News


Originally posted at In These Times

According to the Congressional Budget Office, cuts to America’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—more commonly known as food stamps—contained in the farm bill signed by President Obama last week will harm 850,000 American households. Around 1.7 million people in 15 states will lose an average of $90 a month in benefits. Though the cuts won’t keep new people from enrolling, they will reduce payments to people who had previously been allowed to deduct their utility bills from their income.

Conservatives call this “closing a loophole.” But in reality, it will reduce assistance for people whose incomes have not actually risen.

And it’s not as if this help is easy to come by. Despite the image propagated by the Right of Uncle Sam eagerly handing out cash to anyone who wants it, the process through which one qualifies for assistance is Kafkaesque. It seems, in fact, designed to keep people out. As I go through the task of obtaining assistance in California, one of the states that will be affected by the cuts, I am amazed that anyone is able to navigate the system successfully at all.

I was last employed full-time in 2010. Just as that job ended—and as I was moving from the East Coast to the West—I fell down a flight of stairs. The recovery was long and expensive, and since then I have only been able to find sporadic, part-time work.

Last September, when I ran out of savings, I applied for CalFresh (California’s food stamp program) and Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid) by filling out an online application. In response, I received a paper application in the mail asking for the same information again. I filled it out, made copies of my driver’s license, social security card and proof of income, and sent it in the old-fashioned way: through the mail.

As the year neared its close, I still hadn’t heard back from either program. Our new insurance exchange, Covered California, began processing applications for Medi-Cal in October. Having gone through the Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) with no reply, I decided to try this route.

This second attempt yielded mixed results. In January, I received a state benefits card in the mail, though it came with a piece of paper that cautioned, “This does not mean that you are necessarily enrolled.” I called Covered California to find out whether I was, in fact, insured, but reached a recorded message saying call volume was high and I should call back later. I found a number specifically for Medi-Cal; the woman I spoke with said she couldn’t answer any questions about applications submitted through Covered California. She gave me yet a third number to call. When I did so, I got a message saying, “If you are calling about Covered California, please hang up and dial …” And then it listed the number I had just dialed.

Confused about both my insurance and my food stamp situation—which I still hadn’t gotten any notice about—I eventually navigated my way through the web-maze of the California DPSS to send an email. Two days later, I got a call back. The woman kindly told me that although Covered California Medi-Cal was in the process of enrolling me, DPSS never received the information I had mailed in and so had canceled my application for food stamps altogether. She suggested I go to a local office and talk to someone in person.

At the DPSS office, I waited about three hours to meet with a caseworker, who began a new food stamp application for me. He asked what I did for a living. “I’m self-employed,” I replied. “I’m a writer.”

“How much money do you make a month?” he asked. I told him. “O.K., then just get your accountant to create a statement of your income and expenses for the last three months and fax it to me.”

“Um,” I hesitated, confused. “I’m having trouble affording food. How am I supposed to afford an accountant?”

“You said you were self-employed! Just ask your accountant.”

He handed me a piece of paper with his direct phone and fax numbers and ushered me out. The next day, I faxed him my own accounting of my income and expenses and called and left a message to make sure he got it. I did not hear back. I called a week later and left another message. I did not hear back.

By now, it was early February; I had been in the process of trying to obtain assistance for five months. Because I had met with a caseworker in person and now had a case number, I was able to make an appointment online to see him again without the three-hour wait. At that appointment, he told me though he had received my fax, my application had not been processed in the two weeks since.

“Is there anything else you need from me?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “It’s pending.”

I had not been denied food stamp assistance, but neither had I been approved. As of now, I am still waiting.

In the meantime, the state benefits card I received has been covering prescriptions; because I am “not necessarily enrolled,” however, I can’t actually see a doctor. Although I applied for health coverage through Covered California, my case eventually made it to the same DPSS office where I was trying to register for food stamps. When I asked my caseworker about completing my Medi-Cal application as well, though, he informed me that I needed to speak to someone else about that. After submitting my driver’s license and income statement—again—to a different caseworker in the same office, I am now finally “pre-enrolled” in a Medi-Cal plan. I’ve been told to call another 1-800 number in a few days to make sure the enrollment is complete.

