Results tagged “sexism” from critical difference

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.
November 12, 2009 4:57 PM |
Let's just admit straight out that the Nobel people relish a surprise far more than the average world-renowned prize-granting organization does -- and far more, too, than do many of the interested parties they startle with their choices.

This year, as ever, the primary reaction to the naming of new laureates has been grumbling and snark. On NPR, 1986 laureate Elie Wiesel's initial response to President Obama's peace prize was graceless ("It's certainly strange for me to think of him now as my fellow Nobel laureate"), while in The Washington Post a "prominent editor and writer in New York" suggested that Herta Müller's win over authors like Philip Roth, Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie tarnishes the literature honor. "If the Nobel prize committee awarded the medicine prize like this, we'd still have polio," he grumped.

But Müller's victory is part of a happy trend this year: As AFP reports, this is the best year ever for female laureates. Of the 39 women who've won in the 109-year history of the prize, four won this week, three of them in science (take that, Larry Summers!). That's just north of 10 percent of all female recipients, and exactly 10 percent of the 40 Nobels ever bestowed on women, two of which went to Marie Curie (um, Larry?). Women make up 36 percent of this year's laureates, and prizes in three of the five categories go entirely or in part to women.

The stats on that matter -- not out of so-called political correctness but because of the widespread tendency to downgrade or dismiss women's work, whatever it happens to be, rather than take it as seriously as men's work is automatically taken. The brilliant Nancy Franklin expressed one tiny facet of that disparity this way recently in The New Yorker:

Chick lit [...] gets a lot less respect than the male equivalent, which people tend to approach as if it were automatically more artful, more written. Women write "thinly veiled accounts"; men write "romans à clef." Women writers may have a room of their own, but men who thrash around in front of the mirror and record their every failure, humiliation, moue, and excretion for an audience's consumption still own the house, even if all they do in it is lie on the couch--and then write about it.

It's not an even playing field, not in literature or elsewhere, so it's significant when women win. It's progress. Every victory is a reminder not only of what an individual woman has achieved, but of what other women can aspire to achieve. Being recognized on the world stage is no small thing; just ask Elie Wiesel and that bitter, nameless writer-editor. So if this is what a Nobel laureate looks like, good.

Update, Oct. 12: The numbers for women got even better today with a Nobel in economics for Elinor Ostrom, the first woman ever to win the economics prize. She shares the category with Oliver E. Williamson. So that's five women this year (12.5 percent of all female laureates, 38.5 percent of this year's winners), in four of six categories. Not bad. Not bad at all.
October 9, 2009 3:04 PM |
Good for NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman for calling out the homophobia that undergirds opposition to federal funding for the arts. "The arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay," he tells Robin Pogrebin in today's New York Times.

The straight-shooting Landesman won't earn many points for diplomacy in that interview, particularly with the ill-considered slap, "I don't know if there's a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman." That remark is bound to alienate whole flocks of legislators as well as artists outside major cities. Nonetheless, the point he's trying to make about democratizing arts grants -- "I don't know that we have to be everywhere if the only reason for supporting an institution is its geography" -- is perfectly valid, and his new NEA slogan, "Art Works," is beautifully attuned to the zeitgeist.

Meanwhile, however debatable Richard Florida's "Creative Class" gospel may be, Landesman's tacit embrace of it with "a program that he called 'Our Town,' which would provide home equity loans and rent subsidies for living and working spaces to encourage artists to move to downtown areas," is something Congress surely can understand and perhaps even rally around.

It's a sharply different approach from that taken by Landesman's ostentatiously populist predecessor, Dana Gioia, who placated conservatives suspicious of contemporary art and artists by focusing on the classics (Shakespeare) and America's artistic heritage (jazz). Yet in taking that tack, Gioia might have made some lasting progress for the agency, whose natural opponents have been forced to concede, at least to a degree, that there is value to the arts. If Landesman, a Broadway producer, uses creative-class theory to hang a dollar sign on that value and explain the dividends investment in the arts would pay, he may be speaking lawmakers' language.

