Thursday, August 20, 2009

Opening the Curtain on Emily Glassberg Sands, Part III

Once again we interrupt our regularly-scheduled programming to return to the ongoing saga of Emily Glassberg Sands and her struggle to find evidence of sexism on the stage! This week we'll ponder the really interesting part of Sands's study, the one that has generated the most "controversy" - and the one section which could prove a genuine contribution to our understanding of this fraught topic.

No doubt you've heard this by now, but as part of her widely-discussed (though rarely-read) undergraduate thesis, Sands conducted a clever experiment with regional-theatre artistic directors and literary managers as its unknowing subjects. Sands was trying to tease out data regarding sexist reactions to scripts by female playwrights - but how to do it? How to control for everything in the complicated world of play development except for that single variable?

Drawing on the recent tradition of "audit studies," Sands hit on an ingenious solution to her problem. Posing as a researcher into the process of play development, she sent out (to some 252 theatres) unpublished passages from scripts contributed by leading female playwrights - Lynn Nottage, Julia Jordan, Tanya Barfield, and Deb Laufer (Nottage top left, Jordan middle right, Barfield lower left, Laufer bottom right). Only Sands changed the names on half the sample to "male" pseudonyms (she thoughtfully controlled for potential reactions to the synthetic names themselves by choosing bland, but not too bland, sobriquets like "Michael Walker"). In the end, half of her (randomized, as far as possible) sample got the original script with the female name attached; the other half got the same script with a male name attached. Hence Sands effectively controlled for every variable except the gender of the playwright. To entice busy artistic directors to participate in her survey, she even promised that if they read the scripts in question and answered her questions, their theatre would be entered into a lottery with a cash prize (this struck me as the most astutely deceptive ploy in her entire paper; trust me, Emily will go far).

But the results of this experiment, as is well known, elicited gasps from feminists everywhere: while men rated the plays in question exactly the same regardless of gender, women judged the samples more harshly when they believed a woman had written them. And by a rather significant margin.

Since then, argument has raged over the cause of this counter-intuitive result. Yet I've seen little discussion regarding the content of the texts in question, which to my mind could have some bearing on these findings. For there could be a subtle behavioral problem buried in Sands's method that no mathematical analysis could address. To understand what this might be, you first have to appreciate that the negative ratings which Sands found were derived not from any "global" assessment of script quality, but from two axes of response - the likability of the play's characters (particularly its female characters), and the perceived probability of the play's success.

As it seems probable, given the genesis of this study, Sands's occasional fudging of her data to fit her own views, and the general response to her results, that there is a widespread female faith in the existence of sexism in the theatre, the low "probability of success" rating for a female-written play is hardly surprising. (Nor, to be fair, is male indifference to this possibility; the self-flattering denial of possible sexism by men is a well-known phenomenon.)

But when it comes to that "likability" rating, I think we have to dig a little deeper, and consider the texts in question. After all, Sands sent out only four scripts, and a character described simply as a "female" data point might actually range in profile from Lady Macbeth to Anne of Green Gables. And would it be such a shock if women reacted differently to a controversial female character written by a woman rather than a man? It's no secret, after all, that minority audiences unconsciously view characters as social emblems - and thus a negatively-drawn female character written by a woman could stir up greater feelings of unconscious betrayal in women than in men. Perhaps that's unfortunate, or even wrong - but is it the same thing as sexism? If a Jew reacted more acutely to an unlikable Jewish character written by another Jew, would we accuse him or her of internalized anti-Semitism? I don't think so. (Indeed, we might take it as evidence of pro-Semitism!)

And it's worth noting that this is a key difference between Sands's study and earlier studies such as Cecilia Rouse's famous paper on sexism in the classical music world. Rouse found indisputable evidence of sexism in orchestral auditions - a bigotry which has been (slowly) corrected by "blind auditions," in which the performer plays behind a screen. (After this practice took hold, the number of women in America's orchestras exploded.)

But while classical music reflects on its audience, composer, and performers, of course, we still "identify" with its content and style in a less specific way than we identify with stage characters. In other words, if a member of a minority plays a specific musical passage, it's unlikely that his or her listeners would consider its musical content a critical portrait of their own minority. But that's what theatre audiences tend to do, almost automatically. Characters serve as direct avatars in a way that musical statements do not. And thus feelings about characters are inevitably bound up with who wrote them.