The waiting room at my local office is chock full of women with children, the elderly and people with disabilities. I’m sure their processes are even more complex than mine. I am only navigating three government programs—Covered California, Medi-Cal and CalFresh. Others are navigating four, five or more, and may be doing so without the help of the Internet or a cell phone plan.

For many people, the cuts to food stamps contained in the farm bill will likely create even further bureaucratic nightmares. When and how it will happen is still largely unclear. Will people simply wake up one morning to find their assistance reduced? Will these individuals and families have to re-prove their lack of income? Will they even be told what they have to do? No matter what happens, though, one thing is for certain: America’s most vulnerable populations are going to suffer.

Regardless of how persuasive some people may find the conservative idea of the “welfare queen driving a Cadillac,” public assistance programs are not full of people taking advantage of loopholes in the law. They are full of American citizens with no other way to survive.

DSC_0045Originally posted at HowlRound

In just one September weekend, Los Angeles theater patrons had at least three totally different productions of Shakespeare plays from which to choose. The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company‘s all-female Hamlet was running at The Odyssey Theatre; a three-person adaptation of Richard II opened at The Theatre @ Boston Court; and Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum presented an outdoor Taming of the Shrew. Each production offered an alternative way of doing Shakespeare: Hamlet was performed in Elizabeth dress on a traditional set; Richard II was a modernist/dream-play take on one of Shakespeare’s most psychology-driven plays; and director Ellen Geer turned Christopher Sly and his tricksters into modern urban archetypes who watch/present Taming of the Shrew in Elizabethan dress.

Not only was Los Angeles host to three productions of Shakespeare in one weekend (and there may very well have been more), but all three productions were directed by women—all of whom are the artistic directors of their own companies. According to Douglas Clayton at the LA Stage Alliance, there are about twenty five female artistic directors in the greater-Los Angeles area.

Though I was initially cheered, that number, it turns out, represents only about 8 percent of Los Angeles’ artistic directors. The numbers break down further in telling ways. Los Angeles’ four LORT theaters are all run by men, whereas half of the city’s mid-size companies are either run by women or are collectives that include women as part of their leadership teams, Clayton points out in an email. The number then drops to around 5 percent for ninety nine-seat theater companies.

To find out more about the women running these companies and the challenges they face, I convened a roundtable of seven fairly representative women. Five years ago, Elina de Santos co-founded Rogue Machine Theatre, which presents works that are new to Los Angeles by “up-and-coming playwrights.” Lisa Wolpe, the director and star of the all-female Hamlet, has been running The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company for twenty years. Jennifer Chang and Ruth McKee are two of six all-female artistic leaders of Chalk Repertory Theater, a multi-cultural site-specific group in their sixth year. Deborah Devine has been running the youth and family-oriented 24th Street Theater for sixteen years. Nancy Cheryll Davis-Bellamy founded Towne Street Theatre, “Los Angeles’ premiere African-American theater,” twenty years ago. Jessica Kubzansky, director and adapter of Richard II, has been co-artistic director of The Theatre @ Boston Court since it opened its door ten years ago.

The lively discussion that ensued was as heartening as it was depressing. Everyone agreed that eight percent is too small a number, but perspective on how much progress women are currently making in the theater differed widely by generation. While Kubzansky reports discovering more and more women directors all the time, Wolpe has to take a centuries-long perspective to see any real gains. As she put it, “Women would have been killed for being on stage when [Shakespeare’s] plays were written, so I mean I can see the progress.” Likewise, 24th Street Theater’s Devine, who served on the first board of Women in Theatre (a Southern California support group for women in the arts) in 1978, said, “In thirty three years we haven’t come far enough.” Chang and McKee report that their company has purposefully and successfully provided equal opportunities for men and women at all levels.

These fearless leaders did agree on two things:

1) The reasons they began producing are not the reasons they keep producing. Ruth McKee joined up with Chalk Repertory’s other founders because, though she had a national career as a playwright, once she had children she wanted to stay near home. Five years later, she has found that “the influence I have is ultimately making a more profound impact on culture than I could having a play go up in New York for a couple of weeks.”

