Last week I started writing about why plays written by women aren’t being produced enough. In that post, I talked about the insidiousness of patriarchy throughout society. Today I want to look more specifically at how patriarchal ideas have shaped theater criticism – starting with the beginning of the art form, and continuing at least through this past week. So here are my reasons #2 and #3 (out of 4) for the persistence of this bias in theater:
2. Aristotle started it.
So we no longer have to write plays that take place in 24 hours, but let’s face it, we’re still haunted by Aristotle. His favorite plays are still produced, he’s drilled into us at universities, and his notions of linear plot, conflict, and one climax (how paltry!) still dominate. But what did he ever do for me? Oh, that’s right, he said, as a woman, I’m an “inferior being” and that “valor in a woman, or unscrupulous cleverness is inappropriate.” Basically, he didn’t think we had any place as writers, actors, or audience members in the theater. Inappropriate, indeed!
History matters today because we are adrift without it. If women ever write “differently,” i.e. not in the (male) Tradition as set down by Sophocles, Shakespeare, O’Neill, Miller, Williams, etc. etc. etc., our work is not understood or respected as part of any tradition. We don’t have the hundreds of playwrights and thousands of years of role models to give us examples and encouragement to tell our stories in “different” ways, should we choose to. But what about Hrosvitha, Behn, de la Cruz, Glaspell, Fornes and others we haven’t rediscovered and reclaimed yet? And how many people who don’t have a theater degree have even heard those names? Women have been actively cut out of the process of defining what is good playwriting from the very beginning of what we call “theater,” and we can’t discount the accumulated effect of 2,500 years of exclusion.
3. Critics still don’t take our work seriously.
Hopefully the days of blatant public critique of women’s competence relative to men are behind us – although maybe not too far behind us. Theresa Rebeck eloquently described her own career-damaging NY Times review from about a decade ago, which called a play of hers a “feminist diatribe” with a “man-hating agenda” – which damaged her ability to get any play produced around the country for a number of years. But if we wouldn’t expect to see such over-the-top sexism in reviews today, we can still recognize when subconscious undervaluation of women’s ideas and writing persists.
For example, a recent Washington Post review of a new play by Renee Calarco really got my goat. I saw a preview of The Religion Thing (running through January 29 at Theater J) and I was impressed with the play’s humor, complexity, depth, compassion, stylistic fluidity, and truth. I’ll put my disclaimer right here: I count Renee as a colleague and friend, but that doesn’t affect my BS-meter.
Let’s start with the headline: “Cutesyness drags down comedy about faith.” Really? “Cutesyness”? Just think about that word for a minute. (And no, Peter Marks probably did not write the headline, but the word “cutesyness” indeed appears in the review itself as well.) So, it’s okay to call children cute, but to use such a word to describe a grown woman’s writing? Now ask yourself if you can imagine a critic using the word “cutesy” to describe a play written by a man. Maybe, maybe not. (I can’t.) But why are “cute,” “cutesy” and “cutesyness” insulting, anyway? Because, in a patriarchy, things associated with women and girls are devalued. Since “cutesyness” is most associated with little girls, it’s an easy insult to use, especially if one wants to infantilize grown women and dismiss our legitimate concerns. (“You’re so cute when you’re mad!”) Anyone may disagree with my opinions about the content and style of a particular play – as long as potential biases are recognized and accounted for. Most of all, I would hope for more careful and respectful use of language in reviews.
And lastly, in addition to the sexist language he used, Marks suffered from false expectations about stylistic consistency. Who says the play has to be uproariously comedic throughout, or can’t delight audiences with departures from reality? Oh, I guess that would be Aristotle who first said that. And I guess people are still listening to him.
Coming Next: One last bone to pick, and then, ideas for change