"I don’t think it’s terribly controversial to note that women, from a young age, are required to consider the reality of the opposite gender’s consciousness in a way that men aren’t. This isn’t to say that women don’t often misunderstand, mistreat, and stereotype men, both in literature and in life. But on a basic level, functioning in society requires that women register that men are fully conscious; it is not really possible for a woman to throw up her hands and write men off as eternally unknowable space aliens — and even if she says she has, she cannot really behave as though she has. Every element of her life — from reading books about boys and men to writing papers about the motivations of male characters to being attentive to her own safety to navigating most any institutional or professional or economic sphere — demands an ironclad familiarity with, and belief in, the idea that men really are fully human entities. And no matter how many men come to the same conclusions about women, the structure of society simply does not demand so strenuously that they do so. If you didn’t really deep down believe that women were, in general, exactly as conscious as you, you could probably still get by in life. You could probably still get a book deal. You could probably still get elected to office."

— Jennifer duBois, Writing Across Gender (via florida-uterati)

(via liberalchristian)

Interesting article on Sociological Images about the “Sworn Virgins of Albania.”

Rigid gender roles often inspire creative solutions.  Families in Afghanistan, for example, when they have all girls, often pick a daughter to pretend to be a boy until puberty.  The child can then run errands, get a job, and chaperone “his” sisters in public (all things girls aren’t allowed to do).  The transition is sudden and doesn’t involve relocation, so the entire community knows that the child is a girl.  They just pretend nothing at all strange is going on.  In fact, it’s not strange.  It happens quite routinely.

A similar phenomenon emerged in Albania in the 1400s.  Inter-group warfare had left a dearth of men in many communities.  Since rights and responsibilities were strongly sex-typed, some families needed a “man” to accomplish certain things like buy land and pass down wealth.

In response, some girls became “virgjinesha,” or sworn virgins. A sworn virgin was a socially-recognized man for the rest of “his” life (so long as the oath was kept).  Many girls would take the oath after their father died.

Understanding, Acting, Empathy and Closed Comments

I recently discovered on the Huffington Post that there is an area where all of my past comments on stories are archived.  I decided to take a little time and go back through what I had commented on in the past.  I don’t have a memory of the details of most of the stories.  One comment, however, caught my eye.  It was a reply to one of my comments that I had not seen back in the day.  I immediately wanted to post a reply, but because it was a story from 2009 and the comments are closed, I could not.  This created enough of a sense of frustration that I decided to post here.

The story in question was about a film or theater production, I do not recall which, that had angered the deaf community by casting a hearing person in the role of a deaf person.  As I recall, without re-visiting the story, I agreed that the producers had probably made the wrong decision in this case.  That there are many excellent deaf actors available who could have embodied the role with skill and who could have brought all of their experience to bear in bringing the character to life.

What I took issue with, however, was a sentiment I saw expressed repeatedly in the comments of the story that only an actor who has a particular life experience should be allowed to play a role.

Let me be clear, there are two issues here.  The first has to do with a kind of institutionalized prejudice, and this is wrong and is, I believe, what most people are actually reacting to in this story.  There was a time when it was traditional for a white actor to play the role of Othello, largely because it was assumed a black actor could not be found with the depth and skill to carry it off.  The problem in casting a white man is less to do with his ability to empathize or create the character but with the assumptions behind the casting choice.

In the story about the hearing actor, the real problem is that there were presumably actors available who could most likely do a better job at the part.  They would naturally embody the habits and understandings of a deaf person more than any hearing person could. It would be easier for them to be convincing and on point.

Getting back to the other issue, though, of whether an actor needs to live the life of the character he plays I would say emphatically no.  As I wrote in my comment on the site:

"…acting comes down to depicting a life experience that is not your own. So I couldn’t make a hard and fast judgment that casting a non-disabled actor, for example, is by definition the wrong choice. When it comes to casting, the person who can best convey the emotion the story teller is trying to get across is the best choice. In many cases the person with the same life experience may be that person, and it would be a shame to overlook that. But if an actor who has never been a soldier can bring a war film to life, then they can probably convey other life experiences as well."

As with most comments on a blog, this was hastily written as a quick reaction to what I was reading in the comments section. 

So perhaps I could have better emphasized that I was not saying that the right decision had been made in this case or that hearing actors would be better for deaf roles or spelled out what I did just now about the separate “Othello question.” 

