Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Women beware women

The meme that sexism is holding back female playwrights refuses to go away; now a Princeton graduate named Emily Glassberg Sands says her senior thesis "shows that female playwrights are, in fact, discriminated against, which may be one reason why fewer women are writing plays," and she's presenting her findings in New York this week.

Well, I'll be interested to peruse those findings. As readers of this blog know, I'm somewhat hostile to this thesis, not because I hate women (although yes, I know I do, unconsciously, along with African-Americans and Latinos and "the Other" in general), but because I often see inferior plays produced by women (Sarah Ruhl, Lynn Nottage, Lydia R. Diamond) who seem to be favored by either the academy or the arbiters of political correctness. (Meanwhile female playwrights like Caryl Churchill, who are gutsy enough to take on real political issues, get little support from this crew.)

Sands's new salvo, however, comes with the implicit imprimatur of the Freakonomics crowd (one of her "mentors" is Steven Levitt), so it represents a powerful cross-synergy between current memes. But I'm rather curious just how much Freakonomics-style analysis Sands can really apply to the case of female playwrights if they're indeed so under-represented on the stage. Where has she found a large enough sample to back up such claims as her assertion that "plays written by women sold almost one quarter more tickets per week than those by men, earning 18 percent higher grosses weekly"? Particularly given that she claims these numbers are based on Broadway plays, where Theresa Rebeck claims women are barely represented? (She claims her numbers came from a website called dollee.com, but I found little box office information there.)

But I promise to keep an open mind. Who knows, perhaps with Ruined, Lynn Nottage has actually written a good play this time (although its winning the Pulitzer hardly impresses) - and if it were produced on Broadway, perhaps it would turn a profit. In the meantime, however, there is one shocking bit of information buried in the referenced post:

Sands also sent out four previously unseen scripts by prominent female playwrights — Lynn Nottage, Julia Jordan, Tanya Barfield, and Deb Laufer — to artistic directors and literary managers nationwide. Each script was assigned two pen names, like Mary Walker and Michael Walker. The results were surprising: Female readers rated scripts with female pen names 15 percent lower than those with male pen names, while male readers rated the scripts equally. Sands attributes this to women thinking that women's plays "will be less well received."

Ah, women - beware women! But beyond the gender irony evidenced here (and the shocker that male readers actually showed no sexist bias), there's a larger question looming that reflects on all producers - if, indeed, there is bias against plays written by women, is that due to simple sexism, or to a latent feeling among producers that audiences aren't interested in these playwrights' concerns and material? If Lynn Nottage is produced on Broadway and fails, does that mean producers aren't sexist after all, but simply attuned to the market?


  1. Thomas - head over to my blog Off-Stage Right. Read my post about the presentation which I attended yesterday http://bit.ly/NuQQx . I was so impressed with the research Emily did and the back up that she had that I asked her if I could post her presentation on my site. It is up there for your to read through.

    All of it is very informative.

    The financial data is most interesting culled from 10 years of Broadway grosses and attendance figures for new plays from the League.

    I was so impressed with the work, I have volunteered to help Emily get the information out to as many people as I can. Thanks for the opportunity to do so.

  2. I'll post a link to your site and hope to read the full presentation tonight.