Ⅰ. Feminism and Drama for Children
Perry Nodelman and many of the authors in a special section of
The history of theater gives evidence of the similar social and cultural positions between women and children. Since women and children shared a similar social position of being patronized by others making decisions for them and women were not allowed to perform on stage until the 1660s, women were represented by young boys on stage in the history of Western theater. Until the seventeenth-century European theater, “boys, by virtue of their age, were cast in a social role similar to that of women – dependent on and inferior to the adult male” (Case 21). In analyzing 100 years of production history of J. M. Barrie’s
Mainstream children’s theater has been frequently presented with adaptations of fairy tales and adventure stories filled with gender-role stereotyping in their characterizations and typically predictable plots in which good always wins over evil. According to Roger L. Bedard, the top-ten most frequently produced stories for children’s theater during the first half of the twentieth century were
There has been a growing body of scholarship in feminist theory and children’s literature since the 1990s, although its scope has been limited. In a 1999 article, “Additional ‘Variations’: Further Development in Feminist Theory and Children’s Literature,” in the journal
Also a basic scheme in many fairy tales are battles between women, particularly, beautiful virtuous young heroines and wicked jealous stepmothers or sisters. The adult women invariably appear to embody the major obstacles against the heroine’s passage to womanhood. As Karen Rowe points out, “Not simply dramatic and moral antagonists to the youthful heroine, they can be regarded as personifying predatory female sexuality and even the heroine’s negative feelings toward her mother” (240). In terms of beauty standard, these fairy tales also perpetuate negative views about aging. In the traditional fairy tales, the young girls’ maturation seems to signal the aging stepmother’s own waning sexual attractiveness and loss of control over her body and mind. In retaliation and jealousy, the “old” women torment the more beautiful young women who capture the fathers’ or princes’ attention and affection, threatening the declining old women’s sexuality. Remanded to the hearth in
Jed H. Davis points out that most young people after the age of 12 enter a period of important discoveries about life and reject most material that is intended to keep them interested in the theater. Davis writes:
In Korea and probably most of the other countries as well, this age group of young adult audience does not have any theatrical material or cultural contents that they can enjoy. Rather, they are exposed to mainstream media contents, such as television drama, soap operas, and various forms of story-telling on the Internet that are mostly inadequate for their age and problematic in terms of gender representation.
It is noticeable that all the problematic characteristics of female protagonists in drama for children match the ways in which adult women were represented in the mainstream theater in the first half of the twentieth century. Judith Louise Stephens identifies four major characteristics of female protagonists in Pulitzer Prize winning plays in the first half of the twentieth century. Female protagonists are predominantly concerned with love. They are portrayed “as being slaves to their emotional natures,” in other word, they have been exclusively tied to irrationality and emotionality. Female characters are also generally characterized as being one of two extremes: either extremely selfish or unbelievably selfless. They are commonly presented in the form of “being” rather than “doing,” thus lacking in terms of initiative and action, and responding emotionally to circumstances. These types of sentimental and stereotypical representation of women characters are pervasive in mainstream popular culture. More and more, unfortunately, children and young adult audiences are enjoying those popular mainstream contents that are targeted for adult viewers.
As the readers of this article may have noticed, the dominant feminist approach to children’s literature and traditional children’s drama has been critique of patriarchal values and gender-role stereotyping, which has been a major agenda and strategy among liberal feminists. This type of liberal feminists’ approach can be still effective, and it should always be a part of critical discourses for children’s literature and theater. However, the scope and topicality and aesthetic standards for children’s theater should also be updated to provide the young audiences with other familial and social issues. The visibility of women itself is no longer the core of the representational problems in children’s theater. Young audiences need to see new models of men and women and new and diverse images of femininity and masculinity. Not just the power of image, but the importance of other issues, such as language, identity, history, and social issues, should also be recognized and implemented in the narrative.
2Zeder is also a Fulbright scholar who has served as the head of the playwriting program at the University of Texas at Austin in the Department of Theatre and Dance, a position from which she retired in January 2013. She is a four-time winner of the Distinguished Play Award by the American Alliance of Theatre and Education. 3See the introduction of Bedard’s book, Dramatic Literature for Children: A Century in Review. These stories are mentioned as the most frequently produced plays for children from 1900 to 1970.
