I keep running across white women saying things like, “I’m never seeing any film or play that doesn’t pass the Bechdel test ever again!”
This statement epitomizes the problem with white feminism.
First, a quick definition of the Bechdel test, invented by amazing writer and comic artist Alison Bechdel, known for the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and her memoir Fun Home, which she turned into a Tony Award-winning musical. Just in case you weren’t already convinced she’s a genius (and I have been since the old DTWOF days), she was a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant.
The “Bechdel test” is a metric she created in 1985 in a DTWOF strip to evaluate female representation in films. In order to pass the Bechdel test, a film must have two female characters who have at least one conversation that is not about men. It sounds surprisingly basic, yet the vast preponderance of films cannot pass the Bechdel test.
The Bechdel test becomes tricky when applied to theatre. For example, it immediately eliminates all solo performance and all male/male and male/female two-handers, regardless of content.
And this is exactly my issue with the Bechdel test being used as a basic metric of acceptability in theatre– it ignores both content and context. It ignores intersectionality.
Let’s take two examples. The first play, written by a middle-aged white man, is about four wealthy white women discussing their problems and lives while at various brunches in upscale New York eateries. The main topics of conversation are their wealth and whether the sacrifices they made to obtain that wealth were worth it. The central narrative is one character revealing she has lost most of her money and must now live outside Manhattan. This play neatly passes the Bechdel test.
The second play, written and performed by four young Black men, is about their experiences growing up in Oakland. The main topics of conversation are police violence and racism. The central narrative is the loss of their friend, murdered by police while unarmed, driving home from work at a local elementary school, the same school where all five friends met. This play does not pass the Bechdel test.
If the goal of metrics like the Bechdel test are to hold artists accountable for the work we create, insisting on work that resists cultural marginalization and works for inclusion, the Bechdel test is not enough. It is not enough to fight for the inclusion of women and ONLY the inclusion of women. Insisting that a play about privileged white women is so deeply, intrinsically superior to a play about Black men that we can issue a test to “prove” it is counterproductive to every diversity goal we have. We’re issuing a test that by design marginalizes men of color.
We need work that passes the Bechdel test, and we need it badly. But we cannot use that test as a metric for the acceptability of all work.
We live in an intersectional world, and issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion must be addressed intersectionally. Yes,we must fight for the inclusion of women in our narratives, but we must also fight for the inclusion of other marginalized groups. When we refuse to do so– when we announce that all plays must pass the Bechdel test in order to be acceptable, as I have seen so many white women do– we fail. We become “white feminists,” content with centering ourselves while ignoring other marginalized groups.
To state that you will never see a play that does not pass the Bechdel test is to state that Crimes of the Heart, In the Boom Boom Room, and Five Women Wearing the Same Dress are intrinsically important and worthwhile, while Topdog/Underdog, The Mountaintop, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, The Year Zero, Mambo Mouth, and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 are not worth seeing.
The Bechdel test even fails at what it was purportedly designed to do. Many films steeped in misogyny pass. “Lesbian” pornography made for male consumption passes. Most Disney princess films pass. The Bechdel test, I have to believe, was never meant to be an iron-clad metric.
I don’t know Alison Bechdel, but I consider the Bechdel test excellent social commentary, not a call to action. It’s meant as criticism, to make a point about how few films have female characters with objectives of their own. It’s meant to point out how few films present women as human beings rather than as events in the lives of men.
We cannot use the Bechdel test as the sole metric for acceptability. The examination of our work and its resistance to, and participation in, systems of oppression is a complex process, not a three-point test.
Even issuing a test is a classic white gatekeeping maneuver. White liberals are always looking for clear-cut guidelines to make us instantly “not racist” or “not sexist,” and we excel at creating oversimplified litmus tests that prove we are the Most Woke and everyone else is Doing It Wrong.
You can’t fill out a form with your credentials (“voted for Obama,” “watched Jessica Jones,” “smiled hard at Black guy on the street”), mail it in with a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Women’s Studies department at Howard and then just wait for your NOT RACIST OR SEXIST certificate to roll in. There’s no “Woke White Person” checklist.
There’s no test.
