Songs for the Struggling Artist


In which my tolerance for sexism in theatre reaches a breaking point
September 20, 2012, 4:45 pm
Filed under: art, education, Gender politics, theatre | Tags: , , ,

Listen. I try not to let institutionalized sexism get me down. While I certainly notice it, I usually manage to keep my frustration in check. But tonight, as I watched Peter and the Starcatcher, I think the well of goodwill was finally drained. Drop by drop, over the years, the multitude of all male productions, or shows with only 1 or 2 women (good sometimes, if you can ignore the lack of humanity written into the women’s parts) or all the shows with eight men and two women, never the opposite, had depleted my stores of goodwill, so there wasn’t much left by the time I saw this show. So this is not just about Peter & the Starcatcher. This show was just the final drop out of the well.

And listen – I could have managed with this one, even as I counted the number of men onstage who had jobs (11) versus the number of women (1) or as I counted the creative team (Directors, Writers, Movement, Designers – 7 men, 2 women.) I could have dealt with the fact that as a much as I admire the movement director, Steven Hoggett’s work, all of it seems to have gender numbers like this (Black Watch – all male, Beautiful Burnout – 5 men, 2 women.) I could have dealt with the only other female character in this show being played in drag, for laughs. Or the entire cast dressed up in drag for a little comic number – cause nothing’s funnier than men pretending to have comical boobs. Right, ladies? Am I right? Especially those boobs made out of baby bottles, oh yeah.

Any one of these things, or any combination of them, would have just washed over me like unpleasant water over a duck’s back, as it’s all just business as usual on our American stages, but towards the end, something socked me in the gut, made me gasp and the well of goodwill ran dry. This was when the heroine of the piece (at least the one girl was a heroine) was dismissed entirely with an insulting, demoralizing, sexualizing and objectifying line. It went like this: When she objected to being demoted from her rightful place as the true hero of the piece (by virtue of being smarter, faster, stronger and a better leader) she was summarily dismissed with:

“And I bet your milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.”

Which shut her right up. And the audience laughed. Ha ha. They recognized that old pop culture reference! Or maybe some of them find it hilarious to see an adult male character making fun of a 13 year old character’s breasts. But in any case, the character, formerly bold and brave and interesting, was silenced – demoted from her role as hero and sent off to go get married and have babies. No trouble anymore.

And if this weren’t EXACTLY what happens to most righteous amazing girls on the brink of adulthood, maybe it wouldn’t sting so badly, but wow is it awful to see happening before one’s eyes. Or maybe it wouldn’t be so awful if the piece were actually grappling with the diminishment of girls through sexual objectification – if the villain saying it to her were really a villain and not just a comic foil and his refusal to acknowledge girls’ heroic qualities might have some meaning. Instead, it’s a total reinforcement. It’s well documented that something happens to girls at this age. They stop speaking up. They start to believe they can’t do math or science. They develop eating disorders. They lose a spark.

Because of Peter and the Starcatcher‘s ending, I would hate to have any young girl come to see this (otherwise imaginative) show. Or any young boy, for that matter. Prior to this moment, I would have happily brought along a young person, despite my frustrations, but after, no way. It has too much potential to have the same silencing effect on a kid watching the piece. That’s damage I would like to avoid for a growing person if I could. I took it personally and I’m a grown-up lady. It is personal, to a degree. I have had the experience of being dismissed in just this way, so it does get right under my skin. Especially since the line is so unconscious and so tossed off. And I guess I don’t need some asshole in a fake mustache diminishing the sexual development of a young girl in the midst of what would otherwise be a harmless vaudevillian romp.

And I’m fed up. I saw this show as part of my job at TDF where I teach young people who see high profile Broadway and Off-Broadway shows here in NYC. In the three years that I’ve been at TDF, I’ve taught: a musical with an all male cast (with one non-speaking woman), an exclusively male cast, a show with 8 men and 2 women, a show with 5 women, one girl – And 28 men. And just to break the odds, a show with 5 men and 6 women.  (Thank you, John Guare.) And I haven’t done the official numbers, but I’m gonna guess that these ratios are pretty much the norm for Broadway and the like. In response to the frustration I feel about this, I do my own personal damnedest to even out the odds, making work with all or mostly women but I despair at the chances of my work or any woman’s work like it being performed at the highest, most profitable level. I feel like I’m fighting a serious losing battle and no one’s talking about it or even acknowledging that there might be a gender problem in theatre.

At least not in our country. In the UK, the extraordinary Stella Duffy has bravely and boldly continued to raise questions on this front and I am intensely grateful for her insight and perseverance. You should read her blog entry about the gender ratios in the UK. I particularly love her idea of seeking to balance out the gap with her ticket buying power.