What I am saying, and I have posted it often here in relation to writing, is that writing what you know and acting what you know are not literal.  If writers could only write about their own social categories and experiences and actors could only perform their own social categories and experiences every writer could create only one book and every actor play only one role.  Empathy and imagination are ways of “knowing.”

With all of this background, I now get to the response to my original post.  A fellow reader was offended by what I had to say and replied:

“Life experiences??

Do you know what it is like to be taught how to speak with no real concept of understanding what sounds are?? Do you know what it’s like to be linguistically delayed because the focus is entirely on how to speak words correctly rather than understanding how the language is structured?

Do you know what it is like to be dependent on someone else to talk, to understand those around you?? I mean, come on, even when you are on your deathbed, you are afforded the right to speak to those who you love around you without aid.

Do you know what it is like when your family rejects you from the dinner table because you cannot chew without making so much noise and not know about it? Do you understand what it’s like to be delayed in school because your peers had the privilege of being able to hear the teachers while you have to toil and work in reading all the materials, hoping that the teacher didn’t say something outside of it? Do you understand what it’s like to be told that the language you’re signing isn’t a real language and makes you look like an idiot??

No hearing person can EVER understand what it is like to be Deaf. There is NO life experience that a hearing person can go through that is remotely similar to the Deaf.


So let me say what I would have posted in reply had I known about this comment at the time.  Obviously the poster feels passionately about this issue and, I assume that he is deaf himself and felt that I was minimizing his experience, which was not my intention.

I cannot know what any of that feels like first hand.  Nor can anyone who has not lived it know what that feels like or how he might react or behave in response to the situations he describes. 

What I was trying to say was that the job of the actor is not to live another life but to embody a character who is different from himself.  To better illuminate this idea, I want to give some other examples of life experiences, the ones that come to mind involve crimes so I want to make it clear from the outset that my intention is not to equate having a disability with being a victim.  Rather the point is that these are experiences that anyone who has not lived would be foolish to claim he fully understands.

There are many excellent movies about the holocaust, actors are called upon to play victims of Nazi persecution.  Can they claim to know what it was like to be rounded up for being of the wrong ethnicity and living in a concentration camp?  Of course not.  Can a person who has not been raped claim to know what it is like to be the victim of rape?  Or can someone who has not lost a child know what it is like to lose a child? 

Playing a role is a different thing than living a life.  I think there are few people who would argue that an actor should have lost a child to play a grieving mother. 

In my original comment I began by saying I was ambivalent about the question of whether hearing actors should ever be allowed to play deaf characters.  My ambivalence comes down to this:  there is a social aspect in the casting of a role as I explained earlier with Othello.  It seems most likely that a deaf actor, all other things being equal, would be the best candidate for the role.  And it is quite likely that there is a bias at work here in a false idea that there must not be deaf actors out there who would do the job as well.  This has to be accounted for and corrected. We should always try to be aware of our biases and correct them.

On the other hand, if things are not equal, that is, if one actor is clearly more skilled than the others who are within the available pool of actors, then she might to better service to the character and to the audience’s understanding of the character than a less capable deaf person would. But if the choice is between a mediocre deaf actor who knows what it feels like to be deaf but can’t express it as well to the audience, and a tremendous hearing actor who doesn’t actually have first hand experience but can really convey to an audience “what it is like when your family rejects you from the dinner table,” then I think the drama and understanding is better served by the second actor.

It might help to get away from deafness to make it clearer.  A less talented actress who has actually lost a child might actually be worse at making an audience understand that loss than a more talented one with healthy, living children.  (Or even for that matter a more talented childless actress.)

My point, leaving aside the specifics, is that an actor who has an experience that he is not able to express well is not better than an actor who can imagine and convey well an experience that he has not personally lived.

So, as with most any debate, I am the voice saying context matters.  That “it depends” is a better answer than “they never should” or “they always should.”

All of this, of course, brings up more interesting questions of social identity.  Which social categories do we feel comfortable with actors transgressing and which don’t we?  Is it OK for a white actor to play a Native American?  How about a man playing a woman (as in Shakespeare’s day)?  A straight actor playing gay?  Thin playing fat?  White playing black?  What does it mean that we single these categories out?  Does it feel different if one of the social categories is your own?  (As a fat girl, I hated the casting of Rene Zellwiger as a woman with a weight problem in Bridget Jones’s diary.)  Does it feel different when it is reversed and the member of the social group with less power plays the one with more social status?  Black playing white for example?  A woman playing a man?  Gay playing straight?  Deaf playing hearing?  Those are all interesting questions for what they say about our society.  Questions that I’ve been babbling too long to address here right now.  Talk amongst yourselves.

