We identify with gender all the time in our ordinary world. But in improv, where our world is a fantasy, things should be different. Shouldn’t they?
Imagine you’re at a local garage for some routine car maintenance. You look at your receipt and notice you’ve received a discount. As it turns out, Tuesday is Ladies Day at the garage. But you hadn’t asked for a Ladies Day discount or provided identification. There was no questionnaire asking for your gender. The helpful mechanic simply bestowed a Ladies Day discount upon you. You could have any number of reactions, from satisfaction at saving a couple bucks to indignation at being pinpointed (or misidentified) as a woman. You just wanted an oil change.
Let’s switch gears. You’re no longer at the garage. You’re at improv class, where you can be anyone. Until your scene partner addresses you as “Susie” and you play a female for the umpteenth time. Your scene partner meant no harm; he or she was simply using a skill we all learned before we could tie our shoes. Identifying and categorizing one another by gender is so ingrained, we don’t realize we’re doing it several times a day. We meet someone new, and in a split second, we categorize them by gender, with all the associated pronouns and expectations. Young children don’t always find it so easy to identify people this way, though.
In 1983 Alexander Guiora of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor asked children if they were boys or girls. Each child’s native language was either Hebrew, Finnish, or English. The Hebrew language marks gender more heavily than English, while Finnish uses relatively little gender marking. Guiora showed photos of girls and boys and sorted them into piles to help the children answer. Cognitive science professor Lera Borodetsky discussed the experiment on an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain.
“And what he found was kids who were learning Hebrew - this is a language that has a lot of gender loading in it - figured out whether they were a boy or a girl about a year sooner than kids learning Finnish, which doesn't have a lot of gender marking in the language,” Borodetsky explained.
The levels of gender marking in the children’s native languages helped determine how quickly those children would develop the ability to identify people by gender. Borodetsky provided her own example of practicing Indonesian, a language with little gender loading. She was talking about an acquaintance that her Indonesian-speaking friend had never met. As she spoke about the mysterious third party, her Indonesian-speaking friend asked numerous questions before finally asking Borodetsky whether the person she was describing was a man or a woman.
“I started wondering, is it possible that my friend here was imagining a person without a gender for this whole time that we've been talking about them, right?” Borodetsky said.
As English speakers, it’s hard to describe or imagine someone without gender. But what about watching two imaginary characters play out a scene, without names or language to identify their gender?
In short-form improv, we sometimes play games using only mime and gibberish, which is not a real language. Basically, it’s noise with inflection, and each player’s gibberish is unique. When you watch a scene in which the players are communicating in gibberish, there are no verbal clues as to whether the characters are male, female, or somewhere in between. And chances are, you don’t care. But the minute we start speaking English, it’s like we can’t help but endow one another with gender.
Old habits are hard to break, but with awareness, we can make small changes. At your next improv practice, notice which players repeatedly endow others with the same old gender roles. Which players are most often the recipients of this endowment? Are you guilty? Shake things up and endow your fellow players with different genders when you get a chance. When someone establishes his or her own character, pay attention. Keep an open mind and don’t assume players are sticking with their real-world genders. Hopefully, you will open doors to new characters.