Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History

Meredith Danluck on complex female protagonists, gender hypocrisy, Trump, Kavanaugh and her new film, State Like Sleep.

I didn’t really get what people were referring to. I was in the midst of trying to get my movie made, scrambling around New York and Los Angeles, meeting with different producers and financiers. I kept hearing the same thing over and over again about my main character Katherine, a young widow reeling through the stages of grief after the suicide of her husband: people just weren’t sure Katherine was “likeable.” They wondered if I thought about “softening” the character a bit. They feared she might come off as angry. Only then did I get it – women aren’t allowed to be angry. We’re allowed to be sad, but not angry. That’s a tough one, since anger is big part of the emotional gamut when dealing with loss. I have seen firsthand the messy aftermath of suicide and can tell you with full honestly, I was pissed.

State Like Sleep is an attempt to unpack the jumble of confusing emotions around grief, including the strange, harrowing anger and psychotic bargaining one goes through when trying to assemble the puzzle pieces after loss. Katherine fights with grief, battling between the romantic depression we have so often seen cinematized, as well as the messy anger, paranoid denial and illogical bargaining. We see her spiral through the temporary insanity of loss. And though people might be uncomfortable with anger in women, I’ll tell you right now, they are down right terrified of crazy. Jackie Kennedy, seconds after JFK was shot, tried picking up pieces of his brain off the back of the sedan as if she could humpty-dumpty him back together again. That was crazy, but in the moment, for her, it was the most logical thing to do.

Psychologists have narrowed down the stages of grief into a tidy acronym, DABDA: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. We’ve seen films about grieving, but just like so much in our culture, the way we envision a woman’s grief is vastly different from how we envision a man’s. Angry women make men feel uncomfortable, shut out, useless and threatened. Sad women elicit feelings of gallantry. In the traditional narrative, the female character is passive. Things are happening to her and thus the men still have control. Anger is a call to action, a signal of agency. Female desire for agency is scary because it signifies the male loss of control.

Meredith Danluck on the set of State Like Sleep

After the election, I was, like so many people – the majority of the country, in fact – distraught. After the Kavanaugh hearings, I was fucking angry. The 2016 Clinton-Trump debates and the Kavanaugh hearings brought up this exact idea of the fine line of emotionality women are expected to walk. Swap the genders on Kavanaugh and Ford and her testimony would’ve been lambasted as hysterical. She would have been labeled out-of-control and unbelievable. Kavanaugh loses his shit on national television and is rendered passionate and promoted to the highest court in the land. There’s an incredible reenactment video, called Her Opponent, which gender-swapped Trump and Clinton on the debate floor. In it, you see how their mannerisms, tone and delivery are so vastly different and when reordered through the lens of gender – totally shocking. The male actor mirrored Clinton’s mannerisms, her calm, her preparedness, her smiling. Her smiling and smiling and smiling. She smiled the entire time as Trump interrupted, spewed nonsense and hurled schoolyard insults. I hadn’t noticed watching the actual debate, but upon watching the gender-swapped reenactment, I was floored. I had never seen a man smile through something so clearly humiliating. The oddity of that was remarkable. Women, on the other hand, are taught to smile through things that are uncomfortable. Just like Christine Blasey Ford, delivering her calm and measured testimony as if she knew part of her job as a woman communicating anything was, first and foremost, to make everyone feel comfortable.

I sometimes wonder how State Like Sleep would be different if I gender-swapped my character. What if Katherine were Kenneth? Kenneth returns to Brussels to investigate the circumstances around his wife’s mysterious suicide, things happen, blah blah. … Would a man’s grief and devolution into an emotional miasma of paranoia and doubt be more palatable? Or have more of a broad appeal? It might. Even though we’re in the #MeToo moment and Harvey Weinstein is hiding out in a Tampa condo wearing an ankle monitor, women are still expected to be women and the cultural definition of that is where we run into problems. Women are, at the core of our understanding, mothers. Our first encounter with a woman is that of our mother and in the ideal scenario, she is kind, stable and nurturing. She is absolutely not angry, paranoid or unhinged. Those exact qualities, however, make for the most interesting protagonists.

So there’s a conundrum at a granular level. It seems we have a hard time accepting female characters who express a full emotional spectrum, who don’t prioritize the needs of others. It’s not easy to unpack centuries of gendered oppression, silence and fear, societal norms that ultimately have crafted the way in which we communicate. With a new wave of female-driven narratives, atypical protagonists and more diversity behind the camera, perhaps that will change. At the New York premiere of State Like Sleep, one of Michael Shannon’s friends said something amazing, probably the best thing anyone could’ve said about the film. He said that watching State Like Sleep made him realize for the first time that he’d been living his whole life under the tyranny of a male narrative voice. Something about seeing this “type” of movie – a noir-ish, sexy mystery – told from the female perspective, made him realize that. I don’t know if everyone will have the same reaction, but I’m proud to have had some small part in that guy’s woke moment. I knew going into this film, Katherine would be a challenging character. Everything from her demeanor to her asexual aesthetic was against the grain of expectation. Neither her character nor I were much concerned with making anyone comfortable.

Meredith Danluck has exhibited at festivals and museum venues such as the Museum of Modern Art, Sundance, and the Venice Biennale. She has also produced multi-screen tour visuals for Jay- Z, Beyoncé and John Legend. Her ambitious four channel feature film, North of South, West of East, where four feature-length narrative films play simultaneously in perfect symphony, was commissioned by Ballroom Marfa and screened at Sundance 2013. Her latest feature, State Like Sleep, starring Katherine Waterston and Michael Shannon, was developed at the 2013 Sundance Writers and Directors Labs and premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. The film is in select theaters and on digital from January 4 through The Orchard.