Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Gender Stereotyping in Plays and Movies: Advice for Playwrights 01

"Gender Stereotyping in Plays and Movies" is my first post in a new series on Advice for Playwrights (and Writers of Movies, TV, Video, Etc.)

I see many new plays, full length and 10 minute and in between.  Occasionally I have the privilege of acting in them.  Time and again what strikes me is that the playwrights, whether male or female, lose the opportunity to write more interesting plays because they unconsciously stereotype by gender. (Yes, also be race, ethnicity, height, age, sexual orientation, etc., but those choices are specified less often by the writer and more often by the casting director.)

The characters who are active, who have the power, who cause the events that are central to the plot and who change as the plot unfolds, are almost always MALE. The people who are passive, react rather than, dare I say, pro-act, the dupes, the losers and the characters we could cut from the script and just learn about from the ones who actually matter if we wanted to hire fewer actors, are almost always FEMALE.

I have been thinking this for quite a while. I wrote about it in connection with the movie UP and Pixar's apparent preference for a female-free world.  (Silicon Valley - Boys' Club is not limited to the South Bay?)  I have also written about it to Theatreworks - the organization that produced the play that prompts this post - especially when they solicit audience comments for their New Works series.  Theatreworks and Pixar have this in common:  they are not ready to listen yet.

I was motivated to write today because last night I saw Theatreworks' production of Kenneth Lin's Warrior Class. I found it to be mostly a rather wordy and dull affair, with maybe 20 minutes worth watching out of the 100-minute evening in the theater. (The acting, directing, sets, lighting and the costumes for the men were all very good, but those things seem easier to do well than playwriting.  Or anyway, I encounter not-so-good scripts much more often than not-so-good the other things.)

What sprung to my attention was that Lin could have alleviated the dullness, and found inspiration to make the plot more interesting, if only he had had the imagination or simply the raised consciousness to avoid gender stereotyping.

Note: The play has another defect that I find common among new plays: it is essentially a radio play. In most of the scenes, the characters sit at a table in a kitchen or restaurant and talk. The radio-play-problem may be the subject of Advice for Playwrights 02. It is one area where non-stage scripts have an advantage over stage ones, by the way, so perhaps it is not surprising that the TV generation exercises so little restraint in writing radio plays for the stage.

Warrior Class has just three characters:  a politician, a party boss and a romantic attachment from the politician's college years.  Did you guess that the first two are male and the third female?  How much more interesting the play would have been if the politician and the party fixer were female, and the former love were male.

The politician is Chinese and religious.  Neither rules out being female.
As to the religiousness, another post in this series may be about giving characters in a play traits to telegraph whether we should like them or not, that is if we share the playwright's political view.  I find this annoying because after the telegraphy there is nothing more, no fleshing out of that trait.  I feel manipulated, whether or not my politics and the playwright's are the same, as well as cheated.  This kind of lazy shorthand button-pushing means that the playwright did not think very hard.  Suffice it to say that Lin tells us about the religiousness:  he has the politician get upset at the use of the expletive Jesus but not 4 letter words -- I guess we are being told he is a hypocrite as well -- but fails utterly to give a word picture of the religiousness.  The protagonist's stopping in a church on the way home after a bad day didn't really do it; it was another cliche without any real detail.  Were we to think it was further evidence of hypocrisy?  I thought it was further evidence of insufficient self-editing by the writer.

Granted, Mr. Lin would not be able to identify with a Chinese FEMALE politician, but complete identification with the central character is not always necessary.  Lin might have used his identification powers on the romantic attachment -- the dupe here, the victim -- with the result that the play would have become more thought-provoking.

The romantic attachment is a victim because we learn (SPOILER ALERT) that the politician, back in college, was a stalker.  Women can be stalkers, too, and men even fear for their lives from female stalkers.  It is not the usual picture of stalking, but that's why it would have given this play some more snap, and maybe inspired Lin to think more and deeper about his characters and their problems.