Fighting for diversity and equity in theatre is a complex, multifaceted process that involves the stories we tell and how we tell them, including who tells those stories and who’s in our audiences, who are the decision-makers and gatekeepers, where the funding comes from, and so much more. As tempting as it is to get a definitive ruling on what is “resistance theatre” and what is “collaboration theatre,” that fact remains that each piece of theatre we make will have facets of resistance and facets of collaboration, and all we can do is commit to the process of examining our decisions in both the work we make and the work we consume as thoroughly and realistically as possible. It’s never going to be as simple as only going to shows with The Gold Star of Bechdel next to their titles. Fighting systems of oppression requires more of us, much more.
Commit to the process. Continue to love the Bechdel test for what it is– an eye-opening way to examine narrative that sometimes works and sometimes does not, but can be an effective tool when used correctly. It was one moment of genius in a long career of genius moments for Alison Bechdel, but cannot be– and was never meant to be– the sole, definitive arbiter of acceptable work.
I know, I know: I write about overused tropes often. (Who said irony is dead?) Maybe one day I’ll compile them all into a self-published e-screed entitled “Melissa Reads Too Many Plays,” but for now, the blog will have to do.
Sometimes a cliché works. You’re engaging with the trope in an interesting way, or you’re commenting on the trope’s ubiquitousness. But most of the time, it’s just lazy writing. You plonk a clichéd trope into the scene because you haven’t given the moment much thought, and a well-worn piece of cultural narrative fits neatly into the scene with little effort. Sometimes the clichéd trope is a cultural narrative about race, gender, or religion that you take as given without examining your unconscious biases. Sometimes you’re more focused on other aspects of the scene. Sometimes you’re just . . . lazy. AS ARE WE ALL.
I don’t mean you don’t care about your work. I just mean, sometimes we take the easiest way out because the issue doesn’t interest us as much as other things at that moment. Sometimes we don’t even realize that’s what we’re doing.
Today’s edition of “Melissa Reads Too Many Plays” is centered around LADYPARTS. There are approximately eleventy gynillion inaccurate, irritating tropes about women and our MYSTERIOUS LADYBITS. Here are a few of the most preposterous.
Nausea and/or vomiting as the first sign a character is pregnant. I AM CALLING A MORATORIUM ON THIS. This trope is so bad it drags down the quality of the rest of the work. First of all, it’s inaccurate. While 75% of pregnant women experience nausea, only 50% will have to endure vomiting. Most importantly, it’s nowhere near the first sign of pregnancy. (For most of us, that honor belongs to sore boobs.) Vomiting is, however, the first outward sign of pregnancy that men have historically noticed because it’s the first outward sign of pregnancy that women cannot hide. In the 20th century, when this trope was popularized in TV and film written almost exclusively by men, few women paraded around the office telling male coworkers about their sore boobs. However, no one can avoid noticing the stenographer rushing out of a meeting to vomit in the trashcan in the hall. Presumably some of those male writers were fathers who knew better (depending on the level of disclosure they were willing to tolerate from their wives about their ladybusiness), but they were never going to get “Ow, my boobs” past the network censors. I’m not saying we should replace the nausea trope with a sore boob trope. I’m saying: Think about the ways you’re hinting at pregnancy. The second a female character of child-bearing age discusses nausea, your entire audience knows she’s pregnant. Is that how you wanted your reveal to go? Every other hint and lead-in after that is a boring time-waster. Your reveal happened the moment she threw up.
Random Unexpected Pregnancy. Why is your character pregnant? Is it because you have a specific reason for her to carry a child? Or is it because you’re out of ideas and you need to create some conflict for the male lead? Are you already calculating how to make this pregnancy magically disappear as soon as the male lead resolves the conflict? If you’re not writing about pregnancy– if the pregnant woman is just an event in your male lead’s life– think about what you’re trying to accomplish with this unexpected pregnancy, and see if you can accomplish it in a more interesting way. Also, once this trope gets started, it often opens up a can of worms of sexist (and boring) tropes– Women can’t tell what’s important and what isn’t (important = male lead’s central narrative, most of which he hides from her; unimportant = helping her install the carseat, a prenatal appointment); women are killjoys (pregnant girlfriend = the death of fun); women are dreamcrushers (pregnant girlfriend demands he stop being an artist and get a job even though he’s on the verge of a breakthrough because women just don’t understand).
