Everything Is Already Something Week 19: Don’t Go Elite-ing My Heart

Allison Page will not be silenced, no matter what kind of woman she wants to be. 

I’ve noticed a trend I find disturbing. (Don’t worry, it has nothing to do with twerking.) There’s an awful lot of talk about feminism in relation to theater going on lately. I’m all for more roles for women. I mean…I AM ONE, so yeah, that would be cool. When I talk to sketch writing classes, or any group of writers or theater makers, or an overly chatty cab driver – I always stress the importance of expanding roles for women in comedy and just in theater and art in general. We’re not just wives and mothers, right? Right. We’re all kinds of things. Just like men are all kinds of things and people are all kinds of things. But the mistake, to me, is saying that because a female character has a relationship with a male character that it means she’s not a good female character. If she focuses at all on the male whom she is in some sort of relationship with, or maybe that she’s just having a sexual relationship with, or that she had some relationship with in the past – suddenly someone’s going to pop up and say “HOLD ON, THAT’S NOT A STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER! SHE CARES TOO MUCH ABOUT DUDES! ANTI-FEMINISM, YA’LL!” Alright, so…is the message that women who are in relationships with men are not interesting? Are not strong? Can’t be feminists? Don’t have stories to tell? That the stories they do have to tell, or are used to telling, are not as valid or compelling? That they’re not important? BOLOGNA. BALONEY. BOTH OF THEM.

Stories are not for one person, or one kind of person. There are stories for all people. There are stories about all people. I’m hard-pressed to think of a heterosexual female I’ve encountered in my life who has never had a part of their own personal life story be related to a man. Hillary Clinton is married. If you wrote a play about Hillary Clinton, very likely there’s going to be something about Billy Boy in there, right? It’s feasible to think she might have a thing or three to say about that guy. He’s kind of interesting.

Hills and Bills and Chels

Hills and Bills and Chels

Does that mean that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t make a strong female character? How about when you factor in Monica Lewinsky? Because it’ll turn into a story about two women and one man for a minute. Does that mean Hills isn’t a woman for other women to look up to? It seems recently that a question people are asking themselves about their feelings toward female characters is “How much is she focusing on a man? Is it too much?” which, to me, is a little absurd. It’s like the idea of having more diverse women on stage has somehow over-directed into having more female characters that have nothing to say or to do with a man.

I’d call that narrowing the funnel. It’s a term used at the gaming company I work for, I don’t know if other places use it but I wouldn’t be surprised. When we say something “narrows the funnel” we mean that some factor has made the feature accessible to fewer people. (It’s not a good thing.) In this case, the funnel seems to be narrowing and squeezing out a great big bunch of people. You can see that either as a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective.

But how realistic is it? When people go to the theater, they’re going to experience something. They’re going to watch a story unfold, to watch characters go through some shit and also to see something they can connect with. They want to see something of themselves up there. Something they can relate to. You know what a lot of people relate to? Complex relationships. Love. Anger. Betrayal. Happiness. Comfort. Heartache. Sadness. Regret. Most of those words don’t specify anything about other people being involved, but if you read them and visualize them I’m willing to bet you might be picturing another person with you in, or causing, those situations. They don’t often exist in a vacuum.

A vacuum in which women do not live.

A vacuum in which women do not live.

Aside from that, it’s just sort of insulting. Yeah, we’re not all wives and mothers – BUT SOME OF US ARE. What’s wrong with that? (I’m neither, by the way. That shit scares the hell out of me.) It seems strange that someone would say “Why did that character have to be married? She didn’t need that man there.” It’s like saying “Why wasn’t that play just about someone else entirely?” which sounds an awful lot like you’re not reviewing a play or taking it in – but instead just thinking about some other show which doesn’t exist. Maybe you should just go home and write it. Some of the bigger realizations about myself that I’ve had in the last 10 years (I’m 29, so…there were lots and lots of ‘em. It was a big decade.) had at least some relation to other human beings. Plenty of them men. And I don’t see why if I were, for instance, writing a story about my own experiences, they shouldn’t be given any importance. And if they were, why that would make me…I don’t know…”less good” or less interesting. Or less feminist, for that matter.

