The Content of Our Character(s): On Female Characters in Theatre & Film

I received this casting notice in my email today:  casting notice 1

Let’s talk about this for a second.  There are six roles in this one-act and of those, only two are for women.  This play is also written and directed by men so that’s two more men.  So women make up a measly 25% of this entire creative project.

Now let’s look at the characters and their descriptions.  First, let us consider the length of each description.  Obviously, Noah is our main character, not only because he is referenced in every other character’s description, but also because his description is the lengthiest.  Our two female characters have barely a sentence.  The one exception here is that of our drug dealer, who has the shortest of all descriptions at just three words.  So in case you’re wondering, by description-length alone, women are only slightly more interesting than a drug dealer.

Now let’s get to the actual content of these descriptions.  It is obvious this writer has spent a LOT of time creating the character of Noah and even Sammy, his best friend.  As an actor, I can read Noah’s description and get an understanding of where he is emotionally and physically in his life before I read one word of dialogue.  I can identify with being a recent college grad stuck in an endless cycle of part-time jobs, being worried about success, and even struggling with the idea of committing to something or someone.  He sounds like an actual person with actual feelings.

And then there are the two female characters; our 25% of the play, whose descriptions also make them out to be about 25% of an actual person.  And this is what I REALLY want to talk about, because I want you to understand just how much gender disparity there is in the entertainment industry.  It’s not just about HOW MANY roles and jobs there are for women, it is also about the QUALITY of the roles and jobs available to women.  I read character breakdowns every day for a variety of projects, and the majority look something like this one.

In this play, I have a choice: either I am Noah’s current love interest who “also happens to be a stripper” (Go figure!  Probably with a “heart of gold” too!) OR I can be Noah’s ex-girlfriend who is a lawyer (read: probably a “bitch”).  Either way, the female character is there solely to be tied to our male protagonist.  Their relationship to our male protagonist, Noah, is their whole character description. And while that’s true for all the other characters in this play, this is the case with 90% of the female character breakdowns I read every day.  Almost every single one is about how that woman relates to another man in the project as if her having her own life and personality is impossible to imagine or write.  Who are these women?  What do we know about them other than their relationship to our main male protagonist?  In this particular example, we know nothing except that one is a stripper and the other is a lawyer, which brings me to my next point…

Women are frequently written as stereotypes and/or labels, not people.  This ties in to how society often sees and labels women.  Almost every female character breakdown I read is mainly physical (“curvy but skinny…” is always my favorite…which is NOT a real thing, dudes) and/or panders to a very specific stereotype: whore, stripper, virgin, mother, bitch, nerdy best friend, girl next door, manic pixie dream girl.  Not only does this reduce half the population to being one-dimensional, purely physical beings, it’s also incredibly lazy writing.  Instead of doing the harder job of writing a real woman with real flaws, the writer reduces her to a “flawed” stereotype like a stripper as if that fills in all the missing character development the writer should have written in the first place.  And for the record, there are plenty of women who are strippers who aren’t solely that one thing and are probably lovely individuals who AREN’T doing it as a “cry for help” or are in need of a male savior figure (even Jesus Christ).  Maybe the problem is that even the word “woman” carries with it so much baggage and so many assumptions that some writers have a hard time sifting through that to see that women are people first and “women” second.  We have hopes and fears and struggles and triumphs and they are not so different from the men around us.  Conflict resolution and emotional development are universal; women and men experience these things every day regardless of gender, so why is it easier for so many writers to develop and write real male characters but not real female ones?  Is it any wonder that actresses like Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, AND Emily Blunt are all starring in films this fall (Secret in Their Eyes, Our Brand is Crisis, and Sicario, respectively) where their roles were originally written for men?

This one example is far and away not the worst, but it shows how far we still have to go for women in this business.  If we are to take the old adage, “write what you know” seriously, then not only do we need more female writers writing projects for women, we also need to hold male writers accountable for the KINDS of female characters they write.  Unless these men exclusively hang out with hookers-with-hearts-of-gold and virginal cheerleaders (and honestly, if they do, they have some deep psychological issues that probably need working out), then why can’t they write a woman as a real person beyond a label?  Even their mothers and wives are more than their mothers and wives, if they have the chutzpah to actually try to write it.

