The Sexism in our Non-Sexist Industry

The theatre community prides itself on its left-leaning culture, openness to diversity, and acceptance of difference. Yet we have constant problems with gender parity. Women are underrepresented in every area of our industry apart from the indie scene, often dramatically. There are so many studies and think pieces about this, I’m not going to bother choosing any one to link to– we’ve all read them.

Although we consider ourselves “not sexist,” we’re still unwittingly *saying and doing things that are sexist*. Sexism (and racism, and ableism, and etc) are actions and words as well as thoughts and attitudes. In 2016, we’re not seeing “No woman can direct a man with proper authority” and the like, but we’re all still dealing with the sexism pervasive in our culture, and it impacts our actions through unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is why people who are committed feminists are still sometimes making decisions motivated by sexism (and racism, and transphobia, etc).

And while this applies without question to women who have internalized the sexism inherent in our culture and its many systems and structures, often what we, as women, are struggling with in this industry are the unconscious biases of men.

“She’s perfect for the role!” When I cast something with straight male input, I often find myself struggling to make him understand that the woman with whom he is most taken is not actually the best actor or right for the role. Because our culture has rigid, oppressive strictures about what constitutes “attractive,” most often that woman is young, European-American, thin, able-bodied, and traditionally “pretty.” I often find myself struggling to make him understand that a woman less physically attractive to him is much more skilled, or closer to the center of the role. Here’s what I hear men say about the woman they’re attracted to: “She has a certain quality that just pulls the eye”; “She has the right look”; “She has so much presence”; “She has something; I just can’t put my finger on it, but it’s there”; “I think her acting drawbacks would actually be strengths in this role.” Here’s what I hear men say about the woman they’re less attracted to: “I just can’t see her in the role”; “She’s just not as interesting to watch”; “She lacks presence”; “I don’t believe her”; “I don’t think the audience will accept her as a romantic lead.” Or he’ll suddenly decide that the *crucial qualities* he insisted the woman to whom he’s attracted would bring to the role are *massive, problematic drawbacks* when embodied in a woman less attractive to him. Or he “just can’t see” the traditionally “pretty” woman’s massive comic skills.

To be clear, this isn’t universal. I shouldn’t even have to say it by this point, but #notallmen. However, if a director’s every lead looks the same (for example, thin, European-American, and blonde), that director should probably have a seat and take a think on it. Remember that acting on an unexamined sexist bias in casting doesn’t make you a terrible person, or even “a sexist.” We’re all struggling with finding and eliminating our unconscious biases. We could all benefit from looking carefully at our attitudes and casting habits and interrogating our decisions fearlessly, and not just about women, but about gender nonconforming people, race, ability, size, etc.

“I don’t understand this play. It’s not for me.” Straight European-American men make up less than a third of the US population– a definite minority. Yet the stories of straight European-American men are considered “neutral”– stories for everyone, universal. A play starring a straight European-American man, written by a straight European-American man, is never considered to be coming from a particular, unique point of view– it’s never about being straight and European-American. It’s about, for example, overcoming loss, or reconciling with family, or forgiveness and healing. The social positionality of the work fades into the background as irrelevant– “universal.” However, work by and featuring women, people of color, disabled people, gender nonconforming people, is marked by its distance from the straight European-American male “universal.” It’s a “Black play” or a “woman’s play.”

Because we posit the straight European-American male experience as “universal,” we never expect straight European-American men to translate– to find ways to see the work of people unlike them as relevant to them– because we define that work by its distance from them. Yet they expect without question for everyone to automatically translate work from a European-American male perspective, both seeing and relating to the “universal” message inside. When you’re sitting in a season planning meeting or a development meeting, and the European-American men around you claim they “don’t understand” a play or that a play is “not for them,” but they fully expect you as a woman and/or person of color to relate to stories from a European-American male perspective because they’re “universal,” you’re seeing unconscious bias in action.

There’s an easy way to tell if the play is actually incomprehensible or if men on the team are just refusing to translate, and that’s to see whether opinions of the play are divided by gender. Repeat as necessary for race, ability, sexuality, etc. Part of privilege is that the world pretends the privileged experience is universal. Part of fighting systemic injustice is actively working to learn how to translate.

