We, Thee & Me


I’ve been researching women in the arts and culture for a presentation next week at the Women’s International Study Center’s inaugural symposium. There’s ample information online, and it all tells an unsurprising story (if you’ve been keeping your eyes open).

Credit: Creative Commons

There’s more arts work by women out in the world, and also more work that depicts women as objects for others’ pleasure or service. Compared to a few decades ago, there are significantly more women in galleries, museums, orchestras, theaters, and so on, but nothing like a proportional representation of women in the population. At the upper levels of prestige institutional culture, women are scarce: one conducts a major orchestra, a handful head large dance companies and museums, fewer than half as many get museum and upscale gallery shows as men, etc. There’s more activism all the time, with organizations in every cultural sector working on inclusion, representation, and education to even the score. (There’s a good selection of links at WomenArts.)
Perusing the numbers, my mind leaps to a black-and-white conclusion that men, the gatekeepers, keep women out. But a report done a few years ago on gender bias in theater keeps nagging at me. Some of the findings illustrate the logic of entrenched bias. There are more male playwrights and they submit more scripts, so ipso facto, more scripts by men will be produced. To change that, you have to tinker with the supply side as well as the decision-making process: how to get more women to write and submit scripts — that isn’t exactly rocket science. In fact (albeit more gradually than the pace of change I would like to see), more women become active in each cultural field every year.
But the finding that nags me is this; in a blind study of scripts (the same script was submitted to comparable theaters, half under a man’s name, half under a woman’s), women’s plays were ranked lower in terms of quality, economic prospects, and audience response. The thing is the lower rankings were delivered by women. That’s right. Female artistic directors and literary managers ranked the script lower when a woman’s name was attached, while their male counterparts ranked the woman’s script the same as the man’s.

