stories

A Million Female Gandalfs

Today I had my final class of the semester at one of the schools I teach at. For our final class of Voice For The Stage, I ask my students to perform a monologue they have worked on for several weeks on the large stage in front of each other. They pick these monologues themselves and I allow them to be from movies or television, from a favorite play, anything that they are genuinely interested in. I do this because it is the chance for these learners to test their abilities, honed over the last 14 weeks, to hold the stories they have chosen to tell in their bodies. I want, and encourage them, to choose words thrilling for them to inhabit. It is their chance to see if they can transmit those narratives’ feelings and emotions out of their imaginations and through their voices and into the audience.

Earlier this semester a girl stepped onto that stage and performed a monologue from Lord of the Rings, playing the wizard Gandalf. I think about this now as I watch the same girl again. I think about the fact that a year ago I was watching another girl performing another Gandalf monologue during this culminating performance day and that earlier this semester I heard another female Gandalf at another school.

I think about how every year there is a female Gandalf.

Last week I sat in my living room and heard six fast and sharp pops from somewhere to the south and west of my window.

Oh no, I think. I know what this sound is. I hope that it is something else, though if I am honest I know exactly what this sound is, but I keep working, hoping somehow that I am mistaken. Minutes later when I hear the parade of several sirens in the distance I cannot pretend any longer that what I know is not true.

In the moment I am afraid, I am scared, and I am sad.

I think, I should call Brad and make sure he’s ok. Even though I know he is at the theater, having left nearly 40 minutes ago, I should still just make sure.

I walk to the window and I see two police cars parked on the corner and several police walk into a mini market. Moments later I see several people, males of varying ages from teenager to thirty something adult, all walk quickly out of the store. They are all African-American. They are looking at their phones. A microsecond-long thought passes through my head, “What are the police doing? Why aren’t they stopping these men? What if they need to question them? What if they are involved?”

This is the first thought that instinctually comes into my head. That they are guilty. It isn’t one of reasoned or rational thought. It is gut reaction. It is fear. It is instinct. It is the first story that comes to mind.

A moment later I am actually thinking about that thought that first flashed in my mind and I feel disgusted with myself.

In that moment later I say, literally, as in actually, as in out loud to the room, “What is wrong with you Adrienne? Why would you think that?”

I think, Why is the first narrative construction you have built around these humans who are leaving a store and looking at their phones one of guilt? What is it about them that makes you think this way before you even have a moment to think? Why is the story you instinctually tell one of guilt and violence and implication? Why is the story you tell not one of a person scared and wondering if the people they know are alright? Why is their looking at of phones something that nonsensically becomes something nefarious rather than the EXACT SAME INSTINCT you yourself had?

And of course it is because they are black.

And in this moment, it is painful to realize this.

And in this moment, it is painful to realize that I do not want this in me.

And in this moment, it is painful to realize that even though I do not really think this, something about the world I live in has made this the gut instinct.

And in this moment I hate the world and I hate the gut instinct and I feel privileged and stupid and small.

I think, Why on instinct do you not assume that these fellow humans are going to their own friends and families and making sure they are ok, that they hurry from this place because they too are scared and worried and want to feel comfort in a moment of stress and tension and possible tragedy?

I think, Why, why, why on earth is this not the story you instinctively picture?

I think about how quickly that default story comes to my mind. I think about the fact that I am a storyteller by trade. I wonder about whether I am telling stories that make it easier or harder for this kind of terrible default story to emerge.

I think about all this and I am ashamed.

There is a darkness in you, I think. There is something dark and sticky and terrible and it is not something you put there on purpose but it is part of a much bigger problem that is so so so terribly sad. I think about the color connotations of the words that my brain has just used, ones that again simply came to mind. I think about how these too are problematic color tropes that also infect so many kinds of the stories we tell.

This is not darkness, I think. You cannot think of the terrible thing that feeds the bad stories as darkness. You need to think of it as evil and hatred.

I am ashamed of the story that emerges from my brain without my asking it to appear. I hate it and I stand at the window and I look at the people walking by and imagine a new story. In the new story I can see the lines of worry in their faces. I think, You need to step back and work harder to see the world better. You need to work harder to get these instinctual stories out of yourself, to find their roots and pull and pull and pull. You need to create new stories that are better to plant in their place.

Today between the myriad of moments in which I smile and clap and laugh with the group there is a different kind of moment, one where I pause and purse my lips for a moment and feel very very sad.

I have seen female Gandalfs and female Jack Nicholsons from A Few Good Men. I have seen African-American students play Abraham Lincoln and Tom Cruise and Liam Neeson (saving his daughter from kidnappers) and Liam Neeson again (this time fight wolves in the woods). Today I see two girls with long black hair, girls whose heritages are both Mexican play Carrie Bradshaw and Gretchen Weiner from Mean Girls. I am sad that between the very occasional For Colored Girls… monologue there is so much Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap and Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone.

