Striding along, swinging my arms and holding up my head, exuding an air of confidence in where I was going, my nine-year-old self was suddenly projected back to reality as I realized I had unknowingly left my family way behind as we were walking to our car. Embarrassed, I tried to hide in the shadows so no other moviegoers could see me as I waited for them to catch up, a similar scene (minus family and embarrassment) featuring Barbara Streisand in “Funny Girl” still playing in my head.
Recently, @jezebel (note: if swearing bothers you, I would recommend against checking out this site) tweeted a link to an article about Meryl Streep‘s thoughts on sexism in Hollywood. The article refers both to a recent interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” and Ms. Streep’s famous 2010 graduation speech at Barnard. Ms. Streep said, in part, “The hardest thing in the world is to persuade a straight male audience to identify with a woman character. It’s easier for women because we were brought up identifying with male characters in literature… The boys’ characters were interesting and you lived through them when you’re reading i. You know, you’re not aware of it but you’re following the action of the film through the body of the protagonist. You feel what he feels when he jumps, when he leaps, when he wins, when he loses. And I think I just took it for granted that, you know, we can all do that. But it became obvious to me that men don’t live through the female characters.”
I can think of dozens of female characters through whom I’ve lived and with which I’ve identified. But I admire and respect Meryl Streep, not only as one of the most gifted actors of all time but also as an intelligent, aware, thoughtful, and well-spoken person. So how to deal with the dissonance in her experience and my own?
While I am, for argument’s sake, of the same generation of Meryl Streep (and thus raised with the same literature, plays, movies, and cultural attitudes), there are two potentially important differences. One is the role of The Feminine Mystique and Title IX in reshaping our society’s values. She was 13 and I was three when Betty Friedan‘s iconic book was published, and she was already graduated from college when Title IX was passed while I was still in junior high. Our differing ages probably mean we – and thus men of her specific generation – were shaped diffferently by these cultural shifts and the resulting push-back. More importantly, though, she works in an industry where men’s views unquestionably dominate, while I work in a girls school. Might that open up possibilities for me that many of these men do not enjoy?
I emailed with two colleagues, one male and one female, about the question. Both felt Meryl Streep’s words were valid, one observing, “We live in a society that, like most societies, is and has been dominated by males for thousands of years. Females have had to adapt to this in many ways, including ‘know thy adversary.'”
Both wrote about characters with whom they had identified during the course of their lives. For my male colleague, one who stood out was Gladys Aylward, a real-life person played in the movie “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” by Ingrid Bergman. Ms. Aylward, an Englishwoman, saved and paid for a passage to China where she worked as a foot inspector, ensuring the government’s law against binding feet was observed. In addition, she saved nearly a hundred orphans during the Japanese invasion and eventually founded an orphanage.
Mentioning Holden Caulfield and Harold of “Harold and Maude,” my female colleague wrote, “I tend to like characters who are so deeply crushed they can’t even see it themselves, because as a reader I am rooting for them to gain some clarity and self-awareness (and peace and happiness, too). These characters are not afraid to show their vulnerabilities, misdirected as their emotional outbursts might be. They crave connection because they lack it so deeply. So I guess you could say there are stereotypical “female” elements in these struggles, as far as the emotional journey is concerned.”
Personally, with which movie character have I most identified? The possibilities seemed endless until one image came into clear focus: Glenn Close in “The Big Chill.” She is who I want to be – successful in a caring profession (she is a doctor), successful as a partner in a close and loving marriage, successful as a parent to her children, successful as a stabilizing and helpful influence in her friends’ lives.
You can see the thread running through all these experiences – connections. The need for connections unites us, in real life as well as on paper, on stage and on screen.
Recently, one of my students asked me, “Do you think gender is a social construct?” I was delighted, and answered, “Great question. I absolutely do. Do you?” She did. Another student who was listening asked what a social construct was. We explained, and she said, “Oh. Duh.”
So if gender is indeed a social construct, and if people of various genders have far more in common than not, why does sexism persist? Why aren’t the majority of men (who don’t work in girls schools) able to identify with female characters?
Great questions. (No duh.)