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

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