Happy Friday everyone! I hope you’ve all decided whether to sit in the front seat or the back seat. These are the kind of decisions that can really make or break the start of your weekend.
Today’s blog is about definitions, and why they can be really good OR spectacularly awful. We use them all the time, perhaps without even realising in some cases. Definitions are meant to provide clarity and make something that is unknown more imaginable, but in some situations they may do more harm than good.
Let’s start with the basics: a dictionary defines words for us. This is a wonderful thing, except when people start a speech or essay with the words “The Oxford English Dictionary defines (insert random abstract noun) as follows”. That needs to stop.
In terms of human definitions, the most obvious initial one is whether a person is male or female. Without delving too far into the complex issue of gender politics, I do think that this is quite an interesting one. Firstly, there are people who are biologically one gender who identify more strongly with the other, and some prefer an androgynous identity. In literature, many authors have chosen to use their initials rather than gender-specific first names: P.D. James, for example, and J. K. Rowling. Again, I really am not trying to start a debate about whether women are at a disadvantage in literary circles and anonymity is necessary, but I do think it’s interesting that something as arbitrary as gender definition has a role in somebody’s reputation as a writer.
Physical definitions are incredibly tricky, and they come up most often in life. When you’re talking to a friend and describing someone they can’t remember, physical definition is the first thing you turn to: “You know Simon. Tall, dark hair. Always wears a leather jacket.” That’s not a bad thing necessarily, because it’s an aide to memory, but in some cases it can get pretty nasty. Online dating profiles, for example, or when discussing the pros and cons of a potential partner: “She’s nice, but she’s got a really big nose.” “I’m a curvy, bubbly socialite with long, blonde hair.” Cringe o’clock. These definitions are more disturbing than the memory aides because they are not about reinforcing a previous observation: they are about trying to create a mental picture of someone that allows you to judge them. Why is an appearance-based picture of someone more important than what they’re actually like?
Appearance-based definitions are absolutely huge in the performing arts world. Casting briefs can be incredibly specific about height, weight, eye colour and all sorts of other physical attributes. As a writer and director I understand that you may have a very clear mental image of what a character needs to look like, but my favourite thing about casting is when somebody surprises you by being like the character, not necessarily looking like them. On a fundamental level, I resent the idea that you could go through life being an extremely talented actor who doesn’t look “marketable”, and therefore miss out on work. What on earth is the point of investing thousands of pounds in your education at a drama school, working hard to develop your skills and repertoire, only to discover that you just don’t look right?
Sometimes definitions can be helpful. In rehearsals, I encourage my actors to work out as much specific detail about their characters as possible: favourite foods, pet peeves, family backgrounds and more. These definitions may never be referred to in the performance, but they help the actors to build up as complete a mental picture as possible of who they are trying to portray. But here’s the thing: this mental picture is based on personality attributes, not physical, and it’s there to help them do their jobs.
The issue of relationship status definition is among the most prevalent in today’s society, particularly for people my age: as those of you who have read this blog post will know, I hate the entire damn thing. “We’re just dating.” “We’re sort of seeing each other.” “We’re not official.” FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, people who are “officially” together do not have a certificate from the government or a permit from their local council; they’re just together. And whatever you are to someone, it doesn’t matter in the slightest how the rest of the world sees your relationship as long as YOU know what the terms are. What good does it do you if you tell your friends that you’re “not exclusive” with someone if, when they go out and sleep with someone else, it upsets you because you secretly hoped that the relationship was more serious than that? Well, you may THINK you feel emotionally betrayed, but actually your social circle can testify that your relationship definition was “non-exclusive”, so actually you have no right to be sad. Oh, ok. I’ll switch my emotions off, then. Ridiculous.
The main thing about definitions is that, if we do need to use them, I think we should use them for good things. Aides to memory – fine. Character analysis – fine. (I hope so, anyway, because I get my actors to do a lot of work on that!) But definitions that reduce a person in any way, or encourage others to judge them for something completely arbitrary, are a no-no.
Have a lovely Friday. May your trains/buses/flying monkeys run exactly to schedule.