“It’s a Canadian take on the hero myth.”
That’s how I explain Beaver by Claudia Dey. I’m usually met with a confused stare.
“Okay, if you flip all the genders of the characters in the play, now do you see how it’s a hero myth?” A flashbulb starts to go off in slow time behind their eyes. It rapidly accelerates into a sigh or exclamation, signalling the deep satisfaction that comes from understanding. From recognition.
Beaver is a hero’s journey. There is a dragon, there is a test, there is a transformation, there is a horizon, and there is a reckoning. There is a view on the other side of the cave, which in this case is Timmins, Ontario. And the hero is a young woman named Beatrice “Beaver” Jersey.
If female heroes are harder to accept, to recognize as heroes, is it because we judge female characters by different criteria than we judge male characters? What do we expect from female characters, and what makes them heroic, or not, in our eyes? How is this a reflection of the different expectations we have on people in our actual lives? That’s a lot of question marks. I have a lot of questions.
Male characters, from Batman to Dexter to Henry the Fifth, are more easily identifiable as heroes on your favourite TV shows. Male characters are often perceived as inherently good, strong, and successful, despite them often making choices that are filled with violence and moral compromise. On the other hand, female characters who struggle are often judged as failures within the expectations of their gender, as deviants, outlaws, victims, sluts, bitches. Male struggles are seen as heroic; female struggles are seen as deficiency of character.
I play all my characters as heroes. I never judge them to be less resilient, or less intelligent, or less justified than I feel myself to be in my own life. They’re no less well-intentioned, at least from their perspective. This applies to everyone from Clytemnestra to Lavinia. They’re both characters I’ve played, and they’re both characters I consider heroic (despite their controversial actions), but they’re often seen as either villainous or victimized.
Our society equates heroism with agency. In my experience, as a young female actor and creator, we so rarely allow female characters to have agency in stories. Their function is often only in reaction to, or as an extension of, the male heroes’ narrative. So, opinions about female characters are often formed based on how their ‘re’action affects the male hero—often relegating women to the role of victim or bitch. It’s easier to dislike a victim or a villain.
That brings us to likability. What does that mean? Why do we need women to be likeable? And likeable on what or whose terms, based on what standards or expectations? I have played many “villains,” or so they were named by others. I have always found it curious how these women, like Mrs. Muskat in Molnar’s Liliom, Margaret in Henry VI, or the Mistress and the Wife in The Stronger by Strindberg, were vilified within the dramatic structure, whilst existing alongside glorified male characters whose actions were at least as condemnable as their female cohorts, if not more. In The Stronger, Strindberg’s writing essentially asks us to pity the wife and denounce the mistress, or vice versa, without ever inquiring into the responsibility of the man who lied to both of them.
I’ve caught myself reading scripts and cringing when a woman gets angry, because I’m beginning to judge her. There are such different standards for what male behaviour is deemed heroic versus the way equivalent behaviour is framed in a female character.
I once had a very skilled director and teacher stop me two minutes into a scene from Shaw’s Saint Joan, look me straight between the eyes, and say: Stop trying to get me to like you. This sentence annihilated me. She had seen to the centre of what I was doing and exposed me to myself, and to everyone in the room.
I’ve thought about this sentence so much over the years, because despite continued training and maturity, I’m still susceptible to this desire to be likeable—in my life, my work, my writing; as the characters I play, probably even in this article. Where does this desire come from, and do men experience it to the same degree as the multitudes of women I’ve spoken with? I know some men do, but for women it’s a catch-22: agency is often demanded of them, yet there’s still a consistent social expectation of women to make space, be flexible, and reflect the male experience lest they become “unlikeable.” If we only consider men the “heroes,” women are always going to be seen as supporting characters—not even the star of their own lives.
Joseph Campbell, mythologist and writer of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, says we need stories to exist so that we can feel their relevance to what is happening in our own lives, see our own experiences through the lens of the story, and thereby gain perspective. So what happens to a girl who grows up being told stories where only boys get to be heroes? I still mostly audition for parts constructed through the male gaze or patriarchal lens, to varying degrees. It speaks to whose work is being supported and seen. That doesn’t mean these female characters aren’t interesting, or valuable. But they often stereotype, romanticize, limit, and filter, through the writer’s desires and expectations of women, the female experience of being alive. If we tell these stories again and again, no matter how we frame and re-frame them, they still largely feature women who are demonized for their desires, or punished for ambition, anger, strength. Is that what makes Beaver, a story that delves into the lives of five women who embody their own heroism, so alien?
Language is a site of cultural and political struggle. Postmodern feminist Mary Joe Frugg suggests that human experience is located “inescapably within language.” If this is so, then our ability to alter our own present experience is reflected in the language we use to reflect, conjure, and express it. Society is shaped in part through culture and the stories we tell. We need to get active about understanding that a female hero myth is just a hero myth, with a female hero.