Childbirth Starts with Water Breaking and Ends Within Five Minutes. Honestly, just have her give birth off stage. When your water breaks, it generally trickles out, and it NEVER STOPS. Your body keeps replenishing it. Trust the woman who sat on a towel for hours. Only 10% of women start labor with their water breaking, and for those who do, it can be as much as 24-48 hours before labor begins in earnest. If your character’s water breaks, and all hell breaks loose because THE BABY IS COMING!!11!, you’re manufacturing conflict. Average length of labor for a first-rime mother is 6 – 18 hours, not one scene. Why do you want to show the actual childbirth? What narrative motion are you hoping to achieve? Is there a way to accomplish that without using an unrealistic, clichéd trope?
Menstruation Turns Women Into Insane Blood Monsters. “I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.” Just . . . no. Extreme mood swings occur in 3-8% of menstruating women. Chocolate cravings are not universal. I’m just going to set your play aside if your male lead comes home with chocolate for his bleeding wife who then screams at him for no discernible reason other than that you wanted to motivate his affair later in the play. This trope is both boring and misogynistic.
Fish Jokes. This is exactly the way to get me to delete your play, take a shower, and try to pretend it never happened. I’m honestly astonished that men are still making these jokes in 2015, but evidently, they are. If you’re seeking a way to make a male character seem like an obnoxious idiot trying to hide the fact that he’s a virgin, I can see using this trope, but I still hate it, and I am not alone. Begone, trope.
Women’s Sexuality is Mysterious and Confusing. WHAT DO WOMEN WANT?!? I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out: ASK HER. When a male character is flopping around haphazardly trying to please a woman who has almost no lines but who, presumably, just sits there with a vaguely disapproving look on her face, most of the people in your audience are going to get very frustrated very fast. She can communicate, can’t she? Using her as a prop to establish your male character’s adorable awkwardness, sincere cluelessness, or comic lack of skillz is a trope I never want to see again. Women’s sexuality is not a puzzle for men to solve. Women’s sexuality is not a comment on male sexuality. Women are, believe it or not, people.
The advice is the same for all of these: Think about what, specifically, you’re trying to achieve with these tropes and then work to achieve them in a more interesting way.
Like everyone, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ferguson, and about the epidemic of white men gunning down unarmed young African American men. What is racism made out of? What makes someone think that such an action is acceptable in any way? As they say, no one is born racist. Sure, people talk a lot about the influence of tribal thinking (who is like me and therefore part of my group; who is unlike me and therefore a potential threat), but there’s no intrinsic reason that should be related to skin color any more than hair color or height. No, you have to create racists, and you do it by creating, disseminating, and consuming racist narrative.
When a police officer, or a man in a 7-11 parking lot, or another police officer, or the guy next door, or a Neighborhood Watch nutjob (I could go on and on, but you get my point) shoots and kills an unarmed young African American man (the ages of the five murder victims above spans 13 – 22), he does so because he believes that young man is in some way intrinsically dangerous, and less human because of that. After the fact, the stories pour out: “I saw him reach for a gun” is a favorite. “I thought my life was in danger” is another. What makes a man imagine a gun in the hand of an unarmed African American teenager? Because he sure as hell isn’t imagining that gun when it’s a white teenager in front of him.
I believe that the answer lies in the narratives we create, disseminate, and consume. The entertainment industry makes a staggering amount of money selling products that depict Black = Dangerous. There are white men whose entire fortunes are built on that trope. (Check out this article by Dr. Darron Smith on the issue of the depiction of Black men in American media.) The reality is that MOST African American men are NOT committing violent acts, but MOST of the art about African American men that gets funded, distributed, and consumed depicts that as if it’s irrefutable fact, even when the main Black character is not participating in those activities– he’s “getting out,” or “trying to rise above.” There are white gatekeepers out there refusing to fund art that doesn’t conform to that trope because they believe it doesn’t sell as well– and maybe they’re right, which is on us as consumers.
I’d never say that an African American (or anyone else, for that matter) who created art about violence out of his or her lived experience should not be doing that. No one should ever tell another person that the art they create out of their lived experience should be suppressed– consuming authentic narratives about others creates empathy. Everyone should have a voice, and we need diverse voices from diverse points of view in all our art forms.
But that’s just it– we need more diversity in our narratives. We need to take a cold, hard look at the ways in which we as creators and distributers of art contribute to making Black = Dangerous the PRIMARY narrative about African American men, because the impact of that is quite literally lethal. We don’t have other, equally potent cultural tropes about African American men tempering Black = Dangerous, which is why this racist trope is the one in the minds of armed white men facing unarmed African American teenagers– these white men have been taught from birth that Black = Dangerous, and they, for whatever combination of reasons (and we could list these all day– institutional racism, family racism, enjoyment of privilege, lack of critical thinking skills, and lack of empathy are just a few), BELIEVED IT, never questioned it, and gunned down someone’s baby in cold blood. As a mother, it stops my heart.