 For every show with only or mostly men on stage I will buy tickets to three more with only or mostly women. For every time I attend another play written by another usual suspect bloke (some of whom are men I’m personally very fond of, as well as their work!) I will make the effort to hunt out (because it often is an effort) and support the work of a new (which doesn’t always mean young!) woman playwright. And for every time a theatre continues to slap me in the face by programming yet another season of work by and showing men – I may just choose to go to another theatre. We are the monstrous regiment of ticket buyers, we should use that power.

I’m up for giving this a shot. It’s time to get seriously intentional about supporting women. If you’re reading this, I hope you’ll do it too.

*** CODA ***

I wrote this yesterday. Today, I had an experience that is a most strange little addition to this theme.

We had our meeting about this show at TDF today and I couldn’t help but mention my big frustration with the show. While no one else seemed to have seen it in the same way, we had an interesting chat about gender politics and I was, at least, heard. While I was talking about this, our new boss at TDF came in and sat behind me, not saying anything, just present. The conversation turned. We moved on to other topics. We began brainstorming themes and ideas for exercises and the new boss interrupted the flow of people’s contributions to ask me what I thought. I wasn’t quite ready to share. I was still trying to figure out how to frame my thoughts, so I said, “Well – I’m obsessed with gender at the moment, so. ..” and he interrupted me to say, “We all are. Men. Women. I’m looking at your breasts right now.” At which point I turned red, opened my eyes in surprised and said, “Uh. . .” since I’d been in mid-sentence. I tried to just keep talking, because I refused to be silenced in the same way that the character in the show was, and I heard, under my stammering, a sort of footnote to his comment of “And I’m gay!”

Now, of course, in hindsight, I wish I’d been able to stop right there in that moment and say: “And this is EXACTLY my point. Thank you for demonstrating to EVERYONE here how it’s done. That was a princely demonstration of sexism and precisely what happened in the piece. Do you have some instructions about how to file a sexual harassment claim? Because this would be a great example. And there’s such a nice assortment of witnesses. Does anyone have any doubt now that this is, in fact, how men in positions of authority shut women down? And by the way, your sexual orientation has NOTHING to do with it. I would point out that the villain in the piece was also disinterested in women and that did not stop him being a sexist jerk.”

But of course, I just stammered and tired to complete my earlier thought, not terribly effectively, I have to say and I pretended (along with the rest of the room) that nothing had happened. Classic trauma behavior, y’all.

The question is, what to do now. File a complaint? Talk to my immediate (female) supervisor? Let it slide? Just publish the man’s name and let the internet at him?

I’m not in that office very often. Maybe two or three times a year? So it’s not as if I’ll have to see this clod on a regular basis. If I did, I would absolutely take action tomorrow. But I’m a part time employee, working “at will” which means they can fire me at any time for any reason at all.

What would you do?

* Just a note (many days later)  to those who’ve just seen this now. The update on all of this is posted here: http://artiststruggle.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/what-happened-when-i-wrote-it-down/

*And here’s where I responded to a commenter who loved the show: http://artiststruggle.wordpress.com/2012/10/07/in-case-you-missed-it-buried-in-the-comments/

*And here’s what my students thought of it: http://artiststruggle.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/but-the-kids-loved-it/

*And here’s my response to all my friends who began beating themselves up for their “complacency” after reading my blog: http://artiststruggle.wordpress.com/2012/10/10/the-woman-in-the-room-or-complacency-vs-i-am-a-strident-feminist/

*My thoughts about all this a year later:

Part 1:  http://artiststruggle.wordpress.com/2013/09/23/its-my-harassment-versary/

Part 2: http://artiststruggle.wordpress.com/2013/10/19/my-harrasment-versary-part-2-progress-report-of-women-in-american-theatre/

Part 3: http://artiststruggle.wordpress.com/2013/11/22/the-weird-internet-fame-of-crappy-things-happening-to-you/


48 Comments so far
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well, yeah, i think the right thing to do comes in two steps: the first one of which has already been blown – to call the guy out right there in the room, and base upon his reaction decide whether to file your claim or not. (raise your hand if you’ve never blurted out something that you can’t effing believe you even THOUGHT, much less said.) because the public humiliation for him, and the instructive moment for the group might be satisfaction enough. and face it, short that filing the charge and making his life a well-deserved nightmare for the next few months will do little to advance your professed cause anyway. in fact, office politics being what they are, it’s probably counter-productive without a public version of “the rest of the story”.

so now that THAT opportunity has passed – and let’s face it, effective leaders possess the ability to think and react quickly even when surprised, gender be damned – all other choices are bastard children. probably the best result at this point is to offer the guy his choice of a public explanation of and apology for his sophomoric and abusive behavior, or a legal thrashing and likely unemployment. the best bet for BOTH of you is door #1.

and you’re right. his orientation has squat to do with it, and he probably thought it was an effective shield that would allow him to have his “fun”. he may even have felt that, coming from him (in his mind, anyway) the remark had both outrageousness AND irony that somehow made it alright to use it to ILLUSTRATE the point with impunity since he wasn’t sexually motivated. which isn’t more than half the problem anyway, right? it’s about the power, not the sex.

it really is too bad that the first best option was not exercised. SO much more effective to fight power with power. especially when it is the one tool that the people who MOST need to learn to respect women often understand. you may have noticed they aren’t so good with “subtle”. and one of the best ways to signal that you will not tolerate being abused is to stop acting like a victim. and yes, i know, i know. you shouldn’t have to, he was the one in the wrong, i get it, i do, i do. you’re right. and you WILL have your well-deserved equality eventually, even with lousy tactics.

i have my kevlar on. flame away.