Ⅱ. Characterization of Protagonists in Children’s Drama
Traditionally, the basic assumption behind children’s literature is that it consciously addresses itself to the immature. Those who address children and write children’s plays have in mind all the limitations of a child’s ability. Similarly, there has been a popular misconception about the quality of children’s theater and drama as ‘art.’ As Alan England points out, purveyors of children’s theater are “often tempted to make assumptions about the developmental needs and capabilities of the recipients” (4). Overall, “the repertoire is narrow in focus and limited in subject matter, to the extent that many theater professionals hardly consider the field worthy of notice” (Bedard 5). The majority of children’s theater practitioners have thought that children in the audience should identify with the protagonist in a play, that a play should have a clearly defined protagonist for young audiences’ identification, and that identification can therefore be more easily accomplished if the protagonist is a child. Children’s theater practitioners see the value of identification primarily in terms of psychological implications.
Historically, however, the purpose for clarity of characterization narrowed the scope of characterization in children’s drama and children’s theater. As a result, extremely simplistic, broad, and obvious types who can be easily understood by even the youngest children – about 4-5-year-old kindergarteners – in the audience were pervasive among protagonists in children’s drama. Moses Goldberg writes, “There is a feeling among many children’s theatre practitioners that the hero of a children’s play should be young (slightly older than the children who see the play), virtuous (although not perfect), and male (because girls can theoretically identify with boys easier than ‘vice-versa’)” (124). Yet if we consider popular children’s books, heroines and even heroes are not exactly children; rather, they suddenly change from children to junior adults, seemingly skipping the teenage years altogether, or some of the popular characters are adults, which indicates that the children’s theater practitioners have limited notion of identification, mainly focusing on age, without considering emotional and psychological implications.
Although the term
A protagonist is vital in a play for children because the protagonist is to serve as the strongest role model in terms of value and action for children in the audience. Zeder suggests that the majority of contemporary writers and critics of children’s theater advocate a broader approach to characterization (207). A broader approach to characterization or a more in-depth character development indicates adding the degree to which a character is developed in terms of thoughts, feelings, and actions. She goes on to point out, “Playwrights are encouraged to craft their protagonists more realistically and to imbue these characters with a balance of positive and negative traits, even for audiences of younger children” (214). Children may tend to identify with characters whom they perceive as having attitudes and attributes similar to their own. Characters with a wide range of dispositional traits may be more accessible for identification than characters with relatively few dispositional traits. The key to well-balanced characterization of protagonists in children’s drama is character change and development. According to Sam Smiley:
Smiley suggests that internal change affects the character far more deeply than external change, for the character’s personality and perspective on the world are in some way altered.
Protagonists in fairy tales and traditional children’s stories go through predicaments and symbolic adventures, thus all the stories still provide child readers and audiences with significant dramatic experience and meaningful lessons. The most problematic weakness in these stories, however, is that external powers, rather than internal self-initiative, solve the conflicts and problems. The basic scheme in many traditional children’s dramas is a battle between women, especially virtuous, beautiful young protagonists and wicked jealous old women. Although many young girls in the audience may be smart and realistic enough to discount obvious fantasy elements on stage or on television, they may still fall prey to patriarchal paradigms by internalizing passivity and dependency, yet inborn nobility and beauty, as female virtue, through continuous exposure to stereotypical gender relations.
The female protagonists’ physical entrapment is another dominant pattern in these fairy tales and traditional children’s stories. Their freedom is severely restricted at the time of a critical point in life such as junior adults turning into adults, and only magical powers and princes can save them from confinement or a death-like trance. These fairy tales and traditional children’s stories can be equally problematic for boy readers and audiences. As Alleen Pace Nilsen points out, “While girls could be happy to see ‘male heroes’ in adventure stories, no self-respecting boy will like fairy tales.” Nilsen’s assumption seems to be flawed with generalization about the value of traditional fairy tales and readership of the boys who love fairy tales. However, she suggests that, psychologically, boys tend to resist the romantic kind of fairy tales and other romantic stories because “the male characters in them are so false and so romanticized that no boy wants to picture himself playing that role” (253).
