(*Since there's no qualms about it on this one, here's your big, fat SPOILER WARNING: If you don't want to know a major plot point about Women's Studies, do not read this blog.*)
A supporting character like Melissa inherently creates problems. If you write "by the book," which none of the best writers ever do, the job of supporting characters is to inform us about the main character; what my communications professor defined as "symbolic interactionism." In other words, the similarities or differences Melissa has to the main character, Mary, are what defines her. (Mary, not Melissa. Do you hate me yet? It gets worse.)
Melissa, however, has very little direct interaction with Mary. In fact, Melissa spends most of her screen time, when she's not killing people, with Iris. If you'll allow me to invent a literary term out of thin air, Melissa is what I would call a "Tercerary Character." It breaks down like this: Mary is the "Primary Character." Iris, is the "Secondary Character" who informs the audience about Mary. Melissa is the "Tercerary Character" who informs us about Iris, who in turn is informing us about Mary. So, Melissa's effect on our view of Iris in turn effects our view of Mary.
What exactly am I trying to say here? Isn't it clear?
Of all the characters in Women's Studies, Melissa has changed the most from her original inception. In the original draft, she was purely and simply dumb; not just run of the mill dumb either. We're talking dumber than a bag of rocks. There's no nice way to say it. She said dumb things. She did dumb things. I'd like to tell you that her antics were comedy gold of the highest karat. I'd also like to tell you that a little green fairy will come to you in the night and bring you candy and flowers.
Melissa's original role was little more than padding out the academy girls' numbers and comic relief, if you're the type of person who finds dumb, blonde jokes funny. Later, when I introduced Iris into the story, Melissa stayed dumb, except it didn't quite work anymore. Why? Well, if Melissa is dumb and Iris is naive, isn't that kind of like the blond leading the blind? ("Bum-Dum-Chh!" Thank you, I'll be here all night.)
So, Melissa had to evolve, and I wasn't exactly sure what she should evolve into. My first idea (or second idea, depending on your point of view.) was to have her be exceptionally, unbelievably heartless. Perhaps, of all the academy girls, Melissa was the only one who was truly evil. If Diane was in it for the cause and Judith was in it for the passion, Melissa was in it for the kicks. She doesn't care about liberating womankind or finding herself. She just wants to create chaos. In a way, she was the "anti-frat boy:" "Let's get drunk and kill some fuckers!" Ultimately, I decided that since Melissa's primary goal was to convert Iris to the cause, this interp wasn't the best, since Iris would probably be more frightened than seduced by someone so blatantly cruel.
My next idea was to make Melissa very trendy, immature, and obsessed with beauty, the kind of girl who was afraid of stabbing too hard for fear of breaking a nail. The problem was, this just didn't seem to fit into the world I created. If she was that vain and shallow, would Melissa really give a shit about any kind of social revolution?
For auditions, I tried Melissa as stoner though that just seemed to be doing "dumb" from a different angle. I got a lot of Keanu Reeves impressions, and while it was entertaining, most of the girls exaggerated it horribly. During one woman's audition (who ironically enough didn't end up getting the role) I got a "new age" spiritual vibe I hadn't seen before. Suddenly, the picture of who Melissa was began to fall into shape.
If Iris comes from a strict Christian background, it stands to serve that it would be spiritual ideas that would pull her away from that. Melissa sees the Ross-Prentiss dogma as a spiritual path encompassing all the universe and it's energy, the future matriarchy as the patriarchy's bad karma coming back around, and the killing as a present physical sacrifice being made for the greater good of a balanced spiritual future. Of all the academy girls, I think Melissa is the happiest and most comfortable with the heinous acts she performs because she understands that without the knowledge of darkness, we could never understand or even recognize the light.
To say that Tiffany James, who's playing Melissa, has her hands full is something of an understatement. The character, while now on more solid footing than before, still has some evolution to endure. However, I think it needs an actor more than a writer to feed it. I also think Tiffany understands the balance between light and dark, and the importance of walking both paths because she seems to have done so. There's some elusive quality in her that's wild yet also wise. It's going to be interesting to see how those qualities show themselves in Melissa.