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Why I Found 'Dear Evan Hansen' to Be Problematic

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“Dear Evan Hansen” is a musical about a boy with social anxiety (Evan), who gets caught up in a lie after a boy in his class dies by suicide (Connor). A letter Evan writes as an assignment from his therapist ends up in Connor’s pocket and his parents believe he and Evan were best friends. This small lie turns into something much bigger. The musical won six Tony awards and has been nominated for seven Olivier awards. It’s a musical that took Broadway and then the world by storm and I absolutely adore the soundtrack. I find it uplifting, emotive and highly relatable and in some parts an accurate depiction of anxiety, but the book and the presentation of the story I find problematic in its representation of and use of anxiety. I appreciate that it’s an unpopular opinion, especially among teen and young adult audiences, but I hope you read this with an open mind and the understanding that this piece is just that. An opinion.

As someone who at Evan’s age had quite severe social anxiety, I can understand how the lie that he knew Connor could come about. Even now, sometimes it’s easier to lie and sometimes it’s out of your control. Sometimes when you’re in a social situation you panic, you go blank. You lie. I’ve done it before. So I can understand how it could have happened although I don’t think I would have lied about being friends with someone who died by suicide when I wasn’t. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have let it go so far because my moral compass would have got me out of it. I appreciate that this is my own experience of anxiety but nevertheless. Evan telling a lie, letting it turn into The Connor Project, which eventually went viral, is something I believe is problematic in terms of the musical’s representation of anxiety.

I don’t think it helps with the stigma surrounding people with mental health conditions and more specifically social anxiety. It’s hard to become endeared to a character if you can’t relate to them, even more so when they’re deceitful even if it’s a result of a disability. I can relate to Evan and I liked him less and less throughout the musical. I cried at the end of the first act, but the musical makes me feel uncomfortable, increasingly so as it goes on.

After he tells the lie, even Jared, his friend who knows about the lie, encourages him to continue it and he does, not just nodding and saying yes but making things up as he goes along. At the beginning it’s almost excusable, the anxiety is believable and the words are almost put into Evan’s mouth. But then it goes deeper, darker, less believable and more made up.

In “Sincerely Me,” he writes emails between Connor and Evan. There is a difference between omitting to act to tell the truth out of anxiety and actively creating content to deepen the lie. He hands them to Connor’s parents. Surely it would have been easier to just tell the truth?

Zoe catches him looking through Connor’s things. It seems like it gets easier and easier for Evan to make up these lies about Connor. It seems like he starts The Connor Project so he’s not invisible anymore. And it unexpectedly blows up. (Let’s face it, if it didn’t we wouldn’t have a musical.)

I feel it. I feel the desperate need to be seen. But I worry that this all goes into people failing to empathize with Evan and maybe making wider generalizations that people with social anxiety are somehow untrustworthy and master manipulators. That’s just in Act 1.

If anything Act 2 becomes even more problematic. At this point Evan is so deep in the lie that even someone out of anxiety would find it almost impossible to get out of. He clearly gets more anxious as the musical goes on although the social signs are more subtle. He lies even more to his mum, gets more defensive and secretive. Yes, I am often very defensive and secretive with my family due to my anxiety it sometimes feels like I’m living a lie. But… but I don’t think this presentation of anxiety, in this way, combined with the topic of suicide represents the community in the best light. In a way that helps break the stigma.

He goes off his meds. This is dangerous on many counts especially to the young audience the musical attracts who may not understand going off prescriptions without supervision isn’t safe.

He becomes closer and closer with the Murphy’s. The ongoing and increasingly morally wrong deception gets very hard to watch. Connor’s dad becomes a surrogate father for Evan. He gets closer to Zoe. The Murphy’s offer to pay his way through college. He becomes their surrogate son. The heartbreak of Evan’s mom is real.

Alyssia notices the inconsistencies; he considers actively continuing the lie. And the truth eventually comes out. Which… was very brave? But I also feel it was forced out. The Murphy family was in crisis, receiving abuse and he just wanted the pain to stop. Was desperate for the mess to stop. And then it somehow ends OK.

My conclusion here is twofold. First, the extent to which the lie goes just makes people more likely to stigmatize those with social anxiety. I’ve even heard some suggest Evan, at least the way Ben Platt played it, comes across as someone on the autism spectrum, which may not help to stigma towards those on the autistic spectrum. We are not deceitful, we are not all out trying to get attention in any way possible, even if that way is immoral. Secondly, the conclusion of the musical is wholly unrealistic. In reality… if this was real, Evan would not have had a happy ending.

Photo via “Dear Evan Hansen” Facebook page

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