The circle of expectations

We all like a good laugh. But, George Mason argues, the antics of Oxford's improv troupe reveal the lingering shadow of gender stereotypes

, 2 June 2007

One of the most important rules of improvised comedy is that we always laugh hardest when the actors show us exactly what we expect to happen. This is very interesting from a feminist point of view, because improvised comedy provides a mirror in which we can examine the expectations of society. So, much as many feminists analyse advertising to examine society’s aspirations and values, I thought I’d analyse some improvised comedy to examine society’s expectations of gender roles, by heading along to a performance of the always impressive Oxford Imps, a student improvised-comedy troupe.

So, what can we learn about women by watching the improvised narratives of the show? First of all: women are weak, incompetent, and consequently dependent on men for support. This is shown mostly clearly in a scene focused on two hermits living together in a cave, one man, one woman. The man wants to strike off on his own, and be a ‘proper’, solitary hermit. The woman is, of course, reluctant to see her protector go, but he leaves nonetheless. We fade out for a moment as time passes. It’s the next day; the man returns to see how his companion is getting on, and finds her a shivering wreak, collapsed on the floor. The fire has gone out, she’s run out of food, everything has gone wrong. Well, what do you expect to happen if you leave a woman to fend for herself for a whole 24 hours? It’s a good thing her protector came back when he did!

Even when the explicit message of a scene reflects well on women, they are still pigeon-holed into narrow gender roles

This was the most obvious treatment of women as incompetent and dependent, but hardly a one-off. Another narrative, told in the style of gothic horror, reminded us what happens if a young woman tries making toast for herself. She’ll be horror-struck by her toaster’s malfunctioning, and after struggling with it for some time will be knocked stone dead by the loud noise it makes when it pops up. But, to be fair to her, the toaster had been cursed by an ‘evil’ Gypsy-woman (more on that later…). In another scene we see a family holiday gone wrong. Why? The wife has picked the wrong destination, leaving the couple desperately fending off mosquitoes. Her angry husband laments the injustice of her choosing so badly and then expecting him to fix it – something she herself is, of course, quite helpless to do.

My favourite example of this view of women as weak, incompetent and dependent creatures shows just how pervasive it really is, as there were not even any women in the scene. The scene simply showed two men looking after and discussing their donkeys. In particular they reflected on the need to properly groom their donkeys, so that they could perform at their best. But one man goes on to groom his donkey too much, and to pamper it. The donkey’s hair is now smooth, silky and has even been decorated with a colourful bow – all-in-all it’s become downright girly. And this girly treatment has given the donkey the characteristics of a girl: it is now – as we would all expect – so weak and so feeble as to be unable to summon the strength to lift its hooves off the ground.

Even in a scene portraying women more positively, the expectation of dependence remains. The grand musical finale involved the Pope hiring Galileo to build a telescope which would look down into hell (trust me, it made sense at the time). The construction unleashed a lot of evil into the world, but was fortunately destroyed by a heroic (and male) telescope worker. Galileo had been informed of the error of his ways by his wife, who had seen through the Pope’s foolish plan. He confronts the Pope, convinces him not to punish the hero, and even convinces him to sing that “sometimes women can be right”. Galileo’s wife merely stands back and lets her husband tell her story and repeat her insight. So even a competent, perceptive woman is still expected to be dependent on men.

We repeatedly see men struggling with the need to assert themselves. But the women all fit into the mould without difficulty; we never see them consciously trying to appear weak, dependent or emotional

Secondly, we learn that women are irrational and emotional. The scene about the nightmarish holiday used a particularly interesting device of dividing the area of the stage between different emotions; whichever area of the stage the character was in, they would be overcome by that emotion. One of the emotions chosen was fear, first suffered by the male character, who was afraid of the physical threat of the mosquitoes. When the wife crossed to this side of the stage she became fearful not of the mosquitoes but of the bad feelings of her husband and of any damage to their relationship – because a woman’s fear is expected to be emotional. In a scene centred on the end of the world, another woman is reduced to blind panic and hysteria by predictions in her horoscope. A third scene, showing us the actions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, has an irrational Eve eating a second forbidden apple, despite Adam’s warning: “You know what happened last time.” The burden of the knowledge Eve has gained leaves her confused and hysterical, pacing back and forth, talking shrilly, unable to make sense of the world.