I am sad because every year there is a female Gandalf.

I am sad because there are a million female Gandalfs it seems. I am sad because though I have seen students play sponges and mutants and demons and even a human embodiment of a font, though every year I see so many of my female students find power and depth in speaking like Ian McKellen playing a bearded wizard I have never, not once, not even one single time in seven years of teaching, seen a male student decide that they would find something exciting and inspiring about speaking words originally intended for a woman.

I am sad because this must mean we are not doing well enough in the stories we have for my female students.

I am sad because if the first story that comes to my mind when I see a group of African-American men reacting to a gunshot the story that I have for them is the worst kind of story. I am sad because this is not the story that should be brought to my mind. If it is this must mean we are not doing well enough in the stories we have for them either.

I am sad because I know that I get so tired hearing stories about women that conform to all the stupid and terrible gender norms. I am sad because I get so tired of having to hear these same stupid stories that are such a tiny part of the larger whole of what being feminine can mean. It hurts me that there aren’t a larger number of better stories for the women who stand on that stage.

I think about the times someone has created a story for me that I do not want to be a part of, of the effort it takes to remove this story from myself. I think about the way that I must do the same to others without even realizing it, without wanting to, and that I need to keep striving to find a way to stop.

I think about the stories we as a culture force on people without their consent. I think about how we also allow those stories to be forced onto people while apathetically doing nothing. It makes me think about the way that stories about thugs and gangs and riots are used to distract us from the larger more terrible and oppressive stories about the world we live in. It makes me think about the way that we shove these stories into the brains of children who do not yet have the ability to judge these stories for the garbage they are. I think about all the work we are now responsible to do as adults to pull them out of ourselves.

I think about how we are literally wasting people’s lives by casting them in shitty stories.

I think about how even a million female Gandalfs can’t outweigh the imbalance.

And I think that this rooting, this active undoing and this need for rewriting for the better must be the job of our lives as artists. If we are not doing this, what good will our stories be? At this moment, as storytellers, we must take responsibility for the telling. If we don’t, what on earth are we here for?

– A

Fuck You Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Holly Golightly: Did I tell you how divinely and utterly happy I am?

Paul Varjak: Yes.

A few months back during Fringe season I went and saw a show inside a real house. It was a lovely play with breakfast and beautiful writing and was based on Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (The book not the movie, in case you were wondering.)

This is a post I’ve wanted to write this post ever since then.

Not because the play was bad, because it wasn’t – it was wonderful actually, one of my favorites of the season – and though I loved the staging, the writing, the actors, so much about the experiment in dramatic form start to finish, despite all this afterwards when I sat in the car with my partner in viewing-crime discussing what we’d seen all I could think was:

“God I detest that female character.”

Not the actress, not the writing of her part, but that faux feminine charming and carbonated, silly yet exotic, tiny pink banged and attractive and mysterious and wild and ukulele playing, Natalie Portman-esque, devoid of any actual humanness cypher of girlishness. Film critic Nathan Rabin put it far better that I when he called her “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

Fucking manic pixie dream girl. I hate her so much.

I didn’t write this post back then because I liked the people who put the play on and I didn’t want to hurt them by bashing it when so much of it I truly enjoyed. Especially when I really didn’t have anything more to say on the matter than the fact that I really detest this trope, one I see as rooted in all kinds of shitty ideas about girls and women and the kinds of people they can be, one whose recent “emergence” in this particular form is cloaked in a kind of faux liberation. I think versions of her have been around far longer than we realize. The manic pixie dream girl (or MPDG as I will call her from here out) embraces a “seize life!” zeal but only in so much as it is thrown at her pent up male would-be partners. And while I find this odious and tedious in the extreme, while I have in many ways created my sense of aesthetic and artistic purpose to fly in the face of the MPDG’s twee triviality and lack of substance, at the time I didn’t really have much more to say on the matter. I just had my silent fervent hate.

However, this summer into fall, I have been spending an awful lot of time with women a fair bit younger than myself. Amazing, bold, incredible young women. Women whose ideas and humor have surprised and delighted me, who brought choices into classrooms I could never have predicted and who found inventive slants on characters I have seen performed dozens of times. I look at these young women with their incredible talents and wild and weird inner lives and it fills me with joy.

I admit that many of these fantastic people I underestimated upon first meeting. And I think that’s in part because it took some time to find the strange and silly underbellies that were hidden within them. Wild and wondrous senses of daring, humor and ridiculousness that I suspect are not often enough given space to be explored. And I wonder if this lack of space isn’t partly what constrained my seeing the wholeness of them. And then I think about the kinds of roles they will have available to them in a year or ten year’s time. I think about the shows that I have seen recently, the struggles of my female friends who are performers, the distance between the roles that they have truly loved and the ones they have had to suffer through to keep a face to their name in the acting world. I race in my mind for plays that I could bring to these lovely young ladies, works could lift them and their wildness up.