It seems everyone’s got their own definition of feminism. Well, I’m 100% about equality. Not “anything men can do, women can do better”, just “men and women are both equally capable.” I understand it’s not as catchy and it’s not likely to inspire a show tune, but it’s where my brain lives. I am of the belief that a woman doing just exactly as she pleases is feminist all by itself. If that woman wants to be a single astronaut for the rest of her life – by all means do it. But if a woman wants, of her own free will, out of nothing but her desire for this life – CHOOSES – to marry, to raise children, and to open a real estate business, or be a housewife – by all means do that. Valuing one type of female character or female person over another based on their ideas about love doesn’t feel feminist to me. It feels elitist. It feels insincere. Most of all, I think it feels unrealistic and out of touch.

I’m not saying the story about the asexual astronaut wouldn’t be fabulous – it totally could be. (“SOLO IN SPACE” STARRING TILDA SWINTON.]

In space, no one can hear you Swinton.

In space, no one can hear you Swinton.

But so could the story of a homemaker turned real estate agent. [“SHIRLEY SELLS SEA HOUSES BY THE SEA SHORE.” STARRING MELISSA LEO.] Those facts alone will not determine whether or not these are “good” characters – whatever the fuck that’s supposed to mean. I’m not saying cut out those female characters whom aren’t strongly connected to a husband or boyfriend or girlfriend or wife or anybody – I’m just saying we should consider embracing women in general. Both ends of the spectrum and everyone in between. Stories about 8 lesbians in a hay stack, stories about a single mom and her 9 daughters, stories about a lady farmer and her stay-at-home-dad husband, stories about a woman trying to cure cancer, stories about a mom who runs a daycare full of alien babies, stories about the first woman to smoke a cigar – stories about us all. Because we are all worthy of stories. I stand for the equality of women both real and fictional, and not for the division of us by ourselves.

I wanna sell you a sea house! And my son's a boxer!

I wanna sell you a sea house! And my son’s a boxer!

I had a conversation with a playwright friend of mine recently where we both expressed a concern that the inclusion of certain male characters in both of our upcoming plays would be poo-pooed by someone who would say that their existence makes our leading ladies seem less valuable, somehow. In my particular case, I’m writing something very much focused on two women. They are essentially the only people there for each of them, and they’re sort of codependent and unhealthy in that friendship. Things had to come to a head eventually, and they finally do. It’s Some Guy who finally helps to bring that about. (His character’s name is Some Guy, I don’t even want him to have a name.) The truth is, it would have had to happen some time, in some way – but because neither of them could quite make it happen without some sort of outside catalyst, Some Guy is what’s needed to bring about the explosion. The last thing I want is for someone to see it and say “Ohhhh it’s just two girls fighting over a man! How anti-female.” Because that’s just NOT WHAT’S HAPPENING AT ALL. It’s possible that I’m over-thinking that, and I’m sure someone will say “Well, it’s good that you’re thinking about that. That’s something you should be thinking about.” But I feel like what I should be thinking about, is how to tell the best story. Because after all the clutter is cleared away, that’s what the hell we’re doing here, isn’t it? We’re all raconteurs. And like I said before, there isn’t just one type of story, and there isn’t just one type of woman. In a time when the theater is always striving to bring more people in, to get more butts in the seats, the last thing that would ever help that would be to limit the types of stories we think should be told and poo-poo on the everywoman. In a time when some theaters seem to be going above and beyond to be elite (see Marissa Skudlarek’s most recent blog) I desire to go away from that in favor of the everyman and definitely the everywoman. We need her. She’s important. She is so many of us and she has a story, too.