Kubzansky was so addicted to directing that she never wanted to be an artistic director and accepted the job only with the agreement that the theater would find her a co-artistic director to share the more unpleasant tasks like fundraising.

“When I think about the opportunity I have to potentially make a difference in the artistic landscape of Los Angeles, to influence what types of plays are being programmed at my theater, to birth a whole lot of new work by exciting new playwrights—the scope of influence feels so profound that it feels like something I have to keep doing.”

Davis-Bellamy’s experience, or as she called it, “creative evolution,” mirrored that of some of the other women who have been at it for a while.

“When I first started I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I learned I was producing. Somebody asked me, how do you do this? And I said you just do it,” said Davis-Bellamy.

“The twenty-year mark has been very reflective for us, because a couple of years ago I was ready to forget it, it was too consuming, I had had it. And then we had a recharging of sorts. We got a bunch of new members in and they were younger, they were more producer-oriented. The impact that we have is so profound, particularly for people of color in this city. We fill this large void, because LA theater is majority white. It just is,” she added.

Which leads me to my second point: 2) Despite explicit multi-cultural missions, developing multi-cultural casts and audiences is a huge challenge. Davis-Bellamy founded her theater to produce plays by all people of color, but, unable to attract the Latino audiences to the African American plays and vice versa, she narrowed the mission to producing new plays by African Americans and black classics by historically neglected authors. 24th Street Theater’s outreach focuses on their immediate neighborhood, which is fairly diverse.

Nevertheless, Devine reports that their audience remains “extremely Balkanized” because “the brown people come to the brown shows and the white people come to the white shows.”

Though The Theatre @ Boston Court’s casting notices encourage individuals of all ethnicities to audition, Kubzansky noted, “Actors don’t believe we really mean it.” Chang, an Asian American actor as well as artistic leader of her company, shared her own experience as an actor of color, “I think it’s institutionalized. I went to NYU and UCSD [for acting], and the message I got was, ‘You aren’t going to be cast as the protagonist.'” Davis-Bellamy, who is black, chimed in, “At Western Michigan University, I remember auditioning for a Molière play and the professor telling me point blank that he couldn’t cast me as the ingénue because the audience wouldn’t accept it.”

Despite gains in opportunities and representation, women—and particularly women of color—who want to have an impact on American theater have to be producers as well as actors, directors, and playwrights. Davis-Bellamy put it this way: “If you really, really want to have something, you have to create it and you have to control it.”

Maria-KangThe femisphere got busy this week putting yet another confident woman in her place: Humiliating her, belitting her, accusing her of being a bad mother–you name it, she’s guilty of it. You’d think this woman had the power and position of a pop star or political leader. You’d think that she’s using her power to convince people to walk off a cliff or go to war. The truth? She’s a fitness professional who posted a Facebook picture of herself in workout clothes with her kids along with the text, “What’s your excuse?”

Therefore, according to some some, Maria Kang is a very bad woman. She hates fat people, poor people and the lactose intolerant, she’s sees her kids as a terrible burden–they may not even be hers–she doesn’t actually work out, and worst of all, she wants you to feel bad because you’re not beautiful. She even has issues with your body hair. They know this because she posted a picture of herself on Facebook. They know this because she is, according to the narrowest and yet still standard definition of “beauty,” seriously hot. They know that since she likes her body, she must hate yours.

Let’s take a step back. What do we actually know about Maria Kang? We know she used to compete as a fitness professional. We know that she founded a non-profit called Fitness Without Borders to fight childhood obesity. We know that she’s a mother of three, a writer, and the owner of two elder care facilities. That’s it.

What can we interpret from the picture she posted a year ago on Facebook? Given that we know that she has made it her job to proselytize on the importance of fitness, given that she’s wearing workout clothes and her kids are in the picture, and given the text, “What’s your excuse?”, we can logically interpret that she thinks kids are not an excuse not to be fit.

