As a teacher/ librarian/ general theatre person, I live and work in a world full of women. Mostly. Primary schools operate with lots of women in most of the roles, with a few fantastic male teachers (and sometimes male principals and IT dudes). The sphere of unpaid and unrecognised independent theatre is dominated by women, as are the majority of theatre and creative courses at universities. I have lots of female friends, I like to read about women, and support works made by women, and I’ll be a feminist to the day I die. So, yeah: total oestrogen overload.
Then Trench came along. Written by the wonderfully ingenious Paul Nelson and Perri Cummings, this was a film with a female lead character who was funny, courageous and a bit of a dork (How could I refuse such a dream role?!). It had a great feminist plot, and totally passed the Bechdel test, so I was psyched to sign up for another project with an awesome girly vibe.
Oh, how naive I was… Months later, I found myself in the middle of a hectic production schedule, spending most of my waking hours surrounded by a crew of men. Yes, boys - like, gross-cooties-stinky-boys. Apart from the awesomely talented makeup artists and the creative geniuses of the art department, the crew were all guys. Several times during shooting, I would look around and realise it was just me in a room full of testosterone. This was not my world.
Men are big. They take up space, and they lift stuff easily. They fart and burp, and insult each other. Sometimes they’re really loud, and they like to turn everything into a joke about their dick, or their balls, or about another man’s dick or balls, or how an object could be a dick or balls. I don’t know if you realise this, but men really love dicks and balls.
Look, I’m deliberately generalising here, and I’m telling you all the stinky, rude, macho shit that some men do sometimes (and some women do sometimes). So, let me tell you about what these men were actually like.
These were men who brought cleaning products on the final day, to make sure that the house we were using was left in a good condition. These were men who have developed strategies for faking an interest in AFL. These were men who talked openly about their partners and wives, and why they loved these women. They talked about how their girlfriend’s career would probably determine where they moved to. They spoke with a completely normal, matter-of-fact, level of respect for their partners and other women they admired - none of that ball-and-chain, take my wife bullshit. They had discussions among themselves about the best way to pack a dishwasher, and they often tidied after each other (although Perri, honestly, did basically everything). These were men who have genuine conversations among themselves, praising the talents of comedians, actors and filmmakers they were excited about - female ones, that is. These men expressed uncertainties about their own abilities, and deferred to the expertise of others; happy to admit they were not infallible. They had lengthy discussions about politics (especially the American election) and they could often be found sifting through the bookcase, sneaking away with one of the literary classics that was supposed to be part of the set. These are men who make documentaries about female acid-attack survivors in India, and these are men who support others’ projects in every way they can.
And yes, the majority of time on set, these were men who also made jokes about their dicks and balls.
This is not a ‘not all men’ post - it’s not about trying to disprove the fact that there are men out there with malicious intentions. It’s not saying that we need to give men a break, or think better of them, nor am I trying to hold men up on a pedestal for doing many things that women do every day. Fuck no - all the women on set were doing the same things, and having the same conversations. It’s almost like men and women are actually not that different…
The thing that struck me most out of this experience is that these complex, wonderful and multi-dimensional men are everywhere, all around us, and yet, we’re not seeing them. Not on our Australian screens at least. We’re seeing blokes roar in front of a footy game. We’re seeing blokes having a beer at the local. We’re seeing young blokes scoff some KFC. We’re seeing old blokes scratching their heads and arses while the missus sighs condescendingly and squirts some new cleaning product around. Or, on our bigger screens we’re seeing the same emotionally-stunted men with guns or capes or swords. Of course, there’s a place for these men - these heroes and warriors and ‘typical Aussie blokes’. But if there’s space for them (and let’s be honest, these characters are already taking up most of the space), then why isn’t there also space for representations of the variety of real men that are actually living in this country? Men of colour, men with brains, men with hearts?
One of the things that I find so frustrating about the relationship between audiences and our storytelling media is our eagerness to accept rehashed stereotypes over our own lived experiences. We’ll happily gobble up truth-bomb storylines where all women love shoes and all men watch footy (and anyone who falls outside these boundaries is assumed to be queer - heaven forbid!), while completely ignoring our own experiences of meeting people who don’t fit into those cages. Seriously - take the blokiest Bloke McBlokerson that you know, and I bet that even he doesn’t fit the stereotype. Think about him, in all his complexity, and I bet he doesn’t fit. He can actually speak four different languages, or he makes the kids’ lunches every morning, or he’s a massive fan of Kimmy Schmidt. Whatever. The tired old stereotype doesn’t fit anymore. It doesn’t fit anyone.
So, the men of Trench weren’t exactly stinky-gross-cooties-boys. Not entirely. Some were quiet, some were loud, they had a variety of interests and talents and goals and backgrounds, and they were all dealing with their own shit and just trying to do the best damn job they could. As were the women. I will emphasise right now, that all of the women were supremely awesome.
And so, months after one of my first forays into a world of men, I now find myself working at an all-boys secondary school where the dick and ball jokes are at peak level. The stench of body-odour can be overwhelming. These boys are trying to navigate a heady world where most media is created especially for them. Men on screen, in most of the roles … men behind the screens, in most of the roles. I just hope that all of us storytellers, writers, and filmmakers start reflecting upon and reviewing those male characters we create. We need to start employing some diversity, so our boys (and girls) can grow up knowing that there’s more than one way to play ‘man’.
Check out www.trenchfilmnoir.com to see other shots and details about this exciting new film, Trench.