Comment by Jim Carroll

It’s important to note that, as with the play and the writers response, these statements are often meant to shut women down and to shut them up. And it works. In the moment, one is so shocked and embarrassed that the opportunity for confrontation can easily pass before the woman is able to collect herself, gather her resources and speak up. I think it’s important for us to have practice runs with this kind of situation so that we have the resources to speak already gathered and ready when the moment strikes. Sadly, we often don’t do that work until long after the events occur, or after many have occurred. Those of us who bear witness should also gather our resources in these moments to speak on behalf of our friends and colleagues when they are unable to.

Comment by sevrin

“stop acting like a victim”
Although you make some valid points, I think some of your post goes too far into the realm of victim-blaming, and also contains a few comments that are pointlessly insulting to the writer, such as the implication that she obviously isn’t a “leader.” Although you say that you “get it,” I wonder if it’s really possible for you to understand the feelings of a woman in this situation. (I’m assuming from both your name and the tone of your post that you are in fact a man. Please let me know if you’re not, because that would be very interesting.)

Remember that every woman goes through a lifetime of bodily self-consciousness that is supported by major social institutions. Every woman has been harrassed at many points in her life. Every woman has heard strangers’ comments about her body. Every woman has heard women viciously and collectively referred to as “bitches,” “sluts,” and “ho’s.” These experiences take their toll. In the subconscious background of all this is the implicit threat of rape, which is why women often react to this kind of situation with an immediate sensation of fear. Add to this the fact that the jerk is her boss. Add to that the specific environment: have you ever had to face a sexual insult in the middle of your workplace, in front of other people, coming from someone who has direct power over you? If you can imagine this situation, as a woman, with all of a woman’s history behind it, perhaps you can imagine that you might also have been flustered.

Some women are able to deal with this kind of thing easily; most of us aren’t, which is why these problems have persisted for so long.

Sevrin makes a great point: we need practice to be able to stand up to this kind of thing effectively. But we would all like to think that the seemingly nice people we work with, especially in a creative field, are not going to behave like this, so when it happens, it’s disorienting.

Comment by harriedcostumer

Jim – I agree. I would have paid for a front row seat to see her rip this guy a new one right then and there.

But maybe she didn’t because she (unlike her boss) was actually thinking through the ramifications of blurting out the first thing that came into her mind.

Maybe her boss’s comment landed the gut punch it was aiming for and shut her down for a while.

Maybe she thought, “This is my boss – my job could be at stake. I’d better tread carefully.”

In the end, she removed herself from the situation and asked friends and colleagues for advice about what to do next. That sounds pretty reasonable to me.

But really? The question of what she should or shouldn’t have done is irrelevant.

It’s the year two thousand and freakin’ twelve. A woman should be able to attend a meeting at her place of business without her boss announcing to all present that he’s staring at her boobs.

It’s that simple.

Comment by scott

Jim, I have to say that your condescending comments, even though apparently well meant, are another attack. MOST WOMEN ARE TRAINED TO BE NICE. I don’t expect you to get this at the kind of gut level that only comes from experience, as you’re not a woman. Given that you feel free to advise a woman in this situation, though, I do expect you to exercise a little imagination and genuinely try to put yourself in very different shoes before tut-tutting that she didn’t do what you would have done. Most women are specifically taught NOT to fight, NOT to punch back, NOT to allow their instincts to rule their tongue, and, frankly, NOT to allow themselves to in any way seriously conflict with, or cause inconvenience, discomfort, or embarrassment to others – or at least, not to men. To do any of those things, no matter how appropriate such actions might be – and especially to do them in a shocking, blindsiding moment such as that described – goes diametrically against YEARS of training and expectations hammered into women by our society. You are assuming a freedom of action that rarely exists after what we’re put through – and the deadening of that freedom starts to appear in most girls just at the age, and for exactly the reasons, that the writer points out. Having read this, I’ll never take a kid to see this show either. In sum: please, before you decide to advise any more women, stop and think through how very alien our experience is from yours.

Comment by BR

Yes, victim blaming is amazing, always right, and if woman just would buck up and act more like men, the world will be a more fair and equal place! Obvi! Clearly you’re completely and totally winning at fairness and equity when you use your precious time to blame women for their reactions to sexual harassment in the workplace. Kudos on that.