Since the 1990s, some independent or community theaters began to stage new materials for children, but mainstream theater is still producing titles that are well-known to children for special holiday programs to draw audiences. Musicals adapted from wellknown stories and fairy tales, such as
Suzan Zeder, who retired from her position as a professor of the University of Texas at Austin in February 2013, offers a different sort of children’s drama. Zeder is the most prominent playwright in the field of drama for young audiences. Her plays cover a wide range of topics and theatrical devices. Realism and fantasy are blended to describe the inner conflict of child protagonists. Her thematic focus helps her characterization to depart from the traditional fairy tale concept, and she undertakes removing some of the insulation with which traditional children’s plays have tried to protect children. As Sara Spencer, editor and publisher of the
Fantasy is a significant element in Zeder’s plays for children, although it is not supernatural magical powers or enchantment like that found in the traditional fairy tales. It is mostly a character’s play with imaginary friends. Ellie spends much of her time in her room playing with her imaginary friends, Lana and Frizbee, who enter her room through a toy box. Lana plays Ellie’s Fairy Godmother, since Ellie fantasizes about herself as a helpless orphan girl. Ellie has been able to create and enact fantasies of being rich, famous, and beautiful, so she feels that a “real” mother figure is not necessary in her life. In a way, Ellie does not know how to interact with real people. Ellie indulges in fantasy more often, once Lucille is married to Max and starts living with Ellie and her father. Ellie’s problem is now real and personal. The intrusion of a new stepmother into Ellie’s relationship with her father brings out all of Ellie’s insecurities, frustration, and fear of change.
The Voice, Ellie’s alter-ego, who lives in the mirror in Ellie’s room, starts all the other fantasies by reminding her that she is not as pretty, talented, or smart as Lucille. The Voice, as the mirror, reflects the distorted image of Ellie’s anxiety. Casting a mirror as the young female protagonist’s alter-ego is an interesting twist from the familiar dramatic device in
Very often, the problem lies in misunderstandings and lack of communication in Zeder’s plays. Max has his own insecurities that cause him to be of little comfort to both Ellie and Lucille. One evening, Max shows a surprising gift for Lucille, which is their honeymoon trip ticket to Hawaii for three weeks. Max promises to tell Ellie about the trip but he constantly avoids bringing up the issue until the three of them go bowling. When Lucille points out his fault, which is never telling about the problems that have happened between Ellie and them, Max furiously says to Ellie that he and Lucille are going to Hawaii. Ellie is shocked because she takes the father’s abrupt announcement as a threat of abandonment. She decides to separate herself from Lucille and her father by running away from the house. Although she is used to having a fantasy of being a poor homeless little orphan girl, she genuinely feels lonely on the street and misses home. The breakdown of communication or lack of understanding causes the child protagonist’s doubts and loneliness.
That night, when Max and Lucille get back home after looking for Ellie all around town, they find Ellie sleeping in her room. Lucille says to Max that everything is all her fault and that maybe she should just leave for a while to let Max and Ellie work things out, which Ellie overhears because she has awakened and is listening. Ellie again plays with Lana and Frizbee, at first about her own funeral, where everybody feels sorry for all the mean things they ever did to her. But as Ellie realizes that the Voice does not always tell her the truth, her imaginary funeral becomes a symbolic burial of the Voice. She also orders Lana and Frizbee to go back to the toy box. It is Ellie herself who finds solutions on her own. Lucille later goes into Ellie’s bedroom to wish her goodnight while Max stands by the door, and as Lucille is about to leave the room, Ellie stops her:
Ellie’s running away to the street, although it was brief, symbolizes her real separation from home. She has been romanticizing her situation as a motherless young girl in her fantasy; however, she realizes that being an orphan and not having any parents at all is far from being romantic or sentimental. She realizes for the first time that she may not be able to survive without home. Fear of losing home and family becomes real, and she cannot help but confront the reality that she is only a child who needs parents. Ellie accepts the fact that she needs a mother, and Lucille may be a necessary part in her life with her father.
It is not just a child protagonist who has limitation in her or his understanding and goes through identity development. Adult characters in Zeder’s plays also go through a learning process. Lucille seems to be a perfect stepmother in the beginning of her relationship with Ellie; however, Ellie does not happily accept her as a new part of the family, and Lucille’s presence seems to be a threat to Ellie. Throughout the course of the play, Lucille learns how to become an appropriate mother figure to Ellie. In other words, Lucille realizes what kind of mother figure is needed by Ellie, and she tries to see the circumstances from Ellie’s point of view. In the last scene of the play, Lucille seems to try to be not just a good mother, but Ellie’s mom.
Max also has to confront the bitter realization that he is not capable of handling the problems in his family; he has been constantly avoiding his responsibility as Ellie’s single parent and now as a remarried biological father. Everyone in the family has an equal share of responsibility to confront their own problems and limitations. In the last scene, both Lucille and Ellie are trying to respect each one’s space and privacy. Max might not be able to change his old habit of avoiding conflict by not telling or delaying confrontation, but having Lucille as his new partner, Ellie would not be neglected any more.
