Features Published 17 February 2016

Why do we punish strong female protagonists?

"Have you ever noticed that the sort of Bad Things that happen to women in stories aren’t the same things that happen to men?" Rebecca Atkinson-Lord on why simply increasing the number of female roles isn't enough.
Rebecca Atkinson-Lord
Sophie Melville in Iphigenia in Splott at National Theatre. Photo: Mark Douet.

Sophie Melville in Iphigenia in Splott at National Theatre. Photo: Mark Douet.

It’s been a good year for new theatre full of complex, meaty roles for women and commitments to gender parity at the NT and Shakespeare’s Globe offer some long-awaited hope that one day theatre might look a bit less dead, white and male. At the Edinburgh festival in particular there were a handful of brilliant young actresses tearing up the stages. It’s great that some of these leading roles for women are now finding a wider national audience as Sherman Cymru’s Iphigenia In Splott and National Theatre of Scotland’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour transfer to the NT and The Corn Exchange’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing moves to the Young Vic. All three shows are engaging and slick, the performances incandescent; the plays are united not only by their critical success, but by the youth, unapologetic sexuality and singular voices of their protagonists.

Again and again, I’ve heard colleagues remark on the proliferation of complex female roles in the mainstream theatre ecology. This triumvirate of successful new plays, focused on compelling female protagonists, seemed to mark a sea change in the cultural narrative as the ongoing kerfuffle around gender parity on stage began to pay off.

But after seeing all three plays in as many days I found myself uneasy whenever a colleague named any of them as examples of advances in gender equality in the arts. The brilliant Megan Vaughan has just written rather eloquently about her frustrations with Iphigenia and the sense that here was a character whose anger is never expressed in her own voice, only emerging when she begins speaking in the familiar rhetoric of ‘Default Man’. For a while I couldn’t quite place the source of my discomfort; I’d come out of each show transported, seeing the world anew. Both Iphigenia and Our Ladies are written by men, but nonetheless I could see how each piece could be read as feminist, as ground breaking, as deeply political. Until I looked at the stories themselves.

In each play a compelling, vocal, intelligent female protagonist is punished for her unapologetic sexuality in ways that their male equivalents would not be. When I mentioned this to a colleague, he replied that drama is the result of conflict; that in order to have a play, bad things must happen. And ok. He’s sort of right. But have you ever noticed that the sort of Bad Things that happen to women in stories aren’t the same things that happen to men? In two of the plays young women become accidentally pregnant -the archetypal Bad Thing To Happen To Women, universally acknowledged as short-hand for the end of all female hopes, dreams and aspirations. One character then experiences an avalanche of other Bad Things because she does not have a husband to fight for better treatment in the hospital where she is to give birth. In the third play, the protagonist’s burgeoning early sexuality catalyses an abusive relationship and although at first she escapes her abuser, her sexual agency as an adult ultimately leads to rape, further abuse and death. In all three plays there’s a clear and direct correlation between female sexual agency and Bad Things happening.

I can think of scores of plays, films, and books where women’s sexual agency is punished. I can’t think of one where a corresponding narrative happens to a man. Perhaps the unfortunate truth is that in real life more Bad Things happen to women than men and these plays are merely holding a mirror up to nature. But if that’s the case then our responsibility to act for change is even more acute. The stories we tell have an immediate and tangible impact on the world around us. They shape our collective moral compass, are sense of identity and our understanding of our relative place in the world. We may be working towards greater visibility of women within the cultural narrative but as long as we continue to tell stories where those women are punished as a result of their gender we’re making it harder for the young women in our audiences to imagine something different for themselves and harder for audiences of all genders to imagine a more equal world. It isn’t enough for us to simply increase the number of ‘female voices’ or ‘strong female roles’ in the arts landscape, we need to pay closer attention to the kinds of stories those voices and characters tell or we risk regurgitating cultural tropes that perpetuate inequality.

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Rebecca Atkinson-Lord is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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