Why the 'Best' Are So Often Male
It's such a hoary cliché that you'd think people would be embarrassed to let it pass their lips, but there it was, coming from the mouth of Alistair Spalding, the artistic director of London contemporary-dance temple Sadler's Wells.
The question put to him was why no female choreographers are among the "raft of commissions" he's just announced for the coming season. His response, according to Charlotte Higgins' piece in The Guardian: "'It is something to do with women not being as assertive in that field,' said Spalding. 'It's not that I don't want to commission them.'"
His disavowal reminded me instantly of the time, back in the mid-'90s, that The New Yorker came out with a women's issue, in which almost none of the cartoons were drawn by women. There were a couple -- three at most -- which was par for the course any other week but striking, and strange, for that issue. So when Lee Lorenz, then the magazine's cartoon editor, popped up on a public-radio show, my then-boyfriend called in and asked why that was. Simple, Lorenz explained: Female cartoonists just aren't interested in the single-panel format.
Sort of like how women aren't wired for science. Or were emotional females just overreacting a few years ago when Larry Summers suggested to a conference on workforce diversification that "issues of intrinsic aptitude" were to blame for the low numbers of women in science and engineering?
Summers' speech is breathtaking for many reasons, but one of them is the sheer accumulated mass of familiar, multipurpose sexist statements cloaked in pseudo-intellectualism. Then the president of Harvard University, he addressed the issue of fairness in hiring by noting that "there's a real question as to how plausible it is to believe that there is anything like half as many people who are qualified to be scientists at top ten schools and who are now not at top ten schools."
That may be true, but it takes an almost willful myopia not to see that myriad, sometimes elusive factors -- such as encouragement, mentoring, and hostility real or perceived -- have a substantial and direct bearing on both an individual's decision to pursue a field and his or her success in it. If a given group faces more obstacles to professional development, it follows that fewer of its members will emerge in the top ranks.
Spalding sounds similarly willing to believe that the level of female representation in choreography is out of his hands.
"Choreography is still male dominated," he said. "It is something I am aware of, but I can't make the programme representative for the sake of it. I have to choose the best."
Even if -- just for the sake of argument -- all of the best choreographers were male, Spalding would still be looking at the wrong end of the problem. The questions in dance, as in other fields, are straightforward: Are women given a fair shake along the way? Do they get those early commissions? Do experienced choreographers take them under their wing? Are artistic directors, male and female, willing to show a little faith in them? Or is that just for the guys? It's not that women require special treatment; it's that they frequently don't get the same treatment that men do -- not even in the arts, an area perceived by the culture at large as feminine.
Back in 2003, Mark Lamos directed an all-male production of "The Taming of the Shrew" at Yale Repertory Theatre. It was Lamos' rather fascinating attempt to get audiences to see a brutal, highly problematic play in a different light, partly by removing the discomfort inherent in watching a man abuse a woman. It didn't quite work -- Shakespeare's ending is heartbreaking no matter what -- but it was a memorable production.
More memorable to me, however, is an anecdote Lamos related when I interviewed him before the play opened. It was about a development that had taken him completely by surprise: When the men who had women's roles donned skirts in rehearsal, they suddenly had a harder time being listened to. That hadn't been Lamos' intention, nor had it been the other actors' intention; no mind games were being played. It just happened. And it had to be pointed out to them by the men who were being marginalized.
Instructive as that was for the company (what decent actor or director wouldn't seize that discovery and use it to feed the performance?), it made immediate sense to me, as it likely would to any woman or girl who's ever had to fight to be heard by a group of men or boys.
Such reflexive dismissal of female points of view is, I suspect, one of the key factors keeping women from anything approaching equal representation in the top ranks of the arts: Far too often, we raise our voices, and no one hears.