That’s all. There’s nothing else there. The caption does not say, “what’s your excuse for not looking like me?” It does not say, “If you don’t look like me you suck.” It does not say, “I hate my kids because they make it hard to exercise.” In fact, the only legitimate critique I’ve heard of this meme came from a friend, a mother, and a fitness enthusiast who said,

I do not care for the word, “excuse” because the word implies that I am making excuses for why I can’t look like her. I am someone who cares about fitness and changed my work schedule to permit me to work out while kids are at school. But “excuse” has negative connotations. It is a good ad concept–coming from a former advertising person–but as a mom who wants to be fit, I would prefer a “you can do it, Too!!” tagline.

It’s true: Encouraging people instead of accusing them of making excuses would be a more effective way to get people to prioritize fitness. But that’s the only level on which anybody has any right to evaluate this photo, because that is the only function it exists to serve. Kang is a fitness professional, not a barometer for fat acceptance, and, unlike her critics, she’s not hating on other women for their attitudes towards their bodies. She’s proud of her body and she should be. Every woman has a right to feel good about the way she looks.

Being fit empowers thousands of women. It makes them feel strong and sexy. Other things empower other women to love their bodies–wearing clothes that they love, eating whatever they want, refusing to conform to ridiculous beauty standards–it’s all good. There’s waaaaaaay more than one way to be empowered, and to tell this woman, publicly, over and over, that she should not be proud of her body because it makes other people feel bad is, to be frank, as anti-feminist as fat shaming and slut shaming.

You can disagree with the premise that fitness is important. You can disagree with the premise that kids make it hard to be fit, or, alternately, with the premise that they don’t. You are free to find Kang’s meme unpersuasive. But to question her integrity, her self-esteem, her love for her children, and her right to display her rockin’ bod however she wants? That’s just mean.

uncletomscabinbanner1.jpgOriginally published by The Atlantic

Miley Cyrus probably hasn’t studied much theater history. She was most likely completely unaware of the legacy of minstrelsy that influenced her performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards. She has nevertheless been heavily criticized for appropriating black music and dance while demeaning her black backup dancers. A few people have defended her against the accusation, and others have said that that they were unaware while watching it of what made Cyrus’s performance racist.

I’m not surprised. When I teach theater history to undergraduates I meet very few students who have heard of minstrelsy before I tell them about it. Even when I teach graduate students, I find that many of them think American theater history began with Eugene O’Neill. They are completely unaware that the first nationally popular American play was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, transformed onstage from an anti-slavery text into a racist spectacle whose influence survives till today.

Just as present-day filmmakers are on the lookout for bestselling novels that can be made into blockbuster films, 19th-century theater managers looking for hits adapted popular books for the stage. The first known stage version of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was performed even before the final sections of the serialized novel had been printed. The second production was part of an evening of entertainment that included a tightrope walker and a blackface burlesque of Othello. Though George Aiken’s somewhat faithful adaptation was the most successful version, Southern pro-slavery writers parodied the novel in productions that turned Stowe’s sympathetic portrayal of slaves on its head. Theater managers everywhere competed to have the most outrageous show by adding bands, songs, dances, even fireworks.

The popularity of the scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin when Eliza is chased across a frozen river by dogs led to the inclusion of more and more live animals in Tom Shows, including mules and even elephants. Eventually producers began casting “real Negroes” to bolster their claims of authenticity: Their shows, they boasted, depicted black life as it really was—full of happy go-lucky, animalistic should-be slaves. That these black performers still had to wear blackface betrayed the truth—the Tom Show idea of black life was not authentic at all.

Simultaneously, minstrel shows—combinations of skits, dancing, and music characterized by caricatured representations of buffoonish black people by performers in black face, slapstick situations, and a send up of aristocratic pretensions—rose in popularity from a working-class entertainment to a middle-class one. By combining the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the central tropes of minstrelsy, Tom Shows, as these spectaculars came to be called, presented song and dance representations of black life from a white perspective. Even after the Civil War, Tom Shows continued to tour the country and attract large audiences from all walks of life.

Just as these performances’ dances, like Jumping Jim Crow, were purportedly observed among real black people and then caricatured, Miley Cyrus, surrounded by black women half-dressed as animals, attempted and perverted a form of black dancing called twerking. Rather than aping aristocratic pretensions, like minstrel shows did, Cyrus sent up her own past as an innocent child by embodying the good girl who nevertheless knows she wants it. But it was minstrelsy just the same.