Solo performer and author Brian Copeland does a show called Not a Genuine Black Man. I took my students to see a performance of the world premiere run. It was an incredibly impactful experience. The most devastating story he told about growing up African American in a nearly all-white Bay Area town (San Leandro, now one of the most diverse cities in the nation) in the 70s, was when he was 9, being chased and harassed by racist white teenagers. He saw a police officer, thought “safety,” and ran up to him. The police officer took a step back and put his hand on his gun. NINE YEARS OLD.
This country desperately needs to disrupt the cultural status of Black = Dangerous as the primary trope about African American men. We need to stop making money off a trope that’s literally KILLING KIDS. As artists, it’s our JOBS to understand the cultural context of the tropes and narratives we create. WE MAKE CULTURE. Let’s start making it with the deliberate goal in mind of making the primacy of Black = Dangerous a thing of the past, so that one day a story about a Black bad guy will be no more about his Blackness than narratives about The Joker, Emperor Palpatine, or Hannibal Lecter are about being white. We desperately need to decouple the concept of “dangerousness” from race.
Let’s look at a content creator who’s doing it right.
As a giant nerd, of course I got the new Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook. When I first cracked it open in the store and began paging through, I was floored. Page after page after page of women– as many women as men– all looking like legitimate heroes in functional armor, not scantily-clad pose monsters pretending to fight while twisted into impossible shapes that manage to show both cleavage and ass. I never realized how much I felt like I was a girl horning in on a “guy game” until I saw these pictures and felt welcomed.
What also immediately stood out was the diversity. The book is filled with people of color. I stood there holding the book in the game store, and I almost cried. I held the book out to my husband, a longtime player, and fought back tears as I explained to him what it meant to me just to see these women. And to think about what it would mean to young nerds of color to see themselves reflected on those pages.
I could go on and on about what this means for women. But to stay on target: There will be an entire generation of nerdkids who will learn this game in this edition, for whom Black heroes will be a natural part of the game, who will experience narratives of Blackness that aggressively disrupt Black = Dangerous. All D&D adventurers are dangerous. But they are all individual, as individual as the people playing them. A Black D&D adventurer is no more or less dangerous than anyone else. His Blackness is part of his identity, but nowhere in that universe is the color of his skin a marker for his dangerousness. His broadsword or his spellcasting, on the other hand . . .
Let me show you a few examples. These are just a few out of an incredible diversity of images. If you EVER had an interest in D&D, or thought you might someday check it out, now is the time.
There are still plenty of white guys in there, but along with them, there are just as many women and people of color pictured as legitimate adventurers in their own right, not window dressing or tokenistic afterthoughts. Bravo, Wizards of the Coast. You fucking nailed it. I hope this new edition brings you legions of new, diverse fans. And you can BET I will be showing these pictures to my students and talking about narrative creation in our culture.
Do I actually think D&D can save the world? YOU BET I DO. But it can’t do it alone. It’s up to us as artists and entertainment industry professionals to reject the idea that the only trope worth funding or distributing about African American men is Black = Dangerous, and replace that harmful idea with a wide variety of tropes– yes, including Black = Dragon Slayer. I’m not leading some campaign against art that depicts Black men committing crimes or being violent. I am, however, one small part of a campaign against a widespread artistic and cultural practice that PRIMARILY depicts Black men as threats.
This CAN be done. We just have to pay attention to the cultural context of what we’re creating, funding, distributing, and consuming, and make a commitment to real diversity. When it’s done right, it’s glorious.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the stereotypical “Strong Female Character,” based on the CRAZY idea that we need to start thinking of female characters as . . . characters, period. In that spirit, I offer the following six female characters we really need to stop writing.
1. “The Girl.” A big group of people in a narrative that could easily be non-gendered, and yet there’s only one girl along for the ride. It’s Our Hero, Handsome Scoundrel, Crazypants, Toughest Guy, and The Girl, who has no personality apart from BOOBS. She’s probably sleeping with Our Hero, or he wants to sleep with her, and/or she provides a reason for Our Hero and Handsome Scoundrel to have dramatic tension.
