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


In honor of the Society of Dance History Scholars conference this coming week:

In the 1800's men disappeared from the stage. By the end of the romantic period male roles were played by women en travestie. The stage was a sexualized space, and men were taken off the stage.

I say that to say: the supporters of dance (men and women) seem to have a particular fascination for men. It's not right. It's not wrong. But it is real. And I absolutely agree with Oksana that talent is nothing without opportunity. There is a necessarily massive amount of trying and failing before most people hit it right on. In and out of the studio women (seem to be) less encouraged to fail.

I noted the Summers 'event' in a piece I wrote about how stereotypes off-stage get carried onto the stage. (http://dcblog43.com/?p=7 )

I think the arts are at their core a grassroots creation, constantly renewing and evolving.

Oh the stories I could tell after years of running a ballet comopany, and the stories about trying to engender confidence in young female ballet choreographers! Thank you for this article.

I've been outraged for many years by the assumptions made about women theatre artists, women professionals, women. But sometimes it feels like my own over-sensitivity. It was an eye-opener when students in my class CLASSIC PLAYS BY WOMEN (all but one female, of course) were shocked, bewildered, outraged that they had never read these plays or heard of the writers -- that an entire history had been erased. One student opined that because many of the plays dealt with the rights of women, they were not only assumed second-rate and polemic, but of marginal interest, or as it has been put, men are universal, women are specific. We have to teach the legacy of women artists, and be insistent that they are regognized for their contributions, not as women, but as artists first. I remember when Americans for the Arts ran a campaign suggesting people thought Martha Graham was a cookie...

I think it was Napolean who said
"Ability is nothing without opportunity."

I'm a pianist/music director for many years. The sorry conclusions I've reached? Women don't have wives at home to help them! In the pop field visible women in bands, as music directors, etc--are considered a distraction to the main artist, whether the latter is a male or female.

Not surprising at all. Not to complain but, having spent years as an artistic director of several groups and one music festival (which I founded), I became convinced that I would never get the attention and recognition that I felt my projects deserved. Currently I pursue other musical activities.


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