Hooray, it’s 2017! Presumably, any play worth seeing has moved beyond tawdry sexism and fat jokes. Most people in theatre circles are familiar with the Bechdel test, not to mention Alison Bechdel’s groundbreaking hit play Fun Home. Pioneering artists like Anna Deavere Smith, Jayne Houdyshell, and Sarah Jones exist in our lifetime—so we have certainly gotten somewhere.
Yet, it astounds me how many plays I still see in which female characters are—usually by male playwrights—completely mishandled. Perhaps it’s because playwrights aren’t held to as much scrutiny as TV writers, or because an old legacy name can take you very far in the theatre world, thereby cementing old ideas.
Either way, 2017 hasn’t caught up to a lot of playwrights, and for a woman who sees a lot of plays, this has become exhausting. Dated, lazy, and thoughtless tropes continue to plague the theatre, and it’s time to hold playwrights accountable for the endless hours of eye-rolling I’ve endured silently in the dark. Here are some of those tropes.
Women nag. Men nag. We all nag sometimes, so it’s unfair to say that women shouldn’t nag in plays. But if that’s all she does, if those are her only lines, or if she derives zero personal joy or excitement from her life while the dude runs around being flawed, hilarious and deep—maybe the most believable step in the plot is to check her into a mental health facility immediately. This is not a healthy or real person.
The “enigmatic” female lead is a fun male invention that seemed to really pick up steam in the aughts with the advent of Rapp and Bogosian. This total enigma of a human asks questions and never answers them. She hovers and observes, becoming engulfed in the man’s problems, yet she herself subsists on total mystery. While the male character develops and transforms around his neuroses and, often, his lust for the enigmatic woman, she is essentially vapor. Women are so mysterious aren’t they? Total f*cking puzzles! That is, until the end of the play when she reveals she’s been sexually abused or something. That oughta be enough to wrap up an entire human being!
Recently, I saw a play by a very notable male playwright in which a woman attempted suicide. She was bothered by her husband’s decisions, so she took a knife to her wrists. She didn’t seem to have any mental issues up until that point. Sure, her husband was stirring up some problems…but suicide? For this play, it was left-field, not to mention entirely too trivial for a grown-ass woman in 2017.
Then I realized, of course: the suicide was a device. It had absolutely nothing to do with the character herself. It was an insincere, throwaway “gasp” moment that the playwright tossed into the mix in order to help the main dude ruminate on his struggles some more.
For many playwrights, it’s more believable for a woman to go completely off the rails than to have a complex personality. So long as the guy reaches his moral conclusions about religion or his boners or whatever, realistic arc be damned!
A woman in your play has been raped, abused, or heinously discriminated against. Let’s say you have little to no experience with any of these things. How do you handle it? A thorough playwright might consider respect, humility, and a ton of research—the ultimate goal being to treat these things as the disturbing and life-altering events they are. Perhaps this thorough playwright will recognize that rape and abuse have horrific cultural implications. Perhaps he may also understand that not only will his characters be traumatized by the events in the play, but that many members of the audience might be traumatized by their own experiences as well. This approach will probably shape the playwright’s portrayal for the better—not by censoring his work, but by making it more true and sensitive to the victims’ reality.
Then, there’s the way many dudes handle it. Take for example, the route in David Byrne’s adaptation musical Joan of Arc, in which Joan is subject to two invasive virginity examinations at the hands of men, extreme verbal slurs, a total co-optation of her ideas, and threats of torture. All of these incidents are based on Joan of Arc’s true story, so at least we don’t have that added “ick” bonus when a dude playwright throws in a gratuitous, heinous rape on his own volition. However, as Paste writer Carey Purcell deftly describes in her Joan of Arc review, Joan never truly reacts to any of these horrifying events in her life. They simply serve as catalysts to move and shake the men around her, while Joan stone-facedly, dare I say “enigmatically” (see #3) carries on with her mission. In fact, one unsettling event is minimized in a fun-time calypso song.
While we don’t know what the real Joan of Arc was thinking back then, a modern adaptation—modern enough for a calypso number, anyway—should know better. Giving rape, abuse, and sexism the depth it requires isn’t about being PC—it’s about making a better, more well-rounded play.
Yes, this still exists, a lot. I recently saw a play by a noted company in which a woman ditched her rich academic career and interests so that, in the end, she could fall in love with a blowhard idiot who’d initially put down her “librarian” ways. Without a doubt, payoff exists in the huggy lovey ending—even I’m not immune to it. But it should go without saying that this moral is dated, sexist, and usually unrealistic. Unless your significant other is abusive, a relationship isn’t going to take over your entire life and become your sole goal—not even if you’re a frail, hysterical, fickle, enigmatic woman.