The fact is, Jim, that you will never ever know what its like to be a woman in this situation. In fact, you likely will never know what its like to be in this situation, period, because you have been blessed with the penis that gives you all that wonderful common sense you’re spewing. For future trolling on women’s blogs, I’d suggest reading some more lit on sexual harassment and sexual assault so that next time you can have one hot clue about what you’re talking about.

Comment by are you joking?

Wow. That is an ASTONISHING thing for any man, gay or straight or bi or whatever to say, whether publicly or privately. It is NOT ok and you could, if you choose, deal with it. Of course these things are sometimes said jokingly, between friends, but that was not the situation you were in. If you can bear it, speak to him. Suggest that he’s got gender and sexuality mixed up – gender is male/female and the fluidity between, sexuality is anything sexualised in our culture (eg, breasts). That while it can be appropriate to speak about men/women, and especially, in this context, the male gaze, it is NEVER appropriate to take gender and sexualise it in the way he has. (unless with a sexual partner, maybe …) It was rude, it was belittling, and HIS sexuality has no bearing on the issue.
And sometimes, when we speak honestly and openly about how we feel on these issues (and yes, it’s always those of us who speak up who then have to bear more of the burden, ah well, that’s our good fortune for being aware!) we DO make a difference. Maybe not for ourselves, but for those to come.
Often it’s quite simply a matter of asking would he use the same words in a context where race was the issue. A white man and a black man talk about race. The white man says “I know, I think about race all the time, I mean, I can’t take my eyes off your black skin!” – now that may, in some cases, be true (!) – but I suspect most people have more awareness than to be so crass, and so objectifying.
Thank you for linking to my piece, and thank you for this piece.

Comment by stelladuffy

Wow. Great post and this is some really intense stuff. I would go to your immediate female supervisor. Maybe not do a claim, but i think it should be addressed. Even if you do only see him 2-3 times a year, this is not right EVER. So sorry about this. Argh, this world. We have so far to go!

Comment by Mino Lora

There are laws that exist to protect your job even after filing a suit against your employer. If you feel like he was making that environment hostile for you (which it sounds like he was) by all means, sue.

Comment by A Lady

Clearly the boss was trying to provoke, if you are going to be provocative, you might just get a response…and you’d better be prepared for the response. File a claim. Take a page from your own book, he’ll do it again and again and he’ll be teaching all the other people in the room that’s it’s just fine…don’t participate in a cover-up.

Comment by Andrea Shane

I am so moved by this piece and the responses to it. It makes this old bleeding-heart feminist feel good to know that young women and men today are still outraged by this behavior.

But it also saddens me that we are all still fighting the good fight. I agree, file a claim. Good luck and THANK YOU.

Comment by Nan Gilbert

Set up a meeting to talk to him. I think he might have been trying to support you, and it feels so foreign to both of you that it came out in an awkward way. That made you both self-conscious and ended up not helping, but don’t give up on him yet.

1. He sat behind you, literally having your back.
2. He made a point of asking you how you felt about something, making sure your voice was heard. This is huge.
3. He validated your point in his own awkward way. By pointing out that he – as a gay man who should not be distracted by such things – is still guilty of sexually objectifying a woman, he was agreeing with you!

When you are used to everything being a fight, you can start interpreting peaceful gestures as hostile. I have done it countless times. Give him the benefit of the doubt and you may come out of this with an ally.

Comment by beentheredonethatmom

At the risk of diminishing what was an outstanding original post about the state of parity in theatre today, I find myself at the moment mostly reacting to the addendum. What shocking behavior. The fact that the boss is gay is irrelevant. The threshold for sexual harassment is what is received, not what is intended. There is a curious, unspoken understanding that the rules of behavior don’t apply in the theatre (performance creation for sure and clearly adminsitration as well). Sure, as theatre workers we want to push the envelope in terms of what is acceptable in order to faciliatate change and illustrate the condition. And it is because we work in theatre that we want to connect to people and often fastrack these connections with others because we feel we can or have to (in a rehearsal, perhaps). What I would say to someone I have known for a long time would be different than something I would say to someone new to me. I have found myself saying something at work (because I feel that I am surrounded by co-workers who are also friends) that perhaps I shouldn’t and immediately follow it with a “oops. Inappropriate workplace comment”. We have to remember that this where we work. I hope that I can learn from it and I can recognize when I am overstepping. I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for you to imagine addressing, but I truly hope that you do. Especially someone in a leadership position needs to know that this is not ok. Someone recommended going to your immediate female supervisor. Ultimately, of course, go to whomever you feel you can go to, but I would be sad if you can’t go to your immediate supervisor, regardless of gender. That would indicate to me a more pervasive atmosphere of not feeling safe…and we all deserve to be safe. Ironically, I have been told by a co-worker that my organization will be publishing an article on sexual harassment in the theatre in November. Thanks for sharing both parts of this post.

