On Gender Parity in Theater and What May Be Broken

by Rita Anderson

in Diversity & Inclusion,Playwrights

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This year I bought an anthology of Contemporary Plays by Women: Outstanding Winners and Runners up (1978-1990) for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (prize deadline was September 15th). In its preface, Editor Emilie S. Gilgore wrote what is now a damning statistic: “We got in touch with Lillian Hellman and asked her to join us as a director. . . At that time, in 1978, only 7% of the plays presented across the United States were written by women. A similar situation existed in the UK. Today, 12 years later, that figure has approximately tripled.” In 2014, women playwrights only experience 17% representation, but in 1990 women’s plays were produced almost 21%. How have we lost ground in 24 years, in this, the fourth wave of feminism?

With a needed push from the theatre world for changes, “50/50 by 2020” (only 5 ½ years away), it is refreshing, finally, to discuss the obvious: women’s right to be equally represented in contemporary American theatre and her odd absence from it. For female playwrights the present is critical because historically she’s barely mentioned in the ranks of “classic” theatre, a sacred albeit-male canon. Today, I hope to begin a discussion on why I think parity hasn’t happened and why the issue remains problematic. Through events like Arena Stage’s The Summitand The Kilroys, we now know women playwrights exist [*wink*] and that there is a waiting “pipeline” of talented women interested—so why aren’t women playwrights playing in theatres near you?

We inherited the culture we inhabit and clues to a deep-seated gender inequality are everywhere. Take, for example, the recent ad which pointed out the perceptual differences between strong men (“BOSS”) and strong women (“BOSSY”). While many of us fight for change, more are invested in maintaining status quo, but these are complex issues for another time. To focus on the topic at hand, suffice to say that, psychologically and socially speaking, men and women may act, speak, and even write differently, but women are not, as Freud suggests, “imperfect men without penises.” [This is not to say that all women are the same, either.]

One tenet of my argument, however, is that, in terms of decision-making styles, men statistically think in “absolutes,” while women are “situational” thinkers (decisions are made on a case by case basis). From here it is no stretch to see how, for self-preservation, a patriarchal system needs uniformity: There is one correct way to run businesses, make laws, love, and to art. This longstanding mindset and patriarchal power structure is our brick wall and it won’t be undone with polite discussion, a wish, or a prayer.

Individual giftedness aside, gender differences aren’t imaginary. In April, TheAtlantic Monthly ran an article about “The Confidence Gap,” showing how men and women promote their work and themselves–and asserting that “confidence” is as important as “competence.” Rather than deconstruct Nature vs. Nurture or “why” I think men excel in this area (which the article takes a stab at addressing), I will heap more facts on the fire to show why parity will be an Olympic-sized nut to crack.

Washington D.C. theaters did band together this year to produce 44 female playwrights but, despite industry claims for big changes coming, these heavy-hitting lists still posted showcases with 0 or 1 female playwright, often out of 9 or 10 selected: The Changing Scene Theatre Northwest’s Summerplay 2014 (1 out of 9), Manhattan Theater Club (2 women to 6 men 2013-2014 and 2012-2013), Pipeline PlayLab (last year 1 of 7), Steinberg Trust (“Emerging Playwright Award,” founded in 2009 and runs every two years, first year all males to include Bruce Norris), and Summer Shorts (59E59, NYC), last year 1 woman, this year 0.

The list above fell in my lap and it makes no pretense about being exhaustive. It’s just one of those tip-of-the-iceberg glimpses that makes you despair. I cannot wait for when America becomes a “post-racial” and a “post-gender” society, but that day is not today. Gender parity makes everyone uncomfortable but it’s more than because it’s “the elephant in the room” issue. The real question isn’t, Where are all the female elephants? but Why aren’t they in the room?

The 17% Solution

While the temptation of an “easy solution” for gender parity might entail (a) a mandate that theaters contract 50/50 female/male playwrights, and (b) boycotting or (c) cutting funds for theatres that don’t comply, these measures don’t extinguish the underlying conditions that helped create female invisibility in the arts. Until these “norms” (we’ve been bombarded with and have steeped in for so long they’re absorbed) are brought back to the surface and acknowledged, the cultural lens will remain skewed and inequality will persist. We must learn to look at or “read” plays differently and to see other ways in which to “see.” Otherwise, even with “blind” submissions and with female literary managers at the helm, scripts that fit this ordained writing-style tradition will continue to be selected.

As an undergraduate psychology major, we learned that women use different conversational styles than men: we apologize more, face each other, touch, and rely on eye contact to communicate. Men’s preferred style for communication is side to side—as in from the driver’s and passenger’s seats of a car, or sitting together on the couch. There’ve been controversial studies about differences between the sexes on everything from physical strength, sexual preferences and performance, and intelligence and brain size. What’s important is whose style is being favored. . . Foucault said, “Knowledge is power,” and it follows that whoever runs the board room or classroom (writes the text books, serves as artistic directors and literary managers) dictates what is “good” and sets the agenda for what that looks like.