2. “The Clueless Interrupter.” Doesn’t she know how IMPORTANT her man’s task is? She’s always interrupting him while he’s saving the world, fighting the powers of evil, or having a SERIOUS BROCONVO about SERIOUS BROFEELS with her frivolous calls about their upcoming wedding, or what she should fix for dinner, or hey, the house is on fire. Our bros just shake their heads in wonder, watch as he lies like a fourth grader caught in the pastor’s liquor cabinet (“I swear there’s nothing going on, now you just go back to your frivolous ladystuff, OK?” “But I hear robot ninjas in the–” “LOVE YOU HONEY, BYE”), or grab the phone away from him and just hang up or throw it out the window. THAT’LL TEACH HER.
3. “The Woman Whose Sexual Desire Is Comical.” So, and you might wanna sit down for this, people over 40 have sex. People over 60 have sex. Women who are not skinny have sex. Women who are not “beautiful” (whatever the FUCK that means) have sex. Whatever kind of woman you’re imagining as undesirable, she’s having sex. So when you write a character whose main function is to throw herself comically at Our Hero because her very desire is HILARIOUS? I want to punch a wall. Yes, I know all about Restoration comedy and Mrs. Roper, but it’s time for that trope to retire.
4. “Hooker with a Heart of Gold.” I’ve written about this before (along with the “Magical Person of Color/Gay BFF/Disabled Person,” another trope that needs retiring, but since it’s nongendered, I’m leaving it out of this particular post). So I’m just going to be an asshole here and quote myself rather than reformulate this entire train of thought:
Sex workers are not a marker for all women everywhere. If you’re writing a play about ACTUAL SEX WORKERS, then carry on, my wayward son. But if you’re writing a play about, oh, a young man trying to find himself, or a middle-aged man who’s vaguely dissatisfied with life, or a man whose wife just doesn’t understand him and constantly asks him to do horrible things like pay attention to her or fold his own laundry, then inserting a Magical Prostitute who swans into his life and shows him The Way to Happiness, or the Broken Flower Stripper who needs the man to save her from herself and show her that college exists, then I am looking at you with crankyface. Are you writing a play with a sex worker in it? Ask yourself: WHY is she a sex worker? Are you writing about sex workers, or do you just want a naked version of the Magical Person of Color? Does she have objectives of her own that aren’t there just for the male protagonist to correct? Does she have a character, or is she just a racktacular vector for Words of Wisdom?
5. “The Girl Who Doesn’t Know She Wants It.” This is the character who spends the entire piece rejecting Our Hero until she finally “gives him a chance,” or realizes she wanted him all along. Apart from being annoying, this trope is DANGEROUS. He deserves her! What she wants is irrelevant! He’s a nice guy so her lack of interest in him is her fault! Stalking is adorable and romantic! What he wants is more important than what she wants! This character has a sister character known as “The Bitch Who’s a Bitch Because She’s Not Interested in the Main Character,” which is the same thing except she never “gives him a chance,” therefore, she’s a “bitch.”
6. “The Fantasy Feminist.” This woman is a misogynistic caricature of a feminist. She’s very vocal about hating men, not shaving, and blaming ridiculous things (like the lack of her favorite yogurt flavor at the grocery store) on “the patriarchy.” Her function in the work is to impede the main character’s love interest from “giving him a chance” or to act as comic relief. Or both.
7. BONUS ROUND: Male character you need to stop writing: “Guy Who Has No Idea How to Do Normal Stuff.” This is the guy who ends up putting a diaper on a baby’s head, or just sitting the baby in a bucket instead of diapering it. This is the guy who sets the kitchen on fire because he’s watching the game while cooking, or uses his kid’s doll carriage as a beer cooler. Believe it or not, there are tons of men who are actually quite competent at simple, real-life things.
I know there are more! I invite you to comment with the sexist tropes you’d most like to see fired into the sun.
Like pretty much every blogger, the plan I had for my next post got chucked out the window after the violence at UCSB. I’ve been closely following #YesAllWomen on twitter, the news stories, the many, many blog posts, the many discussions on facebook. Like we all have been. Like so many women, I’ve been repeating the truth: This isn’t at all surprising. This is just the extreme example of what women experience all the time.
The reaction to that, honestly, has surprised me far more than the attack itself. I expected some blowback, but I didn’t expect the AMOUNT and TYPE of blowback I got. Things like, “We need to wait for more information because I didn’t believe a word of that manifesto,” “You need to have more compassion for men. We’re sick of this vitriol,” “You’re just making men angry and scared,” “A lifetime of being nice to women down the drain because of one asshole,” and “Man hating is just as destructive as misogyny.”
