Girl. Boy. Irrelevant. How improv takes us out of unwanted boxes…


by Rhiannon Vivian

Recently I read a positive review of the Inbetweeners new movie, which is cool because I love it. Then when I got to the end, the reviewer said: ‘In the auditorium it was all 20-30 something guys with old mates and sympathetic partners.’

Sympathetic partners? Is there no possibility their partners were enjoying it as much as them? I really hope I misunderstood it. That it was an unfortunate, ambiguous choice of words. Regardless of intent though, ‘sympathetic partners,’ made it sound to me like they were there under duress. Which in turn made me oh so despondent. And despondent yet further, that the reviewer was female. Just because we’re girls and the film is about boys, doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate a well-written comedy that transcends gender. I think the Inbetweeners is a comedy you’ll like or hate depending on whether gross-out, pithy loo humour is your bag. I adore both.

What am I saying? This piece just got me thinking about how often this kind of stuff crops up in all walks of life. I’m so very tired of being metaphorically pushed towards Frilly Corner to consume feather light fluff, chocolate, puppies and Beyoncé. I mean, that’s nice some of the time. And if that is what you enjoy all the time, then that’s absolutely fine too, I want to make that clear. I just really dislike someone assuming that’s what I’ll enjoy based on my chromosomes. Or worse, someone assuming I’m at a film because I’m tolerating someone else’s want. How on earth do you know that’s the case unless you ask me?

I’d be delighted if society started crediting women with a shred of nouce and stopped deducing we’re all bearing with insufferable Fun Man Things. Who is that person? I don’t know her! Credit us with intentions and pursuits that extend beyond romcoms and handbags (again if you love these – cool, I like a pretty dress – just please, all I ask is that you don’t assume I’ll love them because I don’t have a penis). I am a zillion things before I am a female: I am weird, I’m a joker, I adore poo puns, I don’t want to share my chips with you, I dream hard, I’m excessive, surrealist, kind, idealistic, empathetic, driven, trusting, lazy, adventurous, terrified, grateful, farty after broccoli… GIRL really does come quite low down (ahem) the defining order. Every last one of us is a curious one-off human-muddle, way beyond the definition of male or female.

How does this relate to improv? Well I think I get so exasperated because I inhabit this truly great world in improv, where these assumptions are rarely made. Everyone is on a level pegging. I think improv manages to break down any weird gender nonsense going on in the wider world. Yeah you get the odd person who can’t stay away from prostitute rackets, sex shops and dildos in scenes but they’re few, and it’s usually confined to beginners, (definitely not confined to guys) and (I think) a common manifestation of panic or nerves, which can be nuked with some careful instruction.

In improv here are some things I never, ever notice:

1.   That I am a girl.

2. That girls in my team play boys or men. Or men play girls. Or a girl plays a cupboard. Or a boy plays a dog. Or we all play a giant fart on a skateboard.

It’s wonderful. I feel like this blanket needs to fall over the whole world. Let’s teach kids compulsory improv young so they grow up with it. And never again will anyone, male or female, write about the ‘sympathetic other half’ in that context. And who knows, perhaps if the reviewer had only asked, she’d have found out that the ‘sympathetic other half’ was actually writing an even funnier, grosser and more outrageous comedy than the one in front of her eyes…

  1. Clemence

    Couldn’t agree more! This is the same reason why I get so frustrated by lady magazines. When I used to read them as a confused teenager I would get down on myself for not knowing more about what make-up goes best with the shape of my face or what trousers best compliment my hip to waist ratio…. snoooooore. I mean is that really what girls are all about? I’d rather be considered a PERSON before being defined as a girl.

  2. Andrew Allen

    Absolutely! In a not unrelated note, I’ve noticed more times than I care to remember, that if 2 women are on stage, and one of them is in a position of power – president, for instance – the other will default to calling them ‘sir’, endowing them with being a man. Nothing essentially wrong with that, but it’s mildly depressing that it reoccurs so often. Similarily, I’ve noticed when directing younger female performers in a scene that requires conflict / argument, they’ll usually decide to ‘fight’ over a boy .. I tend to get all Bedchell about it, and suggest that they’re two competing scientists arguing over who came up with an invention. It’s revealing just how revolutionary they seem to find the ‘permission’ ..

  3. Ali HendryBallard

    Great article!
    When I’ve run all-female improv workshops for women who have only ever performed in mixed troupes, they often feel more free to play with gender in a realistic way.
    Weirdly by being in Short & Girlie Show, an all-female troupe, it seems to take gender out of the equation.
    We do play stereotypes at times; altering voice or stance, choosing a gender to go with the job your character’s been allocated. But I guess it’s just how far you take it.
    The more truthful scenes are funnier.

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