I know that this topic was played out a couple of years ago, but I’ve found myself thinking again about the kerfuffle with the 2010 Wasserstein prize, and what it means for young women trying to get started in the writing life— especially in the male-dominated arenas of theatre and film. Here’s a link to Mike Lew’s original letter that sparked a lot of conversation on the topic.
For those of you who didn’t hear about this at the time, I’ll summarize: basically the panel in charge of choosing a winner of the annual Wasserstein Prize— a hefty financial boost for an undiscovered female playwright under 32— decided that there were no young women worthy of the award. They didn’t give it to any of the 19 candidates.
In an industry that is undeniably a boys’ club, advocacy and encouragement of new female voices is desperately needed. For those of you unfamiliar with or skeptical of the gender gap in theatre, I can assure you from personal experience that it’s omnipresent. Though productions at the high school level are flooded with talented girls with years of vocal, acting and dance training, the roles available both in straight theatre and musicals are still overwhelmingly male. (Here’s a New York Times article about it, if you don’t believe me.) When we are onstage, so often it’s in roles that are glorified set dressing— I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten my ta-tas out in some slinky outfit while my male costars prance around fully clothed.
Women behind the scenes are even more rare, with numbers of female playwrights and directors dwindling and stalling at numbers that have barely budged in decades. The quote below is from statistics taken in the early ’00s, but I’ve read since that this is still fairly accurate:
This current season of 2001-02 as listed in American Theatre magazine actually shows a decline, with directors at 16% and playwright representation at 17%, back at the 1994-95 percentages. (When productions of Shakespeare are removed from consideration, playwright representation increases to only 18%.) Considering the considerable media attention given to Eve Ensler and Vagina Monologues, playwright Susan Lori Parks, who won a McArthur genius award, and the ubiquitous Broadway director Susan Stroman, this diminished presence of women is puzzling .
All of this, and you’d think that the people whose job it is to encourage women playwrights would at least be in our corner. But no, it was left to a (brilliant, but) male playwright to stand up for us.
The thing is… maybe some of our work isn’t as thoroughly polished or developed as that of our male counterparts. What can you expect, in a culture that still teaches a girl to encourage and support her boyfriend’s success and self-esteem over her own? I don’t pretend to be above this— you’re talking to a girl who practically made a career out of hauling equipment and working merch tables for Boys in Bands— but I do see it, now, as problematic.
The thing is, making art is hard. Without consistent encouragement from others, and without a firm and irrational belief in your own ability to succeed, it can be nearly impossible. And few girls survive adolescence these days with that kind of blind, cocky faith in their own awesomeness. Lots of boys do—often because they had really awesome girlfriends working their merch tables and teaching them which direction is stage right, or how to generally not behave like a doofus.
So how do we right this inequity? The whole thing is hopelessly complicated. Studies show, for example, that it’s the women on top of the ladder, not the men, who are the cruelest gatekeepers. Maybe it’s the mentality of “if it was hard for me, it should be hard for you,” maybe it’s the idea that there are only so many coveted positions to go around. Maybe it’s just the relentless indoctrination into a culture of jealousy and competition that drives us to tear one another down.
Even more often, we hit the self destruct button and give up on ourselves before we’ve had a chance to test our abilities. Kathryn Chetkovitch writes very eloquently about this:
Most women I know are reluctant to say, ‘I am better than her, and her, and her – OK, I’ll keep going.’ And most men I know rely, when necessary, on some formulation of exactly that. Plus women have not only each other to compete against (in devious and exhausting ways, requiring much track-covering and nice-making as they go) but men to envy; because it’s still the case that women writers are compared to each other, and the big (as opposed to, say, lyrical) literary novel persists as an essentially male category. Women’s books are still not talked about in the same way men’s books are, and women are still sensitive to that.
Blah blah blah, it’s the same old story. So tell me— why aren’t we able to tell a new one yet?