Thoughtful Revolution

Sexism in the System, Off and On Stage

In [1985], then-New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote an essay entitled “Theater’s Gender Gap is a Chasm.”  It was insightful and hard-hitting then; sadly, twenty-some years later, it’s still insightful and hard-hitting.  In fact, as theater grows more and more elitist, financially driven and plagued with nostalgia, the chasm is perhaps wider than ever.

According to the <a href=>New York Times</a>, in 2005, only 3 of the season’s 39 new shows were directed by women; a recent <a href=>Washington Post article</a> shows that the stats haven’t much changed.  That, some might easily maintain, is a problem with the generation – young women growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s had few female role models backstage, the Broadway elders are more willing to give female theater artists “feminine” jobs such as costume design, etc.  Granted, it’s possible, though that doesn’t entirely explain the dearth of younger female directors in younger-skewing theaters.  But there’s no excuse for the relative lack of female playwrights – though there’s a pretty simple reason.

As I articulated in an earlier post, financially strapped theaters are desperate for cash – cash that’s only likely to come from revivals or the occasional star scribe (e.g. new plays by Neil Simon or Andrew Lloyd Webber, or the seemingly endless cadre of posthumously-discovered Jonathan Larson works) An astounding proportion — perhaps the majority — of American female-penned plays have been composed in the last few decades; the theatrical aversion to new plays, and the tendency of producers to marginalize female-penned works as “girl plays” with little mass appeal,  almost ensures that they won’t get mainstream success and (with a few exceptions, such as the extremely talented and very lucky Sarah Ruhl) can’t yet bridge that gender gap.  And, of course, few of the stage’s most popular revivals – if any – have been written by women.

Which means that Broadway is sorely lacking in female voices.  And it doesn’t take a student of literature to tell you (though students of literature know this from experience) that where the female perspective is missing, the female characters will, as a general rule, be less rich and less convincing.  Suddenly, the continued gender gap becomes a problem not only for female playwrights — and for female directors and technicians, who many producers are unwilling to put at the helm of a “real”(read: male-penned) play — but for actresses currently battling furiously for the three or four significant, worthwhile female roles in a season.

This is especially true on Broadway, where seasons are powered almost entirely by large-scale revivals, and new musicals are so rare that the engaging-but-really? “Jersey Boys” won the 2006 Best Musical prize.  It’s bad news for actresses, and for audience members, and for the gender gap in theatre, when most of the shows being mounted (plays and musicals) are male-written products of their generation.  I wish I could say that the recent, highly successful revival of “12 Angry Men” was an exception to the norm, but most of the theatre’s go-to revivals are male-driven and often sexist, creating nonexistent or cardboard female characters and trapping them in misogynistic paradigms.  A quick look at some of Broadway’s most recent revival hits:

“Kiss Me, Kate” — a reworking of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” but with neither the depth nor subtlety of the original material.  In direct opposition to the almost-fully-realized Katherina of Shakespeare’s play, the modern “shrew,” Lilli Vanessi, is a wealthy, selfish, mad-with-power diva who we are told from the beginning is “uppity” and must be put in her place.   The first act ends with a climactic, intended-to-be-cathartic act of domestic abuse, and the rest of the play doesn’t get much better.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — No play exemplifies the omnipresent virgin-whore dichotomy like “Cuckoo’s Nest,” which, like Ken Kesey’s novel (which, despite its hero’s misogyny and racism, happens to be a masterwork; the same is not true of the insipid, less morally ambiguous play), shows two “types” of women: the chaste, overbearing, utterly evil Nurse Ratched, and the passel of dumb, gum-chewing hookers with hearts of gold.

“Nine” — Despite its imaginative conceit, this musical’s many vaguely ornamental female characters and roughly sketched love triangle are — as Frank Rich pointed out in his review of the original — about what you’d expect for a show centered around the male protagonist’s romantic conquests.  I’d be interested to see what the upcoming movie is like.

“The Pajama Game” — What should have been, by rights, a socially progressive gem (and it is, to its credit, admirably pro-union) presents all its female characters as swooning, man-crazy airheads — even, perhaps especially, the union leader unfortunately named Babe.  And when its male characters sexually harass and manipulate women, it’s presented as acceptable, even admirable, in light of the “girls’ ” stupidity.

“Company” — Amidst “Company’s” modernity, exquisitely crafted score, and constant air of worldly progressiveness, it is easy to forget that, in a play that professes to explore both genders’ takes on marriage, all the males are real people and all the females are stereotypes so cut-and-dry one could list them.  The Bubbleheaded Stewardess, the Neurotic New York Single Girl, the Goody-Goody, the Indie Chick, and the Aging Bitter Socialite are all there in full force, singing up a storm; it’s a startling contrast to the realistic, multidimensional men of the cast.

“Glengarry Glen Ross” — One of the plays that, in its original form, was the primary example of the gender chasm in Frank Rich’s original essay.  Women barely register in the foul-mouthed, macho, all-male world of “Glengarry,” and when they do it’s as nagging wives or as sluts.  And, as Rich pointed out, the most intense, climactic insults of “Glengarry” — the ones that, in a play of four-letter words, are reserved for the cruelest moments — are those relating to womanhood or the female anatomy.  Which isn’t too far off the mark, sadly, from real life, but it’s worth noting nonetheless. “Glengarry” is an extraordinary play, there’s no getting around it, but its entire world is essentially a staging of all the most repulsive aspects of the male perspective — and if we keep staging “Glengarry” without putting any on Broadway, it will, I believe, be an act of and broader representation of sexism.

And these are just the recent Tony winners!

I’m not saying the revivals being mounted aren’t great works of theater.  For the most part, they are.  But until we can counterbalance them with new plays, plays that show a female voice and not just a female body, the gender chasm and covert misogyny that infuse the theater will continue to grow.  And, conveniently enough, a sea-change wouldn’t just ease the sexism inherent in theater’s decline.  In fact, with the infusion of new plays, new voices, and new theater artists, it might take the first steps towards reversing it.


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  1. * Stefan says:

    “And, as Rich pointed out, the most intense, climactic insults of “Glengarry” — the ones that, in a play of four-letter words, are reserved for the cruelest moments — are those relating to womanhood or the female anatomy.”

    This may demonstrate blindness on the issue at large, but is the use of the word “cunt” that much more offensive than the use of the word “dick”? Both are words considered “extreme” and demonize natural anatomy.

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 9 months ago
    • * thoughtfulrevolution says:

      Yes, but in the world of the play, “dick” is much less climactic or extreme and can even be endearing; “cunt” is reserved to a special status.

      | Reply Posted 8 years, 9 months ago

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