There are so many talented male writers and directors out there that I want to work with who create and tell wonderful stories.  Is it so much to ask that more of them feature women as actual people?  Is it so much to ask more of them are about women, period? We can do better than 25%.  We can do better than stereotypical labels.  Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, and Emily Blunt shouldn’t have to re-write male parts, and if these women at the top of their game are being forced to do that, then those of us in the earlier phases of our acting careers have it pretty bleak indeed.

Advertisements

My Favorite Fierce Film Heroines Part I: Scarlett O’Hara

As you may or may not know, I am beyond obsessed with Gone With the Wind and Titanic.  Both feature spunky leading ladies who are played by amazing British actresses with studied American accents.  There are also insanely gorgeous leading men in both films aka Clark I-don’t-give-a-damn Gable and Leonardo Dreamboat DiCaprio each with impressively amazing hair.  Both Scarlett and Rose challenge society’s notions on womanhood.  Also they both have terrible boyfriends before they realize the heinous error of their ways and ultimately choose Rhett and Jack (although, I gotta say that Billy Zane had a pretty handsome head of hair himself).  Not to mention each has to survive some pretty crazy stuff like a giant boat sinking and the burning of Atlanta before they come out on the other end stronger, fiercer ladies.  In short, Rose and Scarlett are two of my biggest heroines.  Like, I wanna be just like them when I grow up with a dash of the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey added when I’m an old lady.

BUT I’m 95% sure I won’t be anything like them.  In this two-part blog, I’ll break down why Rose and Scarlett (both named after shades of the color red…coincidence?  I THINK NOT!) are way more awesome than any woman alive and why I’ll never live up to them.

SCARLETT O’HARA

  • A 17-inch waist even Kate Moss would clamor for.  As unattainable as a unicorn.

    A 17-inch waist even Kate Moss would clamor for. As unattainable as a unicorn.

    First and foremost, Scarlett has a 17-inch waist.  I do not have the discipline (or probably the frame) to support that kind of petite waif-ery.  I’m from the Midwest and was raised on a diet of carbs and potatoes, so…ain’t nobody got time for that, ya know?  Even in a corset after the Master Cleanse AND P90x, I wouldn’t be able to hit that number.  After having a baby, her waist is like, what, 19 inches?  Then she COMPLAINS about it.  I MEAN, COME ON!  Can you even TRY to make us feel less inferior, Scarlett?!

  • Vivien Leigh.  I adore her, she was the most beautiful woman in the world, her acting is unreal, and she was married to Laurence Olivier, the greatest actor in the world.  Can you guys imagine anyone else playing Scarlett?  NO.  Because Vivien is perfect.  And no one else is.

    The only time I'm ever surrounded by this many good looking men is when I'm at a gay bar with friends.  YEP I'M SINGLE!

    The only time I’m ever surrounded by this many good looking men is when I’m at a gay bar with friends. This might explain why I’m still single.

  • Scarlett goes to the Twelve Oaks barbeque mostly to see Ashley Wilkes (ugh) and winds up surrounded by a bevy of hot Southern gentlemen who all want to feed her ribs and probably okra, but really they all just want to politely get into her pantaloons.  I’m going to be honest when I say I would mostly be going to Twelve Oaks for the barbeque, not the men, because I really love barbeque.  And unlike Scarlett surrounded by men, I would be surrounded by empty plates.  This is why I’ll never have a 17-inch waist and probably be single forever.  See?  No discipline.
  • Scarlett possesses an undying devotion to her family’s plantation, Tara.  When she finds herself in times of trouble, she always goes back to Tara.  After the war, she takes it upon herself to revive her land by working it with *gasp* HER OWN HANDS.
    "As God is my witness, I'll never go hungry again! " - Scarlett...and also me when my bank account is zilch

    “As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again! ” – Scarlett…and also me when my bank account is zilch

    Keep in mind this is 1865, and proper young ladies only use their hands for delicate needlework or raising cups of tea to their mouths.  I’m so impressed Scarlett actually knew how to plant and pick crops even though she was raised to take afternoon naps and be admired.  I may have grown up in the Midwest, but I don’t know the first thing about real farming.  I can barely keep floral bouquets alive for more than a few days, so…saving a plantation?  Forgeddaboutit.