Allison encourages you to see the San Francisco Olympians Festival – three weeks of staged readings of new plays by local playwrights based on various aspects of the Trojan War, starting tonight. Allison’s “The Golden Apple of Discord” plays with several other shorts on November 20th. She’ll also be writing and reading at Write Club SF’s 2 year anniversary show at the The Make-Out Room, November 19th.

13 comments on “Everything Is Already Something Week 19: Don’t Go Elite-ing My Heart

  1. Billie Cox says:

    Allison,isn’t it always the case that when an oppressed or ignored group starts to have a say that there will be a period where there is overkill and then it passes. Since almost ALL of theater for over 2000 years has been about hetero relationships, a period of overcompensation can be expected, yes? Switch this argument to gay men or people of color or trans people. Does it still hold water?

    • Allison says:

      I think I agree with that first bit, but as far as switching the conversation to any of those other groups – I’m not sure in what capacity that works. Mostly because I’m referring to different directions playwrights are taking in depicting women, specifically the love lives of those women and whether or not they exist. I think to make the comparison, we’d have to look at – in the case of trans people – the stories of fictional trans people who do and do not maintain relationships throughout various plays. And I’m definitely not qualified to do that. Otherwise, to me it’s not really the same. I see the connection being made, but I’m no sure I think it’s wise to compare them. I think an important distinction here is that I’m not saying any particular stories should NOT be told. Playwrights should continue to tell the stories they feel need to be told, (including Asexual Astronaut with Tilda Swinton because I would totally watch that.) I’m saying that the idea that a strong character who is also in a relationship is not as valuable is a bunch of bunk.

      • Billie Cox says:

        ” I’m saying that the idea that a strong character who is also in a relationship is not as valuable is a bunch of bunk.” No disagreement here. Just trying to put those outraged voices you hear in a historical context. It wasn’t so long ago that the predominance of women presented in any fictional medium were women in a hetero relationship and frequently they were defined by that relationship. I am inclined to patiently wait out the outrage. However, if your work is being caught in the current cultural winds, then stand your ground, sister, and I’ll stand there with you. All stories should be told.

  2. jereco1962 says:

    Beyond awesome. And if Melissa Hillman gives you any grief about it, this fairy will SO be your godmother. I’ll fight to the pain!

  3. Hey Allison, thanks for the shout-out to my most recent Theater Pub column! Reading your excellent piece, I also got major flashbacks to something I wrote for this blog this past spring (https://sftheaterpub.wordpress.com/2013/03/28/hi-ho-the-glamorous-life-youre-doing-it-wrong-youre-doing-it-wrong/) where I talked about how I consider my play PLEIADES a feminist play, yet according to some people, it’s not feminist *enough*, because the characters spend too much time talking/obsessing/worrying about a guy. “But that’s the point of the play!” I want to shout. It’s about young women learning to be more self-actualized and not letting their lives revolve around a guy who isn’t even worth it. So yes, the characters act pretty silly at the top of Act One… but that’s something that a lot of young women DO. I could write a long list called “Stupid Things 14-to-24-Year-Old Marissa Did to Attract Guys’ Attention.”

    Your example of “Asexual Astronaut, starring Tilda Swinton” also made me think about Sandra Bullock’s role in “Gravity,” and how I’ve heard some people decry the movie because of the scene where (vague spoilers) she hallucinates that George Clooney comes back to give her a pep talk. Because, evidently, it’s anti-feminist to show a female character who “needs” a man to tell her what to do. For what it’s worth, I don’t know if “Gravity” was explicitly intended as a feminist film, but I think it’s pretty damn cool that it has a woman as the protagonist without making a big deal about it. And the scene of Clooney giving the pep talk didn’t offend me, because I could imagine it working equally well if Bullock’s character were male. A man explaining something to a woman is not automatically “mansplaining,” and to say that movies/plays/whatever can only depict women as completely self-actualized and self-sufficient is definitely “narrowing the funnel.” More than that, it’s bad drama: great theater is built on flawed characters and interesting interpersonal relationships. Which is why I, too, don’t understand this demand for female characters to be totally self-sufficient and totally uninterested in romance.