Roberta Seelinger Trites argues in her book
Zeder seems to draw inspiration from traditional fairy tales, although her plays are not fairy tale retellings. She uses some of the familiar dramatic devices from the most well-known fairy tale about stepmother-daughter relationship,
4All quotations of the plays are from Susan Pearson-Davis, ed., Wish in One Hand, Spit in the Other: A Collection of Plays by Suzan Zeder (New Orleans, LA:Anchorage, 1990), which includes Step on a Crack (131-97) and Mother Hicks (353-425).
Some of the major protagonists in Zeder’s plays are not children. Zeder’s young protagonists often go through loss of parents or separation from their family members and struggle to grow out of sad and unbearable circumstances. There is always one or more adult women with whom the young protagonists end up bonding.
When Girl sees Mother Hicks for the first time in the graveyard, she romanticizes her own identity as the dead baby girl of Mother Hicks. Girl thinks the “H” in the “I. S. H.” embroidered on a quilt piece that she has kept since she was born stands for “Hicks.” It turns out that I. S. H. stands for Illinois State Home. Meanwhile, people in town have been worried about Girl, believing that Girl might be kidnapped by Mother Hicks. Especially because Alma really wants Girl to come back, Hosiah, Alma’s husband, and other townspeople decide to go up the hill with guns to see Mother Hicks. Mother Hicks and people confront each other for the first time, and Mother Hicks realizes that Alma really cares about Girl. When Mother Hicks tells Girl to leave and go to live with Alma and Hosiah, Girl asks if she can have the name of Mother Hick’s dead child. Mother Hicks says, “That’s her name, it ain’t yours” (425). However, Girl does not give up and asks to help her find her own name while she stays with Mother Hicks just for a while, and Mother Hicks agrees.
Girl, as a young protagonist, is more fully drawn than Mother Hicks. There have been many orphan girls in famous novels for children and young adults, and they are generally portrayed as poor and pitiable, but good-natured and strong young girls, such as Sara Crewe in
By contrast, Girl in
Any feminist reader can easily notice that Zeder depicts the character Mother Hicks from the socially outcast women in Western society; for example, the victims of the witch trials in early modern Europe, the seventeenth-century witch hunt in Salem, Massachusetts, and some of gypsy women in contemporary Europe. Both Mother Hicks and Girl lost their family, and Girl wants Mother Hicks to be her substitute mother figure. Mother Hicks suggests to Girl that no one can substitute for anyone’s position, and Girl has to find a cure for her own emotional scars. Mother Hicks’s blunt honesty seems to be a signature character trait of most women in Zeder’s plays. The women in Zeder’s plays, such as Lucille and Mother Hicks, seem to have a strong belief in the resiliency of the young children’s spirit and a trust in the children’s ability to accept and understand problems. In fact, after much struggle and temporary departure from the adults, the young protagonists can draw their own conclusion in order to bring order in their lives. The adult characters never give immediate answer to the children’s dilemma, and they patiently wait and guide the children’s search for their own identity. Mother Hicks, as a healer and a mentor, allows Girl emotional space so that the young character can find her own way of healing herself and search for her identity.
Zeder also uses the nonrealistic theatrical device of having a chorus on stage as the narrator and commentator for the audience, which is an attempt to break the pattern of American realism. In
The aim of assessing Zeder’s plays from a feminist perspective is neither to claim her gender representation is flawless nor to predict certain audience responses. The young audiences’ reception can be multiple, and some of them might still prefer traditional fairy tales to unfamiliar and realistic representation in contemporary children’s drama, including Zeder’s plays. For children and young adult audiences, however, writers and practitioners should employ multiple images, voices, and discourses representing a diverse spectrum of gender relations and characterization so that the young audiences come to understand gender as a variable, and identity as fluid, not fixed or innate. In an interview, Zeder says, “The challenge to all of us concerned with making and talking about theatre is to keep the theory grounded in the practical world of the sensory experience of theatre. Without some way of taking into account the kinesthetic, emotional, sensory experience of the living theatre, we are dealing with the shadow rather than the substance of the play”(137). Zeder’s comment on the relationship between theory and practice has resonance for feminist scholars who need to think about how feminist theories can make differences as the genuine, effective substance of our daily existence. Theater practitioners must seek mature themes and use a wide range of the theatrical devices that are socially and psychologically relevant to the needs of contemporary young audiences, whose burdens in life seem to be getting heavier than ever before.