COMMON GROUND: the Ashley Wilkes problem

Here is where EVERY woman can identify with Scarlett: we all have or once had an Ashley Wilkes in our lives at some point or another.  You know, that one guy you just feel all the feelings for, and they’re kind of unrequited but also kind of requited which makes everything extremely confusing?  That’s Ashley Wilkes.  Scarlett throws herself at Ashley every chance she gets despite him being in love with his cousin Melanie (Was incest like, seriously a thing back in those days?  I mean gotta keep those bloodlines going, I get it, but…ick).  However, Ashley perpetuates the situation by constantly giving in to Scarlett’s advances.

"Scarlett, I'm just not that into you.  But I kind of am so let's makeout."  ASHLEY IS THE WORST.

“Scarlett, I’m just not that into you. But I kind of am so let’s makeout.” ASHLEY IS THE WORST.

After the war, he even makes out with her a little bit at Tara.  This is clearly not okay now or pretty much EVER.   Ashley is the kind of guy who likes all the attention he can get, even though he’s just not that into you.  I’ve totally been there; probably 75% of all the guys I’ve seriously liked were Ashley types, and it’s just not fun.

YOWZA.  Am I right, ladies?!

YOWZA. Am I right, ladies?!

Thank god Scarlett FINALLY realizes Rhett Butler is way hotter than Ashley, not to mention treats her like gold and truly loves her.  Also, let’s be honest: who would rather kiss Leslie Howard over Clark Gable?  No one, children.  NO ONE.

No offense to Leslie Howard, but Gable is sheer sex with a fab mustache.  I like tall, dark, and handsome, not blonde and wishy-washy.  And don’t forget Rhett paid an exorbitant amount of money to purchase a dance with an in-mourning Scarlett because he knew how much she wanted to dance.  Back in those days, if a lady was in mourning, she wasn’t allowed to have fun, so Rhett and Scarlett basically committed social suicide just by waltzing around.  If that’s not a sign of devotion and ballsy-ness, I don’t know what is.  Ladies, hold out for a Rhett.  Ashleys are just not worth it.

Rhett's the best, y'all.  Hold out for a man who'll dance with you even if you're in full 1860s mourning.

Rhett’s the best, y’all. Hold out for a man who’ll dance with you even if you’re in full 1860s mourning.

  • Scarlett pulls a Lady Sibyl from Downton Abbey and works as a nurse in a Civil War hospital.  Okay, so we all know that Melanie really is the Lady Sibyl of Gone With the Wind because she’s super nice and selfless and quietly volunteers herself to help with everything whereas Scarlett begrudgingly helps so she LOOKS as selfless as Melanie. But Scarlett does start to suck it up and get the hang of it (even though watching an amputation makes her sick…but who wouldn’t want to vom after seeing someone’s leg cut off?).  She sweats and gets blood on her and still looks amazing and beautiful.  Like, her hair looks even better than all those beauty queen doctors on Greys Anatomy (does no one EVER look frazzled on that show?).  While initially I would be gung-ho about helping with the “War Effort,” the minute I saw someone cutting off a limb or scarred worse than Freddy Kruger, I’d probably faint and then hightail it back to Aunt Pitty-Pat’s where we’d discuss her getting a new nickname because Pitty-Pat suggests spinsterhood, cats, and too many hours spent crocheting things.
  • BIRTHING BABIES.  Since Prissy is an idiot (and with a name like Prissy, how could she NOT be an idiot?  My apologies to any Prissys out there because you probably would at least be able to dial 911 in case of a birthing emergency), Scarlett is forced to birth Melanie’s baby while Atlanta is literally burning down around them.  I mean has there ever been a bigger drop-the-mic moment?!
    I don't know nothing about birthin' no babies...or HAVE ANY COMMON SENSE WHATSOEVER.  Basically, I'm worthless.

