Playing Mothers, Daughters, Wives and Girlfriends
There has been, of late, a lot of horrifying and enlightening discussions regarding discrimination and sexual harassment in the improvisation community. Each article, blog post and interview adds a deeper level of complexity to an already multidimensional conversation.
Though perhaps it isn’t all that complex. Treat people with respect. Simple. Their body is not your plaything; they are not your comedy fodder. Respect. Full stop.
As the circle of discussion widens to include many onstage and offstage frustrations, I’ve noticed a phrase that comes up again and again. Women improvisers saying;
‘I am always labeled as Mother, Daughter, Wife and Girlfriend.’
The comment communicates a negative feeling that these roles are a limitation, a burden, and a role the improviser doesn’t want to play. As a result it implies these roles are lesser roles.
Why do we consider these female roles as a burden or limitation?
I mean as women we are Mothers, Daughters, Wives, and Girlfriends.
Do we think that Mothers, Daughters, Wives, and Girlfriends are boring and unimportant?
Of course not, so why do we dislike playing them?
When cast as Mother, Daughter, Wife, Girlfriend some women express feeling like their status was deliberately lowered or they felt cast in a ‘nothing’ role. Perhaps we see these roles as sub-servant, obedient, voiceless and there to serve a male agenda. This is worrying. Perhaps it triggers our fight for equality and challenges us to defend our beliefs. Could we be leaping to an unnecessary defensive position? The answer to that question lies in the specifics of the scene, situation and company culture.
However, women are obviously feeling shackled playing these characters. There is a sense of these roles not being fun and what women want is the freedom and variety to be cast as the Captain of a Pirate ship swinging from the ropes. Arrrr! Where strength is strength and not a definition of masculinity or femininity.
I think the shackles are actually self inflicted. We here these roles and think – NO! We don’t want to play house when there are worlds to explore, aliens to fight and secret worlds to uncover. We apply a sterotype to the Mother, Daughter, Wife, Girlfriend role a stereotype perpetuated in life, TV, Film and literature.
However these titles Mother, Daughter, Wife and Girlfriend are simply identifiers denoting a relationship.
Think about it.
Mother is a relationship – not a definition of character.
You get to create the character that is the Mother.
Seeing the Mother relationship as a character description is a limitation we are applying. We cast them in the stereotype role and limit ourselves.
Mother, Daughter, Wife and Girlfriend are relationship identifiers not a description of the person. It does not restrict what the character can do, their occupation, how they act, think, their morality, abilities, financial situation or status. It is simply how they are connected to the people in their lives. It is a connection not a restriction. Somewhere lingering in the grey goo of our minds we must see it as a restriction if so many women are verbalizing displeasure at being endowed in these roles.
We are mixing being endowed in a relationship role as being cast in a stereotypical character. We forget we have the power of choice to play the stereotype or not. There is nothing wrong with playing the stereotype either. We need these characters in our stories, we need characters that are apron wearing gentle, nurturing and quiet, and we need virgins, bitches, and whores. I think we just don’t want to be forced into or limited to playing the same type of characters all the time. Yet we may be the ones trapping ourselves.
If you feel stuck, bored or trapped playing Mother, Daughter, Wife and Girlfriend change it up. Inspiration is all around us. Look at your own relationships or do a little research to stimulate your mind.
There are many amazing and varied Mothers, Daughters, Wives and Girlfriend roles in history, literature and on the big or small screen.
The Lioness of Brittany, just see what happens when you piss off a Mother of 5. She was not a gentle, demur, subservient obedient woman.
Grace O’Malleyled a 20-ship fleet that stood up to the might of the British monarchy.
Lucille Balloutstanding comedian and the first woman to run a production company in the USA.
Queen Elizabeth, can you get higher status?
Gemma Tellerfrom Sons of Anarchy is a lady in leather you don’t mess with.
Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth power hungry, shrewd and calculating.
Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath lewd and lascivious plus she argues for female dominance and a woman’s right to control her body.