Audiences may not have recognized the tropes upon which Cyrus drew partly because even people who know about Tom Shows think of them as being performed by men. In reality, by 1871 America had at least 11 scantily-clad, all-female minstrel troupes performing in blackface. Even in male troupes, “wench” characters, played by men in light makeup (they were “yaller gals”) and depicted as possessing overwhelming sexual appetites, made public representations of eroticism a common element in Tom Shows.

Cyrus wasn’t wearing literal blackface in her performance, but the tradition of a little white girl at the center of a minstrel performance is as old as minstrelsy itself. One of the most popular characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Little Eva: the blonde, lily-white daughter of conscientious slave owners who is adored by white and black people alike. The uncivilized slave Topsy, who says that she cannot love anyone because no one has ever loved her, is nevertheless moved to tears by Eva’s death and vows thereafter to be good.

In 19th-century productions, Eva’s centrality to the narrative was made literal: The moment of Little Eva’s death put Eva centerstage, on her bed surrounded by mourning slaves. In at least one production, so many slaves appeared that the stage was full of them, while others peered in at windows and stood in doorways. In the more spectacular, upbeat adaptations, she doesn’t die but rather sings and dances with the happy slaves.

Tom Shows did not decline in popularity until well into the 20th century—only after they had made their impact in Hollywood. The metatheatrical 1936 film Dimples, featuring Shirley Temple as a young performer (Dimples) who is playing Little Eva in a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, combines the sentimental portrayal of the little white girl with the “isn’t she just cute as button dancing with those negroes” version. Her death scene brings about tears from the actors on stage and those in the on-film theater audience, and just as in the original story Topsy is redeemed by her ability to feel, the villain in the movie is redeemed by the sentiment evoked by Eva. As an epilogue to the play, the curtain comes up on a minstrel troupe, and Dimples dances at the center of a group of blackface performers.

Whether or not the creators of Cyrus’s performance know it, American entertainment has been so suffused with these images for so many years that they live in our shared subconscious and are often referenced without artists or audiences even realizing it. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has been praised for its mostly female, racially diverse cast, but it has also been rightly criticized for drawing upon black experiences to tell a white girl’s story. The creative staff of Orange Is the New Black or the talented actor who plays Crazy Eyes, Uzo Aduba, may not have been thinking about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but both Topsy and the Crazy Eyes character are black women who were adopted and “civilized” by white parents. Crazy Eyes, like Cyrus at the VMAs, even sports Topsy’s iconic hairstyle.

Contemporary pop culture may be driven by Hollywood, but back in the day, it was theater—particularly traveling troupes like the Tom Shows—that created a shared national culture. This history will not go away, whether we acknowledge it or not. Without an awareness of the way the iconography of minstrelsy informed so much of the entertainment that has come afte

Hamlet_LAWSC13KSPRA.032Originally posted at Ms.

Sarah Siddons did it. Charlotte Cushman did it with pants on. Sarah Bernhardt did it in prose. Eva Le Gallienne did it with Uta Hagen. As long as it’s been legal for women to appear on stage, they’ve been playing Hamlet. Next week the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company will become a part of women’s history when they celebrate their 20th year of staging all-women productions with their own Hamlet.

In her 20 years running the company, director and actor Lisa Wolpe has played Romeo, Iago and Shylock, to name just a few of the Bard’s most famous male characters. She travels around the world advising artistic directors on creating diversity in their theaters. She directs and acts at the most prestigious Shakespeare festivals in the country. But when Wolpe approached foundations for support for her all-female Hamlet, she was told, “That sounds like a gimmick.” On a break from rehearsals, she vented to Ms.:

It’s not a gimmick, it’s a time-honored tradition. Every great actress has played Hamlet. It’s not a new thing. I think it’s sad that we have to keep reinventing this. It’s not a gimmick; you just don’t want to fund women.

Attachment-1Despite a dearth of resources, Wolpe is forging ahead with the show, which runs from August 30 to October 27 at The Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles. All of the roles will be played by women, from the domineering King Claudius to the meddling Polonius to the melancholy Dane himself, who will be played by Wolpe.

