On January 3, 2011, “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” became a thing. Edith Zimmerman, editor of The Hairpin, a general-interest website aimed at women, published a post featuring 18 stock photos of women in various states of hysterics over bowls filled with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, melon and berries, and the occasional cucumber slice.
The photos went viral, creating a meme that spawned a Tumblr, the identification of other stock photo memes like “Women Struggling to Drink Water” and “Women Resisting Delicious Cakes and Pies,” a music video, Halloween costumes, art, and of course Sheila Callaghan’s new show, Women Laughing Alone With Salad, which plays the Kirk Douglas Theatre through April 3, 2016.
An item in a women’s beauty and health email newsletter sent Zimmerman down the salad rabbit hole. She was struck by a photo that “was just a close-up of a woman’s mouth, and she was holding a fork with a piece of broccoli on the tines, and it was right in front of her mouth, and she was just grinning,” said Zimmerman. “It was such a big smile and the fork was so close that she couldn’t have been eating it.” (That photo is included in the Hairpin post.) Zimmerman realized she had seen this before. “I guess this is stock photography of women being joyful while they’re virtuous,” she recalled thinking. “And then I just started Googling for other pictures.”
The resulting post has no text (it never seemed to need it), and Zimmerman hasn’t talked much about it since. “Talking about it just seems to decrease the humor,” she said. “It started with maximum humor in my mind.” Readers agreed. The Hairpin was only a few months old when Zimmerman published “Women Laughing Alone With Salad,” and it marked a turning point for the site. It was the biggest post in its history (and may still be). “It was great because it brought people to the site and some of them lingered,” said Zimmerman.
The meme’s longevity is “sort of surreal and hilarious,” she said. “I was hoping people would like it, but I didn’t think it would become anything else. She added, “I didn’t think this was going to knock stock photography on its butt.”
For Sheila Callaghan, the meme (and “Women Struggling to Drink Water”) became a kind of call to action. Callaghan discussed what she saw in the meme in an article written by the show’s dramaturg at Wooly Mammoth Theatre:
“In curating the list,” says playwright Sheila Callaghan of Zimmerman’s post, “Edith was doing something political. She wasn’t merely discussing the absurdity of the images themselves, nor was she having a narrow conversation about inherent intent. She was calling attention to the proliferation of a certain kind of image. The volume of similar photos was the crime, not necessarily the photos alone. And for her, critical mass had been reached.”
Callaghan wrote three monologues that were commissioned by the University of Maryland that she developed over time (and at the Center Theatre Group Writers’ Workshop) into Women Laughing Alone With Salad. The play uses the photos as a jumping-off point to tackle so much more, from feminism and body image to aging and the corporate glass ceiling. As Callaghan told the Los Angeles Times, speaking about the play’s subjects in food metaphors: “There's a conversation in the play about salad versus cake, and then you realize the cake is fat-free and made with Stevia, and you realize the cake was a lie and the salad was a bad idea.”