Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
“This Jedi is female, so she’s not as smart.” The young man, Max, chortled this to his scene partner as our improvised Star Wars play came racing towards its climax. I stood backstage, suddenly feeling jarred. My character throughout the play had been a hero, a rebel, strong and intelligent. All of this suddenly was erased because she was a woman. I felt stung and invalidated, but most of all I wanted revenge.
The problem was this: I couldn’t launch into my regular rhetoric, explaining how comments like this one were obviously unnecessary, untrue, and hurtful, because we weren’t two teenagers in the real world in this moment. We were Jedi, evil bounty hunters, and aliens. My retaliation had to be in character, something to bring the evil bounty hunter Max to his final defeat. I knew what I had to do. I slew him with my purple lightsaber. Our improvised play came to its close and, as the finale music began, sensations assailed me from opposing sides of my brain. The good improviser knew that it had been the right time to end the scene, and a classic image of good trumping evil just made sense. The woman in me, the stronger side, was hurt, angry, and just tired. This sort of sexism is everyday in the life of a woman, any woman, coming from both peers and the media. The message of “DUMB WOMAN” isn’t shocking to me anymore. It didn’t leave me standing backstage, naively stunned that someone might try to devalue me as a woman. It made me want to act.
Normally, I have to take a moment to deal with this anger and compose myself, because in the real world you have to explain why something is offensive before you can slay someone with a rhetorical lightsaber. This wasn’t the real world, though. The Jedi would not explain to her enemy why his comment was hurtful and oppressive. She just had to show him how wrong he was, which felt far more satisfying than any verbal victory. Although my answer might not have explained to Max why his sexism was not tolerable, he certainly learned never to invade another scene with it. The message was clear in my closing line for the play: “Sexism is dead in space.” It was dead in space and dead in our improv class. I felt immensely relieved as I stepped off the stage and out of the skin of my Jedi persona.
Then we were back to the real world; I wondered if Max even understood the weight of his comment. Improv has always been a place of happiness and empowerment for me, a place where I always get to define myself, and he had threatened to let the reality of sexism taint this whole realm in only a few simple words. Maybe Max left that class with deeper resentment of women. Maybe, by not answering his ignorance with intelligence, I justified his comment within his own mind. My response in the scene may not have changed his perspective, but it preserved a space of empowerment for me.
As an outspoken woman, I’m exhausted at times by the need to debate; though people who normally gloss over women’s problems may often benefit from explanations, I often don’t. Explaining is draining, and offers no outlet for the strong feelings that can build up over time. Plus, an explanation of feminist theory would be a pretty boring end to a space drama. Today, sexism is dead in space. Tomorrow, maybe it will be dead on Earth.