Even the party boss could be a woman.  I bet if Lin did some research he would find that there are examples in the real world of women who vet political candidates, do some influence pedaling, know everyone on every state legislative committee, etc.

The other details -- that the victim wants to get a job for her husband not herself, that her motivation is that the husband is having an affair, that the politician's wife has just had a miscarriage after in vitro -- all could work with the genders switched.  OK, having the politician herself miscarry might be hard to work into the timetable, but maybe it would reveal even more about the politician than when he's a he and the miscarrier is his neglected wife.  Or the politician and her husband could have an adoption or surrogate mother deal fall through.  See: once you start thinking beyond the stereotypes, more original ideas may follow.
As I said to Pixar, I will say to playwrights like Mr. Lin:  Write your play the way you usually do, with the active parts for men and the passive parts for women.  Then go back and switch the males with the females.  Now rewrite the play using the non-cliche gender assignments.  If you don't end up with a better play, well, send me both versions, and I'll see if I agree with you.  And maybe give you some more pointers.  For free, at least the first time.  (And if you do end up with a better play, I'd really like to see a comment below that says "It worked! She's right!")

minor rev 10/31/13, typo corr 11/6/13

Monday, October 28, 2013

Tenting and Tempurpedic (PhD Ideas 03)


We were tented last week, Wednesday to Friday. More about that later perhaps, but right now I'd like to suggest a PhD idea.  Or maybe it is an area for EPA investigation.

The question is about the warning gas, chloropicrin, used in fumigations along with the fumigant gas (sulfuryl fluoride, known as Vikane ®).  Does chloropicrin stay in Tempurpedic foam mattresses, and possibly other household foams and fillers, long past when any airborne gas has dissipated?  And if it does, does Vikane as well?

Why I wonder:  We sleep on a Tempurpedic mattress.  Friday night and  Saturday morning, whenever I was in bed and awake, my eyes stung and teared up.  When I got up I noticed I had a raspy throat and a funny (bitter?) taste in my mouth.  I slept all right but was not comfortable being awake in bed.

Chloropicrin effects:  My husband and I returned to our house two hours after the fumigators had posted the sign permitting re-entry so that we could open all our windows and let the house air out some more.  Very soon our eyes began to sting. We left as soon as we could and did not come back for about three hours. We were surprised about the eye discomfort because we knew that Vikane, the fumigant, is not supposed to be detectable by people at all (hence its enormous dangerousness). I looked again at the re-entry notice and saw the reference to a "warning gas: chloropicrin." Ah, I thought, that's what is bothering us.

The question is whether gases lodge in foams such as Tempurpedic mattresses and other porous materials (regular mattresses, comforters, etc.) and do not dissipate at the same rate they do from the air or from hard surfaces like wood and metal or from single-layer textiles like table cloths and clothing.

Prior Research?  I would have thought there would be some investigation of this by EPA and Dow Chemical (manufacturers of Vikane, but they probably sell it in a package with the off-patent "staple article of commerce" chloropicrin).  I searched the internet for anything with both words, chloropicrin and tempurpedic. I didn't find anything directly relevant so I suspect that there are no specific studies yet.
10/30/13:   I found this 2008 EPA document about chloropicrin. The words "foam" and "mattress" do not appear in it.  The section on residential structures  says: "The Agency reviewed monitoring studies completed by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) of the California EnvironmentalProtection Agency. These studies directly monitored chloropicrin.  The results of these studies are below the Agency's level of concern for bystanders."  I am not worried about the level of chloropicrin in the ambient air inside the house.  The question is whether within a few inches of the surface of a mattress, particularly one made of Tempurpedic or other foam, the level of chloropicrin is much higher, and remains much higher, for several days after the house on average is safe.
What I did find that grabbed my attention was a site with the standard warnings and preparation instructions for tenting. Here is an example. I had read that material several times in preparation for the fumigation, but this time I paid more attention to a sentence I had thought did not apply to us:
All mattresses encased in permanent, waterproof coverings must be removed from the structure prior to the introduction of the fumigant, including infant mattresses.
We have no infant or other waterproof mattresses so I had not been concerned earlier.  I know the Tempurpedic mattress has a covering but I don't think it is waterproof.  (Another internet search showed me that many people buy waterproof covers for their Tempurpedics, so I bet I am right.)

