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Are women to blame for gender imbalances in theater?

June 23, 2009

In my recent post on sexism in English-language poetry, I noted that many editors justify gender imbalances in the pages of their journals with the argument that this is not a result of sexism but, rather, of women submitting less work than men do. Now, a similar argument has been made by a young economist about US playwrights getting their work staged. The New York Times reports:

Artistic directors of theater companies have maintained that no discrimination exists, rather that good scripts by women are in short supply. That claim elicited snorts and laughter from the audience when it was repeated Monday night, but [Emily Glassberg] Sands declared, “They’re right.”

In reviewing information on 20,000 playwrights in the Dramatists Guild and, an online database of playwrights, she found that there were twice as many male playwrights as female ones, and that the men tended to be more prolific, turning out more plays.

Numbers don’t lie, but they don’t occur in a vacuum either. While I was not at the presentation and so cannot say whether this was in Ms. Sands’ presentation or if  it is simply the New York Times’ spin, the suggestion seems to be that this imbalance in plays written indicates that sexism is not as big a problem in theater as it appears to be. In fact, the imbalance may well have its roots sexism. As I have argued in regards to poetry, women who experience sexism in the reception of their works are likelier to become discouraged. It may be true that artists need to have a thick skin, but if you come to believe that your work will never be accepted no matter its quality (which is what the experience of sexism suggests), you end up wondering if it’s worth struggling on. Moreover, to be prolific takes time which women, who still do the bulk of unpaid domestic labor, are less likely to have.

Ms. Sands also found that internalized sexism (though she didn’t call it that) plays a role in the difficulties faced by women playwrights trying to have their plays produced:

[she] sent identical scripts to artistic directors and literary managers around the country. The only difference was that half named a man as the writer (for example, Michael Walker), while half named a woman (i.e., Mary Walker). It turned out that Mary’s scripts received significantly worse ratings in terms of quality, economic prospects and audience response than Michael’s. The biggest surprise? “These results are driven exclusively by the responses of female artistic directors and literary managers,” Ms. Sands said…“Men rate men and women playwrights exactly the same.”

Ms. Sands was reluctant to explain the responses in terms of discrimination, suggesting instead that artistic directors who are women perhaps possess a greater awareness of the barriers female playwrights face.

I would argue, however, that there is a problem with this methodology. While I would be hesitant to make any generalizations about men’s and women’s writing, given that people’s experience of the world is still to a great extent influenced by their gender, it is unlikely that you would have a male playwright and a female playwright create highly similar, let alone identical, works. Ms. Sands does address this to a limited degree by considering plays that feature women (which are less likely to be produced), but this is not quite a complete inquiry. Men have written plays with female protagonists, but could a man have written Trifles?

Ultimately, this study uncovered some important data and will certainly spark debate. It must not, however, be regarded as the last word.

Edited to add: The Time Out New York blog has a post compiling the responses of several female directors.

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  1. jerry permalink
    July 1, 2009 6:45 pm

    It struck me too as problematical that she didn’t submit scripts written by men similarly disguised, or even scripts written by men and women with names removed.

    However, without more research, I find the internalized sexism answer to fail Occam’s razor. Women are more harsh to women than men were, therefore it’s because of internalized sexism? Perhaps, but that would seem to preclude more occam’s razor simpler answers. Perhaps women are just harsher to other women, that’s conceivably a simpler explanation is mirrored elsewhere in nature.

    • July 1, 2009 9:02 pm

      I think you’re using Occam’s razor incorrectly. Saying “women are just harsher to other women” isn’t an explanation. (To illustrate, imagine a four-year old asking you why the sky is blue. You say it’s just blue and is always blue in nature. They’re probably going to come back with “yes, but why?”) A simpler statement that doesn’t answer the original question is not the best answer.

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