IS IT LIVE? OR IS IT CELLULOID?
Over the years, a lot of ink has been spilled about sexism in the movies. Sexism in comic books. Sexism in video games. You’re probably bored of it, but at this point, I don’t care. Because I am tired of sexism. And because I want to cover the topic again – this time, sexism in live theatre. Sexism not just in how women’s parts are written, but in how they are presented, and how they are received.
It is common knowledge among theatre professionals that there are fewer good parts for women than for men. This is true not only in Shakespeare, but across the spectrum. Some may not be aware that, like in the movies, this increases with age. Middle aged women scarcely show up at all in stage plays; women seem to disappear between the ages of 35 and 65, when they are once again allowed as the voice of wisdom, someone to be mocked, or the kind and gentle old grandmotherly sort who picks up the slack when the younger woman’s mother (the you-know-what) runs out on her with the first trucker who accidentally slams the cab of his truck into the living room. And she takes the family dog, so everything is bad. That’s the woman we don’t usually see, or hear her side of the story, unless she comes back when she’s older, so that her now 20-something daughter can lambaste her with her awfulness and show the world how strong she is…oh, and reclaim the family dog.
As for presentation – women on stage tend to be presented in a way that fulfills the audience’s craving for stereotypes, sexualization, objectification, and prurience. Even when the woman is not written that way. An example. About a year ago, I was watching a short play in which the female character was intelligent, educated, independent, and in a position of authority. The director and the actor who played this character had something else in mind. By the time it got on stage, the character was a ditz. An airhead. And a sexually frustrated spinster who swoons over the first rude, boorish male she meets. This last is compounded by the fact that the character was a worker bee – a totally asexual creature who’s response to a male (a drone) would likely be to push him out of the nest to die because he has no ability to take care of himself. The most interesting thing about this is that few except the author (a friend) were able to see this as a problem. They thought it was funny. They thought it was clever. And “the audience loved it”.
The audience loved it. The audience loved the sexualization of a female character. The audience loved the fact that a somewhat older (middle-aged? How do you know with a bee?) character was presented as a sex-starved pathetic loser (yes, the male ignored her overtures. Naturally. A male is not supposed to swoon over a middle-aged female). In the same festival of plays, another female character, also smart, educated, intelligent, was brought on stage with all sorts of props of femininity – not just pictures of her family, loved ones, and little trinkets to adorn her desk, but also perfume and lotion, which she used during the performance to emphasize femaleness – while her male counterpart was a lean, mean, working machine with nothing on his desk but the trappings of his job. No silly frippery to get in his way. That probably took away some of the sting when the woman character gave a killing blow to the silliness of the male character, and showed herself to be not only his equal, but possibly a cut above. Females gotta female, right?
Stage is not quite as bad as film. You rarely see the “woman in a refrigerator” trope, and the big budget action and thriller movies don’t translate well to live stage, so that limits some of the misogynistic opportunities, but trust me, there is plenty of macho posturing on live stage, plenty of diminishment of women, and plenty of stereotyping. I would list all the plays I’ve seen that indulged in this, but time and space are limited, and the list would run for miles. I will not try your patience in that manner.
As for female playwrights? Hard to get them onto stage at all. They are severely underrepresented, and studies have shown that a play written by a woman is much less likely to be read, let alone performed. It isn’t because these are box office poison (though that’s often the excuse given), because that isn’t supported by the data. It isn’t because women only write about women because (1) women don’t only write about women; and (2) men who write about women can get their plays staged (I’ll give a couple of examples here: Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel; The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonough). Men can write about women, but if women do so, they must be ostracized. And men can write about men, but for some reason, it is assumed that women don’t write about men (they do, trust me).
Sexism, both conscious and unconscious, blatant and subtle, pervades every sector of our society. Assumptions about what women are going to do, coupled with assumptions about what men are going to do, create and maintain an artificial hierarchy that has been in place for so long we assume it is normal and natural. Until we remove the infrastructure and the attitudes that support this system, we have no legitimate way of knowing what women can – or want to – do in the absence of societal expectations. (By the way, the same goes for men. Freeing women from these chains also frees men to follow whatever their inclinations are without being prevented from behaving in ways they might want but feel afraid to enter because of the stigma of “acting like a girl”).