Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: I’m a Feminist, In Case You Didn’t Know

Hi-Ho the Glamorous Life on a Wednesday? We’re finally getting caught up on some back-logged columns before taking a break for the holidays. Enjoy!

‘Tis the season, it seems, for the gender-parity-in-theater discussion to bubble up again, as it does periodically. (As opposed to the gender-parody-in-theater discussion, otherwise known as “Are drag queens misogynistic?”) Here in the Bay Area, a group of female theater-makers called “Yeah, I Said Feminist” is revving up for launch, including developing an award for local theaters that promote gender parity. Meanwhile, Larissa Archer’s hard-hitting Theatre Bay Area article about sexual harassment in theater is causing a stir, and revealing the extent to which theater can still function as a patriarchal boys’ club. And in the UK, the Guardian newspaper is running a series about gender parity in theater, prompted by an all-female production of Julius Caesar that has earned both acclaim and controversy.

Several British theater-makers who have been posting the Guardian articles on Twitter add the caveat, “don’t read the comments section, it’s too depressing.”  It looks like the Guardian moderators have now taken down the most offensive and insulting comments – but many dismissive comments still remain. For instance, one commenter calls Stella Duffy “irrationally angry” because she states that “it hurts, it infuriates to see only men’s names in the list of makers and performers.” (Accusing a woman of being overly emotional? How Victorian.)

Archer, too, has been on the receiving end of criticism for her efforts to investigate sexual harassment in the theater. To begin her inquiry, she conducted an anonymous survey via Theatre Bay Area, and received responses accusing her of having a “schoolteacher mentality” and calling her a “Puritan” who wants to prevent people from talking about sexuality and desire. Perhaps wisely, Archer does not waste energy in trying to argue against these insults; she merely quotes these men, and lets their own words damn them.

But Larissa Archer is an acquaintance of mine, and I’m offended on her behalf. I’m offended that after the feminist movement fought so hard for sexual freedom, the patriarchal assholes in our society are twisting this around and citing sexual freedom as an excuse for their own skeevy behavior. I’m offended that when a woman wants to investigate something like sexual harassment, her motives are seen as suspect. (If a male journalist had written this article, I doubt he would have roused the same ire.) There are comments like this on Duffy’s article, too, to the effect of “you’re just upset your own plays aren’t getting produced, that’s why you’re getting on a high horse about gender parity.”

These people question our motives and insult our work in order to belittle us, and thus to shut us up. But you know what? Why the hell can’t we talk about things that we have a vested interest in? Male journalists have been doing that for centuries! Yes, as a female playwright I may benefit if theaters make more of an effort to produce plays by women; yes, Larissa and I and all women will benefit if sexual harassment becomes a thing of the past. But why should that prevent us from talking about these things?

In a world where women can be subject to such harsh criticism merely for stating their opinions, it can be tempting to hide. Maybe that’s one reason I haven’t discussed feminism or gender parity in my Theater Pub column before this. Although I’ve always been passionate about these topics, perhaps I was afraid of engendering controversy or bringing insults upon myself. It’s also a reason why some female writers are tempted to use male pseudonyms. There’s been idle talk (and even a bit more than talk) among some of my female playwriting friends about whether we wouldn’t be more successful if we submitted our plays under a male name. After all – as Valerie Weak’s “Counting Actors” statistics reveal – only about ¼ of Bay Area theater productions are written by women. Are theaters systematically discriminating against plays with women’s names on them? Would they prefer our work if they thought it was male-authored?

However, though pseudonyms might be a winning strategy in the short term, I’m not sure if it’s good policy in the long run. If I had to take on a male pseudonym to succeed in the theater, I would feel like I was denying or suppressing a fundamental part of myself. Furthermore, I’d feel like I was giving up the fight, admitting defeat — “OK, women can never succeed in this business, so I’ll pretend to be a man.” Great plays and stories have been written about people who conceal or deny their identities in order to find success. But such stories are usually tragedies.

To be sure, one must pick one’s battles. A young female director in the U.K. was quoted as saying that people only took her seriously when she wore jeans and sneakers instead of a dress. I can’t fault her for doing that, and it certainly seems less problematic to change one’s wardrobe than to change one’s name. But at the same time, I believe that a feminism that doesn’t allow women to succeed on their own terms is a hollow kind of feminism. I want to write big, bold, ambitious, opinionated plays. I want them to be produced, with my name — my frilly, feminine name — in large letters on the poster. I want to wear a beautiful dress to opening night, and not have anyone think less of me for it. These sound like reasonable ambitions, don’t they? Too bad we still live in such an unreasonable world.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and feminist. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.


