Dallas — Once upon a time, a girl who lived in America was told that she could be anything that she wanted to be, as long as she worked hard and remained determined. When the girl grew up, she realized that this story was not communicated to a handful of people– specifically men. I’m examining this subject, because the two stories below have become the foundation for a new play I’m writing… about stories.
As an instructor, I am cautious of the stories I tell my students. Not that I’m afraid of scaring or shocking a student, but the power of narrative can greatly shape their understanding of the world, their perception of others, and belief of their own potential.
When I first moved to Dallas, I had an interview to teach at a local arts company. The person interviewing me noted that my résumé contained an impressive amount of experience, but he had one concern. He flat out told me that he did not believe that young adult students would take me seriously because I was a “young-looking woman.” He explained: “My students will look at you and think ‘She’s so young, what could she know?’” Because it was one of my first interviews in town, I listened to the gentleman with as much grace as I could muster. I didn’t want to strangle him at that moment; I was more shocked that this practice appeared to be permissible. I had a professor in graduate school that shared a similar concern: “Things will be tougher for you because you’re young and a woman.” I’ve even had collaborators who have dismissed me at first sight because of this story: young women don’t deserve respect of intellect.
There are narratives of young, male geniuses rising above their years.
Women play the sidekicks.
Afterwards, the man suggested that I would be a good fit to teach young children.
I had more experience teaching college students at that point. The only interaction I had with children previously was teaching a Shakespeare camp. I had no training to work with elementary or pre-elementary children. A tornado of confusion swirled in my mind: what did I spend three years of graduate study for if I can be dismissed so quickly?
The perception of my abilities had nothing to do with demonstrated skills, but a narrative. I hesitate from calling it discrimination or gender inequality. It’s simply a belief in a story that has been passed down consistently, where women and men have separate and specific roles to fulfill. It’s an arduous quest to turn that narrative around when the story is transferred into the minds of children from the beginning.
I took the job. It became one square in the patchwork quilt of my freelance theater gigs. When I began perusing supplemental materials with the job, the sexism didn’t stop. There were certain activities where boys were encouraged to be strong and vocal while girls were described as sweet.
I decided to take the class in a different direction.
I started off by asking the students what kinds of characters they would like to play. Every girl’s hand shot up with “princess” or “mermaid,” with graceful movements and surprisingly elegant postures for a moment. All the boys shouted “Spiderman,” “Ninja Turtles,” or “Batman,” usually accompanied by a series of movements that can only be categorized as “karate seizure.” If any child deviated to a character commonly associated with the other gender the kids would either uproar, turn their heads in confusion, or quietly ask “why does she want to be a boy?”
Children, just barely starting their educational adventure already forged separate paths, reinforcing specific gender behavior patterns that set limits for behavior.
It’s great to discuss gender parity among adults and promote change in the workplace, but that’s treating leaves of a very old tree. However, it is difficult to turn the tides of an accepted practice that has been in motion for centuries. I encourage you to start at the source of the problem: the first narratives that we learn. Look more closely at the stories that surround us, specifically in theater. Who gets to be the subject? Who gets to make complex choices? Who is restricted by character descriptions? Who is objectified?
We are typically blind until we are pointed out as “the other.”
I was fairly oblivious to this notion until my senior year of high school. Up until that point, I had believed that characters in stories—movies, film, television, books—were simply fictional vessels that I and anyone else could easily imaginatively engage with. It didn’t matter what gender, race, background they were, I could put myself in the protagonist’s shoes for an adventure and point out connections between their story and mine. It wasn’t until a moment in high school where I learned that narratives maintain social power in an elusive way.
I attended a great school that had a strong religious foundation, which I had a very positive outlook on because I assumed that God naturally saw everyone in equal standing. Until that point, I didn’t understand the theatricality of religion. In this school, there was a rule that only men could pray or speak in services, citing scripture (might I remind you that this happened in 21st-century America). I really did see this as a choice at the time, and didn’t understand how it conditioned me to be silent or allowed others to silence me. In order for a woman to say anything in a service, all of the men would have to be removed from the room. Their version of “separate but equal.” (We all know how well that idea turned out in history.) So, there would be days when we would have “split chapel,” as it was called. When I was a senior, I received the opportunity to lead the split chapel with a friend. We went into the auditorium to prepare for the brief service, when the male teacher who organized all chapels stormed in. He spoke aggressively towards us—two teenage girls—asking if we were ready to “start the gimmick.” He hurriedly fixed a microphone with some negative comments towards us and left.
I wondered what pep talk the boys received.
The exchange lasted maybe one minute, but it contained a lifelong prism of “women should be listening rather than speaking.” Someone had told him a story that a woman should not talk, and proved it by reinforcing behavior over time. The story became fact, which then became unquestioned truth.
Stories don’t simply exist in a fictional “no space,” they have repercussions in real life, in real exchanges and interactions with others. This is why it is important for people in the theatre to create their own stories, formulate their cultural heritage, and see themselves as the protagonist in their own life. Archetypes are powerful for a reason, be cautious about what message you send to young minds. It’s not that there are a finite amount of roles to play, the roles repeated are vessels made of old wineskins (to get Biblical). I don’t want to see a whole new generation of princesses behaving nicely or men acting uncontrollably violent.
Empowering children to create their own story has to start early. They have to experience how stories can easily be created and manipulated. They should be offered opportunities to experience events from multiple perspectives and build empathetic foundations for the road ahead. Because I think if either of these men I mentioned in my own stories above had truly experienced disempowerment, would these two memories even exist?
The funny thing is, I doubt these men even remember the exchanges.
It happens all the time.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. Each month in TheaterJones, she writes about a North Texas organization that teaches some aspect of theater and the craft to students of all ages; or anything teaching-related that's on her mind. Below is a list of previous columns:
- February 2015 "Teacher/Artist" (Capers for Kids)
- March 2015 "Parental Guidance Suggested" (WaterTower Theatre)
- April 2015 "DaVersify Your Life" (DaVerse Lounge)
- May 2015 "The Work in Art" (Tax time for an independent artist)
- June 2015 "Learning to Say YES" (Cara Mía Theatre)
- July 2015 "Exploring Language" (Dallas Children's Theater and Junior Players)
- August 2015 "Transforming Through Dance" (Junior Players)
- September 2015 "Walking Tall" (Amphibian Stage Productions' Tad Poles)
- October 2015 "They Care a Lot" (Kids Who Care, Fort Worth)