Asked whether her work has a social purpose, she has three answers: A. Yes, I’m providing opportunities for women; B. Yes, there are things about Shakespeare’s plays you don’t realize until you have an all-woman cast; and C. Stop asking me that.

Undoubtedly, women rarely get to play the best roles in the Western canon—with the exception of a few standouts such as Clytemnestra, Hecuba and Cleopatra—because the roles are mostly for men. Compared to New York City, which has two all-women classical theater companies (the Judith Shakespeare Company and The Queen’s Company) and countless other theaters that experiment with non-traditional casting, LAWSC is the only company of its kind in L.A.

resolver-1In many ways, Shakespeare was very much writing about gender. In his plays, women are constantly disguising themselves as men, men fall in love with other men and every play examines the power imbalance in male-female relationships. In most productions, these issues are rendered invisible by casting and staging that reinforces contemporary gender norms, whereas all-female productions can keep gender and sex in the front of an audience’s mind.

In this production, Rosencrantz—a friend of Hamlet’s employed by the King to lead Hamlet to his death—has been cast to actually be a woman. Wolpe explained her reasoning:

I think that the way men use women as sexual pawns is fascinating, and so I asked Claudius to just undress [Rosencrantz] with his eyes and use her for further bait to draw Hamlet on, which I think she’d be expected to do. And the reward she gets is death. I think that’s how a woman would be utilized then, and maybe it makes you think about her for a heartbeat longer than if she was a guy who was a spy and then was put to death.

Though Rosencrantz is the only character Wolpe has flipped (the rest of the male roles are filled by women playing men), it’s not hard to imagine further ways in which the gender issues in Hamlet might be foregrounded by the sex of the actors. After all, Shakespeare’s Hamlet coined some of Western civilization’s most famous misogynist phrases. Hamlet famously complains of his mother, “Frailty, they name is woman!” (1.2.6). He rails against himself for acting like a “whore” for talking too much: “Why, what an ass am I! … That I … Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words” (2.2.58). And he tells his girlfriend to become a nun rather than marry because women always make fools of their husbands: “Get thee to a nunnery, go” (3.1.11). These words will undoubtedly resonate differently when spoken by a woman, even one in convincing drag.

256px-Cushman_in_Hamlet_posterSo is there a social purpose to what the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company does? Don’t forget Wolpe’s third answer: c. Stop asking me that. In our interview, her frustration with being treated differently from male actor/directors, despite 20 years of experience and recognized expertise, was palpable:

People always talk to me like, ‘So, could this be applicable in the third grade? Maybe we could strengthen the girls in the Christmas pageant.’ Stop infantilizing me because I’m female. Ian McKellan and I have sat and talked about our Richard III. I know as much as anyone. It’s not different. We are doing exactly the same thing as Kevin Spacey, who runs a theater company and played Richard III, but nobody asks Spacey if he’s thought about doing it with high-school students. It’s just that you expect me to be different, like someone who doesn’t want all that.

Having met Wolpe and sat in on rehearsal, I can testify that she wants all that and is capable of handling all of it, too. Nevertheless, she says a lack of funding may make this LAWSC’s last production.

Wolpe’s muse, the Victorian actor Charlotte Cushman, was famous for playing men—”breeches roles,” in the parlance of her time. Cushman described herself on her own Hamlet poster as “a lady universally acknowledged as the greatest living tragic actress.” In true superstar style, Cushman announced her retirement from the stage many times before she was really done. Hopefully Wolpe is only following in Cushman’s footsteps when she threatens the end of her company, but you never know. Catch her while you can by buying tickets here. Even if you’re not in L.A., you can still defy the patriarchy by supporting what is clearly not a gimmick.

Photos of Bernhardt and Cushman poster from Wikimedia Commons

DSC_0045Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend or on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom.

-1Originally posted at HowlRound.

