Last week, I was acting in a scene for my friend’s directing class. The way the class works is the director works with his or her actors on a scene, they perform it in class, and the professor and other students give advice on how to better the scene and work on the rehearsal process.
The scene chosen was from “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” The movie tells the story of a man who is unable to have sex, but records women talking about their sex lives. The movie talks about the taboo subject in an interesting way, and the characters are relatively well developed. In the scene we worked on for the class I played Ann, the protagonist of the film. The other character was Ann’s sister, Cynthia. The scene, and their entire relationship throughout the film revolves around the fact that Ann is characterized and stereotyped as the “prude” while Cynthia is the “slut.” In the film, Cynthia is extremely open with her sexuality and is even sleeping with Ann’s husband, while Ann is more conservative and does not understand the constant obsession with sex.
As I was walking home from rehearsing in front of the class, I realized something: I have done this scene before.
I don’t mean that I have done this exact scene from “Sex, Lies and Videotape” before. I mean, I can recount three separate scenes I have done in which one character is the stereotype of a “prude” and the other a “slut.”
The first account I remember is high school when I did a scene from Moliere’s “The Misanthrope.” I played the conservative character who was having a passive aggressive conversation with the character who got all the guys. The language, time period, and location are all different, but this scene parallels the scene I did from “Sex, Lies and Videotape.”
And last year, two scenes I performed, one in class, and one for another friend’s directing class was the same. One was “Watermelon Boats” by Wendy MacLaughling. This play went through the friendship of two characters at three separate phases of their life: childhood, teenage years, and mid-twenties. In this scene I played the less conservative role. And the scene revolved around my character confiding in her friend that she might be pregnant, to which her friend expresses disappointment. This scene highlights the extreme differences in the characters.
The last scene that I did for a friend’s directing class was from the play “Hooters” by Ted Tally. Two girls go on a vacation for a weekend. One character (the one I was playing) wants to go out with these younger guys they met at the hotel, while the other girl just wants to stay home. Yet again, the main conflict between these two scenes is the difference in characters.
In all of these scenes, the conservative characters tries expresses judgement or disappointment in her friend. They often do not want to do whichever adventurous task is ahead of them. The sexually expressive character usually end up confronting this judgement and become frustrated with their friend trying to hold them back.
For the first few scenes, I had no problems with this relationship. I have friends, and have friends who have friends who probably have had these very conversations before. Whenever I have done the scene, the conflict has never seemed so far-fetched to me.
But after having realized that so many scenes have these characters, I cannot help but wonder why.
Moliere was obviously way before the time of these other contemporary plays and movies, yet this relationship is almost exactly the same, just put in a different situation.
Yes, having two opposite characters is what invites conflict in stories. If two characters have separate moral beliefs and act differently in terms of what they think is right or wrong, conflict will occur and it will be interesting to watch. As an actress, I recognize the struggle these characters face not only with the other person, but their own identity. It seems that in these conflicts, there is always high stakes in terms of what one character wants from another person. Characters with strong wants in a situation of high stakes are often well developed and bring audiences. All four of these scenes were well written, had full characters, enriching dialogue, and offered a lot to both the actor and the audience.
But why is it that the “slut” and “prude” stereotypes are the basis of these relationships and conflicts?
I understand that they balance each other out, produce conflict, and give each character something they need from the other. But isn’t there a better way to do this without falling on these stereotypes?
One argument is that these scenes revolve around sex, and while they touch upon it lightly in each scene (a little more heavily in “Sex, Lies and Videotape” being that is what the movie is about) there is a lot more to each character and the subtext in each scene goes further than that.
Is the sexual behavior of each character the most defining part? If so, why is further development not needed?
Are these two roles a crutch? And if so, a necessary crutch?
I personally would love to read a scene between two friends, or sisters who are polar opposites, which is what catapults the conflict, but what makes them opposite has nothing to do with sex. For whatever reason, is that less compelling? If so, why?