A friend sent me a text the other day: "you've got to watch Orange is the New Black.. It is beautifully written, fantastically acted and utterly compelling" - now we both read our fair shares of screenplays, but I had never seen her gush about a story in this way before so I decided to give it a go.
Orange is the New Black is based on the true story of Piper Kerman (Piper Chapman in the TV series) who had agreed to carry a suitcase of drug money for a lesbian lover 10 years earlier. Now, 10 years later, the criminal justice system has caught up with her and she is having to serve 15 months in prison and explain to her fiance about her lesbian past and one-off drug money deal.
So far so good, a prison drama not like one unseen before, but this one is different. Inside the prison, this is a "woman only" world that does not have any parallel in the outside world. You may shrug and observe that women regularly get together and socialise etc. But this is not what I mean.
We live in a patriarchal society. Again you may shrug and talk about equality, female advancement etc, but what you are merely observing is a bunch of women adapting to a man's world.
To be honest, I have no idea what a matriarchy looks like and it is becoming more and more obvious to me that I, along with everybody else have been so brainwashed that it has left me completely lacking in self awareness. All I know is that "female only" qualities are generally not respected in the business world or otherwise. In a typically male dominated "competitive environment", show any weakness and you're out. And we're painfully aware of it and as such, most women are living in the closet.
Women are at the bottom of the food chain.
People often observe that women can be bitchy with each another and they see in this as a sign of our competitiveness. This is not quite accurate. As I said, we're at the bottom of the food chain and in order to make a reasonable living, we're having to compete with other women. Our looks, intelligence etc will make a difference. This is not our world, but we're having to live in it and follow its rules. We're in survival mode.
People often wonder why gay men get along with women so well. They assume that it must be their "feminine" side. It could not be further from the truth. The real reason gay men get along with women so well is because they're perceived as "feminine men" and as such they're also relegated to the bottom of the food chain so they just know. Trust me, all the gay men I know think like other men - through and through.
So what's the difference here?
As I watched OITNB, It occurred to me that I had experienced a "female world" once before. It might sound odd, but it was in Agadir, Morocco and I started to draw comparisons between the two.
A female friend and I went on a week long trip to Agadir a few years back. As we were strolling down the fisherman's market, we chatted to Laila (not her real name). She wore casual clothes and she was with her sister who wore the traditional headscarf. As we would later find out, Laila was a local prostitute and this was the reason why she would disappear every evening past bedtime. Anyway, we spent two hours chatting and she invited us to have tea at her grandmother's house.
We took a local cab to a neighbourhood well away from the tourist hot spots. It could have been incredibly dangerous, but as it turned out, it wasn't.
When we arrived at her grandmother's house, a host of women welcomed us for tea and cakes. It was like we were stepping into a different world. As women, we had received instant membership into this hidden world and it was a raucous, lively and incredibly frank one.
In Morocco as in OITNB, men are excluded. In Morocco, it is for religious/traditional reasons. In OITNB, it is because, to put it simply: "they can't be bothered".
As the kitchen head (also a female prisoner) decides to let Piper starve, Piper decides to talk the prison guard who retorts "poor little baby". Being a prison guard is no vocational work and I am assuming that it is also poorly paid, so it seemed logical that they would not work very hard for it. Never mind what really goes on in there.
In both cases, men are on the outside looking out.
"This ain't my business"
Where they part is that unlike OITNB, the Moroccan female network is a fully functional one where cooperation, inventiveness, humour and kindness truly thrive.
In OITNB, the women are having to compete for food, power etc. These are incredibly damaged women. As the kitchen head muses, "if you show the slight bit of weakness, you won't make it".
Back in Morocco, it wasn't long before we started to chat about our jobs, food, children, sex. Yes, sex and the rather graphic kind as it turned out. To see Laila's 80 year grandmother chat about the bloody bed sheet she had to produce the day after her wedding night (a bloody sheet is testament that the bride was a virgin), was quite an eye opener.
In Morocco, marriage is a transaction and by showing the bloody sheet, you show that the groom got his money (or camels!)'s worth.
And the grandmother went on to explain that the bloody sheet from her wedding night was still in her cupboard although I must admit, I was rather glad she didn't produce it!
We often comment on the way men treat women in some Muslim countries. We never know how the women really feel about the men there and it is not very pretty. Basically, women don't talk about men. To them, they're just lustful neanderthals. Laila's grandmother was her husband's second wife ( he had two wives). He spent two weeks with her and two weeks with the other wife. I could tell that she would have been even happier with more free time.
Later, Laila took us to the souk where a friend, Samira (not her real name); a headscarf wearing entrepreneur, owned a small henna tattoo business. It was past closing time and as she was drawing a beautiful and intricate flower on my arm, she kept talking about meeting a husband. I told her that I was surprised to hear that as she did not like men. She shrugged and said that she wanted children and that it was a necessary evil.
Later, when I mentioned that my Mum had passed away the previous year, the women asked me if my Dad had remarried. I said that he hadn't and they looked at me in utter amazement "oh that can't be". And I said "why not?". "They can't live without "it" (sex). I kept trying to explain that he just needed time, but it fell on deaf ears. As far as they were concerned, men were just a retarded breed and nothing that I could do or say could shake that belief.
So I said to Samira; "you're a virgin" . She smiled wryly; "officially, yes. But I've done other stuff". She went on to explain that she had had oral and anal sex, but as far as the bloody bed sheet is concerned "wink, wink", she's "safe".
It occurred to me that I had never discussed anal sex with my friends before. The fact that the first time I did was with a headscarf wearing woman and within half an hour of knowing her, the irony wasn't lost on me.
What goes on in the women's world, remains in the women's world. Whatever happens there, stays there so you can talk freely, do what you want - it is safe to be whoever you want to be.
It is a good job that women in Morocco are separated from men in all areas of their lives, weddings, rearing children, social occasions etc.; for 90% of the time, they're free to do whatever they want to do.
It was surprising to see the headscarf wearing entrepreneur being close friends with the prostitute. Never in the Western world would these two women meet, let alone be friends. That would jeopardise their status. But there, in a supportive/judgement-free zone, women have your back no matter what.
In some ways, they were freer than I was.
As I was watching OITNB in continued awe and musing at the inventive way women would "lay down the law"; The kitchen head serves Piper a "used tampon" sandwich . It occurred to me that the writers had done to do an enormous amount of work on the characters - clearly, no man would have written this!
It also made me question the way I deal with female characters in my screenplays. I was reviewing in my head my latest completed screenplay and I couldn't help but feel that the male characters were that little bit more complex. Actually, I often praise myself for writing such compelling male characters that you can't really tell that it was written by a woman. I remember beaming with pride when a male actor friend of mine commented on how it looked like it had been written by a man. Now it feels more like a terrible case of low self-esteem.
Writers are supposed to reflect on the human experience, but how can we when we are transcribing it as a bird flying with just the one wing?
John Truby, a well know screenwriting teacher (John Truby) once commented that the person who would write a screenplay solely based upon feminine values would be onto a money spinner as this had never been done before.
It sounds true although part of me doesn't want it to turn into a bird flying with just the "other" wing. I guess, there is so much for us to discover and learn that it doesn't matter if that drop into the ocean turns into a river. I, for one am rather excited as to what we're going to find.
Time to come out of the closet then...
"Female partnership" - Taylor Schilling (as Piper Chapman) and the real Piper Kerman