But back to the homophobia, about which Landesman is dead right. The idea that the arts are gay, and therefore dismissable, is closely related to another notion about the arts: that they are inherently girly. Leaving aside the abundant irony in that assumption, let's consider for a moment what John Stuart Mill -- a feminist way ahead of his time, who believed women should "have the power of gaining their own livelihood" -- had to say on the subject back in 1832: "The only difference between the employments of women and those of men will be, that those which partake most of the beautiful, or which require delicacy & taste rather than muscular exertion, will naturally fall to the share of women: all branches of the fine arts in particular."

In our perception of the arts, we haven't advanced terribly far from that mindset in the past 177 years. The arts are widely viewed as a milieu best suited to women, and to men with an affinity for beauty, delicacy and taste and an aversion to muscular exertion (read: gay -- and, no, I am not endorsing the stereotype, merely articulating it).

As a nation, we tend not to scrape together public funding if we believe it would benefit people like that. Unless, maybe, we can be convinced that it's in our economic interest to do so.

So let the culture-class argument begin.
August 8, 2009 2:05 PM | | Comments (1)
When I worked at the conservative New York Sun, I tended to keep mum about politics. A lot of the liberal staffers did the same. But after the paper folded last fall, just as the presidential election went into overdrive, I began to feel slightly dishonest in not revealing my political stance to one of the paper's hard-line Republican contributors, an ardent Palin supporter with whom I'd developed a friendly rapport.

Finally, I took a deep breath and told him -- upon which he informed me that I'd given him plenty of clues. "How about your love of theater?" he asked, kindly not mentioning the time I'd spoken enthusiastically to him of Dario Fo, any right-winger's artistic bête noire.

That's the prevailing assumption about the theater: that it's liberal to the core. And maybe, in theory, it is. Practice, as Emily Glassberg Sands' thesis on female playwrights reminds us, is a different matter.

There is a crazy-making dissonance to encountering a hostile environment in what we're assured is a sympathetic milieu, at least politically. In Hollywood, another famously liberal industry, women face a similar set of obstacles, as an anonymous "emerging producer" wrote last week in The Wrap:

I never thought of myself as a feminist until I came to work in Hollywood. I'm part of a generation and class of women who were reared on the rhetoric that we could grow up to do anything. At no point did gender figure in as a limitation, and the idea that it would for anyone who might judge my capabilities seemed completely ludicrous.

It was confusing when I heard or read about women's complaints of gender discrimination -- didn't we figure all this stuff out in the '70s?

Well, no, she's discovered -- and she thinks it's time that women take some action: "We've become so complacent that a touch of extremism is warranted. You could never lose weight if you refused entertain the idea that cheeseburgers are fattening. Instead of waiting for someone to blaze a new trail, it's time that we make a more conscious change in our appetite."

No diet works, however, without a change in behavior to accompany the change in appetite. In order for female playwrights to increase their prominence in the theater, one thing they're going to have to do is make more noise: write more plays, get them out there, and better their odds simply by having a greater presence.

Sands' research relies on doollee.com for numbers on scripts by male and female playwrights; as she admits, this is a less than ideal source, given that much of the information is self-reported. But what if male playwrights -- already more numerous than their female counterparts -- are more likely to do that self-reporting? Women need to be assertive about making sure that their work is noted, too, in high-profile places. 

Ours isn't a culture that encourages loudness in women; for a literal example, see the current controversy over female tennis players who have the audacity to grunt on the court. Meekness is, in fact, encouraged in us at every turn. But if a woman's object is to make her voice heard, as it is with playwrights, then being quiet is not a strategy that will ever lead to the desired reward.

In my experience as an editor, I've observed the same thing in writers that artistic directors and literary managers say they see: far more submissions by men than by women. In order to find female writers, I had to be active, not passive. I couldn't rely on women to call themselves to my attention; I could, however, rely on men to be rather fearless, and less perfectionistic than women, about putting their work out there.

Sands' research suggests that producers hold women's plays to a higher standard than they do men's, but I suspect women also hold their writing to a higher standard before they're confident enough to let a script leave their hands. That's understandable, but it's probably not helpful. Women need to be stronger, more confident champions of their own work -- and artistic directors and literary managers need to actively seek them out.

If producers would, in the process, stop assuming that audiences won't show up to see plays by and about women, that would be another step in the right direction.
June 25, 2009 1:35 PM | | Comments (2)
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.

Ah.

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.
May 12, 2009 12:13 PM | | Comments (7)
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