Rewriting Women

by Karina Assad

in National Conference

Post image for Rewriting Women

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

Growing up as a young female theater artist, I was very blessed to be exposed to so many classics. I loved reading Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. The stories were adventurous, dramatic, and full of passion. However, while reading the beloved works, it was very hard for me to picture myself in any of the female roles. Most of the young women in the plays lived for their men and at great costs. Ophelia loved Hamlet, however she was wrongfully blamed and ended up with her family murdered, leaving her to suicide. Desdemona was also wrongfully blamed, however, her husband murdered her. Cordelia loved her father so much; unfortunately, she was misconstrued as well and ended up hung in a jail cell. In all of the stories the women were described as beautiful and well mannered. They are all smart, however, not permitted to speak. In other Shakespeare stories, there are young women who are given more agency, however, most of them are dressed as men in order to gain agency. Reading these made me question my role as a young woman, and made me realize how quickly a community can turn on young women.

In response to the way women are classically written, I have found theater training to echo many of the same gender roles. I was at a theater workshop that focused on the “instrumentals of a person”. Meaning actor’s worked at expressing difficult emotions.  When I got up to work, the teacher observed I did not claim my sexuality and asked me why. I said I honestly didn’t think it was something I had to claim, I’m a smart person, there was more to me than my sexuality. The teacher, a master male teacher, went on to explain that a women’s vagina is the most powerful thing in the world, to be desired is a powerful thing. I went home embarrassed and disturbed. What if I don’t know want to gain power from being desired? What if I want to move around in the world based on talent and skill, and not by how much someone wants to screw me? What if I purposely look undesirable because the pros of being desired come at much too high a cost?

In another workshop, lead by a woman, we performed gender role reversal exercises. The women were to walk around like men. When this happened the teacher would encourage the women to take up more space than usual. “Men naturally take up space in our society, women don’t”, she explained as she adjusted a girl. It all made even more sense. Men have been written to expect things for themselves, they take up space and aren’t afraid to ask for what they want. Women have traditionally been required to keep small and wait to be wanted, even if it means great sacrifice and danger to themselves.

Though I know a lot goes into how society sees men and women, I can’t help but feel the gender roles in classical texts can still be seen in our society. It’s 2014, and I still feel finding your place as a young woman is difficult and can come at great costs. Much like the Ophelia, Desdemona, and Cordelia, things young women say and do can be held against them in the most brutal way. I feel the best example can be seen in UCSB shootings and the #YesAllWomen that followed in response. I was so hurt by the unwillingness to listen to these women’s pleas that I can’t help but be reminded of Ophelia in Hamlet. Like the men who participated in #NotAllMen, Ophelia’s father didn’t take her safety into account when she spoke of Hamlet’s potential violence; furthermore, like the many women who laugh at the #YesAllWomen stories, Gertrude never made a step towards helping Ophelia. Finally, much like the brave voices on twitter that shared their overlooked stories, Ophelia sang her misfortune and goodbyes to no further progress.

The classic story is incredibly one sided and creates an illness in how we perceive each other. Our little boys have been taught to go after what they want and our little girls are taught to bear severe consequences. However, now more than ever, our society has let their idea of men and women fly into chaos. How many more date rape incidents do we need before we realize there is something wrong in the images we are teaching our children? How many shootings with a goodbye manifesto saying it would have all been fine if he had gotten some pussy? How long till we wait? Till our own daughters and sons fall victim to it? I do not write these things to earn pity or to make women feel like the victims in the world and men are the villains. I do not even write this to shame Shakespeare, I love his work. I write this to encourage writing nuanced stories about women. We must rescue the trope women characters such as Ophelia, Desdemona, and Cordelia because our young women and young men are worth it.

The good news is action has already taken place to rewrite the classics for the good of the community. There are many great female writers rewriting forsaken characters. For instance, Caridad Svich rescued Ophelia in a gorgeous play called 12 Ophelias. There is also LA Women Shakespeare where women experiment with gender roles led by the powerful Lisa Wolpe. Finally, there is an all women pan-Latina group called Teatro Luna devoted to devised work for the community. This summer they have created a “difficult, charming, and dialogue engendering event” (Alex Meda) from stories of young women all around the country called Generation Sex. These productions and groups cross the conventional boundaries of gender and theater making in general. Our community is in desperate need of new stories and these women have created a venue just for that. As a theater community we must help highlight these new stories for the good of our young women and men.

Karina Assad is an actor, writer, and devising theater artist. She is a recent graduate of Emerson College’s BFA acting program and was a Creative Producer at ArtsEmerson. During her time at Emerson she conceived, co-produced, and performed in To Thine Own Self Be True: Hamlet in the Mexican-American War, which inspired The New Majority Theater at Emerson. She trained with Alessandro Fabrizi, Susan Main, and Kristin Linklater at the Stromboli Project. This summer she will be performing as Nanhi in Unto These Hills in Cherokee, NC and will be joining Teatro Luna West in the fall.

  • Cindy Cooper

    This line is really potent and, from the perspective of playwrights, stings with truth: “Women have traditionally been required to keep small and wait to be wanted …”


  • Maryanna Clarke

    The “classic” story was written for people of a certain time by (mostly) men of a certain time. Let’s infuse those stories with real women, with modern women and see what they look like. If they can’t stand up to what women really are, then they are rendered irrelevant. As for the “master” teacher who embarrassed you, lots of people teach “master” classes who have no right trying to influence the craft or young minds. Put it behind you. He was wrong. You were right. Who is the true master? :) Be well. Be strong!!

  • Maryanna Clarke

    On a totally different note, I wish we could comment on this using our TCG sign-in. Discus wants to access Google and FB information, and I find that intrusive. :(

  • Pat Loeb

    thank you! this is a discussion I frequently have, and you have stated it so eloquently and concisely I will simply refer folks to this article next time!