Songs for the Struggling Artist

Why the Incoming Crop of Little Girl Shows Doesn’t Make Me Feel Any Better

The New York Times reported this: that due to the realization that women and girls make up the majority of the Broadway audience, there’s a whole new crop of girl-centered work on the way to Broadway. On one hand, this is good news, the future looks good for girls. I can already see all the middle schools across the land happily producing Matilda Jr or Cinderella Jr. (They’ve been doing Annie Jr for years.) Perhaps, girls will be playing girls for the first time in their middle school careers, the little lovelies. So, yes, hooray!

But on the OTHER hand – Broadway has a thing for little girls. Annie comes around again and again and now we’ll have Matilda, which appears to be a darker English Annie, filled with adorable ragamuffin children. Thus providing work for. . . Little Girls. Which we can find in many a hit show. From Les Miserables to The Secret Garden to Warhorse to Gypsy. Little girls can really make it on Broadway. And there are many women who make careers out of playing girls as well. I’ve seen Cristin Milioti play girls in Stunning, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Little Foxes. Celia Keenan-Bolger from Peter and the Starcatcher has reportedly played many many other little girls. No disrespect to the women making careers out of being girls (I’m glad you’re working!) but I’d like to see some damn WOMEN on the Broadway stage sometime, please!

And what happens to little girls who tear up the stage? Do they get to grow up and mature before our very eyes? Do we get to see them tear up the stage as women? Not much. Daisy Eagan won a Tony in 1991 when she was 11 years old. Here’s her recent tweet that tells you what she’s up to. My friend Lydia Ooghe started in Les Miserables, moved on to the little girl in Secret Garden and quit the business when she began to mature. Now she’s a rockin’ singer songwriter (yay!) far far away from Broadway (boo!)

And while it’s great for little girls to see themselves on stage, I think it’s an enormously mixed message we’re sending. For the little girl who wants to be onstage, we’re telling her that she’s only worth something while she’s little. We’re telling her that if she’s interested in a career in theatre, she’d better hurry and have it while she’s still a child. By giving her so few adult female role models, we’re telling girls not to bother growing up. This is something the culture tends to reinforce on a regular basis, what with its interest in little girl looks, pre-pubescent bodies and so on.

So, yes, hooray, more girls on stage. That’s good. But it is not the same as having fully grown women on the stage, playing women, fully expressing woman-ness on a regular basis.

“But the kids loved it!”
October 26, 2012, 7:42 pm
Filed under: art, education, feminism, theatre | Tags: , , ,

My students saw Peter and the Starcatcher this week. I wasn’t at the performance (for reasons that are probably obvious.) And by all accounts they loved it. A lot. This does not surprise me. I wish I could report to all of you that there has been a secret feminist revolution in schools and suddenly, across the city, kids are highly aware of gender politics. This is not the case.

What I have been pointing at in this show is subtle. It’s the kind of thing that gets into you subconsciously. It’s not obvious if you’re not looking for it. The milkshake line, and all that follows from it, isn’t going to reach out and grab your sexist-o-meter. It’s going to sneak in and get you later.

For most adults I’ve spoken to, this line barely registered. It came. It went. It was one among a dozen anachronistic one-liners that may or may not have caused a chuckle. For young people, though, I can tell you now – not just from conjecture, but from hearing their thoughts – that it is not incidental to them.

In talking about the show, students mentioned characters, plot points, staging and physical gags. For the most part, what the characters said did not come up. With one exception. One line got mentioned in almost every single one of my classes. In one class, it was the first response to the question of “What did you think about the show?” It was named by several students as their favorite part. Guess which line that was?

Let me pause here to say that neither of the classroom teachers I was working with was particularly interested in looking at the gender politics of the show, so my work with the students had nothing to do with what I’ve been talking about here. My students did character, comedy, ensemble and object work. We did not discuss gender at all. So my students’ reactions were completely independent from mine. They loved the milkshake line. They did! Talking amongst themselves, the high school senior girls delivered both the set-up and the punchline. They loudly proclaimed the milkshake bit as the BEST as they high-fived each other. One District 75  7th grade girl quoted the line, followed by how she perceived Molly reacting. (“Looking around, like: “Huh? What happened?!”) And several 7th grade boys in my classes today quoted it word for word.

They all loved it! What’s the problem? Well, let me describe to you what I saw while one twelve year old boy was quoting his favorite line. While he was laughing about the milkshake, the girl next to him began to pull her sweatshirt around her more tightly – the way you would if you were trying to hide your chest. As the boy explained why he liked this line (“Because it’s from a song from a long time ago“) the girl zipped her sweatshirt up completely. I do not think these two things are unrelated.  And my heart broke a little bit right there.

There have been moments in which I’ve felt a little bit crazy in all this. In talking about this show, many people who saw it, didn’t see what I saw. And for a few moments, hearing students rave about the show, I wondered if I was over-reacting. Maybe I should just stop over-analyzing everything. Maybe it was all no big deal. They loved it! Come on!

But you know, I loved a book called “Little Black Sambo” when I was a child. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t racist. It was. It really really was. I loved The Muppet Movie. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t sexist. (I know. I’m sorry. But listen to “Hope that SomeTHING Better Comes Along” with your feminist glasses on and tell me I’m wrong.) It also doesn’t mean I didn’t internalize a whole lot of stuff BECAUSE I loved that movie. (Being a girl means being hyperfeminized, the butt of many jokes and only boys can be in charge. Also, a subconscious belief in the “Standard Rich and Famous Contract.”) In fact, the more you love something the more insidious it can become. (No, not fairy tales! No, not possible! Doesn’t everyone want to marry Prince Charming!?)

So there may be those who all feel much better now that the young people have so enthusiastically embraced this show. But I don’t. I keep thinking about that girl and her sweatshirt and wishing I were working in a context in which I could tell her my own experience of that line, where I could give her a pair of feminist glasses with which to go out there and see.

In case you missed it buried in the comments. . .

After the big storm of interest around my blog dissipated a bit, I found I couldn’t stop thinking about this one comment from a big fan of Peter and the Starcatcher. I wanted to address it because I think a LOT of people loved the show and a LOT of people didn’t see it the way I saw it (and by a lot, I mean MOST.) This is for those who are still a little confused about what I’m pointing at. Then it takes a left turn into a thing about young people and the power of theatre.

To the young lover of Peter and the Starcatcher who defended its feminist honor on my blog:

I 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 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 you.
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
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?!

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

*And here’s where I responded to a commenter who loved the show:

*And here’s what my students thought of it:

*And here’s my response to all my friends who began beating themselves up for their “complacency” after reading my blog:

*My thoughts about all this a year later:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

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