I was shocked, and it’s embarrassing to admit that I still have that much potential for naiveté. I have a husband and two teenage sons, as well as a host of friends I count as male allies in this fight. I’m well aware of “not all men.” I never expected that simply pointing out that cultural misogyny exists, that women experience this kind of violent misogyny regularly, and that the events at UCSB are only exceptional by degree, would cause so many men (and even a few women) to flip so directly out in so many bizarre directions.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that. The responses fall into two categories: You’re making men feel bad, and you don’t know what you’re talking about. When a woman is saying “I have, like all women, experienced harassment, abuse and/or violence at the hands of men, so this recent misogynistic violence is no surprise in that context” what makes a man respond with some version of “MY FEELINGS COME FIRST” or “SHUT UP, YOU’RE WRONG”? And of course “NOT ALL MEN,” a combination of both. What makes that small handful of women respond with “STOP MAKING MEN FEEL BAD”?
I’ve read a lot of the excellent blog posts about this issue (examples are here and here), and they all say more or less the same thing: Americans are force-fed a master narrative from birth that describes a man’s place in the world: You deserve access to a woman’s body because you are “nice.” You should be rewarded with a woman (or women) for performing certain tasks and/or succeeding in certain areas. If a woman you want rejects you, just keep trying until you wear her down because you know better than she does what she “wants” or what’s “good for her.” The corollary, of course, is that women who reject a “nice” guy or complain about male harassment, abuse, or violence are committing an act of gross wrongdoing against men as a group.
Enough people have completely bought into these fantasies to make them a pervasively destructive part of our culture. Both men and women have internalized them, perpetuate them, and, when challenged, angrily defend them. They frame anything that might prevent a man from achieving the master narrative as massively unjust. The many Elliot Rodger fan pages on facebook alone attest to that. The conservative backlash that’s working overtime to equate “man-hating” with cultural misogyny is another example. It would actually be funny if it weren’t such a dangerous idea– it’s like equating calling a straight person a “breeder” with a fatal gay bashing.
Where does this destructive master narrative come from? Where is this disseminated in our culture? Film, TV, theatre, books– narrative art. WE MADE THIS. Not alone, but we did, indeed, make this, and we need to start thinking about that. Hard.
Sure, parts of the narrative are thousands of years old. But there are plenty of old ideas we no longer choose to disseminate. We have the choice whether or not we continue to tell this narrative. We have the choice whether or not we continue to reinscribe this into our culture.
I’ve long had the desire to fire every romantic comedy into the sun. I despise romcoms, and I never spent time figuring out why. Now that the answer is in my face, it’s undeniable: they’re one way we disseminate all of the worst ideas about relationships we have as a culture, including (especially) the male master narrative. What was once just an annoyance to me now looks like the worst kind of reprehensible irresponsibility. And that’s just one tiny corner of the art we produce.
It’s easy to say, Oh, it’s just a play; it’s just a movie, etc. But there is no “just.” The narrative art form is POWERFUL. The human brain can experience narrative as if it’s happening in real life. The brain of a person telling a story and a person listening to that story experience neural coupling. Art is where we discuss who we are as a culture; our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our past, our imagined future. It’s the most important aspect of how our culture is created and how it is changed. Stories are the building blocks of culture, and we’re the ones who create and tell those stories.
I thought a lot about why there are people with relative privilege who can read (for example, this is in no way meant to be comprehensive) “men harass, stalk, rape, and kill women,” “cis people oppress trans* people,” or “white people marginalize people of color” and see the truth in those statements without freaking out, while a whole wagonload of men (and a handful of women) have recently demonstrated they can’t see “men harass, stalk, rape, and kill women” without having a butthurt rodeo and calling it “vitriol” and “betrayal.” Here’s the answer: Some people with privilege are actively committed to social justice, and have been working their asses off. They already know they’re part of the problem and that they contribute to misogyny, transphobia, and racism unwittingly all the time. They’re working hard to root out all the little hidden places where those exist in their psyches. They listen to women, trans* people, and people of color. They’ve committed to the process of figuring it out. They’re not consciously misogynistic, transphobic, or racist, but they’re aware the culture has drilled into them a million little bigotries they’ll always be in the process of locating and squashing.
