Wednesday, August 19, 2009

pigeonholing the penis-less (part I)

A very unscientific poll of New York City actresses follows.

Here's how it got started. The Times had a profile of Anne Heche where the co-creator of the new series Hung, Colette Burson, said "It is incredibly difficult to find beautiful, talented, funny women over 35."

Then, Jezebel covered her digging-ever-deeper retraction here, where Anna North wrote:

Maybe it wouldn't be "hard to find pretty and funny" if actresses weren't pigeonholed as one or the other, or if we thought of humor as sexy in women the way we do in men. Of course, it's not Burson's fault that Hollywood deals in simplistic gender stereotypes. But as someone who says "I feel so passionately about the issue" of creating compelling female characters over 35, she could certainly challenge these stereotypes a bit more.
So we asked come actresses we know about it. Have they experienced this kind of either/or dichotomy -- expected to be pretty OR funny, but never both? How pigeonholed are you in auditions these days by your looks/age/ethnicity/possession of a brain?

These were loaded questions, since it's a given that theater, once mixed with business, is a narrow-minded enterprise. Commercial success is the surest way to kill originality, since the audience you're attracting -- at least, when you know you're going to lose money -- is quite different than the one you're trying to entice to spend perhaps hundreds of dollars on a ticket. [Thanks, Showcase Code!]

How does one tempt a better-heeled audience? With a tacit promise that the stories will be linear, the tension resolved, and the faces pretty. (And how exactly does one determine what constitutes pretty? Glad you asked -- those faces are largely white. But race politics are already overplayed around here, so I'm staying the hell away from that for now.)

Somewhat paradoxically, pretty is also neutered; threatening beauty is not comforting to an audience, and to it's placed in a separate category -- les femmes fatales, if you will. Comedy, on the other hand, is almost always at its best when it's subversive. Family friendly comedy is usually marked by its willingness to meet expectations and not surprise. Granted, there's nothing particularly witty about dropping the f-bomb over and over again, but there's definitely nothing funny about Reba.

This is chronicled much better elsewhere, but to be a funny woman is doubly subversive. But remember, the more money you ask of a theater audience, the less flexible they are: there's a direct correlation between money spent and ego they expect to be stroked. You can't abuse their preconceptions, you need to one extent or another, to reinforce them. You can imagine what happens to actresses (already subdivided by color, waist size, height, etc.) when they are doomed with having personality as well.

Having jumped late onto the Mad Men bandwagon, there are plenty of chauvinistic exchanges that are simply cringe-worthy to the contemporary ear as I catch up on past episodes: it's a sexism that's shocking (to us) in its condescendingly casual tone as much as its actual content. It's hard to believe that the objectification of woman was a cultural norm so recently... least, it's hard to believe for the five minutes it takes to find this. Or this. Or this.

So how unrecognizable are the new prejudices? I guess as sensitive as your ears are. Or until a Boston police officer calls Henry Louis Gates a jungle monkey in an email.

(But before we turn this into an all-people-with-power-are-evil rant, there's something worth thinking about here when you're a performer on the other side of the audition table as well: when you're acting, your job isn't to change the world, it's to convey a client's story to a consumer. The lines are clearer when you're auditioning for a commercial, less so when you're doing a straight play. The fundamentals are the same, but this time around the product is you.)

So that's the question. The first of their answers next week.

No comments:

Post a Comment