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On Gender Parity in Theater and What May Be Broken

31 Jan 2019 5:31 PM | Jenni Munday (Administrator)

by Rita Anderson 

In 2014, I bought an anthology of Contemporary Plays by Women: Outstanding Winners and Runners up (1978-1990) for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (prize deadline was September 15th). In its preface, Editor Emilie S. Gilgore wrote what is now a damning statistic: “We got in touch with Lillian Hellman and asked her to join us as a director. . . At that time, in 1978, only 7% of the plays presented across the United States were written by women. A similar situation existed in the UK. Today, 12 years later, that figure has approximately tripled.” Today, women playwrights only experience 17-19% representation, but in 1990 women’s plays were produced almost 21%. How have we lost ground in the decades since, in this, the fourth wave of feminism?

With a needed push from the theatre world for changes, “50/50 by 2020” (a little over a year away), it is refreshing, finally, to discuss the obvious: women’s right to be equally represented in contemporary American theatre and her odd absence from it. --For female playwrights the present is critical because historically she’s barely mentioned in the ranks of “classic” theatre, a sacred albeit-male canon. Today, I hope to begin a discussion on why I think parity hasn’t happened and why the issue remains problematic. Through events like Arena Stage’s The Summit, and The Kilroys, we now know women playwrights exist [*wink*] and that there is a waiting “pipeline” of talented women interested—so why aren’t women playwrights playing in theatres near you?

We inherited the culture we inhabit and clues to a deep-seated gender inequality are everywhere. Take, for example, the recent ad which pointed out the perceptual differences between strong men (“BOSS”) and strong women (“BOSSY”). While many of us fight for change, more are invested in maintaining status quo, but these are complex issues for another time. To focus on the topic at hand, suffice to say that, psychologically and socially speaking, men and women may act, speak, and even write differently, but women are not, as Freud suggests, “imperfect men without penises.” [This is not to say that all women are the same, either.]

One tenet of my argument, however, is that, in terms of decision-making styles, men statistically think in “absolutes,” while women are “situational” thinkers (decisions are made on a case by case basis). From here it is no stretch to see how, for self-preservation, a patriarchal system needs uniformity: There is one correct way to run businesses, make laws, love, and to art. This longstanding mindset and patriarchal power structure is our brick wall and it won’t be undone with polite discussion, a wish, or a prayer.

Individual giftedness aside, gender differences aren’t imaginary. In April, The Atlantic Monthly ran an article about “The Confidence Gap,” showing how men and women promote their work and themselves--and asserting that “confidence” is as important as “competence.” Rather than deconstruct Nature vs. Nurture or “why” I think men excel in this area (which the article takes a stab at addressing), I will heap more facts on the fire to show why parity will be an Olympic-sized nut to crack.

Washington D.C. theaters did band together this year to produce 44 female playwrights but, despite industry claims for big changes coming, these heavy-hitting lists still posted showcases with 0 or 1 female playwright, often out of 9 or 10 selected: The Changing Scene Theatre Northwest’s Summerplay 2014 (1 out of 9), Manhattan Theater Club (2 women to 6 men 2013-2014 and 2012-2013), Pipeline PlayLab (last year 1 of 7), Steinberg Trust (“Emerging Playwright Award,” founded in 2009 and runs every two years, first year all males to include Bruce Norris), and Summer Shorts (59E59, NYC), in 2013 1 woman, in 2014 0.

The list above fell in my lap and it makes no pretense about being exhaustive. It’s just one of those tip-of-the-iceberg glimpses that makes you despair. I cannot wait for when America becomes a “post-racial” and a “post-gender” society, but that day is not today. Gender parity makes everyone uncomfortable but it’s more than because it’s “the elephant in the room” issue. The real question isn’t, Where are all the female elephants? but Why aren’t they in the room?

The 17% Solution

While the temptation of an “easy solution” for gender parity might entail (a) a mandate that theaters contract 50/50 female/male playwrights, and (b) boycotting or (c) cutting funds for theatres that don’t comply, these measures don’t extinguish the underlying conditions that helped create female invisibility in the arts. Until these “norms” (we’ve been bombarded with and have steeped in for so long they’re absorbed) are brought back to the surface and acknowledged, the cultural lens will remain skewed and inequality will persist. We must learn to look at or “read” plays differently and to see other ways in which to “see.” Otherwise, even with “blind” submissions and with female literary managers at the helm, scripts that fit this ordained writing-style tradition will continue to be selected.

As an undergraduate psychology major, we learned that women use different conversational styles than men: we apologize more, face each other, touch, and rely on eye contact to communicate. Men’s preferred style for communication is side to side—as in from the driver’s and passenger’s seats of a car, or sitting together on the couch. There’ve been controversial studies about differences between the sexes on everything from physical strength, sexual preferences and performance, and intelligence and brain size. What’s important is whose style is being favored. . . Foucault said, “Knowledge is power,” and it follows that whoever runs the board room or classroom (writes the text books, serves as artistic directors and literary managers) dictates what is “good” and sets the agenda for what that looks like.

When feminism began, the most successful women fit in by becoming female men, laughing at jokes which were aimed at their own sex’s expense to assimilate and to show that they were “good sports.” Once inside the golden doors, those women felt privileged to listen to (if not to memorize and to copy the styles of) the sermons and lectures of journalists, novelists, and poets who operated from a foreign set of metaphors and a male-centric way of thinking. “She” learned to read (i.e. decode and encode) the male pronoun “he” as the universal referent for “mankind,” while her models—all male—sponsored phrases like, “Cold as a witch’s tit,” “Take one for the team,” and “Grow a pair.”

Until recently, women were the sole object of the gaze—and everything fell in around that worldview. It is mindboggling how all-encompassing a worldview can be, and how nearly impossible it is to change the sights on that rifle, male habits “she” accommodated and forms “she” learned, after surrendering her own, more natural way of expressing herself to blend in and feel less foreign. If unfettered, what might “her” writing style look and sound like?

(Stay tuned for Part II: “Fighting for a Female Sentence” to be posted in a few weeks)

Rita Anderson, a published and an award-winning playwright, has an MFA Creative Writing and an MA Playwriting. A national winner at Kennedy Center (KCACTF), she went on scholarship to the O’Neill.

Her plays are widely produced and she has 100 publications to
include Final Conversations, and Early Liberty, a “Top 10 Selling Play” for the international publisher (, and two books of poetry: The Entropy of Rocketman, and Watched Pots (A Lovesong to Motherhood), both of which have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Contact Rita through her website.

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