The Will Premiere Reminds Us How Historically Unfair It Is To Be An Actress

Photo: Courtesy of TNT.
TNT’s newest drama Will is a lot of things. It’s a Tudors-style sexy take on the life of William Shakespeare, plus a dash of punk-rock sensibilities. It’s a justification for Googling “Laurie Davidson photos.” It’s a reason for your colleague to ask you via Slack, “What kind of crazy Moroccan-themed London has Will arrived in?” On top of all of this, Will is also a reminder of just how terrible being an actress has been since the dawn of time itself — or at least since Shakespeare picked up his pen to wax poetic about ghosts, fairies, and kings.
The premiere episode of the trying-to-be-wild Elizabethan drama already sets up how criminally unfair life as a woman in the theatre was in the 16th century. In "The Play’s The Thing," we meet Alice Burbage (Olivia DeJonge), the "fair maiden" daughter of The Globe Theatre purveyor James Burbage (Colm Meaney). Alice isn’t technically an actress, but there’s a good reason for that. This is 1580s England, so women aren’t exactly allowed to appear on stage. Instead, ridiculous, violent men in garish drag play any necessary female parts. The guys stage dive to assault their hecklers while wearing impossible wigs and gowns. Yes, this is all perfectly historically accurate, but Will is willing to take Moulin Rouge-level factual liberties — in case you didn’t know: The Clash wouldn’t record "London Calling" for almost exactly 300 more years, and "cock-blocking bastard" wasn’t yet a phrase — so, it’s not wild to assume the series might let a woman or two perform.
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Instead, women are so banished to the edges of the theatre, the only time we’re allowed to see them around the Globe is when they’re acting as sex objects who are very likely sex workers. The second woman we see in the theatre is "a painted lady" who’s having quickie sex against a wall with brutish actor Kemp (William Houston). When the Globe troupe is practicing later in the episode, the sole women in attendance are once again made up to signal they’re prostitutes. Alice tries to make light of the way women are treated in this world, "joking" to Will, "It seems women are only good for ruling the nation, rearing children, or whoring. I have yet to decide which path I shall choose." The only reason she shares such a depressing joke is to explain why she’s "that most useless of creatures, an educated woman." Will is so shocked to find out Alice can read and write, the playwright silently gapes at her for a full 25 seconds over the admission.
Despite Alice’s abilities, and talent for critiquing actors who are capital-A-acting a little too much, she can’t even go to theatre bars in peace. Later in "The Thing," Will and fellow actor Richard (Mattias Inwood) are out at a pub enjoying some ale. Then, Alice appears in her own form of full drag, complete with a put-on gravely voice. All a surprised Will can say is, “You’re dressed as a man.” Alice explains, "‘Tis easier to go abroad at night like this." It’s clear all women, other than "ale wenches" and sex workers, have completely been erased from the acting scene.
It’s hard not to notice how apropos these female-free stages and watering holes are as modern-day actresses are speaking out more than ever about the terrible working conditions they’re faced with. The Big Sick actress Zoe Kazan recently described the disturbing levels of sexual harassment she’s faced throughout her career. One of the more alarming incidents included a producer asking Kazan if she "spat or swallowed." She also admitted multiple actress friends know they need to give "blowjob eyes" during the casting process. Glow star Alison Brie incidentally corroborated Kazan’s account with her own story, explaining on Twitter she was forced to wear a skimpy bikini top during an audition for a three-line part in Entourage.
Even technically positive steps forward for actresses have a bit of darkness to them, as Emma Stone’s latest headline-making comments prove. The Oscar-winner announced she was only able to close the wage gap with her male co-stars when the actors personally agreed to take a pay cut. "That’s something that’s also not discussed, necessarily — that our getting equal pay is going to require people to selflessly say, 'That’s what’s fair,'" the La La Land star said earlier this month. While Stone’s comments do show actresses are taking small steps forward in gender parity, tennis player Billie Jean King reminded the celebrity that women of color are lagging far behind white women when it comes to wages. And an Asian actress like Constance Wu has proven she has little to be happy about when it comes to Hollywood.
Let's hope one day the stages of Will and the casting couches of Hollywood will seem like distant, impossible nightmares.
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