I have so much trouble doing so. There are more than none. But there are certainly not enough.

In high school when I got really serious about theater I committed to reading a play every week for two years. I raided my theater department’s library in hopes of finding the great roles that I wanted to inhabit someday. And while I found a few, I also realized that more and more there were plenty of stories that intrigued me, that tantalized and pulled me in, but had no women in them or only a few or none I personally wanted to be unless I was cast across my gender. And slowly over time one half of a dual cast narrator from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the hyperventilating Alma from Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Widow Begbick in Brecht’s Man is Man, even the beautiful and frustrated monologues of love from Twelfth Night’s Viola, these roles, despite being some of the best I could ask for, just didn’t feel quite enough any more. They were the stories that were made available, but none of them felt exactly enough mine to continue telling. And somewhere in the midst of this it occurred to me that I could tell some of the stories that excited me through the performers onstage even if I didn’t actually have to be that body up there in front of people.

This frustration was the one of the forces that ultimately pulled me out of acting and into directing. In the latter space, one in which the stories I told were not limited to the options others presented to me, it felt like I had more I could say and more ways I could say it. And I found the plays, fewer and farther between than I’d have liked, that highlighted the female roles I’d wished I’d been offered. And when I eventually realized that even beyond these lay the opportunity to create new stories that were entirely of my own imagining, I finally believed that there was enough substantive food for a life of digging into artmaking.

The problem I see with the MPDG and princess and all the other lame female counterparts in much of our contemporary storytelling is that they teach women (and the girls who grow up to become them) that these are the extent of the roles that we have available to us. In art, and I think also in life. I read a study about how the greatest predictor of the number of girls that will grow up to work in science and technology-based fields is hugely correlated with how many women are working in these fields in their community. Not even how many they personally come into contact with, but the number that exist generally in their sphere of being. I would guess that the increase has something to do with a young person’s sense of awareness that such a thing is possible.

It is hard to imagine beyond anything that you know of or have seen. Our narrative context fuels so much of the imagination we later have available to us. So what you see and what you encounter in the stories you take in, especially in formative artistic years will inevitably shape the possibilities that you allow yourself in the future. I fear and I worry that the amazingly bold and smart and incredible young women I have met will be limited to becoming the most amazingly bold and smart and incredible versions of MPDGs and princesses and nurses and ingénues rather than applying those same forces of will and intellect towards the multitude of other avenues that might be available to them. I worry that if some aspect of them is too hard to squeeze into those narrow shapes that they will be excluded. I worry that if they do fit inside them that some of the other incredible parts of them will be pushed out so that they fit more neatly within.

My first year out of college, when I had so few moorings, so little outlet for the stories I wanted to tell, I flirted with becoming the MPDG. I became enraptured with a boy and then became enraptured with my ability to construct a persona that I thought was charming and alluring. And I, despite my feminist upbringing, despite my experience crafting my own stories, despite my sense of myself as a strong and independent person, found it easy to default to a narrative that seemed pre-designed for me. I could sense this trope and its effervescent power and in little bits and pieces I began playing and becoming her. I felt her narrative pull and began to conform my outer self to match it. Then one day this boy gave me a movie and told me that a character in it reminded him of me. And at the end of that movie I realized in no small amount of horror that he wasn’t wrong, that I had made myself to resemble this precious punky person and that I had created a vision of my life in my own mind in which I was a side character.

It was only when that version of my life story and the caricature of myself that I’d formulated within it began to fail that I realized how little of my whole self I’d really offered.

This is the power of art and narrative, whether we make it or consume it. It shapes our sense of ourselves in the world. It can limit not only our sense of being in the works of art themselves,  but it can transform our ability to conceive of ourselves in the world at large. A new incredible story at its best helps us change the way we think. It offers us a vision of a world that we might hope to live in. And when we limit our narrative selves to these paltry simplistic women, we limit the kinds of women we imagine we can be. And by passing those stories on, we teach our younger female counterparts that this is enough to be satisfied with.

I worry for these young ladies that I have met over these past many months. I worry that their outward forms will dictate so much of their inner artistic work. I worry that they have grown up on these stories that do not contain the entirety of them and I worry that they will be forced to shrink themselves down to fit inside the ones that are made available. I want to grab them and tell them that they should demand huge spaces in their artistic lives. That the stories we tell are the way we make sense of the world around us. That creating visions of how we can be is how we begin to become that. That they owe it to themselves and the women they will become.

That they are more than MPDGs and her static character counterparts. For she is singularly dimensional. She does not advance through the course of the story. She is there to shift the inner workings of others. She is inwardly inanimate like a rock. The manic pixie dream girl has no opportunity to change or shift or grow or move.

There are a lot of reasons that I make my own work. This is one of the biggest ones. It’s why I write this post now, several months later, not because my singular dislike of this character matters very much, but because I want to tell them they are not like she is. That they can do so much more than any of these things.

– A