Songs for the Struggling Artist

The Women’s Lane

Rebecca Solnit recently posted this essay that Mary Beard wrote back in 2014. It’s about women speaking in public and the ways classical culture was built around telling women to shut up. Also about how that trend has continued.

It’s brilliant for all the reasons Mary Beard is often brilliant but the thing that feels like new information for me is the bit about women generally only being allowed to have a voice on matters that pertain to women. The one exception to the impulse to silence women is when they speak of things that are in their lane. Women are (sometimes) permitted to talk about women’s rights but not about the war.

This makes me think about Phyllis Schlafly. Or at least the Schlafly that was depicted in the (somewhat problematic) TV series, Mrs. America. Schlafly was very interested in foreign policy. One might even call her an expert in it. While I certainly wouldn’t have agreed with her about it, she did seem to know an awful lot about these things. She ran for Congress twice. And lost. But then she gained fame by campaigning against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). That is, when she started focusing on women’s issues, then folks took notice. (Much to the detriment of American women.)

I’m trying to figure out how this concept of a women’s lane applies to my own writing practice. I haven’t seen a lot of success on any subject, really – but I have seen a relative spike in recognition on subjects related to women, usually some wrong that’s been done to me or to women in general. In other words, I get listened to the most when I’ve been the victim to someone or something. I’ve always assumed that I’m just at my best when I’m fired up about feminist issues but now I’m not so sure. Is my furious writing on women noticeably better than my fired-up writing about artist’s issues or, say, PDFs? I’m not sure it is, frankly.

As a woman who struggles to be heard, to be noticed, to be recognized, I am always alert to what factors might be supporting my visibility and what factors obscure me further. I have often felt that my tendency to write plays about women, with a bald-faced feminist slant, is what has kept me shut out of the pipeline. My sense has been that theatres don’t tend to want to produce overtly feminist work. But this doesn’t square with what I’m learning about this women’s lane. Or does it? I guess, in the theatre, it’s the women’s plays that are explicit about their woman-ness that cross over into the mainstream: The Vagina Monologues, ‘Night Mother, Crimes of the Heart, Uncommon Women.

Now that I think about it, this does help me to understand something that has often felt mysterious to me. How did a play like The Vagina Monologues break through when so much of American Theatre is so hostile to women and women’s work? How was it that theatres put on seasons of almost exclusively men, and also The Vagina Monologues? It’s very logical, I realize now. You cannot get more in the women’s lane than The Vagina Monologues. It’s a kind of apotropaic magic, a spell against feminist criticism. You put on The Vagina Monologues – which is cheap to produce and markets itself and no one can excuse you of sexism for at least a few years. It is the perfect balance for your Mamet season. Most theater companies would rather produce The Vagina Monologues many times over than to produce a woman’s play about something not particularly womany.

Maybe I just need to write a play called The Woman Woman. I mean, The Women is a fabulous (and very successful) play from the 30s. Maybe it’s really just a matter of laying out the category in the title? It’s something to consider. Look forward to my upcoming trilogy: The Woman Woman, Girls and Women and Girls and Ladies in Ladyland. It can’t be so simple, can it? Honestly if this worked, I’d change so many titles in a flash.

My play about Medusa could be called Girls Getting Stoned or I could just rename any old play Women’s Bodies. Or Boobs. My next play is now called Boobs.  

This is an illustration from Oscar Wilde’s Salome. If he was a woman, he’d just have to call it Boobs.

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