Comment by Dale Albright

I love this post. As an actor, playwright, and theatre-goer, it really made me think. While I agree with some commenters above that the most effective action would have been to call him out on his comment then and there, I completely understand your response in the moment; to be caught off-guard like that, even while talking about that very issue, is understandable.
I’m very upset that the moment in PatSC that you described exists in a new production. While it’s expected to see that kind of (albeit old-fashioned) degradation in ye olde theatre pieces, I would hope that contemporary shows would be a little better. If they NEEDED to degrade her (though I don’t know why they would. Because she’s a soon-to-be woman, perhaps?), I agree that the writers could have easily countered such a disgusting statement with the young woman beating the odds anyway. I was so excited about PatSC, but I’m a little turned off now…

Comment by Rachel

Thank you for this thoughtful piece–I’ve often felt that I’m the only one who notices the wide disparity between men’s and women’s roles in theater, and I’m glad to find out it isn’t just me. I can name so many examples of just the kind of thing you describe. The most recent one was a German production of “Macbeth” I saw last week–it was yet another modernized, cut-down classic, with all the speaking female roles reduced to one (as if any Shakespeare script is overloaded with women).

My experience has been that most writers consider male characters the “default,” and they have to make a conscious choice to write a character as female.

Comment by harriedcostumer

Complain! Totally inappropriate.

Comment by me

I would meet with the boss and explain how I feel. If he doesn’t apologize, I would file a complaint.

Comment by Allie Kay

There’s nothing about this situation that doesn’t stink – and it’s so frustrating to be the only one in the room who can smell it! To be the person surfing down a heap of bullshit while others say “What? I don’t smell anything.”

Despite the stench, I’m doing my best to take a deep breath instead of punching my computer or burying my head in my hands.

I need to respond to Jim’s comment above that you “blew it” by not calling out your boss in the moment. Sure, wouldn’t it be great if we could all be confident and eloquent all the time? Wouldn’t it be great if no one ever said something completely repugnant and idiotic? And wouldn’t it be great to have the support of the other people in the room, who have the benefit their objectivity?

It would be great. It would have been great in your meeting. But sister, a surefire way to make this worse is to beat yourself up about how your shock manifested itself. Now you have that delicious Hindsight Speech in your back pocket to whip out when something like this happens to you again. Call me a pessimist, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this is not going to be an isolated incident in the life of a young, smart, female artist. As another young, smart, female artist, thank you for writing this! Because now I have your words in my back pocket, too, for when this happens to me.

But I have to tell you, YOU didn’t blow it. That production blew it, and your boss blew it, and you just happened to be there to receive it. None of that is your fault. Next time, you’ll receive it and then spit it back out. That will be great! And I can’t wait to read the blog post about it.

PS. I heartily recommend Caitlin Moran’s book “How to Be a Woman.” There is a whole chapter on “how to tell if some sexism is happening to you” and what to do about it, including an delightfully ingenious idea of fighting sexism by pointing and laughing.

Comment by Amy Clare Tasker

Exactly. She didn’t “blow it” and it’s not her job to police her f*#%ing BOSS. MEN KNOW BETTER. Stop blaming your bad behavior on us. He HAD to have known that was inappropriate–it is not her place to school him, it’s his job to act like a professional and a supervisor. But I’ve noticed a lot of theater guys want to believe they’re somehow exempt from the boundaries that the rest of the professional world is expected to observe.

Comment by Cee

THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS!

Comment by Lauren Gunderson (@LalaTellsAStory)

Great post! This is something I am constantly expressing frustration with. I live in a city where theater is not well funded which means paying roles are scarce and the talent pool is overwhelmingly female. Every year I am shocked by the male heavy shows that show up at the few venues that pay. I just played karen in August Osage county and one of my actor friends complained that the play was to female centric. When there are roles were for women, they often fit a stereotype of bitch, slut or doormat. Three dimensional female roles are just too few and far between. Thank you for posting this. As far as the boob comment, I would sit him down and talk. He needs to understand that although he may have been trying for irony, he was a pig.

Comment by Renee, The Sober Party Girl

If it makes you feel any better (and it probably won’t), I’m middle-aged and didn’t get the stupid milkshake joke AT ALL. So probably young people won’t either. (Let’s hope.) I was frustrated by the imbalance in male and female roles in the show. But I was also inspired by the young female character, despite her being shut up and going off to have babies, including Wendy–oh, isn’t that CUTE!?

So I think that young girls (and boys) will still admire her, even if she’s the only one and even if she gets shut out. She’s still super-cool.

As for the real fellow in the story, I don’t know what you ought to do, but you’re right: classic shut-down, sexist, and most likely either illegal or borderline.

Comment by Susan Russell

The milkshake joke is a reference to a song that (for some inexplicable reason) was popular among younger listeners a few years ago. It wasn’t targeted at people over 30. The younger audience members will get it. And many of them will find it funny. Sadly. I’ve worked in theaters and public schools. Trying to combat institutionalized -isms is depressingly difficult — but continue to fight we must.

