Sunday, November 26, 2006

Meeting the Mentor.

“The second time I watched the movie, I tried to imagine a man who was maybe 6 ft 2 inches, nice-looking, graying hair, delivering the lines almost the same way and I realized there would be absolutely nothing offensive. Women are expected to wrap their request in a special package. On film sets male directors don’t have to do that. Female directors do. It’s the secret misogyny of our society.”

So says Meryl Streep in a recent interview about her role in the film, The Devil Wears Prada. Streep plays the role of Miranda Priestley, allegedly based on real-life editor of Vogue US, Anna Wintour. Watching the film before I read the interview quoted above, I was struck mostly by how demanding it is to be a woman boss, or mentor. I wondered whether some version of Streep/Priestley/Wintour’s approach might not be the right one to adopt.

Lecturing in scriptwriting part-time and working with students, I’ve experienced the phenomenon of being a mentor often. When the projects are big, such as a production to take to a festival, or a film to prepare for an MNet competition, the demands on the mentor are enormous. Not for the reasons one might imagine though. Working hard isn’t part of the problem and goes with the territory. But being a female mentor has inevitable pitfalls which I’ve discovered while manoevouring through this new – for me - territory. To get people to work with you, I’ve found one has to adopt a gentle, cajoling approach, much as Streep mentions the female directors doing above. If a woman is heavy-handed in her approach, she runs the risk of being branded a hard-hearted bitch. On the other hand, if she is too gentle, she runs the risk of creating a new step in The Hero’s Journey, which is not mentioned by Joseph Cambell and Chris Vogler, who documented this wonderful blueprint for storytelling - and for life, itself. This step follows quite closely behind the one Vogler calls ‘The Meeting of the Mentor’. It is reserved mostly for women and is called ‘The Kicking the Mentor up the A***’ step. Male mentors usually don’t have to deal with this stage as their natural authority, passed down through genetic evolution it seems, makes them automatically exempt somehow. But I wonder if I’m being naïve? I’m not sure. One thing I do know is that fairly soon after I have passed on pearls of wisdom and encouraged said mentor-ee to feel confident enough to spread his/her wings for a fledgling flight, ‘The Kick the Mentor up the A***’ step kicks in.

I realized about two large projects/journeys ago that necessity demanded yet another addition to The Hero’s Journey. Shall I call this step ‘The Mentor Asserts Her Own Bony (wishful thinking) Little A***’? Watching Meryl Streep’s performance made me think about this issue again. I realize how I’ve had to assert myself as a mentor to remind said fledgling that he/she can make it on his/her own but the truth is that he/she is not quite flying solo just yet. And the velvet-clad whip – as my latest mentor-ee and I jokingly call it – has to be implemented just a little, though with perhaps less force than that Devil wearing designer shoes. This approach seems to be working for me, and once that very important commodity – respect - is re-established, the mentor can again enjoy encouraging her fledgling’s wings to grow to full strength. In fact it won’t be long before she is able to watch with satisfaction as the fledgling takes his/her first solo flight across the barren desert of the real world.

But Streep is completely on the mark in her statement above. There are few women who can get away with being hard-hearted and ruthless for long. Thank goodness not many women in positions of power have granite hearts. But I assure you, sometimes - just sometimes – a woman will have to pull that whip out of its velvet bag and crack it. Just to prove that she can, if she so chooses. And only then will she be taken seriously.

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