In 2014, I read a review of the Side Show revival starring Emily Padgett and Erin Davie. It has stuck with me all this time. I’ve searched for it, but have been unable to find it. This makes me believe it has since been banished to the cruel void of time. This is probably for the best, but I still hope you believe me that in 2014, someone actually wrote a review saying that strong women were fine in real life, but on stage, they made his skin crawl.
To quote Padgett, that review made my skin crawl. Now, there’s obviously a lot to unpack there, and I’m not even sure where to start. But if you’re looking for weak female characters, well, to quote Senator Lindsey Graham, you came to the wrong town at the wrong time, my friend. This season saw the opening of two musicals with women loving women romantic plots which, by definition, require two female characters. (These being Head Over Heels and The Prom.)
However, to act like strong female characters are a modern phenomenon is to discredit centuries of strong female characterization, from Medea to Matilda. Even when actresses weren’t allowed on stage and all the roles were played by men, they were portraying strong females. Just take a look at Shakespeare’s repertoire: from the witches in the Scottish play to Cordelia in King Lear, he wrote incredible and fantastic female characters.
Of course, there has also been the flip side. There are female characters who are not so strong. But I would argue that a weak female character is not necessarily a bad one. Not every woman is strong. Some women cry, some women are desperate to find a husband, some women are fine on their own, some women are not warriors. I would rather have an interesting female character than a strong one, any day of the week.
However, “strong” usually is used to indicate “well written,” and I will grant that over the years, we have had our fair share of poorly written female characters. For a long time, straight white male playwrights have dominated the Great White Way. This has left LGBT+, PoCs, and women to struggle with representation written by people who don’t understand what it’s like to be them, or to be up against what they’re up against.
This is one of the reasons Mean Girls was such a game changer. While it was a complete disaster at the Tonys, it’s a commercial success. It’s written by a woman and has female characters who are so important to the story that not only does it barely pass a reverse Bechdel Test (I believe the only line that would pass is “Kevin! Stop trying to make squills happen!”), but Girls is literally in the title. All of the characters who are movers and shakers in the show are women, and the relationships between women are important to the story.
In fact, last season was all over fantastic for women, as it also featured Frozen, a story about the love between two sisters, and had a total of six women nominated for best leading actress in a musical (one more than the usual five nominees and two more than the four men nominated for best leading actor). On Broadway right now, I can count 12 different productions that are bolstered on the shoulders of women—and while out of the 41 Broadway theatres, that number isn’t great, it’s a start. And everything has to start somewhere.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)