    I don’t know nothing about birthin’ no babies…or HAVE ANY COMMON SENSE WHATSOEVER. Basically, I’m worthless.

    Like, Scarlett births that baby then flags down Rhett in a carriage and gets Melanie and the baby inside before hauling ass back to Tara.  Hi, my name is Scarlett O’Hara and I birth babies, save people from mass fires, and drive a carriage by myself back to my home plantation.  [drops mic]  Even Jay-Z couldn’t do that…but I bet Beyoncé probably could because she’s a fierce diva like Scarlett.

  • Taking down a Civil War burglar.  Technically, Melanie is the one who shoots him, but Scarlett gives him a whole lotta shade and sass.  Ladies, THIS is how you deal with would-be rapists and plunderers: grab your shy BFF and make her shoot him for real while you just shoot daggers with your eyes and yell things like GET OUT OF MY HOUSE YOU VARMIT!  (Side note: let’s all make a pact to bring back the word “varmit”)  That’s what I’d do…and also call the police, because God knows Prissy sure wouldn’t know how to do THAT either.
  • The curtain dress.  Only two ladies in history have ever gotten away with this drapery couture: Scarlett O’Hara and Maria from the Sound of Music (okay and those VonTrapp kiddos).
    The best in curtain couture

    The best in curtain couture

    It’s a tricky business wearing your own household decorative items, but Scarlett makes it look like literally the best thing in the world.  If Vogue had existed in 1865, Scarlett would have been on the cover in that thing.  I can barely get away with wearing bedsheets at a Toga party, so there’s pretty much no hope for me wearing window drapes.  Also I don’t have any luxurious, long curtains anyway, so I’d wind up in my window blinds, which would probably come off more Lady Gaga and less Lady Cora Crawley.

  • Face it, ladies: none of us will ever find a man as dashing as Rhett Butler.
    You can kiss me ANY time, Captain Butler.  ANY TIME.

    You can kiss me ANY time, Captain Butler. ANY TIME.

    That whole “you should be kissed and often and by someone who knows how” thing makes me weak in the knees.  Men, you have your work cut out for you.  Always be a Rhett, never be an Ashley.

Basically, Scarlett is the bee’s knees.  Also Mammy because she always gives Scarlett the lowdown when she’s acting like a major beyotch.  Anyway, I’m sure there are a million other reasons I’ll never be as cool as Scarlett, but I’ll think about it tomorrow.  After all, tomorrow is another day…

STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO: Rose’s Turn!

Rose

23 & 24: The Acting Bug Bites Hard

Every so often my love and desire for acting becomes intensified.  When I see an incredible performance or a great film, all I want is to jump in front of a camera or up onto a stage and work.  I feel inspired and totally motivated to produce something that might inspire someone else the way those films or performances inspired me.

I recently watched The Hours again.  I hadn’t watched it in a few years, but I had goosebumps from the very first frame.  Everything about that film is sublime perfection: the actors, the script, the score, the direction.  Every detail is handled with such care and attention.  I remember the first time I saw it, and as I walked out of the movie theatre with my mother, I said, “I want to do that.  You never catch those women acting.”  It’s a complete tour de force for female actresses and SO inspiring.

It’s not that I don’t love musical theatre, I do, but I’ve always had a passion for films.  Sometimes, I think I know more about what’s going on in the film industry than I do about the musical theatre industry.  I’m not saying that’s good or bad, I’m just saying that it makes me wonder where my priorities lie sometimes.  Then again, I’ll have moments where all I want to do is musical theatre.

It’s very confusing being an artist sometimes.  We’re controlled by impulses, and not always by sound logic.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing, do you?

I don’t want to move to Los Angeles right now.  I’m a New York person, but I can’t deny that I have had thoughts recently about visiting there now that I’m older, just to see what it’s like.  I DO want to do film, and that is based in California, so at some point, I’m probably going to have to go out west if I want to get serious about the movie industry.

(sigh) It’s all a little up in the air, but that’s the nature of being an artist, isn’t it?