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Where theater and psychology intersect. Blog, interviews & insight from a psychologist, about the shows YOU love.

Waitress and Domestic Violence – Portraying Financial Abuse

Waitress and Domestic Violence – Portraying Financial Abuse

At the Brooks Atkinson Theater, Jenna Hunterson, the lead character in the musical Waitress, is abused by her husband eight times a week. We see Earl grab her roughly by the wrist, raise his hand to strike her, intimidate her with his physicality, and financially control her. The show follows Jenna as she goes to her job at Joe’s Diner, serving customers and escaping her reality through baking her signature pies, all the while dealing with abusive spouse. Jenna feels ever more trapped once she discovers that she is pregnant. In spite of this plot twist, the play’s protagonist seems to have every reason to break away from her husband and out on her own. She has talent, she has supportive friends (her co-workers Dawn and Becky), and she brings home the only income after Earl impulsively quits his job. So if she has all of that going for her, why does she stay with her abuser? Perhaps there are many in the audience screaming in their heads “Just leave him!” Perhaps there are many quietly realizing they are seeing themselves in Jenna.

This story is not much different from the reality that millions of women are facing seven days a week replaying in their own homes. The show’s writers (Sara Bareilles wrote the music and lyrics, Jessie Nelson the book) have clearly done their research.  Earl exhibits typical characteristics of a person who perpetrates domestic violence: low self-esteem, emotionally needy, and controlling. He is scared that Jenna will love their baby more than she loves him (spoiler alert: she does). He checks up on her at work in Joe’s Diner. And notably, he wrestles away all of their money from his wife. This dynamic is dramatized in a scene when he discovers that Jenna has been stashing away funds to enter a pie contest (and use those winnings to get away from Earl). He pockets the bills he found hidden in the couch cushions and her hopes are dashed.

Nick Cardero as Earl and Jessie Mueller as Jenna in Waitress (Joan Marcus)

Although money is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a husband abusing his wife, the reality is that financial abuse is overwhelmingly prevalent, occurring in 99% of domestic violence cases. Financial abuse includes any form of controlling access to and use of finances, such as preventing a spouse from working, refusing to work, limiting a partner’s use of funds, withholding money, and hiding assets. This form of domestic violence is a considerable obstacle facing women wanting to leave an abusive relationship (most often perpetrated by the man against a woman, but not exclusively thus). Without the means, a woman often feels she has no ability to leave and presents real logistical obstacles to a woman being able to safely go. This is why so many men aim to control the finances, it is a cruel form of manipulation which Waitress so deftly highlights.

There are resources and help available, there is a way out. If you or a loved one is in an emotionally, physically, sexually, and/or financially abusive relationship, please reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline or the Purple Purse project, which is doing fantastic work to bring attention to financial abuse. Please check out their website for facts, information on how to safely leave, financial tools, and resources.


Dr. Drama