Tuesday 12 July 2011

Crisis of faith

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about how women are portrayed on stage and on screen. To say that the portrayal of women leaves a lot to be desired is a big understatement.

More often than not women are the exception among a cast of many men. Yes, there are films with a lot of female characters but name me one and I will name you twenty that fall into the one-Smurfette-among-a-nation-of-Smurfs category. In fact, if anthropologists from another world were to watch what we put on screen, big and small, and on stage they would assume that planet earth's human population is made up of roughly 10% women and 90% men. Anyone suggesting that women are quantitatively extremely under-represented on stage and screen is seriously delusional, and so are the people who believe it's economically sound to leave the interests of 50% of the world's population and the enormous market they represent largely untapped. I have said it before, go apply the Bechdel test (at least two women, who talk to each other, about something besides a man)!

You're gonna tell me now that things are changing.

At the box office we've had smash hits with big female casts in Sex in the City 1&2, Mama Mia and most recently Bridesmaids. The stigma of 'women's entertainment' being entirely unprofitable might be slowly rubbing off but just because you put more women in films doesn't really mean we have achieved anything at all.

That's because also more often than not, female characters are extremely stereotyped and/or lack any resemblance of fully-realised characters. We are 'the whore', 'the virgin', 'the teacher', 'the carer'. Female characters are sickeningly often (mis-)constructed around their sexuality. In those many many cases the only character trait is that of either being 'pure' or of being a 'sexual deviant/demon'. The only thing the creators of these characters have to say about women is that our sexuality is something dangerous we use to get what we want. Usually, what these evil demon seductresses 'want' isn't even something that is explained to the viewer but simply exists to 'screw over' the male protagonist, so he can overcome and ultimately stand victorious. Because of this ancient trope of female sexuality as something dangerous the other archetype of female characters is that of 'the virgin'. These virtuous characters are the teachers, guides, healers and mothers that are inherently good because they are entirely a-sexual and therefore 'safe'. These 'virgins' character traits are reduced to the 'female' traits of caring and nurturing, and exist for the singular purpose of guiding the male protagonist through his physical and/or inner journey.

Obviously there are quite a few other stereotypes that are used to portray female characters ('the needy girlfriend/mother', 'the tomboy/she-man', 'the bimbo'...) and they are used  pervasively whether the character is minor, supporting or a lead. And just because a film or tv show passes the Bechdel test doesn't mean it's female characters are written as true whole human beings. Most female characters are written as stereotypes that are more often than not negative and therefore painting a picture of femaleness as something bad, annoying, dangerous, less worthy and/or as something that merely exists to assist and nurture.

Are there stereotypes for male characters? Of course there are and aplenty! But if you add the overwhelming amount of badly written stereotyped female characters to the fact that female characters make up a minuscule amount of characters on stage and screen, you get just how bad the picture is for women in visual story-telling. And since TV and film at least are everywhere, so are their negative messages about women and about what constitutes 'femaleness'.

We grow up with these messages and many of us eventually start to believe them. We certainly have come to see the under- and misrepresentation of women in film, tv and on stage as the norm. Most of us don't question the status quo. We're just not that bothered. After all we don't go to the movies to question and bother, we go to be entertained. We switch on the TV to switch off. We go to the theatre for the magic and the big moments.

We are extremely well conditioned to be entertained almost no matter what crap we are fed. I am absolutely guilty of not thinking when I watch a story unfold on screen or on stage. I watch with my heart and my guts and my senses. My intellect takes the back seat. That's the one thing I love most about visual story-telling, that I can just let it take me on a journey, that I don't have to steer.

Then came the year that I hardly went to the movies at all; not because I was a student and constantly broke but because I was sick to the death of having the choice only between romantic comedies and films with (almost) all male cast.

Yet, I didn't really start questioning what is going on with women on screen and on stage until after I realised that I wanted to be an actress. As an actress, it comes with the job description to notice the gendered availability of roles and obviously that's always ticked me off. I want to work after all!

But over the last few months I also started thinking about the quality of those few female characters. The more I thought about it, the more I spiralled into an utter crisis of faith. One of the reasons I am an actress is because I am so utterly intrigued by living other lives, being other people, other women.

But what the hell do I want to be an actress for if the only women I get to play are nothing but  awful stereotypes and plot devises?! So, here I am, at a cross-roads.

I can reject the whole industry and not be an actress, which  I fleetingly considered a few times. But that would only make me feel like I have even less of a voice and I would be going back to a place of repressing my desires and passions, and that's just not a place I want to go back to.

Or I can do my damnedest to encourage writers to write more true and whole female characters and to  really think about what they say about half the world's population when they take to their pens  And I can care for those characters that I will hopefully get to play, as stereotyped as they may be and as much as they may lack any resemblance of true and whole human beings. I can create their back-stories and I can create a futures. I can create their belief systems, their hopes and aspirations, their positive traits and their flaws. To break them of their boxes and make them real whole women, that's gonna be my responsibility - even if they will only get to live in my head.

And I can write about women in film here and maybe get you think about women in film a little more than you would otherwise.

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