Actor Lake Bell has been making the press rounds promoting her new indie movie, In a World …, about a female voice over actor whose gender (and father) have kept her from achieving the same level of success as her male peers. Bell plays Carol, a goodhearted vocal coach that finally stumbles into success, despite industry sexism, when a producer with a point to make hires her to be the first female voice to begin a movie trailer with the iconic phrase “in a world …”.

All of the actors in the film—not just the ones who play voice over artists—use their voices to amazing effect in creating character and telling story. Bell, who studied theater at the Rose Bruford College in London, says she has always been hyper-aware of voices, accents, and languages. She’s on a mission now to stop the spread of what she calls the “sexy baby voice virus:” a combination of a high pitch, vocal fry (a kind of creaking caused by restriction of breath and tension in the muscles around the larynx), and uptalk (sending the pitch of your voice up at the end of the sentence).

Though linguists disagree on whether we can say for sure that vocal fry and uptalking are more common among young women or whether we just notice it more with them, voice professionals and social critics identify the trend as beginning with the Valley Girls of the ’80s and being more common with young women than men. Bell contrasts this to previous vocal trends, such as the way actors talked in the films of the 1930s and 1940s, which included both women and men, and posits that women are diminishing themselves by speaking in this way.

When young women use this voice, it’s most often with each other. I talked to Nancy Houfek, the Head of Voice and Speech at the American Repertory Theater/Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University, who said that members of social groups often adopt similar manners of speaking. While it’s possible that uptalking and vocal fry will spread so much that everyone will speak that way in order to fit in, right now it mainly signifies belonging to a particular demographic subset.

While Bell has been widely lauded for making an explicitly feminist film, she has also been accused by young feminists whose voices fit Bell’s description, of demeaning women who talk that way. Surprised that there are young feminists who talk that way? Don’t be. Though uptalk can make women sound vapid, it doesn’t mean that they are vapid. Similarly, vocal fry is not necessarily the result of being insecure, but it is caused by restricting your breath and tightening up, and that conveys insecurity to people outside of the shared culture of that demographic subset.

Bell’s irritation with young women’s voices is a result of her training: It comes from the knowledge that women are physiologically capable of sounding different and that in many situations—such as a job interview, debate, or public forum—sounding different would help them come across as more powerful, confident, and grown up. She’s less demeaning women for talking that way and more encouraging them to make full use of their instruments in situations where it would be to their benefit.

Interestingly, Bell isn’t saying that women need to sound more like men. In fact, in the film, her character explicitly says that women need to sound more like women instead of little girls. Nor is she saying that women should never use vocal fry or uptalk. Many successful singers use vocal fry quite effectively, and uptalk is a great way of using your voice to lead your listener into the next thought. (Houfek cites Senator Elizabeth Warren as a master of this.) But our voices are one of the primary instruments of self-expression, and if we want to convey the full range of our thoughts and feelings in a wide variety of given circumstances, we’d better know how to use that instrument to it’s fullest potential.

In a World .. makes a compelling case for vocal training as part of both conservatories and undergraduate theater programs. Though the film’s overt use of voice acting is rare in Hollywood, even in movies where the voice work is subtler, the difference between actors who know how to use their voices to create character and those who do not can be profound. In the theater, vocal training can be the difference between booking or not booking a job. And I share Lake Bell’s perspective that even non-actors can benefit from voice work. As Nancy Houfek put it:

Being able to use your voice and your breath without tension makes you sound more confident, more relaxed, and more connected to what you are saying. The words have more power and will land with listeners more effectively. And this is a human thing, not a gendered thing.

9424767218_af9014c605Originally posted at Ms.

It’s no secret that this summer’s movies suck for women. It’s been mentioned on Vulture. NPR did a story about it. The New York Times covered it. Even Fox News ran a piece about it.

Yet Jodie Foster has a leading role in the new action movie Elysium. How’d she score it? Foster makes a point of having her agent specifically seek out leading-man scripts that can be flipped. Her role in Elysium was originally written for a man.

More actresses might want to do the same, because the Movie Insider database of films in development and pre-production contains films in which there really is no reason that the main character can’t be a woman.