9 comments on “Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: I’m a Feminist, In Case You Didn’t Know

  1. I don’t mean to pander by saying that “as a minority in the same industry, I know EXACTLY what you mean”, because that would just be insulting to both of us. I will say that I empathise: until recently, I’ve been hesitant to submit work that directly addresses issues which I hold dear (among them “racial identity” and “sexual equality”) for fear that as a minority I would be labelled “that guy”. Once you make a work that identifies your individuality – rather than shooting for something with the broadest appeal – it’s automatically assumed that such things are all you know how to make.

    But then one is faced with the inevitable question: “If I don’t bring up these issues in my work, who will?”

    An artist is unable to control how a spectator will interpret their work – being pigeon-holed is something likely to happen to everyone who doesn’t 1) look like JJ Abrams and/or 2) make work solely designed to make the spectator feel better. Having said that: how can one expect to think of him/herself an artist if they fail to use their work to address topics about which they are truly passionate?

  2. Valerie Weak says:

    Marissa – thank you so much for highlighting the Counting Actors project in this post. I am proud to be mentioned alongside these other important pieces of reporting. For those who want comprehensive stats on the project, an explanation of the project, and ‘how to contribute’ info (it’s really easy!), please visit: http://sfbayareaactor.blogspot.com/p/counting-actors-info.html

  3. Marissa & Charles, Thanks for your comments. I share your anxiety about being dismissed or pigeonholed. If I write about “women’s issues” or protest the lack of works by women, will I be taken less seriously as a capital-P Playwright? Or am I automatically taken less seriously because of who I am? Here in the Bay Area, virtually all Artistic Directors and Literary Managers appear to want to be on the side of the angels–producing a diverse season with a fair share of works by and about women and minorities. So why don’t the facts match their aspirations, especially at the larger, more established theatres? I can only guess. But one factor, I’m pretty sure, is the very pigeonholing you describe. Plays about women and minorities are typically seen as plays about women and minorities. Whereas plays about white men are typically seen as plays about universal human experience. And everybody wants to produce a season with “universal” appeal (exceptions made for special events in February and March).

    • Thanks for commenting, Carol. Though I wouldn’t necessarily say I have “anxiety” about being pigeonholed. Given the choice between being thought of as “that chick who writes plays about women” or not being noticed/thought of at all, I’ll always choose being noticed; and the only way I can write anything is to try to put a lid on my anxiety and not let it spill over into the work.

      As for the fact that white-male stories are thought of as “universal” while womens’/minorities’ stories aren’t, which do you think would be a more productive tactic:
      1. to say “all stories are universal, no matter who tells them. As a woman, my story is just as universal as yours, Straight White Man,”
      2. to say “no stories are truly universal — everyone is shaped by their own experiences and biases, and that includes you, Straight White Man.”
      Personally, I’m fond of option #2, because while “everyone is the same, deep down” is a lovely sentiment, I have trouble believing in its veracity… And it would be nice for straight white men to realize that their experience is not the default human experience!

  4. Hi, Marissa. Thanks for continuing the conversation. I hope others are out there reading this and will jump in to address the questions you raise. As a tactic, I’m not sure which option is better. How about both/and instead of either/or? Considering the question of the universality/ particularity of our stories, I’d venture that all human beings have the same fundamental desires (love, meaningful work, control of our own lives, to be recognized and valued for who we are and what we do…) but that the obstacles to achieving our desires vary greatly depending on our particular circumstances. So I’d say that with the conflict between desire and obstacle being the heart of drama, all plays are both universal and particular. Recently, Elizabeth Spreen posted a link on the “Yeah, I said Feminist” fb group to a great blog about this very issue (I just got around to reading it): http://www.vqronline.org/blog/2012/12/17/what-is-feminism-its-no-longer-a-useful-question/#.UNXLkuQ8CSp. The author, Monica Byrne, explains that she “navigate[s] the world with two toolboxes, the absolute and the contextual.” I think that’s what we all have to do, Good luck to us!

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