Comment by Brad

Thank you for this brave posting! I think each moment like the one with that guy is an opportunity — what happened to you in the moment was that it became of moment for some serious reflection. And that’s a good thing.

The next moment you may speak up. You may fuck up, you may feel like you made a mistake, whatever. But I encourage you to trust your thinking — whatever that can mean in the next moment. And the next moment doesn’t need to be reactive to some sexism coming at you, but rather you setting your own agenda from your own mind. What do you think makes sense to do? What support do you need to gather and organize around you to make it happen, so you don’t get slammed when you do speak? Or if you do get slammed, you have a net of support around you so it isn’t as hard on you.

Stuff happens like that all the time to us as women. I get scared a lot when it comes up. I’ve been pushing myself to trust my thinking — and push in the direction of remembering what my thinking even is. Part of sexism is the complete and utter invalidation of the female mind. It’s vicious, and all too often, rendered invisible. All the more insidious. And our charge is to also fight the internalized sexism (with a gang of friends around us) that also helps keep patriarchy in place. Sometimes I get so angry and I’m afraid of showing my thinking because I’m afraid people — ie, men who feel threatened by women’s thinking, and women who have struggled to support their fellow women — will reject me, be angry at me, not like me. How is it that someone’s disapproval can feel like a fate worse than death? Well, from a historical perspective, it’s completely understandable to feel that way. But, I know my own battle is to remember my mind in the face of any feelings (mine or anyone else’s) of defeat, hopelessness, anger disapproval, derision, condescension, etc.

Also, it’s absolutely shocking to me that women form the majority of theater labor — it’s a majority female industry, yet, even the 50% male to female ratio of casting, is par tof sexism because it still prioritizes men given the overwhelming majority of women in the first place! Thank you for this posting. And it’s a reminder to me, that we need to continue writing, performing, producing, self-producing, creating, and sharing our thoughts about the work as a way of really challenging the structures of sexism from macro to the micro.

Comment by Anu Yadav

Thank you for this amazing post. I am a performer and an English teacher and I hear you, sister. The first lens I teach my students to look at the world and literature through is the feminist lens. It is so necessary to take a real look at power dynamics and gender in society at large and in the literature and other texts (including plays) that we celebrate. Your discussion of silences reminds me of Audre Lorde’ s piece “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” You may have read it already, but I would suggest going back to it again. Every year, I read it with my students and ask them to write about the silences they keep. Last year, one student wrote, “We thought the silence could protect us.” It’s why we all keep silent at times. I hope he, and all of us have learned by now, though, that there is no real protection in silence.

Thanks again for sparking such an interesting and necessary conversation.

Comment by Squiddie

thank you for this honest and fantastic piece of writing.

Comment by Valerie Weak (@valerieweak)

thank you for your voice, this blog, and your choice to share what happened w/your boss. i am now more convinced than ever that the most subversive and responsible thing I can do as a female and as an actress is to continue this exact conversation with anyone I meet, anyone I love, anyone who writes, anyone who teaches, and anyone who will listen, so that the making we do when the rest of the truth-when-voiced-generates-reality that we can’t keep away from in ‘story,’ has ALL of its parts.

may i recommend a killer book that utterly shook my foundations on the place of theatre, story, politics, finances, religion and govn’t before blasting all my ceilings open? ‘when god was a woman,’ by merlin stone. it clarified in breathtaking detail why oppression of not just the feminine but the female herself is what allows our current structures to remain in place, and broke open everything i was ever taught about “what” i am.

your post calls me out. this is how we get things rolling. it’s time to become unbiddable, surefooted, and unapologetic creator-participants in making other ways of being in/with, seeing, experiencing, and creating theatre and story which belong to all of us. much as the first commenter may think it sucks not to be ready to speak during the first flushes of unexpected abuse, you’ve made space for all of us right now.

we don’t talk into voids. audiences are changing. your writing is changing/me. keep on, pretty please, and now i will too. Z

Comment by Zillah Glory

This is great. I shared it everywhere. I hope that people read it and start to understand what we are up against. As for your boss, I’d file a formal complaint. I don’t think we can just take this kind of shit anymore from men, gay or otherwise. I’m really sorry you had to go through this. Ugh.

I now have less than zero desire to see Peter and the Starcatcher, so there’s that.

Comment by Kari

I would have to disagree with this post. Peter and the Starcatcher is anything but sexist. It’s set during a time when women were looked down upon, which is what makes Molly such a strong, admirable character. Despite society’s restrictions and the fact that she’s the only girl in the cast, she still manages to be the true hero, and Peter often points that out. The fact that Blackstache dismisses her at the end isn’t surprising, considering the time period. He’s the show’s villain- why would anyone expect him to be open minded about women’s rights?