What I remain curious about is whether the kind of foam used in a Tempurpedic, possibly coupled with the kind of covering, traps gases and does not release them very quickly.  Gas that settles on hard surfaces like wood or metal, or on single-layer textiles like clothing and table cloths, and even inside the surfaces of drawers and cabinets that are left open during tenting and aeration, departs quickly.  There's nothing except air for it to interact with.  But gas in a foam mattress or fiberfill comforter might take longer to depart.
To use a recently overworked word (but in another context): does Tempurpedic foam temporarily SEQUESTER the warning chloropicrin gas, and maybe the Vikane too, in its air pockets?  Someone could get a PhD investigating this.
Meanwhile, I heartily suggest that the official tenting instructions be amended to mention Tempurpedic-type mattresses explicitly, and to explain what to do with them.  They are common enough nowadays and, alas, so is tenting.

Maybe Tempurpedic would fund the research?  Perhaps if it does, the company can improve how it makes the foam or the mattress cover (cheaper, less gas-trapping, etc.).   That way they could get more patents and keep their hold on the foam mattress market that much longer (the up-side potential of research).


By the way, our Tempurpedic had a very bad chemical smell when we first got it.  We were told it would go away in 30 days.  It took more like 8-10 months.  Perhaps our mattress was a lemon?  Or perhaps we are particularly sensitive to smells?   But I doubt that I am the only person to notice either the new mattress gas or the cloropicrin after tenting in my Tempurpedic.

Other Kinds of Mattresses,  Bedding:  On Sunday night my husband left for a business trip and I decided not to sleep on the Tempurpedic again.  I moved to the guest room's bed which has a regular mattress.  Two observations:

1.  I got snootfuls of gas when I removed the bedding from the Tempurpedic.  This seemed to confirm that chloropicrin takes longer to depart from foams and textiles than it does from air or hard, non-porous surfaces.

2.  The regular mattress was not as bad as the Tempurpedic, but my eyes did smart and my mouth got that funny taste.   Perhaps the regular mattress would have been as bad as the Tempurpedic on Friday night?  My impression, however, was that on the regular mattress it took longer for the chloropicrin to build up to an eye-stinging level.

I admit that I read and play phone solitaire in bed before falling asleep and during middle-of-the-night insomnia.  If you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow and you bounce out of bed as soon as you wake up, then your eyes are open in bed for mere seconds. My eyes are open in bed for hours.  If you're like me, and if you are also sensitive to smells and eye irritants, I suggest not sleeping in your just-tented house for several days.

PhD Research - Details:  After confirming that the level of chloropicrin (and Vikane?) is higher in or above a Tempurpedic or other mattress than it is in the ambient air in a house after tenting, the researcher might consider whether the heat of the sleeper's body speeds up release of the gas.  I would guess it does.  PhD candidates who want to avoid human subject research, and home owners who just want to avoid smarting eyes and irritated throats, could simulate body heat with heating pads or an electric blanket or turn up the thermostat.  The PhDs could then measure the gas near the surface of the bed; the homeowners could turn on a fan, and if they used pads or blankets, they could cycle them off the bed from time to time to let the fan have better access to the surface of the mattress.


Conclusion:  If you are getting tented and use a Tempurpedic mattress and have sensitive eyes, consider these options:

1.  Move the mattress out of the house before the tenting begins.
2.  Move your food, meds, plants and pets back in when the re-entry notice is posted, and get the gas company to turn the gas back on so that you can warm up the house and have hot water, but sleep somewhere else for several nights.  And maybe try the
warm-body-simulation-plus-fan idea
in the previous paragraph about PhD Research details.

RJM 10/28/13, rev 10/30/13
[original version available on request]