As counterpoint to my discussion of maleness and masculinity, I invite all to consider a habit of speech often thought to be masculine, as demonstrated by two women, actresses Emma Watson and Lynn Collins.
It is the combination of a steady gaze and judicious silence, and the power that accrues to those who can harness the two simultaneously. Not everyone can. I’m not good at it, having what I think of as an inherited Riley trait of looking up and to the right when I’m trying to say something serious.
But this is taught to actors and actresses (also to politicians, unfortunately), so we see it a lot, and we can analyze what it does to the power of words. It is a skill that we could all stand to learn, and have available to us – at least as one tool in a toolbox filled with other useful tools – when we need to make our feelings known through our words and actions.
But don’t take my word for it. Watch this moment from the trial scene in the 2004 movie of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and notice how Portia (played by the American actress Lynn Collins) acquires awesome power by responding to an extremely tense situation by moving slowly, almost like a predator cat, and utilizing a powerful mixture of silence and economy of words.
Begin watching at 1 hour 30 minutes into the movie and watch until Shylock is broken by Portia’s clever manipulation of “justice,” at 1 hour 44 minutes. It’s 14 minutes of some of the most powerful theater you’ll ever see, brought to white-knuckle intensity by Portia’s assumption of the “masculine virtues” of verbal and physical understatement. (That Shakespeare is playing simultaneously on issues of masculinity and femininity while also dramatizing conflicts between justice and mercy, Christianity and Judaism, and fidelity and infidelity is pure genius – genius that renders us as miserable as one can possibly feel.)
I was reminded of this scene from Merchant of Venice while watching Emma Watson, the 24 year-old actress formerly of Harry Potter fame now the United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador, deliver a speech on women’s rights at the United Nations this past weekend. The speech is here, on the People’s Magazine website. Ms. Watson was nervous – her voice told you so, and she alluded to being nervous about two-thirds of the way through the speech, but she invoked her actor’s training to keep her eyes up and the cadence of her speech measured against the power of silence. It is a potent speech, with her mastery of how to deliver a speech matching the content of the speech beautifully.
Are these examples of actresses acting “like a man?” Clearly, in the case of Lynn Collins playing the role of Portia in Merchant of Venice, the answer is yes, and we are meant to marvel at how well she pretends to be a man. Alternative depictions of gender identity were a brave theatrical conceit in the late 16th century; so they continue to be today.
In Emma Watson’s case, she’s arguing for gender equality, and for the freedom and protection of men and women to act in a manner consistent with their authentic, rather than culturally-learned, selves. It’s a brave statement and it takes a powerful person to deliver it. Emma Watson is a powerful person.