Comment by Sara (of the Page Sage)

Sara, I’ve seen your blog and understand that you are a big fan of Peter and the Starcatcher and get the sense that you may, in fact, be a young person yourself. As a theatre maker, I am thrilled that you loved a piece of theatre so much that you felt compelled to defend its honor here. May we all feel so much love for the shows that move us! I have no desire to take that love away from you. And actually, I’m going to suggest that you stop reading this reply now. I’m not really writing it for you (I would rather you go on loving the show than convince you otherwise) but I felt I needed to respond to you because I know you are not alone in your affection for the show and your bafflement about what in the heck I’m talking about. For those people who are still wondering what I’m on about with this show, I felt I should respond to what you’ve placed here.
You’re right. Molly is a strong, admirable hero. But the show sells her short, first, by dismissing her as soon as she becomes a woman, then ultimately by banishing her from the stage. And Peter’s repeated line that “She’s the real hero” doesn’t actually help with that problem. To me, those lines are a bit like Xander proclaiming to the villain that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the real hero (or some more contemporary reference- it sucks that this is the most recent female hero I can think of) OR to gender switch it, it’s like Robin saying to the villain that Batman is the real hero. Of course Buffy and Batman are the heroes, we’ve just experienced a whole story in which they’ve been at the center, behaving heroically. But neither Buffy nor Batman would be silenced, married off and then banished from the stage while Xander or Robin takes over.
I’m glad you enjoyed the show and glad that you found Molly heroic but I guess I wonder if you would have enjoyed it even more if, after the villain dismisses her, she’d kicked him in the balls, for example, or gotten into a rockin’ sword fight with him where she either wins (yay!) or loses, and dies a hero (sad for the loss, but a much more heroic end for an heroic figure.) The show that is on stage is very different than that and I believe that it is 100% the creators’ right to make it that way and 100% your right to enjoy it. I just didn’t. Not at all.
Here’s how I experienced Molly’s story: You’re fierce and fearless as a girl. You’re heard. You’re a leader. You don’t take any nonsense. Then, one day, the world notices you’re a woman now and starts treating you as a sexual object (just a pair of tits, or a milkshake) and before you know it, you’re not fighting your own battles anymore. You’re hustled from the stage by a patriarch while the young man next to you, who hasn’t done much of anything (aside from learn what you taught him) is elevated to the hero’s position, literally lifted on the shoulders of men, his name in the title, while you disappear unnamed.
I think the show is very realistic in enacting the very thing that often happens to young women, I just don’t think it knows it’s doing it.
I wouldn’t discourage a friend from going to see it, though. There’s enough inventive staging in it to justify its place on the stage. I might tell a friend not to bother with the 2nd act. Or to go with her trademarked Feminist Protection Goggles on. (If only such a thing existed!) But I would tell a friend, if she’s buying a ticket, to try and see three other shows that feature 11 women and 1 man to make up for it. The fact is that finding even ONE of those, on a big-budget stage, is impossible. And that is the big problem here.
In working with young people, I see a huge gender imbalance in the other direction. Girls outnumber boys in theatre classes at least 2 to 1, if not more. If you’ve ever seen a middle school musical, you probably saw 23 girls and 2 boys populating the cast. The enthusiasm and joy of girls in the theatre is palpable, exciting and inspiring. But teaching them, I am often torn in two directions:
1) I’d love to for them to be able to chase after this thing they love (what I love, too, we’re the same!) to become more vibrant, richer human beings for their exposure to the art
but
2) I know that the odds are stacked against them as soon as they become women. As a culture, we are betraying them and their future by creating a professional theatre with no place for them.
I often feel I’m selling girls a false promise when when they fall in love with theatre under my watch. Or maybe not a false promise, just a recipe for heartache and frustration. The odds are in NO ONE’S favor for a career in theatre, man or woman, but, those odds get even more outrageously skewed once you add being female into the mix. And that’s true for actors, directors, writers and designers (and probably quite a few other positions, too, shout ‘em out, Internet!) You sign up for a career in theatre as a woman, you sign up for either denial (these are usually the lucky ones) or frustration. I’m not sure which of those I’d recommend sometimes. I would almost prefer not to notice the myriad ways the American theatre sells women short, but awareness comes with its rewards, too. And one of those rewards is getting to think deeply about stuff and maybe make a difference in changing it.

Fundamentally, my hope for the theatre is that it can give us new possibilites rather than thoughtlessly enacting the old ones. I think we can be better. Our stock and trade is the imagination. We can use those powers for good, right?!

Comment by erainbowd

You could consider using a rendition of the line: “I’ve been thinking…” when you talk to the person who made the comments. It would probably be good if someone was nearby to hear the conversation. It would be hard but there is no shame in re-entering a previous conversation, owning what you wish you’d been able to say, and then saying it. Depending on his response, you can then decide (and tell him) whether you will report it to your boss or not. I’m sorry this happened. And sadly, it happens a lot. Sometimes, even if it seems silly, it helps to practice.

