If you haven’t seen the Jackson Katz Ted Talk about violence against women and why that’s a men’s issue, it’s worth watching. He places the burden squarely on men to care about and stop violence against women. To stop making it solely a “women’s issue” and recognize both the damage it does to men (society at large) and to take ownership for being a part of the problem and the solutions. I find that this concept has been a pivotal one for me in recent months as I have been following many gender parity and diversity in theatre conversations. I’ll skip the bulk of the debate about the Bechdel Test and whether it’s adequate, even needed, simply a starting point, or misses the mark. For those who might not know, it’s a simple test to apply to movies and plays to determine if the female characters are present, portrayed realistically, and perform a function other than a reactionary sounding-board for the male characters.
The heart of the discussion about the diversity of female characters in film and on stage, centers around the female characters – of course. This is fine, and I’m not arguing against scrutinizing for and demanding realistic female characters that span the broadest and most specific variety of people who happen to be female on film and stage. However, I also think that similar to the push to put some onus on men in society, we need a certain scrutiny on the male characters. I’ve been wondering, what would the Bechdel Test look like for male characters who don’t perpetuate misogyny, rape culture, or the quite frankly limited spectrum we are typically given of maleness in our creative works?
As tired as I am of the vapid, two-dimensional female characters that are all too easy to find, I am also tired of the two-dimensional, unconsciously homophobic, misogynistic male characters that are also all too common. Characters who drop “sissy” jokes, “take my dumb wife please” attitudes, and sexually pejorative interactions with or about the female characters without it being an intentional, necessary character trait or plot serving decision by the playwright. Just like we – as creators of theatrical works – need to stop and challenge the choices we make about the female characters, I think we need to do the same for the male characters.
I’ve had conversations with fellow writers recently, trying to make clear that a woman in real life is always a complete human being, so even if the time period or the character type, appears powerless or unintelligent or passive, her emotional life, her thought processes, motivations, and dreams would still be full and as robust as anyone. Those motivations, actions, and unspoken as well as spoken thoughts and opinions are the key to making the character realistically portrayed.
I remember a conversation many years ago with my mother (a baby-boomer) and her older sister (of that mini-generation between the “Greatest” Generation and the baby-boomers). My aunt was talking about being the oldest child and when her brother came along, being set aside. She said that she suspected that maybe she, a girl in 1940s rural America, was just as good as any boy, but it seemed like a ridiculous thought to let form into anything other than a low-level unvoiced, resentment. My mom said that by the time she was that age, in the 1950s, things had changed enough that she knew she was just as good any boy, and she could say so, but also knew it wouldn’t necessarily make a difference (not until she was older at least). By the time I was a preteen – nearly 30 years later, it didn’t even occur to me that I was not just as good as any boy and it was almost expected that I would assert that fact whenever challenged. Listening to my aunt talk, I tried to imagine this fiery, willful, very intelligent woman ever being cowed or stifled by any man. But she assured me it was so. The next time I read a female character who was essentially non-existent, I remembered my aunt’s fiery personality trapped inside the silence of a suppressed voice. It changed my perspective drastically.
On the flip side, I remember that father’s day card shopping used to be an incredibly frustrating, sometimes depressing experience for me every year. My father and his partner were both very strong, very intelligent, engaged, loving and supportive fathers who didn’t fit any of the almost universally insulting images reflected in those cards. Even as a teenager I couldn’t believe how limited and incompetent fathers were portrayed by Hallmark and Hollywood. I didn’t recognize my male friends in the available media either. Young men who had as complex and challenging an emotional life as any of my female friends, were rarely portrayed that way on film.
It seems to me that similar to the examination and filling out of the unformed female character, the misogynistic, clueless, homophobic, cruel, or negligent male characters need to be motivated, taking action, and speaking within the context of a full person. And if the character doesn’t need to be any of those things to serve the script, then we need to draw from a more robust set of men to portray. Short-handing our characters and relying heavily on stereotypes and established tropes for either gender, ethnicity, or orientation, also contributes to a lack of diversity in theatre.
So, in a script that otherwise meets the bare minimum of the Bechdel test for it’s female characters, what would also need to be true for the male characters in order for the script to reflect the attributes that those of us seeking gender parity and a more inclusive theatrical landscape are after?