May 27, 2014

What Can Improv Teach Us About Gender?

Peter_rydzewskiBy Peter Rydzewski

Incoming sociology Ph.D student, University of Maryland

The idea that social interactions are thought of as “performances” is a common theme throughout sociology. It speaks to the ways in which human behavior is “acted out” under an umbrella of shared norms, roles, expectations and assumptions, meaning that individual expressions are, in reality, more subject to group agreements than personal vitality.

I’ve spent the past 15 or so weeks in an improvisational theatre class. My sociological and observational instincts set in immediately after the first class session because, indeed, it was the perfect example of a real, physical stage on which social acting could take place. Erving Goffman famously describes this as the “front stage.” In my observations, this is where other students constantly looked and judged, hoping to understand our movements as part of a scene with an overall message or continuing storyline. And because the situations were fictional and the settings were imagined, the performers had to use voice and bodily comportment to express something that everyone could implicitly comprehend.  This goal was often accomplished with performances of gender.

Theatre gamesThe easiest way to convey gender was by manipulating the voice. Femininity was displayed with a high voice.  But a high voice alone could be mistaken for something else as well.  So, performances of femininity were often coupled with a small bodily comportment reflective of a weak or dismissive appearance.  

Conversely, performances of masculinity were most often accomplished with a low voice and slouchy posture. It’s important to note, however, that the high voice was ear-piercingly covered with treble and the low voice was exaggerated with bass. These were not simply performances of gender; they were embellishments.  These performances did not simply confirm a particular display of gender—they over-confirmed. For this reason, the audience did not have to guess about the actor’s gender; it was already known or at least believed.  And this hyper-conformity is often part of the humor, especially when gender roles were breached.

In addition to the use of certain “manly” or “girly” voices, body movement was used to convey gender in a similar way. It, too, was exaggerated, and was used to tell us more about an individual’s place in the scene. For this reason, a performer could be used in multiple scenes without any role confusion from the audience.

A few examples from class can illustrate this negotiation. One day, I played the role of a son that in the grocery store with his mother. My professor – a female – took the role of the mother pushing the grocery cart, and she did so with dainty movements as if frolicking through the store. To make my role “believable,” I stomped my feet and threw fake items, allowing me to be quickly recognizable as a young boy. In a new scene during the same class period, I played an older manager of a store, and even an older man with a wobbly cane. These examples illustrate some of the many ways that gender can change over the life course. Although the life transitions were fabricated, cultural stereotypes about boys and men of different ages help us identify the gender and age of the performance.  The things I did and said as an older man with a cane varied drastically from what I portrayed as a young man at the store. In a way, I was playing with masculinity, exemplifying the ways in which it can be a tentative and multifaceted role.

On a more theoretical note, performative understandings of gender on the stage were exemplified by the ways in which roles were quickly adopted and abandoned. This breaks that age-old belief that men will always be men, and that women will always be women, following the perspective that gender can be done or, potentially, undone as well. On the other hand, the improvisational stage is a setting in which it is difficult to reinvent or “undo” gender. This would lead to confusion about the roles being played . These rigid gender barriers are even difficult for someone – like me – interested in breaking binaries and stereotypes of all sorts. When speaking about gender as a powerful force in shaping social behavior, Cecilia Ridgeway and Shelley Correll note:

Hegemonic gender beliefs are a stubborn part of social reality that must be dealt with or accommodated in many contexts, even if they are not personally endorsed (2004:514).

My classmates and I communicated though these gendered assumption, so their importance was immeasurable. If I were to break gender barriers on the stage, would anyone know what I was trying to act out or say? We tend to think as improv as completely random, but could we understand the scene without collective agreements about gender? 

In retrospect, the extemporaneous skits that took place during the semester were subject to years of interactions, planning, and collective agreements about the social world all of us inhabit. It was interesting to think – just as we see with instances of income inequality or educational disparities – that the individual is always subject to the influence of the group and their group affiliation.

Although we tend to think improvisational scenes as devoid of scripts, they could not exist without being heavily influenced by social scripts of “proper” displays of identity. For these reasons, I propose that the physical stage on which acting takes place is a semi-structured realm build around ideas of spontaneity and commonly held beliefs.


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