The fact of the matter is I don’t actually know what it feels like to be a “straight woman.”  I don’t know if I am typical of that category or not.  I don’t know if my heterosexuality is like other people’s heterosexuality or if my femininity is like other people’s femininity.  I can’t claim to know how it feels to be anyone but myself. 

 It would be terribly boring, though, if I only wrote about myself.  Believe me, no one would be interested in reading that.  So I do what any writer has to do.  I trust that I can combine my observations of what other people do and say with my subjective experience of thinking and feeling and use that material to tell the story of a fictional person.  I know how I feel and I take the chance that feeling things is fairly universal.  Being attracted feels like being attracted— not gay or straight attracted.  Falling in love feels like falling in love— not gay or straight falling in love.  Worrying about social status feels like worrying about social status.  Fearing rejection feels like fearing rejection.  Jealousy feels like jealousy, and so on.

Discuss: Why Are There No Female Peter Pans?

From the article Who is Peter Pan? by Alison Lurie in the New York Review of Books:

Girls in children’s books often visit other worlds, but they seldom want to stay. Though Wendy enjoys Neverland, she is the first to suggest that they leave. Alice is uncomfortable in Wonderland, and in the first few Oz books Dorothy Gale keeps trying to go home to Kansas—though in later sequels both she and her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em end up in the magical world, where they will never age or die.

There are, further, no Lost Girls in Neverland. Barrie explains this by telling us that the Lost Boys were all babies who fell out of their perambulators, and that girls were always too clever to do any such thing. Today, perhaps for a similar reason, there are few female slacker films. Women in popular culture are often shown as upset and depressed by the idea of growing old, usually because age will make them less attractive to men, but they seldom seem to long for a permanent adolescence in which they can hang out with other lazy, unemployed females, get drunk, and talk dirty. Usually they want the traditional perks of successful adulthood: good jobs and expensive clothes and attractive lovers and husbands. Possibly, after being treated as irresponsible children for so many years, they have no desire for that role; while men, with a long history of pressure to grow up and take responsibility, are still dreaming of escape into perpetual youth.

"In an American society that lauds autonomy and independence, the underlying qualities represented by kawaii images, which are primarily associated with young girls, remain problematic. Without a mouth, Hello Kitty has neither voice nor agency."

-Sociological Imagination, Hello Kitty Has No Mouth

I never thought about Hello Kitty not having a mouth before.

"Of course, there are plenty of women who proudly stand in the “fiction” part of the bookstore next to their male counterparts. But have you ever heard about “male writing?” Or “dude flicks” for that matter? They’re just simply called books and novels if they’re for men and by men."

— Maria Pawlowska, The Good Men Project

"When I was in seminary, all of us were struggling with how to blend and balance our individuality within the role of minister. We found that most people have a strong idea of how a minister should look and talk and behave. I can join a new group of people, talking and laughing, being normal and the moment they find out I’m a minister the laughter dies as they check back over the things they’ve said in front of me, trying to remember if they’ve sworn or sinned or said something politically incorrect. It’s hard. It makes some ministers want to moon the group. That would banish those burdensome expectations."

— Meg Barnstone, Unitarian Universalist minister

If anyone of any gender has sexual thoughts or experiences about both women and men… it’s not up to the rest of us to say that they’re “really” bisexual. Or, for that matter, that they aren’t. It’s not up to the rest of us to say whether these thoughts or experiences are trivial or important. It’s up to the person thinking them and having them.

What I found frustrating was that the feminist theologians arguing for the primarily feminine aspect of God and the conservative Catholics wrapped in Marian devotion were essentially saying the same thing: maleness can’t be nurturing. My friend, the liberal Episcopalian, believed God was tender—and therefore female. My traditionalist Catholic buddies believed that a thoroughly masculine God had largely outsourced His compassion to Mary. Both ignored the obvious other possibility…

we need to acknowledge the radical and simple truth that men can be as tender as women. A father can nurture his children with every bit as much love and devotion as their mother. A fully adult man doesn’t need women to intercede to remind him of his responsibility to be compassionate. But when our only vocabulary for gentleness is feminine, we don’t acknowledge men’s capacity to be gentle. And when we label every loving action of God as evidence of God’s femaleness, we miss the point that God’s male aspect is every bit as kind.