I can only think of two reasons for this. First, as the researcher suggested, “artistic directors who are women perhaps possess a greater awareness of the barriers female playwrights face.” Any member of a minority group knows this story: we internalize the idea that we have to be twice as good as the white male counterpart to get the same credit. So when female readers considered this play, perhaps they had their defensive glasses on, looking for vulnerabilities that would render the script — coming from a woman — dismissable. Self-interest may play a part here too. A woman in a precarious power position in a theater might want to calculate her risks — the material she was willing to stake her own security on — a little more conservatively than a male counterpart.
Not that such calculations are grounded in hard information. The same study found that on average, plays by women sold more tickets and made more profit. But despite the numbers, a different view — can we risk alienating our audience with a play by a woman? — often holds sway.
Or it could be what my friends down south call the “crabs in a barrel” problem. When one rises higher, the others pull it down out of envy. If you’re in a unique power-position, whether conscious or not, your own desire to keep it that way may make you harder on those perceived as close competitors. We see everywhere that some members of socially marginalized groups use their success to help others, while others use the same experience to emigrate to a privileged class whose chief aim is to advance its own interests. Indeed, one too-frequent pitfall of success is to believe that your personal triumphs stand for a larger justice, so your focus on individual self-interest really serves others.
Another thing I came across in my research is the recent outpouring of anti-feminist backlash. Chiefly from social media-driven things like Women Against Feminism, a collection of selfies by mostly young women who show the camera handwritten messages about why they don’t need feminism — almost always characterizing it as a movement that favors women at men’s expense.
On the one hand, they are manifesting the freedom of action and expression that was won for them by generations of women standing for equal rights, a validation of the victories that allow many of us to speak our minds with considerable freedom. On the other hand, they are demonstrating their ignorance of that history, and of the risks that sadly may arise in their own lives. Reproductive rights, awareness and response to gender-based violence, unequal access to education, livelihood, even the liberty to vote or drive — all of these are very real issues for very real women around the globe.
Whether out of defensiveness, envy, or ignorance, some women support and even add to the inequities that continue to plague their gender, even in relatively free societies. So what can be done about it?
It’s not a tactical question so much as it’s the central dilemma of virtually all politics. How do we reconcile our individual and communal need for a sense of security and sufficiency with the reality that a stable society depends on ensuring a sufficient measure of social goods — not just material goods, but participation, equity, and liberty for all?
Indeed, it’s the central dilemma of virtually all spiritual traditions. How do we reconcile the demands of being alive in a human body that seems separate and distinct with the meta-reality of non-duality: everything is spirit, everything is connected, everything is one?
How do we reconcile the insistent demands of me with the reality that only an equal thee can create a we that can withstand the challenges life throws our way?
I am obliged to look at myself. I admit to all the grandiosity of someone who wants to change the world and thinks she has something useful to contribute to that task. Although I know I may well be wrong, in my own mind I have no doubt that if more people paid attention to the ideas I put out into the world, that would help. So either I am sadly under-recognized in proportion to my potential contribution, or my own sense of value is inflated and I am being heeded to a degree that is precisely commensurate with my gifts.
Either way, I want something for the world (a social order of justice permeated by love) and something for myself (the means and influence to have an impact). In these ambitions, if I have been held back, I cannot say whether or not it is on account of gender.
I have been condescended to as much as any woman, and dislike it as much as any woman. I’ve also developed some pretty effective strategies to counter that. As a woman who often conveys a calm and polite appearance, I know the power of confounding expectations with a hard truth spoken plainly. When I am thwarted by someone with an ego that has become inflated with its own entitlements, I know a few subtle ways to diminish the swelling. I know how to speak for those who cannot risk speaking for themselves. I think these capacities are aided by my gender in paradoxical ways. For instance, I often have the advantage of surprise that comes as a side-benefit of diminished expectations on the part of others.
It’s easy to change the name on a script from male to female, but I have a hard time changing the name on my life-story, imagining how it might have been rewarded differently if a man had lived it. I’m really not an essentialist, attributing superior characteristics to women as a class. When women head nations, for instance, so far as I can see they tend to make war and practice a hard-edged realpolitik much like their male counterparts. Yet so many of the ideas I espouse seem somehow female: the power of beauty; the need to bring our bodies, emotions, minds, and spirits into the social realm; the way stories can heal. I don’t want to get into something stupid like granting ideas gender. But I don’t know that my books could have been written by a man who had benefited from the privileges that attach to straight white maleness — or let me say I don’t know of books somehow close to mine that were.
So if indeed I have been held back in any sense, is it then indirectly on account of gender, because I have chosen subjects and ways of expressing them that are somehow marginalizing?
When I look at my own history, I think class probably had a more profound impact. It was the typical expectations of my class — socially marginal, uneducated, aspiring to survival and not much beyond — that led me to channel my prodigious curiosity and transformative ambitions into the more or less countercultural frame my life has filled. I wasn’t trying to reach the top office in a corporation, get a museum show, direct an opera company or win tenure. I’ve just been trying to live my truth. It’s been a strongly DIY journey so far, and I hope it continues for a long time.
Yet I don’t feel a hint of that attitude we find so often in the anti-feminist camp: I’m okay, I’ve got mine, what’s wrong with you? You see, I long ago learned a political truth that I find more profound than any other. We who are part of a marginalized class or category have two choices in this world. One is to make a deal with the king: curry favor with those in power, do their bidding in exchange for security, even privilege. It’s a popular choice, with one huge drawback: no one is king forever. If you focus your life on special pleading for your own or your own group’s well-being in a way that expresses indifference to the well-being of others, then no one will be there to catch you when your special deal ends.
The other choice is to work for compassion, honor, and justice for all, so that the gains made through your efforts are shared by all.There’s no ultimate protection against the vagaries of history, but those gains are likely to last far longer and be far less fragile than than a temporary alliance with entrenched power.
So I’m a feminist for the same reasons I support equality based on race, ethnicity, ability, orientation, or any other ground for discrimination. And those women who think they are merely being realistic by ranking female playwrights’ scripts lower? Well, they’re making a deal with the king. I advise them to sleep with one eye open to be sure no one else is making a better deal that leaves them out.
I’m just getting into Gene Ammons. Why did it take me so long? A sublime version of “Angel Eyes.”
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