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, 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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