When you’re ready to toss aside a play as “not for everyone,” “not universally appealing,” or “for women,”  take a second and think: “Am I just refusing to translate?”

“I’m all for diversity. . . I have a Black female intern!” If you’re a European-American man who is proposing that diversity be a key consideration for every position but your own, I see you. Let’s focus on hiring actors, directors, designers, techs, and/or playwrights who are women or people of color, you say, and we all rightfully applaud. Except the European-American men in positions of power and gatekeeping at those theatres retain every scrap of their power, and the fact that theatres over a certain size in this county are almost exclusively run by European-American men does not change. Too often “diversity” means “we hired some Black people” or “one director is a woman.” We have diversity without equity, because the decision makers and gatekeepers preserve that power for the privileged.

Theatres, almost every single time you’re looking for a new Artistic Director, you hire a man. It’s so pervasive I’m finding myself involuntarily assuming that every decision is rooted in sexism, assuming the man was hired because he was a man. I find that thought popping into my head even when I know better, even when I personally know and respect the man and would hire him myself. I wonder which women they refused to seriously consider. I look at so many young women with so much promise, and it breaks my heart thinking they’ll have to watch man after man they hired and trained be promoted over them.

There’s a lock on the boys’ club of artistic leadership, and current artistic leadership, including boards, holds the key. A few festivals of plays by women, or giving a Black woman an internship, is not bringing meaningful change. Put women and people of color on your boards. Hire women and people of color for positions of power. Remember that Black female intern when a position of artistic leadership becomes available. Until then, you’re making me wonder if you’re not just trying to quell dissent to shore up your own cultural and professional power by committing to diversity without committing to equity.

“I would love to hire more women. I just can’t find any.” The indie scene is dominated by women and people of color. What I don’t understand is why those women and people of color seem to fade to invisibility when larger theatres dip into the indie community to look for new talent, bringing up European-American men with far more frequency, and at far earlier stages of their careers, than women and people of color. I’ve run an indie theatre for 20 years, and I’ve seen it happen over and over and over. What makes you look at a young European-American man with very little experience and see “promise” but look at a young woman of color with more experience and see “she’s not ready”? Keep your eyes on the local scene, wherever you are, and make an effort to seek out women and people of color. Wherever you are on the budget spectrum, there’s someone working at the level “below” you that you can bring up, and every time you bring someone up, you’re putting them into the pipeline that ends at LORT and Broadway jobs. Be conscious of whom you’re putting into that pipeline– think about to whom you’re giving opportunities. Are you hiring with gender parity? Are you hiring people of color? Or are you hiring 84% European-American men?

Fighting for social justice means fighting your unconscious bias all day, every day. It means continually examining your opinions and motivations. There’s no finish line where the crowd screams in envious joy as Rebecca Solnit and Michelle Obama pour gatorade on your head and hand you a NOT SEXIST trophy. This takes work. It’s OK to fail at it and keep trying. Just please keep trying.

 

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “The Sexism in our Non-Sexist Industry

  1. kristin1962 says:

    Fantastic. Thanks, Kristin

  2. The last one really resonates with me as a Black man because people are CONSTANTLY saying “there are no good Black actors in the Bay Area” {they nervously catch themselves “Besides you, I mean!”

    As a Black actor myself, I know A LOT of them. One recent Bay Area play (that shall remain nameless here) required a Black lead and they guy they chose was… he was just terrible. When I talked about the show with friends who were in the cast, they said the director was constantly complaining that he couldn’t find any Black actors – save for the one he cast – who would be comfortable with the material. I then ran off a laundry list of names of local Black actors who are constantly trying to get cast in plays like this, but never do. Oy…

    If people think “there are no [X] people” in your local theatre scene, then ask that one token you seem to know and they can, y’know, point you in the right direction.

  3. “It’s OK to fail at it and keep trying. Just please keep trying.” Quoted for truth.

    I think part of the problem is that, for lots of people, recognising that they might actually have biases means that they are a “bad person”. They don’t want that to be the case so therefore they have no biases and the problem has nothing to do with them and isn’t on them to solve. This logic baffles me (though I can see that it might be comforting) but I see it everywhere and it’s frustrating.

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