The people who cannot handle hearing that they, or others of their group, are responsible for systemic cultural injustice or violence are people who are either so protected by their privilege they are truly ignorant of that, and/or who are so invested in their privilege they can’t abide anything that might potentially challenge it. In this case, male privilege is connected to the internalized male master narrative. Women all over the internet have been talking about their experiences with male violence, and the pervasive fear women face every day. The man who responds “NOT ALL MEN” is someone who is far more concerned with how he is being perceived, and his feelings about that, than about her actual experience of violence because from birth he’s been exposed to a culture that has TOLD HIM that anything that impedes his access to her is an injustice TO HIM, including her fear; that he is a better judge of her experience than she is, and that his experience is more important than hers in all cases, even when the match up is rape vs hurt feelings. That’s something we need to change, and because that is, I truly believe, a minority of men now, this change is achievable. I have an idea where to start.
We have to own our part of cultural bigotry if we’re going to be productive adults fighting for social justice, and it’s useless to say “not all men/white/cis people.” Because A. Truckload of duh, everyone already knows that; B. It’s derailing someone else’s story of oppression with your story of butthurt; C. It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference that it’s not all men/white people/cis people because it’s CLEARLY still FAR TOO MANY; and D. Uh, yeah it is. It really is all men, all white people, all cis people, even if you’re trying. Even if you’re trying hard. All you can do is KEEP TRYING. There is no bigotry master cleanse you can go on that will allow you to excrete all the bigotry the culture put into you. All you can do is keep trying. And listen.
We, as artists, however, are uniquely positioned as creators of culture to effect real change. We need to start thinking about all the many ways we create the culture that instills misogyny (and all bigotries against difference) into people.
As artists who create culture, we can take the first step by pinky swearing to each other that we will STOP disseminating that male master narrative. Stalking a girl, hitting her boyfriend in the face, or tricking her into having sex will not “win” someone a woman in real life. A woman who rejects a man is not in a “pre-yes” phase of the real-life narrative. (“Just give him/me a chance” is a line that should automatically cause your computer to crash as you type it.) Being the “nice guy” will not automatically “win” someone a woman in real life. (As many have said before me, women are not machines into which you put “nice” coins and sex comes out.) Winning a contest, landing a great job, or overcoming some kind of adversity will not automatically “win” someone a woman. Women are not prizes granted for achievements. The male master narrative is a destructive lie, and we need to stop using our platforms to tell that lie. Writers and producers: I am looking at you. WE CAN DO BETTER.
I’m not saying we need to stop creating male-centered work, or stop showing sexy-looking women in our work, or whatever it is you’re imagining if you’re having the OUTRAGE feels and getting ready to make some tiresome comment about CENSORSHIP or (ughbarfshutup) POLITICAL CORRECTNESS. Make your boob-centered posters. Make your love stories. Make art about men. There’s no need to obliterate every straight male thing. There are straight men in the world, and their stories have as much value as anyone else’s. What I’m saying is: Let’s stop telling straight-up lies about a man’s rights to a woman’s body. Let’s think twice about putting time and money into work that approvingly shows a man “winning” a reluctant woman because he was “nice” or won a ski-off or punched a guy. Let’s think twice about putting time and money into work that positions a woman’s “no” or resistance as meaning “try harder,” and that stalking a woman is romantic rather than terrifying. Let’s think about what we’re putting into the world with our art.
Maybe this will become a series: “Directing is Storytelling,” “Acting is Storytelling.” Since I’m right in the thick of season planning and reading a ton of plays every day, writing is my current focus.
Playwriting is storytelling. The primary function of a play is to tell a story. It doesn’t have to be a linear narrative, or have realistic characters, or be traditionally structured in any way. But the basic human need to tell, share, hear, and create stories is as old as the human brain itself, and theatre is one of our oldest storytelling tools.
A play’s most basic elements are the story and the characters within that story. I encounter so many clunky, unsuccessful plays that focus on something other than one or both of those.
Plays about “issues” are probably the most prevalent. You have an opinion about something– abortion, the environment, religion. You write a play wherein the central events are all arguments about these things. This is not interesting. For one, we can all have arguments like these on facebook every day. We don’t need to stage or see a play in order to have The Argument Experience. Secondly, argument is not conflict. A play that consists largely of people shouting their opinions at one another is not a story about competing objectives. And while you might want to be the kind of person who thinks conflict isn’t central to dramatic narrative, I do not. I agree that conflict doesn’t have to be violent, or linear, or even interpersonal, but dramatic narrative is created by conflict of some kind– an important choice to be made, competing objectives, a task made difficult, a journey through something challenging.
