The importance of being (fe)Male – aka: Show me the women!

It is a frequently bemoaned point that there are far fewer roles for women than men on stage and on screen, and that this gets worse as women get older. Something that is painfully ironic in an industry which draws far more women to it than men in the first place. Nothing new there. What is new though, or rather on the increase, is the casting of men into what were and are – female roles.

I first noticed it when a man was cast as Miss Trunchball in the musical version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. It left a bad taste in my mouth then. Partly, to see such a great role be taken away from the female actors in this age group, and partly because I wondered if there is a more worrying suggestion underlying this choice. A suggestion that these women (the Miss Trunchball’s of this world) are old, ugly and are therefore essentially masculine – so they can be played by a man equally as well, if not better than a woman.

What angers me is that for years they have been saying women can’t be funny. Now they seem to be suggesting we can’t be a whole host of other seemingly unfeminine things either. It’s reductive to show women only as one stereotyped 2D version of what it is to be a woman. These castings suggest that being nasty, twisted, mentally unstable or violent is not feminine and therefore not female. Women, of course, are never evil and nasty, they are delicate, kind nurturing creatures ALL of the god damn time. Just ask Myra Hindley.

Most recently, David Suchet, has been playing Lady Bracknell in the Importance of Being Earnest. I have it on good authority that David is a lovely man and I am sure that like most actors is glad of any acting challenge that comes his way. But, this is another great female role for older female actors taken away from us. What is going on? Is this the Mrs Brown affect? And where is the uproar?

We have always had the Shakespeare thing of course. In Shakespeare’s day women were not allowed to be actors, so all those great female parts from Beatrice to Lady Macbeth were originally played by men. This is justification for many companies to continue producing all male productions, despite there now being no restriction – in the UK anyway– on women leaving the kitchen to appear in a play. The argument for continuing with all male productions is that it’s a valid representation of how the play would have looked in Shakespeare’s day.

With the exception of the Globe, the purism rarely extends to insure other non-sixteenth century-isms are also excluded such as modern lighting. But, more interestingly is that no-one would dream of blacking up an actor to play Othello. Yet, in Shakespeare’s time Othello would have been a blacked up white actor. So, surely there is a double standard here. Or perhaps we are not so purist about our Shakespeare as we’d like to believe.

            I believe this misogynistic casting trend (and no – you don’t get away with it because its ‘art’) is not simply about removing work from female actors. There is a bigger issue here. Women are being overlooked. Our parts and most importantly our stories are being stolen. It’s not acceptable to simply replace older women with a man in a skirt. It’s offensive. The female story deserves to be told and heard; the full female story, not just the one that fits into man’s story. As well as sexy girlfriends and yummy mummies we are everything from from brattish, cute young girls, to large matronly ladies and delicate grannies. We are mothers and murderers, we can manipulate, mislead and bewitch. Stop limiting us to arm candy and stop suggesting we can’t be trusted to play ourselves.     

      We deserve to see women represented on stage by women. Be they old, hard, soft, ugly, fat, thin, evil, kind or just that brilliant all rounded mix of all of the aforementioned – show us the women!  

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