  4. sftheaterpub says:

    Stuart here: As the writer friend in question in Allison’s article, I do, in fact, think about how my adaptation of Kristin Hersh’s RAT GIRL, which was commissioned for female-centric theater festival, will be received. The show features an eight person cast, with five of the roles to be played by women. Despite having an obvious bent towards women, and three leading roles for women, there are still a number of male characters and while none of them are leads, they definitely still play a vital function in the show. Kristin is introduced to music by her father; her closest relationships are with her friend Mark and Dave, the dummer in the band; the psychiatrist who treats her with relative success is a man; all of the people from the music industry (outside of the band) who play a role in the show are men. Though it is true that the act two turning point is a scene between Kristin and Betty, Betty is kind of a wacky old lady. Because Kristin’s story is a true story, there isn’t much I can personally do about all this except be as true to it and her voice as I can be, and while I don’t believe it in any way makes Kristin a less admirable, complex or, for lack of a better word, strong woman, I’m already bracing to get some backlash on it because I feel like the criteria for “good female characters” has become progressively strict and narrow.

    • Billie Cox says:

      Sigh. What is it about politics, gender or otherwise? Brave people come out and break new ground and somewhere down the line it turns into party line politics. In my many decades on this planet I’ve seen it happen with gender, nuclear issues, conservation…
      I can’t tell you how many movement groups I’ve observed that start with a great agenda and then splinter and sub-splinter and then attack, purge…I keep thinking of LIFE OF BRIAN:

      Brian: Excuse me. Are you the Judean People’s Front?

      Reg: Fuck off! ‘Judean People’s Front’. We’re the People’s Front of Judea! ‘Judean People’s Front’.

      Francis: Wankers.

  5. Hmm… I was going to write a play about domestic violence between a heterosexual couple. Would it be more Feminist if they were lesbians?

    It will be nice when we can see ourselves in *any* human others. Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For doesn’t include male characters (well, one or two when last I read it, a gay man and a transgender son) because she wants people to have to find the universality of humanity in her all-women cast, since we’ve had to find it so many times in all male casts.

    For myself, I go back to the advice to Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women, primarily female cast) from her editor: “Write what you know.” In my case, that involves a lot of women and some men.

  6. A few years back I was offered a semi-substantial role in a play produced by a well-known SF theatre company. I was less concerned with the character’s ethnicity (he was Black, the only non-White character in the four-person play) than with the fact that he has a romantic relationship with one of the major female characters – a character arc I rarely ever get. In preparation for the callback, I was sent the complete script… which made me decline the role pretty quickly.

    It wasn’t as if this poorly-written script had gone out of its way to write a blatantly offensive Black male character – quite the contrary. This script had gone out of its way to make a blatantly INOFFENSIVE Black male character. He spoke lines right out of White Liberal PC Dialogue for Beginners, had his impeccable credentials read aloud, and (kinda) leads his love interest into a “Happily Ever After” scenario that isn’t earned by the play that preceded it.

    The other characters were allowed to be complex – even outright despicable – but the playwright went out of her way to write a Black character so inoffensive that she wrote him as completely UNINTERESTING. He’s nothing more than a plot device rather than the multi-dimensional (and – as hinted early on – possibly under-handed) character that would have atleast been interesting to play.

    • Allison Page says:

      That must have been incredibly frustrating. Again, just more over-direction, which is turning out to be a real pet peeve for me. I’m sure most any actor would rather play a complex, imperfect character than a caricature of what’s “good”. How boring!

  7. […] that the test does not state that women can never talk about men, the way that a more stringent school of feminist art-makers would have it. They can have men on their minds; they just need to have something else on their minds, […]

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