Finally, we learn that there are in fact two kinds of women. There’s the normal kind (weak, irrational, dependent, emotional), and then there’s a second, rarer kind. This kind of woman is strong, assertive, powerful … and wicked. I’ve already mentioned the evil Gypsy woman, who uses her powers to startle younger women to death by cursing their toasters. Then, back in the Garden of Eden, we learn that Eve (sometime before becoming an emotional wreak) used the knowledge she took for herself to rewrite the book of Genesis. Not only that, but she did so in order to cover up for ‘Mrs Smith’, the wicked woman who planted the tree in the first place.

So, women are either irrational weaklings dependent on men, or they are powerful but evil. What can we learn about men from the circle of expectations? Firstly, they are assertive and strong. During the end of the world (as prophesised by a hysterical horoscope-believing woman) the main male character immediately seeks to reassure her by speaking authoritatively about what clones (the threat to the world) will get up to. In the grand musical finale, we see a clear love interest between a male and female telescope builder. The male wishes to assert himself and talks of his urge to be destructive and disrespectful to authority by kissing his co-worker, who, of course, modestly refuses, even though her body language shows she’s clearly interested. By the end of the scene it is Galileo who confronts the Pope, and the male worker who destroys the telescope.

Men come in two extremes. There’s the powerful, heroic kind of man, who uses his strength to chivalrously protect the weak, dependent women who apparently populate the world. Then there are weak men, who are invariably evil

But it isn’t so simple as that – men are portrayed as trying, in many cases pretty desperately, to achieve an image of authority or strength that they cannot fully live up to. In the end-of-the-world scene, a shifty glance at the audience reveals that the man does not really know what he’s talking about. Adam, whilst clearly authoritative in his reproach of Eve, reveals his insecurity by talking of the need to give his son a manly name, and making a ridiculous choice: “Something like … Bodied”. Still other men seek authority simply by putting others, usually women, down. This was the strategy of the Pope and of a posh yacht-owner, who, in another scene, we see berating his wife for interrupting him during dinner, and consequently showing him up in front of his friends. Again, we see this pathetic machismo most clearly in the donkey scene: while explaining the need to care properly for one’s donkey, the characters try to prove that they are ‘real men’ by recounting near-death experiences only avoided because of their expert donkey maintenance.

Finally, it seems men also come in two extremes. First there’s the powerful, heroic kind of man, who uses his strength to chivalrously protect the weak, dependent women who apparently populate the world. On the other hand, there are weak men, who are invariably evil, seeking to project an image of strength by accumulating other sources of power (like evil telescopes that look into the depths of hell) or tyrannising the only people weaker than them (that’ll be the women). I find this particularly disturbing. Firstly, it creates the idea that anyone who doesn’t want to fit society’s expectations is immoral. Secondly, it shows a clear double standard: men will use their strength for good, but give a woman power and she’ll be corrupted by it.

I do want to make it clear that I don’t believe the messages about gender presented in the performance were put there deliberately – if anything, the performance was broadly pro-feminist, or at least pro-woman. Because despite the insidious nature of the ‘expectations’ of gender roles, all of the explicit, self-aware, treatment of gender relations supported equality. Misogynistic characters were repeatedly ridiculed and portrayed as either stupid or downright evil, to the great delight of the audience. The problem is that even while the explicit message of a scene reflects well on women, they are still pigeonholed into narrow gender roles. Thus, while the posh yacht-owner who puts his wife down is made to look a fool, the wife still needs the Mexican gardener Juan to come to her rescue – before he does, she just grimaces and bears the abuse, all the while washing the dishes. Similarly, while the Pope is ridiculed for dismissing the views of Galileo’s wife, her views are only put across by Galileo, even as she stands passively beside him.

A final problem is that the difficulties women face in conforming to these expected roles are not presented at all. We repeatedly see men struggling with the need to assert themselves, and this sight is enough to bring to our attention the artificial influence of society in shaping our expectations of men. But the women all fit into the mould without difficulty; we never see them consciously trying to appear weak, dependent or emotional. The fit consequently appears natural, not artificial; as something that is just how things are, not something to worry about.

So, what have we learned? Society expects the ideal woman to be weak, incompetent, emotional and irrational, and therefore to act passively and dependently. Women who are strong enough to break this mould are expected to be wicked. Although men are also subject to a restricted set of expectations – the good ones are active and strong, the other, evil ones are weak – society is better able to deconstruct masculinity and see it as an artificial standard. Femininity, on the other hand, is just the way women are.

George Mason is a student of philosophy, politics and economics at Magdalen College, Oxford. He has been a feminist for an embarrassingly short period, and is now attempting to make up for lost time.

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