I went to the theatre the other week to see an all-female production of Henry IV at the Donmar. When I told people I was going to it, reactions ranged from ‘oh… really?’ to ‘wow, that sounds amazing!!’ Although more big acting parts written for men are being given to women these days (Maxine Peake as Hamlet, for example) it’s still news.
When I went to see it, at first it was slightly strange to see women playing the roles written for men- but very quickly I forgot. Not forgot that they were women, but their gender just ceased to matter. They were people, acting parts. They proved to me that we can do it too. Occasionally you were struck by how masculine they looked or sounded, but generally that was in moments when they were fighting or doing deeply impressive numbers of push-ups. What really struck me, as I left, was that this is how it must be for men all the time. You go to the theatre, most of the cast are male. You see a film, most of the cast are male. You think of a boardroom, you think of a room mostly full of men. You think of comedians, you think mostly of men. Big names in history: men. For some people, authors: men (although increasingly less so; ditto: popular music- perhaps). How much does this have an effect on women that we’re not even aware of?
I’m sure a lot of people are rolling their eyes, thinking how ridiculous it is to think women in this day and age grow up not fully believing they can be everything they want to be. But seeing that play made a huge difference to me because they were women proving that they can do the job just as well as men: their gender made no difference. Laura Bates, founder of the website Everyday Sexism and author of the book of the same name, recently wrote an article for The Guardian on how the media and television cater more for men than for women. (As with all Guardian articles, for God’s sake don’t read the comments. Why do these people go to the women’s section of the website? We’re tidied neatly away, you don’t need to go there if you don’t want to.) I think television programmes are probably a lot more equal these days, but I can see her point with some newspapers (Page 3, etc- I still remember a day I walked into the local newsagent when I was in my teens and there was a sticker on a newspaper saying ‘20% more Boobs than The Sun!!’ What?!) My question is why isn’t the increasing equality on television translating into films? There is a test for films called the Bechdel test: to pass, films have to have a) at least two named female characters, b) who talk to each other, c) about something other than a man. Surprising numbers of films do not pass. Can you imagine having a test the other way round? More than two named male characters, who talk to each other about something other than a woman? It sounds absurd doesn’t it?
I don’t want to keep waving the feminism stick all the time. It’s tiring for me too. But it’s these things which are so normal we don’t notice them that worry me. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to be male, and for nearly everything to have the same empowering effect on you that that play had for me- to the point, probably, where you have no idea what I’m talking about because it’s been that way since you were small. Similarly, everything is designed for me as a straight person. And as a white person. Adverts, and films, and books- all showing straight, often white, couples as the norm and if there are gay or non-white couples, it’s news. I know that there is more diversity these days, and that’s all to the good. But I think we all need to be more aware of the subtle effects of what we see around us on a daily basis, and consciously fight the inferiority that comes with never seeing anything close to your reflection in the media.