Results tagged “gender” from critical difference
Suffering as I do from the procrastination pathology that afflicts so many journalists, it's only now, with three days left to vote, that I'm taking a close look at the candidates for the National Book Critics Circle board of directors. What I see is dismaying, all the more so for being unsurprising.
Of 21 candidates for eight spots, only six are women.
(Sigh sigh sigh sigh sigh.)
Maybe I'm overreacting; it's entirely possible. The NBCC's current 22-person board is 50 percent female, and the organization's president is Jane Ciabattari. That doesn't exactly suggest a male stronghold. And women as a group are hardly known for shying from volunteer labor.
Yet two things immediately come to mind. The first is the National Arts Journalism Program's board election a few years ago, when male alumni of the prestigious program threw their hats into the ring with wild abandon. The women, meanwhile, hung back -- not because they didn't care about the NAJP, or because they were too busy, but because they were unsure of their own abilities in comparison with the men's. A prominent former NAJP fellow, who has since been shortlisted for one of journalism's highest honors, told me she didn't think she could hold her own with a couple of the boldface names among the male candidates (only one of whom made it onto the board anyway). She wasn't alone in her thinking.
The second thing I'm reminded of is novelist Julianna Baggott's recent lament and call to arms in The Washington Post. As exemplified by Publishers Weekly's all-male 2009 top-10 list, Baggott argued, the presumed momentousness of male authors' books eludes their female counterparts:
I could understand Publishers Weekly's phallocratic list if women were writing only a third of the books published or if women didn't float the industry as book buyers or if the list were an anomaly. In fact, Publishers Weekly is in sync with Pulitzer Prize statistics. In the past 30 years, only 11 prizes have gone to women. Amazon recently announced its 100 best books of 2009 -- in the top 10, there are two women. Top 20? Four. Poets & Writers shared a list of 50 of the most inspiring writers in the world this month; women made up only 36 percent.
Just as with authors and readers, it's not as if there's a shortage of female book critics. The NBCC board's current gender split looks about right -- though that didn't quite translate to female authors raking in the National Book Critics Circle Awards last year. (Women won in zero categories.)
Maybe, in practical terms, shifting the board's balance in either direction would be irrelevant. But I can't help believing that having a seat at the table -- having, in fact, enough seats to make a difference -- matters. Boards like the NBCC's have influence, and the literary world is a place where female writers and readers still encounter obstacles to being taken seriously. The battle is lost if female critics don't take their own abilities seriously enough to put themselves forward.
Sage counsel from Amy Poehler: "Girls, if boys say something that's not funny, you don't have to laugh," she said this week at Glamour's Women of the Year Awards.
Is it too great a leap to suggest that Poehler's girl-power advice gets at one of the root causes of women's underrepresentation in so many areas of the arts?
Maybe women, from early childhood on, are trained to be too amenable an audience, ever willing to watch and listen -- politely, appreciatively, passively -- to male performers and writers and directors. Meanwhile, our culture is so certain little boys wouldn't be attracted to narratives about girls (or is it that we fear they would be?) that we don't even test the hypothesis. Children's storybook characters, their movie heroes, even nearly all of the Muppets on "Sesame Street" are male. And so yet another generation grows up with the belief that male equals mass appeal, while female equals niche.
When you're perceived as comprising a niche even though you're the majority, good luck breaking into the mainstream -- which, as it happens, is dictated (loudly, raucously) by the preferences of the minority. Sort of like how Republicans control the Senate even though the numbers say they don't.
What brings this on is Bill Carter's New York Times story today about the absence of women on late-night TV writers' staffs. The most startling fact in the piece -- which adds some depth and color to other recent coverage of that abysmal employment scenario -- is that there are more female viewers of those shows, and of TV in general, than there are male viewers. David Letterman's "audience is almost 55 percent women; [Jay] Leno's is more than 53 percent, and [Conan] O'Brien's just over one half. Yet the writing room and sensibilities of the show itself remain largely male."
It's a maddening piece of information, not least because it lines up so well with other female-majority stats: Women attend the theater more often than men do; read vastly more fiction than men do; want to go to, and work in, the movies just as much as men do. And yet female playwrights and plays about women remain scarce; rosters of "important" novelists, let alone nonfiction authors, tend to be overwhelmingly male (or, like Publishers Weekly's list of 2009's top 10 books, all male); and Hollywood, which must have the attention span and cultural memory of a gnat, is genuinely surprised whenever a female-centric movie is a monster hit. (Wasn't "Thelma & Louise" -- which, by the way, I saw with three guys when it came out in 1991 -- supposed to change that once and for all? Sigh.) And let's not even get into dance, where female choreographers are still struggling to commandeer even a little bit of the spotlight.
Pondering the egregious underrepresentation of women in the theater industry, playwright Marsha Norman frames the problem this way in the current issue of American Theatre:
The U.S. Department of Labor considers any profession with less than 25 percent female employment, like being a machinist or firefighter, to be "untraditional" for women. Using the 2008 numbers, that makes playwriting, directing, set design, lighting design, sound design, choreography, composing and lyric writing all untraditional occupations for women. That's a disaster if you're a woman writer, or even if you just think of yourself as a fair person.
As she also notes, "it's awful all over the arts world for women." So there's that.
In trying to combat this arts-world disaster, perhaps women can take a lesson in what not to do from the Democrats, who have a longstanding, extremely self-defeating habit of being polite and empathetic beyond the point of reason. They also have a catastrophic tendency to be cowed by Republican name-calling and the prospect thereof, which means they exercise their backbone less than they otherwise might, even when they're in the majority.
Women, socialized to be polite and empathetic, simply are not, as a group, as assertive as men are -- partly, perhaps, because in behaving that way they risk being stuck with labels like "aggressive" and "bitch" (or, God forbid, "feminist"). But the numbers here are in our favor: numbers that say women make up more of various lucrative audiences than men do, numbers that say women aren't being properly served, numbers that say -- as Norman points out -- basic fairness is being ignored, and it's getting in the way of people's livelihoods.
There is some hope even in the appearance of Carter's Times piece today, which suggests this issue has legs. There's a glimmer of hope, too, in an unlikely spot, comedycentral.com, which streams full episodes of both "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," generally targeting a Wired-meets-"Animal House" demo with ads for beer, BlackBerrys and incipient boy-blockbusters like "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."
But one day not long ago a cosmetics ad came on. I nearly fell off my chair: Someone had noticed -- at last, at last, at last -- that women were watching.
Well, yes. We've been there all along. Might as well try to sell us something.
Okay, then. Now that those shows have picked up on our presence, maybe they and the other late-night guys will acknowledge, too, the absence of women in their writers' rooms, and finally do something about it.