Parenting and Playwriting
The Boyfriend Plot
This post is part of a regular series on Parenting & Playwriting. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, contact me at email@example.com.
I made Lizzie join the Girl Scouts this year, because she needed to work on her social skills (aka acquire some), and the Girl Scouts seemed like a well-organized, low pressure situation in which to practice the more social of her graces. But I have to be honest: modern "scouting" is kind of lame. At meetings, the girls recite pledges, form friendship circles, and acquire badges for dubious wilderness skills like "playing fair" and "helping others." I hear the older girls, the Juniors, will go camping this spring, but so far, the only camping my little Brownie has done took place at a lock-in at the mall.
I quite like Lizzie's troop leader, though. She's a wry and well-organized lady (the two best qualities in any leader of extracurricular activities for children, if you ask me). So when she asked me to lead the troop in storytelling exercises one afternoon, I readily agreed. Like many playwrights, I've done my time in the public schools of America teaching playwriting to students of all ages, and although it's been awhile, I located my teaching artist files in a box in the basement and blew off the dust.
I am, nonetheless, deeply dismayed that the collective imagination of a group of girls, ages seven to ten, would land so squarely in the middle of the boyfriend plot with so few outliers. I don't blame the girls, however; I blame us. The storytellers. We are failing to model stories about girls that do not involve boyfriends.
I began with some basic exercises. We played "hot potato story," where whomever catches the ball has to contribute a line or two to an ongoing story. I laid out photographs depicting various intriguing people from which they devised characters. They sketched bios, did lightning interviews, and finally I had them write letters from the point of view of the character, which we then turned into monologues. Standard creative drama stuff.
The girls were terrific. Silly and shy, coy and rambunctious, attention-seeking, wise beyond their years, strikingly immature, they strutted about the room like little heroines in a post-modern novella written by Louisa May Alcott, edited by Ntozake Shange, with contributions from Beyoncé—the Destiny's Child years. Their monologues, however, were a disappointment. Not because they were poorly written or lacking in style or stingy with words, but because only one girl wrote a monologue that wasn't about getting a boyfriend, keeping a boyfriend, or losing a boyfriend.
Before I get on my high horse, let me say, some of the best literature in the world is about getting, keeping, or losing a boyfriend. I'd put Jane Austen head-to-head with Dickens any day; she has him beat on psychological complexity hands-down. And don't get me started on Middlemarch. In Dorothea's marriage to Mr. Casaubon, George Eliot dissects then eviscerates the role of delusion in romantic love like a Triple Crown thoroughbred. Furthermore, I recognize that human sexuality does not magically ignite at age eleven. If what I felt for Ricky Schroeder in the third grade was not lust, I don't know what is. Heartland Girl Scout Troop 10005890210 is neither shallow nor sexually precocious.
I am, nonetheless, deeply dismayed that the collective imagination of a group of girls, ages seven to ten, would land so squarely in the middle of the boyfriend plot with so few outliers. I don't blame the girls, however; I blame us. The storytellers. We are failing to model stories about girls that do not involve boyfriends. Yes, Anna saves her sister, Elsa in Frozen; and yes, Merida reconciles with Mother in Brave; and indeed, Angelina Jolie wakes Sleeping Beauty in Maleficent with her larger than life, pouty lips. But if you look closely, all of these stories still hinge on the boyfriend plot to propel the action: Anna becomes infatuated with Hans; Merida must choose between suitors; Angelina Jolie is betrayed by a no-name actor with thin lips. In fact, when I survey the big, commercialized myths we're selling to our daughters in the marketplace of storytelling, the so-called "progress" we've made feels thin.
Where are the big stories about girls who want to live on the moon? Full stop. Who have to save their younger brothers from the orphan train? Full stop. Who want to juggle flaming swords on the stage, slay dragons for the mere thrill of slaying dragons, and topple giants, full stop, regardless of finding, keeping, or losing their boyfriends? I know there are more stories out there than what's hitting the multiplex cinema, but they can easily get lost in all the chatter and buzz.
What stories are you telling your girls? What should Lizzie, Laura, and troop 1005890210 be watching and reading? Let the comments fill to the brim with your recommendations!
Finally, who was the one Girl Scout to reject the boyfriend plot, you may be wondering? Yes, it was my Lizzie. Of course, her monologue was about a girl who wanted to kill her mother, so it was more of a half-win.