Marissa Skudlarek, walking the talk.
Don’t ever say that I can’t both talk the talk and walk the walk. I spent Saturday evening posting on Twitter and Facebook about casual sexism in local theater, and Sunday evening attending a fundraiser for the feminist theater organization DIVAfest. Saturday was about getting irritated over the persistence of inequality; Sunday was about reminding myself that there are plenty of people trying to find solutions to this problem.
The sexism that I see around typically isn’t outrageous misogyny – it’s subtler than that. It is a worldview that devalues women’s contributions and stories, that refuses to consider their perspectives worth presenting or their money worth having. I’m thinking of things like this glowing review of Maggie’s Riff, at FaultLine Theatre, that nonetheless neglects to mention Nicole Odell, who plays the title role. (Nor does it mention any of the women who worked behind the scenes on the production.) And also of the latest marketing copy for the Speakeasy, as it seeks a final round of funding before it re-opens in North Beach in August. The Speakeasy producers are very pleased to tout the “one-way mirror into the chorus girls’ dressing room” as one of the major highlights of the show, yet they make no equivalent promise of voyeuristic eye candy for those of us who prefer handsome fellas to lovely ladies.
Let’s be clear: I’m not against sexy fun, or scantily clad women. In fact, DIVAfest, the organization I supported on Sunday night, has a strong sideline in naked ladies. It produces a monthly burlesque variety show, Diva or Die, and a larger theater-burlesque fusion show once a year. Indeed, it was DIVAfest’s Hotel Burlesque show this year that finally convinced me of the truth of something I’d often heard said: that neo-burlesque can be a feminist and empowering genre, rather than a misogynistic male-gazey one. In Hotel Burlesque, the cast featured six lovely ladies and one female impersonator, so just about every moment of the plot passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors. It transported me into a sparkly, glamorous, female-led world and showed me that striptease can be about more than just titillation. A female thief reveled in her crimes as she stripped off all her (stolen) clothing. Nudity was used to represent the anguish and vulnerability that an alcoholic feels when faced with the temptation to drink, or a battered woman feels when recalling her abuser.
At the DIVAfest fundraiser party, Amanda Ortmayer introduced a performance by Red Velvet and reminded us that burlesque artists appreciate vocal approval: applause, whooping, cheering, were all encouraged (and plentiful). And, as Red Velvet tap-danced, shimmied, and stripped down to her thong and pasties, the lights in the main room remained on. I liked that; it kept things honest. It eliminated some of the creepy power dynamics that can arise when a woman takes her clothes off for the entertainment of others, because, as we watched Red Velvet, she could also watch us. She could see our faces and discern whether or not we were having a good time, and also hear our joyous and vocal appreciation. And I can’t help, again, contrasting this with the way the Speakeasy is presenting female nudity: spying on “hot chorus girls” from behind the anonymity of a one-way mirror.
A lot has been written lately about the masculinity and “bro” attitudes of start-up culture in the Bay Area. In many ways, the Speakeasy seems to be positioning itself as a theater start-up. It’s thinking big: it wants to disrupt live entertainment in San Francisco and then spread out across the country. It is soliciting money according to a new model called “equity crowdfunding” (I’m a little confused as to how this differs from traditional for-profit, Broadway-style funding, but no matter) and, with a minimum investment of $2000, it’s clearly aiming for high-roller donors rather than the $25-$100 donations that make up the bulk of a typical Indiegogo or Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. In 2014, the Speakeasy’s expensive tickets and lack of discounts meant that the show was very popular with the tech crowd while remaining inaccessible to the kinds of people who are getting priced out of this city. And, yes, the Speakeasy seems very, very male. The three founders are all male. The website copy has a persistently male point of view, and not just in its references to the chorus girls and the one-way mirror. For instance, when giving examples of some of the costumed characters that audience members can pay to play, both of the examples they give are male.
Meanwhile, DIVAfest hosted a traditional nonprofit-theater fundraiser last weekend: finger food, raffle tickets, and performances, in a board member’s fancy house that was donated for the occasion. I hope it was successful, and it was certainly quite glamorous to watch the sunset from a North Beach rooftop deck, eating delicious food among nicely dressed people. But it cannot change the fact that DIVAfest is a small, indie, shoestring operation, run out of a Tenderloin theater that has miraculously weathered all the changes to San Francisco in the last thirty years.
I know there is a place for people like me at DIVAfest, but, as a feminist woman, I have a hard time imagining that there’s really a place for me at the Speakeasy. And, while I’m grateful that organizations like DIVAfest exist, I’m also bothered that they feel like such small, precarious members of the arts ecosystem. The Speakeasy caters to the male gaze and raises $3 million in venture capital funding and becomes the subject of glowing media profiles; DIVAfest provides a counter-narrative and a place for women, and is relegated to the fringes. I said before that sexism in the 2010s tends to be subtle and insidious. Well, here’s another example of it: is it fair that the men get the big dreams and the big bucks and the naked ladies, and we women get to play out our stories on a much smaller stage?
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and feminist. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.