A third installment of Night at the Museum is in the works, for example, but Ben Stiller is not yet signed on to reprise his role. In the first movie of the series, much of the plot and humor relies on the fact that the main character is new on the job–in fact, one could argue that deviating from this set-up is why Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian grossed only half of what the original did in its opening weekend. The film’s subtitle, Brother From Another Mother (seriously), indicates that Night at the Museum 3 will return to its previously successful formula and introduce a brother to Stiller’s character who has taken over for him at the museum.

Other than the dated and possibly offensive reference in the title, not much would have to change to make the new character a sister. After all, the job of the watchman is essentially that of caretaker, which is a job women do every day. The style of the film does require an actor capable of the kind of comedy for which Stiller is known, but there’s no dearth of female comedic geniuses around these days. The role could be played hilariously by Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig or Sarah Silverman, to name a few.

Kristin Scott Thomas, who recently told The Daily Mail that she has become invisible compared to younger female actors, could play the lead in When the Starlight Ends, in which “a novelist finds himself with the ability to rewrite his past,” an ability he uses to try to reunite with a lost lover, or in Tomorrow, in which “a man travels back and forth in time trying desperately to prevent the murder of his family.” It shouldn’t be hard to sell audiences on a woman whose primary motivation is, in the first example, love, or, in the second, saving her family. Gender-swapping these roles would also make the films the first major movies in which the female character is the one who can time travel.

To suit Hollywood’s penchant for the heteronormative, wives would probably be flipped to husbands, but that’s part of the fun of cross-sex casting: Not only do women get to play characters who are ambitious and powerful, but men get to play characters who are compassionate, domestic and invested in their relationships above all else. In reality, some men actually are. In this way, the practice has the potential to dismantle deeply held assumptions about the inevitable relationship between gender and sex.

Producers are unlikely to take my suggestions for several reasons:

A) Hollywood has little to gain from subverting the patriarchy.

B) Hollywood relies on international markets, where “woman-centered movies don’t sell,” or so the wisdom goes.

C) American storytelling is still driven by the assumption that is at the heart of the Western canon: The male experience is the universal human experience, whereas the female experience is specialized, driven by biological factors, the absence of which prevents men from being able to see themselves in female characters.

This is, of course, total bullshit. The assumption persists partly because stories in which a male character is defined by his reproductive organs are relatively rare, so biology does not constitute a barrier to empathy, whereas many–if not most–female characters are written as driven by their biology, usually made manifest in characters focused on finding a mate and/or having and caring for children. In the absence of roles written for women in which they desire other things, too–like power, money or justice–gender-flipping provides audiences with female characters designed to represent the universal human experience.

3799345378_8d68996aa0Being able to imagine “men’s” roles being played by women requires practice, but once you get going the possibilities are endless. Imagine a gender-flipped Weird Science (yep, Universal is remaking Weird Science), in which two geek girls use their technological expertise to create the ideal man–played by Channing Tatum or Ryan Gosling, natch. Such a choice would provide a powerful antidote to the original film’s overt male gaze and reveal that the media’s narrowly defined representations of who is beautiful distorts women’s desires as much as it does men’s.

Game of Thrones fans might like to see Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) in the reboot of another ’80s classic, Highlander. Ryan Reynolds is currently slated to play the sword-wielding immortal who spends centuries fighting and finding other immortals and taking their power. Many people would consider the character too violent for a woman to play, but Lucy Lawless and Miranda Otto have proven that women can handle swords, and Christie’s background in gymnastics would make her a formidable foe in any century.

No doubt a producer brave enough to flip Highlander would face intense backlash from the largely male fanbase of the original. But science fiction and fantasy are perfect genres for gender-flipping: In a made-up world, anything is possible. Speculative fiction exists to show not just who we are but also who we can be.

Gender-flipping introduces the possibility that women can represent the human experience, leading eventually to more parts written for women that do that. As more creators include women characters who are complex and universal, more people will realize that this makes entertainment better, not worse. Eventually, we won’t even be surprised by it.

post-23106-GRRM-writing-women-George-R-R-LyTf

Photo from Weird Science courtesy of Caca Joucias via Creative Commons 2.0.

Photo of Jodi Foster courtesy of Zinemaniacos via Creative Commons 2.0. 

Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games, and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom.

Next Page »