Rosa Parksstood up to discrimination by refusing to give up her seat to a white man.
Ching Shin terrorised the China Sea in the early 19th century commanding over 300 ships manned by 20,000 to 40,000 pirates.
Tolkien’s Éowyn a shieldmaden who killed the Witch-king of Angmar.
Arya Starkof Game of Throne’s a young, vulnerable, survivor (last I checked).
Roald Dahl’s Maltilda a prank pulling genius with a high moral code.
Saint Joan of Arc lead an army at the tender age of 19.
Indria Gandhiwas Prime Minister of India.
Emilia Plater made a commanding officer of the 1st company of the Polish–Lithuanian 25th Infantry Regiment.
Mae Jemison first African- American woman to travel in space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. She is a dancer, and holds nine honorary doctorates in science, engineering, letter, and the humanities.
Thelma and Louise meek housewife and waitress on the run from the law.
Lavern and Shirley– Shirley perky and positive and Lavern a cynical gal who likes to pick up sailors.
Mary Tyler Mooreshow’s Mary Richards and Valerie Harper single women with jobs.
The list goes on. I’d love it if you could share some of your own inspirations in the blog comments.
When we, as female improvisors, limit female roles to only stereotypes we perpetuate the cycle. When we avoid playing female roles or communicate these roles as uninteresting what are we saying? As a result we remove them from the stage and their stories are left untold.
Play Mothers as Spies, CEO’s, bikers and explores.
Play Daughters as scientists, Pirates and Olympians.
Play Wives as Lawyers, Military Commanders, University Professors of Astrophysics and beat poets.
Let them be powerful, vulnerable, desirous, relentless, gentle, fierce, virginal and lusty.
Why the hell not?!
Let’s not rob the stage of the stories of one of the greatest natural wonders our gender can experience – giving birth. Let’s not hide the beautiful, strong, powerful, confronting and complex relationships women have.
We need to take some responsibility for our own performance choices. An offer has a thousand possibilities. Challenge your patterns and open possibilities. Say Yes And!
We need to break the mentality of seeing these roles as prescriptive and look at it as an opportunity. We owe it to ourselves to claim these relationship roles and show the diversity and individuality of women. No two women are the same. So how can these roles be a limitation?
Are YOU defined by your relationship titles?
No? Then, why should your characters be?
It’s important we crack open the limitations we are creating for ourselves and challenge perceptions which still exist in society.
I’ll end by sharing a piece of writing I found online which raises some interesting thoughts.
I’m just sharing a section. It is from Female Stereotypes in Literatureby D. Jill Savitt you can read the whole piece here
Female Stereotypes in Literature
It references Susan Koppelman Cornillon’s essay, The Fiction of Fiction.
I couldn’t find that exact essay on line but I found this
Female Stereotypes in Literature (With a Focus on Latin American Writers) by D. Jill Savitt
Susan Koppelman Cornillon states in her essay, The Fiction of Fiction. Women internalize the male idea of the feminine and create themselves in the shape of that idea. Because of this re-shaping many women writers have strayed little from the given stereotypes of the female character that so plague literature. From the Dick and Jane reading series that we shall look at later, to the classics, women have held tightly to several role models as their guides. While male characters have been given free reign to be and become what they like, even to fail if they choose, women characters have been written to play and re-play the same themes, limited as they are. Thus, when the female character deviates from the norm, from these stringent stereotypes, more attention is then called to the purity of what the female character is supposed to be. The narrowness, the confining nature of the women’s stereotypes in literature is as nullifying as are the imagined strictures on her in real life. Men are encouraged to become men in both novels and life. Women are forced to rise above being a woman. Women strive to be more man-like and are condemned when they take on male characteristics, aggression, ambition, etc.
Unfortunately, most of what our students read in school perpetuates the sexist myths that prevail in our society. Year after year the students are presented with material that inculcates the male-superior/female-inferior tenet. No questions are asked. Everything is accepted. It is horrifying to me to be faced with a blatant sexual stereotype in our books and to have no student refute its inherent sexist undertone.
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