So the response of female readers to female characters in female-written scripts could be scrambled if the characters were perceived as "negative" in some way. But again, almost no one in the press or blogosphere seems to have read the material at hand. Sands included the four excerpts distributed to her literary managers and artistic directors as an appendix to her study, and so after I had finished her paper, I went on to read them as well.

And I have to confess I was slightly disappointed in their quality. Two were tight and punchy, and I imagine good actors could make something of all four. But none were particularly original, indeed most echoed the works of other (male) writers. And none were better than the best entrants I saw in the recent Boston Theatre Marathon, or other original scripts I've seen recently. It was hard to feel, therefore, that these particular texts would stand out in the commercial marketplace, given the stiff competition - likewise, it was easy to see why artistic directors might not get too excited about them.

And yet these authors had been heaped with awards - between them, they boasted a Pulitzer Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur "Genius" grant, the Helen Merrill Emerging Playwrights Award, The American Theatre Critics Association Steinberg Citation, the Kleban Award, and the Francesca Primus Prize; they have been Lucille Lortel Fellows and Juilliard Fellows and Resident Playwrights, and have received grants from Lincoln Center. And yet these seemingly awesome talents aren't any better, minute by minute, than the women and men writing for free for the Boston Theatre Marathon! I inevitably found myself pondering a possible gap between the soft politics of the awards scene and the quality demands of the marketplace. (If you think I'm being harsh, you can read the texts yourself here.)

I also think it's worth noting that most of the scripts were at least implicitly political - not always an easily sell - and most had women as lead characters, and none of these women was particularly, well, likable. Neither were the men, it's true; indeed, there was an at best sardonic attitude toward all the characters (of course this tone may have modulated or disappeared over the course of the entire play; Sands only distributed a roughly 10-page scene from each - still, that's what her participants read). The men of the plays were either corrupt, weak, or dopily immature - one unseen male was described as "nasty, bitter, nihilistic, misogynist, but likable" - but they were still portrayed as more powerful and self-directed than the women, who were usually seen as dependent, selfish, or, as the same playwright described one of her female characters, "increasingly bitter and angry." Meanwhile another woman was deemed "the ultimate five-armed mother; controls every situation and everyone around her." (Hmmmm. Sexist cliché, anyone?) The one exception to this loose, general rule was a woman dallying sexually with her best friend's college-age son - a controversial form of empowerment, to be sure, and one I can well imagine raising hackles in mature female readers with horny sons of their own.

What was obvious to me was that none of these female characters was drawn particularly positively - at best, they had their points to make, but I felt neither sympathy nor identification with any of them, and certainly none of them were "heroines." And to be blunt, in a sexist (or perhaps more accurately, a perceived sexist) environment, this could cause trouble for a playwright. I could also hear a certain axe grinding away behind much of the dialogue - the expected edge of disgruntled feminism was obvious throughout at least three of the scripts, with its unhappy whine aimed at women as well as men. So the "quality" of the texts was inevitably entangled not only with how female readers might feel about women portrayed by other women, but also how they felt about feminism portrayed by other women, another fraught topic if ever there was one.

So perhaps the results of Sands's audit study shouldn't surprise us at all. Indeed, perhaps these ironic artifacts of the assumption of sexism are what's important about her study. For it's worth remembering that Sands has utterly failed to find any hard data proving sexism in the theatre - which, of course, does not mean it doesn't exist; yet when you also consider that the one piece of hard data she's got actually only proves a belief in sexism on the part of women, one does have to wonder what portrait, exactly, of the theatrical scene her study paints. Indeed, I have to say I find something deeply funny about this whole affair - Sands's female correspondents seem to be in knots about issues that her male correspondents don't even see. Meanwhile, if none of these female-written scripts ever saw production, it's hard to say that we'd have missed anything special! Funnier still, Sands's study could be seen as indicating that the best way to fight sexism would be to have only men read new plays. More on that, and other ironic fallout from the Sands affair, in future posts.


  1. Have you bothered, in all these posts concerning Sands, to talk to women in theatre? It looks like you're drawing the conclusion that we, the people who this study studies the most, have not actually discussed it merits and flaws. For Part IV, I invite you to open a dialogue with the women around you who are immersed in theatre and see what they have to say.

  2. Go ahead, dialogue away. Just first read the study and the plays in question, okay? Because so far that hasn't happened.