International Women’s Day is a day that means a lot to me: of course, I am a woman, but my biggest inspirations have been the women who came before me. My mother, my grandmother, Patti LuPone. As I began thinking about what I wanted to blog about this week, I started to think about shows with my favourite women in them. Although lots of them don’t pass the infamous feminist Bechdel test, that doesn’t mean that the women featured in musicals don’t deserve praise for creating beautiful, powerful, three-dimensional characters. Not every woman has to sing “And I Am Telling You” and be a finger-snapping ain’t-need-no-man type to be a force of nature.
Take Cosette for example. She has been compared to a bird countless times and on the surface, her main function in Les Mis is to be with Marius. But she is the reason Valjean continues to be a good man. She is his redemption and the light of his life. Everything Valjean does is for the betterment of Cosette’s life. If Fantine hadn’t died and Cosette left without a caretaker, Valjean might have continued running his factory and the story would have never continued. The entire second act is driven by Cosette – Valjean trying to protect her, Marius pulling through his injuries to be with her, Eponine feeling inadequate because of her. Without Cosette, there is no story. And yet, she is seen by some as unimportant. Not so.
The female characters I love most in theatre are the manipulative, sometimes even evil, ones. Patina Miller’s Leading Player in Pippin, The Witch in Into the Woods, Mama Rose in Gypsy, or even Maureen in RENT, depending on your perspective. I love these women so much because they’re never a cardboard cut-out. They have dimension and backstories. They have motivation to do the thing they’re doing. (This is the same reason why I love Gone Girl: all of the characters do awful things, but they’re clever and inspired.) Maybe it’s not always a good thing: why do the “bad guys” (so to speak) always get the good backstory? Why can’t the heroines be dimensional too?
Most importantly, I love flawed, grey characters. The Baker’s Wife from Into the Woods is one of my favourites (and also a reason why I love that show). You can agree or disagree with her decisions, but she’s realistic. No woman’s – no person’s – personality or decisions are always black and white. Indecision and mistakes are human.
In the fall, a young (male) author came to my school and was talking about his book.
Having never been a woman, he asked us: how do you write a woman? I told him: treat us like people. He said that each woman has a different experience. Although that’s true, I thought, each man also has a different experience.
Last June, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron made history and were the first-ever female writing team to win Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score for Fun Home. Although their award/speech was not televised, Tesori said in it that she only realized a career in music when she saw Linda Twine conduct Lena Horne: “The Lady and Her Music” in 1981. For women, said Tesori, seeing is believing. In a case of intentional art imitating life, the song “Ring of Keys” in Fun Home is when a young Alison sees a butch lesbian for the first time in her life. She identifies with her and feels a sense of belonging. I think that this happens for women everywhere when they see female characters on stage.
So playwrights, hear me out: from here on in, don’t put your women on a pedestal. Write your women like you would write your men: complex, dirty, and utterly human.