Comment by Andrea Bredbeck

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Because I know your boss, I hope I can add a little perspective, which will not excuse his behavior but possibly open up further dialogue. A lot of gay guys, especially ones of his generation, grew up having to hide all their thoughts and sensibilities. As a result, we (I include myself in this category) cherish environments where we can speak what’s on our mind, when it’s on our minds. We also use outrageousness as a way of breaking through obstacles (be they bullies, social structures, or something as seemingly simple as the discomfort that comes from getting to know new people). My hunch is that, however misguided his comment was, he thought it would endear you to him instead of hurt you. Obviously the opposite happened. Again I certainly am not trying to excuse his behavior but maybe knowing where the behavior comes from will help you find a way to address the issue with him.

Comment by Taylor Mac

It sounds like you’ve got the best take on the situation from this man’s perspective. But it’s important to understand the context. This incident did not take place on a level playing field. It was an interaction between an employee and a boss.

Part of this man’s identity may be as a “gay man who cherishes being able to speak his mind and sometimes expresses himself outrageously.” And that’s great – speaking your mind and saying outrageous things (and sometimes offending) is what the theater is for.

But at some point he also chose to take on the mantle of “educational administrator for a non-profit corporation.” And in that position, he is not only responsible for maintaining a professional workplace environment, but he wields a significant influence on the livelihoods of the teaching artists he employs.

Here’s how things work for the teaching artists I know: The teaching artists are generally freelancers. They make their living working for a number of organizations. They don’t have a steady gig, but they work on an hourly basis at the pleasure of an education director who hands out short-term assignments from semester to semester.

That means how much work you get in a given month – or whether you work at all – is entirely dependent on your standing with the education director. There’s not a “process” for firing someone – you just don’t hand them any more work.

On the other hand, an education director is typically a full-time administrative position with salary, benefits, and a certain standing within the organization.

You can see the imbalance this creates. The teaching artists are not on any kind of an equal footing with the administrator. A comment like that might be cheeky or endearing in a context in which no one’s livelihood is at stake. But in a situation where the subtext (intended or not) is “I’m what stands between you and the job that you need,” that same comment can be oppressive.

Comment by scott

Absolutely agree Scott and had no intention of suggesting otherwise. I don’t think his comment was cheeky or endearing. I’m just offering context as to why he might have done it. I agree his sexuality makes no difference in how inappropriate and unprofessional it was but I think it’s useful, if the writer wants to come to an understanding with him–and I’m not suggesting she should–to think about his comment in terms of sexism and homophobia. .

Comment by Taylor Mac

Reblogged this on stars in my hands and commented:
I am invigorated and ashamed. Invigorated that my sister in theater is making sure we keep talking about this. Ashamed that I have become complacent and forgotten that I care as much about this as she does.

Comment by Amanda McRaven

I’m also invigorated by this discussion and really glad you are writing and talking about this, Emily. I’m sitting here with some Theatre of the Oppressed NYC colleagues (Sophie Nimmannit and John Leo!) and we’re thinking that this comment chain and the post the inspired it is a bit like a forum theatre dialogue–and the problem is definitely a forum-able one. It would be amazing to create a forum play on gender in the theatre and in arts ed with the actors in this story–what if you, we, all of us could put a forum on in the TDF offices? or where else could it be? that would be kind of crazy…

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Thank you for writing that. PLEASE message me on Facebook if you would be willing to speak about gender equity in casting at a NYC event I am producing on March 19, 2013! Small stipend could be arranged.

Comment by Gael Schaefer

I was just talking about some of what this thread touches on with an actress friend of mine. The part about sexism in theatre (I would go so far as to say institutionalized misogyny) is the part I mean. This frustrated the heck out of me when I was acting – especially in regard to comedy. As for the work event, and what would you do…I am so sorry you had that experience. I honestly do not know how I would handle it because a lot would depend on my relationship with the man who said it. If you feel that you cannot do your job because of his attitude, then you need to address it. If you do not feel that his ignorant comment really will impede what you want to do at that job (hold you back/prevent you from achieving what you are there to achieve), then I would probably not address it with a superior. Definitely talking to him about it would be an option if you have that kind of relationship. But you will do what is right for you, I am certain of that! Generally, I try to take Tina Fey’s advice, if he’s in your way, you have to deal with it. If he isn’t, just do your work and move on.

Comment by Jeanne

I feel like it is easier for us to culturally deal with the sexual harassment you mentioned at the end rather than the structural sexism you encounter in the shows you have to attend for your job. I can only hope that eventually the “societally allowed” outrage at the harassment will transfer to the structural problems in the near future. Be glad you’ve gotten so much attention for this, fighting the good fight!

Comment by Lucy Walker

Word. Succinctly put. Exactly.

Comment by erainbowd

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