sex with little guilt and jealousy before they settled down. From that one slim study, Mead became a lifelong, nationally recognized authority on all aspects of progressive cultural life,” Berkeleyside reports.

Kaufman – a noted novelist and author of over 20 plays [including three recent plays produced at The Marsh: Acid Test, Two Minds, and Who Killed Sylvia Plath] – said she admired Mead and the work she did.

“Mead turned what could have been infuriating, damning and destructive for her psychologically, into a way to self-examine and grow in an open way,” Kaufman told Berkeleyside. 

“In the play, she has that moment, questioning all her certainties, and wondering whether she is trying to justify her own life…she got a lot of flak for her bisexuality…I so admire her for taking the spear through her heart, pulling it out, looking at her major works and life decisions, and coming up with how to deal with this accusation.”

Mead made the front-page of The New York Times when Derek Freeman, a New Zealand anthropologist who lived in Samoa, published a book titled Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, in which he challenged and criticised all of Mead’s findings.

Although the book was published in 1983, five years after Mead’s death, Mead was aware of Freeman’s opinions during her lifetime, and they spoke about it. 

Later, other social scientists chimed in, including, on the pro-Mead side of the dispute, Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger, and Paul Shankman’s The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy.

According to information collated for a U.S. Congress Library exhibition on Mead’s anthropological works, Freeman was critical of Mead ignoring violence in Samoan life and argued that she did not give enough emphasis to the impact that biology will have on human behaviour.

He also argued that she did not spend enough time in Samoa and did not know the Samoan language. 

In a book he published in 1999 titled The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, Freeman argued that two of Mead’s female informants lied to her, which enabled her to draw what he described as an “erroneous conclusions” about Samoan culture and the sexual freedom of girls.

Mead travelled to American Samoa in 1925 and spent nine months in the American territory observing and interviewing Samoans before publishing her book three years later. 

The crux of her findings were that adolescence was not a stressful time for girls in Samoa because Samoan cultural patterns were very different from those in the United States, according to information collated for a U.S. Congress Library exhibition on Mead’s anthropological works.

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