Monday, May 24, 2010

Workplace Bully: Should the characters be male or female?

When over 25% of the people who are commenting on Workplace Bully bring up the same point, it's time to pay attention. In my pitch, I said that the Bully is male and the Target of his bullying is female. A lot of you have expressed surprise, curiousity or even concern about that, so this post is for you to share your thoughts and perhaps even discuss it among yourselves.

First off, here are my thoughts about why I pitched it the way I did:

1. I have some actors in mind for the roles.
2. My instincts are telling me that the second half of the story, where the Target fights back against the Bully, just plays better if the Target's a woman.
3. I know how to write this if it's a male Bully and a female Target. Not so sure about the other way round; I don't have an instinctive feel for what that female Bully would be like yet (more research required).

Against that, there's a couple of points that have come through strongly:

1. A couple of people have mentioned that they've been bullied by women (I certainly have), and there's an impression from that that middle-aged women bullies are quite common in the business world.
2. Making the Bully a woman removes the undertones of sexual predatoriness (?) and physical intimidation that a man would bring to the role.

So there's a starting point if you'd like to discuss it. If necessary, I'll moderate this - but I figure it should be really interesting to hear each other's ideas. Now! Off to answer some of the questions raised in previous comments, and do some research on this story.


Morgan said...

To be honest, I think that you could effectively play it any which way. In my experience, every workplace bully instance I've heard of has been female bully & female victim, though, so that's at least one data point.

I like this idea even though I haven't written anything useful here before now...

Simon said...

I think that it's not so much a question of one set-up being better than the others, as that each combination has its own complications and difficulties, born of the fucked-up gender relations in our society.

Man on woman bullying, you've got the connotations of sexual and physical bullying which make it difficult to maintain the funny. It'll be a challenge not to be too grim.

Woman on man bullying, you run the risk of buying in to a "women are bitches" narrative, where the bully is a stereotype of a domineering woman, and the man is "righting the balance" between the genders by standing up for himself. That's not the story you want to tell, I think.

Woman on woman bullying you've got the same "women are bitches" problem, plus there's the whole "catty" reading.

Man on man bullying has the problem that there are no women in the story.

So I think the thing is not so much about there being an ideal way to do it, so much as recognising the pitfalls inherant in whatever way you choose to go, and working around that. I think you have the talent to do that successfully.

I think the fundamental challenge with this concept is that you want us to be amused by the bullying, to find those scenes funny, but you also want us to take it seriously, to identify with the protagonist as they struggle. I think that's a difficult task, but not impossible.

Emma said...

I was going to do a big gender analysis about how certain pairings would lead to a harder row to hoe but it just sounded like a big glommy mess. (Also Simon just did it more succinctly than I was going to)

I know that the gender-blind everywhere say this, but I want them to be people. I don't care about their gender, or their sex. But I want them both to be people rather than caricatures and I think that requires you to humanise both the victim and the bully. To do any less simply makes the bully an image, a stand in for something that we've all known and experienced that will conveniently align with societal assumptions and rules about gender. And this is what I hate in many, many things. The short cuts. The audience immediately understands that this character is like this because of style attribute a and so on and so forth.

I want to be forced to think. I want to know more about responsibility than just knowing that the bully is bad. I don't want excuses, but I want complexity and confusion and surprise. The bullies that I have experienced in my life have all been incredibly wounded and emotionally unsophisticated people (in a variety of ways) and they have been men and women. They have all been messes. And I want that.

Morgan said...

Simon and Emma are clever.

Debbie Cowens said...

I really don't think you should change the characters when you have a strong vision of them in your head.

Besides I think one of the key aspects of bullying is that it can happen both within and between genders/ages/races/cultures etc. While you could focus on a particular underlying tension be it sexual or otherwise, bullying frequently occurs without this kind of aspect being involved and I object to the notion that any bullying story about a male and female automatically involves a sexual harrassment component.

I think it pays to be aware that whenever a storyline focuses on two characters and one is male and the other female, the audience is on the lookout for a sexual dynamic (largely because of the bulk of TV and film tends to play up this angle on the majority of male/female relationships) but that doesn't mean it has to be a factor in Workplace Bully.

BTW I don't think that switching the roles so that the bully is the female would remove any potential for sexual harrassment aspect. There's that whole predatory female 'cougar' perception around at the moment.

It is probably a good idea to keep in mind that you haven't told us anything in your pitch about the characters other than their genders. If you had mentioned a difference in race, weight, height or age, people might have been concerned about those issues instead. But the story is going to have fleshed out characters that have much more to them so that whatever gender, age, race, shape or size they are those aspects won't be that relevant compared to who they are as a person and how they react as the conflict continues.

Matt said...

What they all said :-) You established that physical violence was off the table for the characters, and that made me imagine that you'd be playing the characters/story in such a way that the audience had no expectation that physicality had a part in the bullying. Should be eminently doable with a male bully and female victim - loads of sarcastic, sadistic people are obviously non-violent.

Karen said...

I've been physically bullied by a woman... and I've seen that same (small, physically weak) woman physically intimidate several large men. One of the most influential bullies at work is a middle aged woman (she's actually kind of nice to me). However, I think the bullies in my life have predominantly been male.

I didn't assume either sexual harrassment or physical bullying from what you wrote (although people can be physically intimidating without being violent... some people have pretty terrifying pent up aggression)

In the communication course I did at work recently they talked about the "hidden dimension"... how a large part of any social interaction happens at the relationship level... people's prior experiences, expectations and feelings about the other person and/or the situation mean that the message that someone hears isn't always obvious from the words or even the tone... sometimes it is a long way from the message that the speaker intended.

Actually it's amazing we ever manage to communicate anything at all!

Karen said...

Oops... the upshot of that was, that like the others, I don't care about gender... I think what matters IS the relationship and how you portray that...

[I HATE the cougar thing... one of my workmates is obsessed with cougars seducing her army-boy friends]

d f mamea said...

short answer: i don't care what gender each role is.

long answer: it's a depressingly familiar power dynamic with one party saying you're my bitch and the other party believing - or as good as believing - them. each gender has their own particular skills/tools to use when bullying. i still don't care what gender each role is but if it's a concern, how about a sequel where the genders are switched?