When feminism began, the most successful women fit in by becoming female men, laughing at jokes which were aimed at their own sex’s expense to assimilate and to show that they were “good sports.” Once inside the golden doors, those women felt privileged to listen to (if not to memorize and to copy the styles of) the sermons and lectures of journalists, novelists, and poets who operated from a foreign set of metaphors and a male-centric way of thinking. “She” learned to read (i.e. decode and encode) the male pronoun “he” as the universal referent for “mankind,” while her models—all male—sponsored phrases like, “Cold as a witch’s tit,” “Take one for the team,” and “Grow a pair.”

Until recently, women were the sole object of the gaze—and everything fell in around that worldview. It is mindboggling how all-encompassing a worldview can be, and how nearly impossible it is to change the sights on that rifle, male habits “she” accommodated and forms “she” learned, after surrendering her own, more natural way of expressing herself to blend in and feel less foreign. If unfettered, what might “her” writing style look and sound like?

(Stay tuned for Part II: “Fighting for a Female Sentence”)


Rita Anderson, an award-winning playwright from Texas, has an MFA Creative Writing and an MA Playwriting. In addition to numerous publications, Rita has had ten plays produced. A winner at the Kennedy Center, she went on scholarship to the O’Neill. Frantic is the Carousel was the 2013 National Partners American Theatre nominee, and Rita won the Ken Ludwig Playwriting Award for “best body of work.” She’s had 12 publications in 2014 and won the Cheyney Award. Early Liberty, internationally published at www.offthewallplays.com, is on the publisher’s “Best Selling Plays” list. She can be reached at her website www.rita-anderson.com.

  • http://kortneewithak.wordpress.com/ Kortnee With-a-k

    Rita Anderson and Emma Thompson, together fighting for change around the globe. If not now, then when? It is time! Well said, Rita!

  • Cabot Parsons

    I teach and direct at SUNY Orange in upstate New York. I direct one show each semester. The last four semesters I have directed plays written by women – Caryl Churchill, Sheila Callaghan, Liz Duffy Adams, and Carson Kreitzer. Our department has also hosted two different groups that do company developed work run by women and a one woman show (and workshop) by Kelly Kinsella. I didn’t pick the plays because they were written by women, I picked them because they were engaging works that excited and challenged me and my cast. Hopefully that is a harbinger of things to come.

  • R Schneider

    There’s nothing obvious to me about “women’s right to be equally represented in contemporary American theatre.” It’s the first I’ve heard that anybody has a right to artistic success, individually or as part of a group. I’m also surprised to learn that American theatre is a representative body. Is Ms. Anderson confusing it with the House of Representatives? Would she like to see similar methods used to chose its members?

  • Rita Anderson

    “You can tell how far a society is going to go by
    how it treats its women and girls. And if they’re doing well,
    then the society is going to do well; and if they’re not, then they won’t
    be.” President Barack Obama (2013)

  • Kelly McBurnette-Andronicos

    It’s generally accepted that diversity breeds innovation. And innovation breeds business success. In that case, wouldn’t it serve the greater
    good if theatre became truly representative?
    And if so, why wouldn’t we all work towards that end?

  • A White Guy

    I have read the article and the comments and these things always seem to cause controversy where there should not be any controversy.
    I am no spring chicken and I have seen the rise and fall of equality in this country. It is hard to believe how far some have come and how others have not changed. I have lived through the race riots of the 60′s, witnessed the bra burnings and the Vietnam War protests and held my tongue through the most recent growth of homosexuality and the LBGT movement and every movement in between. I am lucky to be a white male and have not had the issues that others have had as far as inequality. I have seen the “Good Ole Boy Network” in all of its glory and I mean glory in a negative way.
    I guess my response is, why not equality for women in theater? I see more women at auditions than men. If there are truly talented women writers (and there are) why not have equality in the shows chosen? As a society we are lazy, we take the path of least resistance and go with what we have always done. In my job in the IT field we must change and adapt to the new ways or we will not be in the business for long.
    Theater is supposed to be the free thinkers, the ones that buck societal notions so why can’t they begin the revolution of equality for writers? We all know famous male writers but do we know the female ones? I am guilty of this more than most.
    I am sure if you are a male writer you are not for this movement just like the white collar executives were not ready to let a female or African American have the same wages as they had but fair is fair. After all the videos and news articles of how women are treated in other countries we have made strives in this country but we are not done growing as a society or country in ANY respect.
    A similar revolution is happening in the country music scene. Check out the latest song by Maddie and Tae. They are tired of how women are portrayed in the “Bro Country” songs.

  • Nancy McClernan

    So do you believe the opposite? Women have no right to be equally represented in American theater? On what grounds? Are you seriously arguing that the only reason why there’s such a lopsided gender ratio is because men are just twice as good as women at writing plays?