In the past few weeks I’ve come across a number of articles from various sources presenting intersecting viewpoints. Melissa Hillman has noticed a trend among emerging female playwrights towards passive female characters who continue to support male-driven stories. She suggests that cultural mores teach women to be passive and women therefore identify the passive role as true-to life, creating characters that, by supporting these learned roles, “re-inscribe this into the culture over and over.” In this Easter-colored article, Lisa Tuttle explains her aversion to fantasy stories based on patriarchal societies: “if science fiction writers [can’t] present a plausible, sexually-egalitarian society, what hope [is] there for changing the real world?” In a recent HowlRound article, Tammy Ryan discusses the guns in her plays, their positive correlation to her critical success, and her post-Sandy Hook views on this pattern. In examining her own use of guns, she falls to Brecht as a model: “Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
An old professor used to tell my workshop, “If one person makes a comment, you can choose to toss it out, but if three people make the same comment, you should probably take it under consideration.” Well, writers of the world, I’m considering.
Upon first reading these articles, I agreed instinctively and immediately began an interrogation of my own work. Post-interrogation, I am caught between two contradictory opinions. One, it is our responsibility as artists to imagine a more perfect world so that our art may serve as a model for our lives. Two, it is necessary to present true portrayals of the status quo in order to promote recognition of those aspects of society that deserve revision. To say this another way, does art imitate life or does life imitate art?
I have always maintained that the answer to that question is, Yes, Completely, Both. Vicious cycle. So how does one both create an accurate picture of the world and a model for revision?
My solution has been (unknowingly) to concentrate on female characters who create their own agency in spite of patriarchy, often in nontraditional ways. Perhaps the answer is not: do not write the truth, but write truth that is self-aware of its truthiness. So write a play in which depictions of patriarchy comment on that patriarchy. Write a play in which passive female characters comment upon the societal requisites for females. Write a play in which guns comment on modern attitudes toward violence. But then, do we really want all plays with guns to be that didactic?
As it turns out, the articles and I are ending in a stalemate. I have never written a gun into a play, but I have created patriarchal fantasy worlds. And my female characters? Debatable. I do, however, think I have subscribed well enough to my tentative, self-questioning theory. But then, I ought to have, since I created it.