Lily Janiak’s Howlround blog post, about Young Female Characters in plays that she’d recently reviewed, struck a real chord in me. In the post, Janiak had seen three young-female-centric plays in the San Fransisco Bay area, all with varying degrees of success in creating strong, true characters. She was able to stand behind one, which she rightly laments is a sad state of affairs.

At the exact same time, as I immerse myself in a university setting for the first time in many, many years, I am noticing a particular trend that diminishes the young female voice, that ever-present word, “Like”. It’s a word I can’t say I don’t use; I was lucky that at the age of 20, someone pointed out to me my own overuse of the word, and since then, I have tried fervently (desperately) to be more aware and to excise it from my speech. It’s not gone, but I’m glad that I became aware of its diminishing power–what I have to say is not LIKE anything. It IS something. It means something. Somewhere along the way, we are being taught that this is a more palatable way of putting our ideas forth. Perhaps we heard a school friend saying, “And like, I thought it was like, really great that our teacher like, recommended I watch ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ because like, it gave me a whole new perspective on Kubrick,” and we adopted that cool girl’s thing. Or maybe we are afraid of what will come out of our mouths if we just spit it out, and we insert that LIKE to give us time to edit ourselves? Or somewhere along the line it just became too scary to speak? Or we curate every moment just in case someone is going to stop us in our tracks, or tell us to shut up, that we don’t know anything? Honestly, whatever the case is…we need to check ourselves, in a positive way, and remind ourselves that it’s okay to just PUT IT OUT THERE. I don’t know how it happens, it happened to me and was all the rage in the 80s, too, but it is incredibly pervasive, not only here in the young women I meet at the university, but it’s rampant in the “real world,” and all over the country. I hear the voices of women 10 and 20 years younger than I am, and the LIKE and the creeping vocal fry have taken over. No breath, no support, just a crackling, hollow, “I don’t believe what I’m saying”-scrape over the chords…and it makes me want to cry for us. We really must discard what the Paris Hilton-era bequeathed us. We just…must.

I bring this up in response to the Janiak post because the same character-development issues with women in the theatre seem to be borne of a lack of voice. We write a good game, but are not yet strong enough in our collective voice because someone has taught us to be unsure. Female (and male) playwrights who are writing women need to challenge us and themselves to break free and center ourselves in our humanity. Put our stories on the stage and let us work it out. Allow us to be sure, to take our innate power back.



2 comments on “Like…

  1. I remember well the day the misuse of the word “like” was pointed out to me. I went to an all girls elementary school and my english teacher in sixth grade make her classroom a “like free zone.” In academic settings, “like” is exclusive to simile or preference and I like to keep it that way in life too. I must say, that I have noticed the same tendency in the boys of my generation as well. I think perhaps it is a largely generational predicament and not necessarily an issue of gender. That being said, the Ditz is a troupe pervasive among the female community and she has got to go. I love this line you write about Kubrick, probably because I hear a variation on it all the damn time. Lets band together and make out directing colloquium and dramaturgy class a “like” free zone…or at least makes knowing eyes at each other whenever there’s a violation.

  2. You hit upon a really interesting topic that I’d love to discuss at great length, because it’s a huge subject of study in sociology; namely, that language is used often as a tool for hierarchical stratification and institutional exclusion. It doesn’t stop at women and the word “like” either, although that is an incredibly apt example. It extends to race, sexuality, and class as well.

    Think of the entire concept of ‘ebonics,’ the ‘way that those black people talk.’ It was an actually study for a long time. (Think of the way black men and women speak in older plays, the caricature of the African-American voice that exists even in Disney’s infamous crows). The classification of the language that black men and women used made it easier to exclude them, and so learning to ‘talk white’ became incredibly important as a means to garner cultural capital. Think of simply the word ‘fabulous’ and its association with the LGBT community. It’s the word that, if you asked a person which group it belonged to, they would know immediately, and so now using that word automatically associates you with a group in a negative way.

    For class, the list goes on and one. The Queen’s English was just a way to distinguish between the posh upper class and the less affluent working class who would speak Cockney. Language and dialect is so incredibly important in the UK because of the way it decided class structure for so long. Much like African-Americans who had to earn to ‘talk white,’ the British working class had to learn to ‘talk posh,’ and Cockney still carries with it connotations of lower class and is now associated with the term ‘slag.’ A recent movie that deals with the power of language in class distinction was Baz Luhrman’s “The Great Gatsby.” It was hard to miss how often Gatsby (Dicaprio) used the term “old sport,” a term associated with old money and the upper class. However, the fact that he used it too often goes to show that he wasn’t fluent ENOUGH in the language-game: his library of terms was too small forcing him to recycle the same phrase, which grates on your nerves and serves as one of many red flags to Tom that Gatsby is an imposter.

    Language is powerful, and since our job as dramatists is to use that language to its best effect, it’s awesome that you’re noticing words that are used to put a group down and classify it a ‘less-than.’ Our next job, then, is to challenge it.

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