Another unsuccessful “issue” play is one that’s predictable. These plays set up a weak, obviously assholic opposition and then eviscerates that opposition with the Magical Truth and Awesomeness of the playwright’s opinion on the issue. A victory over an obviously weak-ass antagonist, argument, or idea is not an exciting victory. Would you rather watch a game that came down to the final three seconds, or would you rather watch a 67-2 rout? If you want to tell the kind of story where one side triumphs over another side, the stronger you make the “losing” side, the more compelling the narrative will be and the more satisfying the conclusion.
Remember when you were an undergrad and you thought plays that insulted, offended, and discomfited the audience were hella cool? Because: EDGY. Now that I’m an adult who relies on the goodwill of my audience and ticket sales, I no longer have a bone to pick with my audience, or with “audiences” as a concept. I don’t see myself in an adversarial relationship with “audience” at all. But my company will still do plays that are extremely boundary-crossing, that often some audience members find uncomfortable or challenging in some way. The difference between a play to which we’ll commit time and money and one we will not is simple: while watching a well-written play that crosses boundaries, audience members who are uncomfortable feel that way because of a relationship they have to the material– to the events or the characters– that comes organically out of the story. That’s a culturally valuable challenge. But when I read a play that’s just randomly insulting or (attempting to be) shocking without any purpose other than to be randomly insulting or shocking, I set it aside. It’s all one big juvenile yawn unless it comes organically out of story. A toddler can rip up a bible and then pee into the shreds, it’s the job of high school sophomores to make semen jokes during lunch, and the internet is paved with hurled insults and “offensive” material. You have to give me something more than that– and the “more” is the kind of context that comes with compelling narrative. If your goal is to “offend,” just make another offensive tumblr. The most offensive aspect of that kind of theatre is charging $30 for something we can get by the wagonload for free online.
Another area where playwrights often lose sight of storytelling is character relationship. Often a playwright will want to draw two people from different backgrounds together, and, instead of taking the time to do this with story, will use a superficial means that only ends up feeling forced. I see this all the time with smoking, pot, and alcohol– like the very fact that someone does one of these has the power to make you take a second look, reframe your opinion of them, and let them into your heart? Hasn’t every human alive done one or more of these things at one time? I’m not inviting John Boehner up to my hotel room just because we’re both drinking scotch. The second most popular approach is the shared superficial like– some song, musician, movie, brand of something, book. “What? You like Spaghetti-Os too? I previously hated you, but now LET’S FALL IN LOVE.” It never rings true. Sure, it’s enjoyable when you discover that someone likes the same underappreciated musician you do, and just as enjoyable to see a moment of connection between characters, but it’s not enough to act as the turning point of an entire relationship.
Often playwrights will start a play with ten or fifteen pages of throat-clearing– meaningless dialogue that theoretically “introduces” characters and lays down exposition while actually, the play loses nothing and gains real momentum by skipping those pages entirely and diving directly into the narrative. If the first ten pages of your play are characters saying “Remember when [blah]?” “Remember how [a thing]?” “Remember the time [something]?” you should probably take a second look. I don’t know these people. Their reminiscences are of limited interest to me until I have a context within which to put them. Work that exposition into the narrative itself. Does your play start like this? “CRYSTAL: Remember when Mother died four seasons ago, during the worst alfalfa harvest in Cowcatcher County history, right after Father tried to sell the farm to the mysterious Dr. Ballsworth? And remember how we laughed when we discovered that in her will she had left the entire Farthill Valley to you and I? And remember how she used to say ‘A penny saved is a penny that could have been spent on vodka?'” Yeah, you can cut all that.
I recently read a play whose intricate relationships are painstakingly revealed, bit by bit, in a lovingly tended non-linear narrative, until a gut-punch of a fucking gorgeous payoff at the end, and I almost sprained my fingers on the keyboard in a rush to ask for the rights. What is the play “about”? What love means? Sacrifice? I’m still mulling that one over. Is every detail of the exposition laid down? Newp. But the play is so painfully, heartbreakingly, beautifully rendered that the characters and their story has been haunting me ever since. Why did she make that decision? Does she regret it? Was it worth it? What will happen to her after she’s made that final choice? I can’t get these characters out of my head. And *that’s* the impact you want to have on your audience.