Marissa Skudlarek as Everybody.
Six years ago, for the first time, I wrote a male character that I felt really, truly proud of. He was the first male character I’d created that I felt like I understood — someone not cobbled together out of bits of other male characters from other works of fiction, but a real person with flaws and virtues. Furthermore, while I can sometimes go too far in thinking that male characters need to be possessed of a certain alpha-male masculinity, this character was not defined by his gender. He was a complex person who happened to be a dude.
The secret might be that, to a large extent, I based this character, Jon, on myself. In my very first plays, I’d started from an assumption that men are not like women; men are inherently different from me. (Hence, perhaps, the predilection for writing alpha-males.) But as I grew older, I came to understand that while there are many men out there who are nothing like me, there are also men who share many of the same qualities I do. It perhaps helped that this was one of my first plays where the conflict didn’t center around romance (I was pretty sure that men didn’t experience romance the same way I did), but around themes of self-actualization and escaping the daily grind.
Jon is frustrated; he feels bored, awkward, and out-of-place in his office. He is defensive and pedantic. He tries to be self-deprecating, but it backfires. He kind of thinks he’s better than everyone else. He’s more grouchy and angry than I tend to be (probably because it’s more socially acceptable for a man to be outspokenly angry than a woman) but, to a large extent, he’s me, with all the flaws I had when I was just out of college, only in a male body.
The play containing the character of Jon is no masterpiece. It will probably never be staged. And I realize that “just base all of your characters, male and female, on yourself” is no way to develop a varied and interesting body of work. But I’m bringing this up today because it’s my way of pushing back against those people who say that men can’t write women, or women can’t write men. This idea, however, seems predicated on an assumption that all men are one way and all women are another way. No man can understand the nature of being female; no woman can understand the nature of being male. But why throw up such walls in the name of ideology, when art is supposed to promote empathy and understanding?
Indeed, criticism these days can be very doctrinaire and ideological. In the new movie Mistress America (written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig), a college freshman, Tracy, writes a short story in which the central character is based upon her new friend Brooke, a 30-year-old New Yorker of limitless ambitions and limited means. Predictably, Brooke eventually lays eyes on the story, and becomes furious at how her teenage protégée Tracy has “betrayed” her by turning her into a character. Brooke’s friends take Tracy to task, too. Not only has she betrayed Brooke’s confidence, but also her story paints all its female characters in an unflattering light. One woman hurls questions like “Do you believe in a woman’s right to choose?” and “How do you feel about female genital mutilation?” at a bewildered Tracy.
This scene is over-the-top satire, but the reason it’s so funny is because it captures something about the way we evaluate art in the 2010s. Brooke’s friends think it’s more important for Tracy’s story to promote a feminist message than for it to be truthful, or interesting, or complex. You can also read this scene as Baumbach and Gerwig having a laugh at themselves, embedding a criticism of their own movie within the screenplay before anyone else can make that same criticism. Although they’ve written a very smart movie with two complex female characters at the center of it, an overly ideological critic could still take them to task for writing about women with messy lives who do some manipulative and underhanded things.
Taking women to task for depicting female characters in supposedly unflattering ways; insinuating that women can’t write male characters because men are too different… it’s all two sides of the same coin, and that coin is “letting ideological considerations become so overwhelming that it’s impossible to write anything at all.”
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.