Boy Writes Girl
What elements have helped create fleshed-out roles for women? What elements have hindered, or proved harmful to the progress of parity in our theatrical yarns? This blog series analyzes the sanctified “Great Female Roles” written by men, and the patterns in which male playwrights craft female characters from myth, history, current events, or whole cloth.
“He just knows,” I recall her saying. “He just gets it, I don’t know how.” Topics of conversation were beginning to slur together, leaping tangential hurdles one after the other. We were clustered around a table at one of the local watering holes (this was college, our salad days) administering a tipsy postmortem to a community theatre stab at Summer and Smoke, the sad tale of soul-searching minister’s daughter Alma Winemiller. I nursed my drink as She (the speaker, an actress-cum-director), and the other ladies clustered around the table, evaluated the lead’s performance and, in tandem, the might and merits of the character she’d played. “Alma is a great character,” she said, and everyone at the table nodded their taciturn agreement: “A great female character too!”
What does that mean? I thought, ‘Great female character?’ To paraphrase Tina Turner’s song: What’s sex got to do with it? In retrospect, that was either years of accumulated privilege coursing through my veins into the brain, or the mint juleps.
I often think of myself as being part of some shadowy, villainous conglomerate. Sorted, like a teenager in a Young Adult Dystopia, into the elite, monochrome party of the privileged—The House of the Straight White Man. Working the field as a playwright, I never profit from my work without being reminded of the vast labyrinth of support yielded me by that looming Straight White Man-ness. To be sure, I’ve always been secretly proud of how “well” I write women, whatever that might mean. But more often than not, I wake up with a shiver in the dead of night thinking back to a Tarantino-y one-act I sent to a teacher in undergrad. “A solid exercise,” she said with a wry smile. “You’ve written a girl into a boy’s play.”
The obligation of the Straight White Male Artist in 2015 should be to put forward, defend, support, and make way for the work of his hyper-talented female peers.
The universal narrative of Western Culture is a familiar three-act structure. God Creates Man. Man Creates Woman. Things go downhill from there. As the saying goes, Adam begat, and begat, and begat a long line of Straight White Men. In the midst of that begetting, he gave birth to a cultural tradition of Creative Men and their Female Characters. Women spring fully-formed from the bodies of men—Eve cobbled together from a rib bone, Athena leapt armored and battle-ready from the forehead of Zeus, and Pygmalion’s kiss makes his statue-woman breathe. Nowhere does this patriarchal quirk of storytelling become more visceral than on the stage, where the women men create must be embodied. A man hammers and chisels away in isolation at his fabricated woman, deciding the angles and arches of her body, soul, and indeed the whole progress of her life. Then, an Actual Woman (horrors!) must do justice to this illusion in real-time.
Until recently, this formula was dutifully unchallenged. As an inheritor of Adam and of Jove, a male playwright had carte blanche to Build His Own Woman and it was the privilege for an actress to wedge into that mold, holding the appropriate pose. Yet, the recent shift in cultural conversation throws that cliché into sharp contradiction. We have the freedom to challenge the canon, to reject the classics—3,000 years of Boys Writing Girls isn’t, “Oh, that’s just how it is,” anymore.
So, in classic Straight White Man fashion, let’s bring this back to my problems.
“No way, Alma’s a terrible character!” This time it was over cappuccinos with an actress and colleague of mine. “She whines and whines and it’s all about that guy she likes! She’s a fantasy – she might have depth but that doesn’t make her any less pathetic.” One girl’s grail is another’s garbage, right? But a week prior, I’d heard a woman insist that Williams’ heroine was a vibrant human, a flawed and fascinating thing—a role any actress would die to play. And here I was, hearing the opposite from someone whose opinion was no less valid. Suddenly, it was all a Kafkaesque delusion: what is a great female character? Is it different from a simply great character with a whole different set of obstacles to traverse? Can the SWM even hope to know, to get it? And remember, Williams isn’t even the full trifecta (White and Male, yes). If he couldn’t get it right all the time, then “my ending is despair” à la Prospero.
The tectonic plates of theatre are shifting, rubbing up against each other to form new and exciting mountain ranges and volcanic bursts of activity that can’t be ignored. The obligation of the Straight White Male Artist in 2015 should be to put forward, defend, support, and make way for the work of his hyper-talented female peers. But the SWM probably won’t disappear like the dinosaurs with the Cretaceous, so where does that leave them? The fine fable we were raised with of Eve coming from Adam’s rib won’t cut the mustard in 2015, nor should it.
The time has come to examine that monster, the Canon. Thankfully, the new canon is filling with female voices, all capable of telling their own stories, exposing the flaws and fissures in formidable archetypes that have lasted millennia. “But surely,” says the academic, “we can’t just jettison our literary past! And what about the success stories?” Are those syllabus-friendly ur-texts we flock to for comfort worth defending if their portrayals are dated, harmful, or damnable? What can we learn from millennia of SWMs trying, triumphing, and failing to put living women onstage?
Over the course of this series, I’ll offer a roadmap of Boys Writing Girls throughout theatre history. I’ll explore how the narrative surrounding women has changed in plays; the prominence and thematic structure of women’s stories told by men in different theatrical epochs; the strengths and weaknesses of Great Female Characters from Sophocles to Sorkin; and a few frilly anecdotes in between.
Up Next: We’ll hit up the Greeks, and take a look at the double-edged trope that set up centuries of women onstage—the woman as tormentor and tormented in a man’s, man’s, man’s world.