Let Me Tell You Why

Some days I wake up in the morning feeling excited and refreshed.

Take this morning for example. I sat down for my daily check in with my fabulous company associate Sam. We chatted about upcoming deadlines and big picture project dreams. I made myself a list of things to work on today including rehearsal plans for my new work with a phenomenally funny group of students at Drexel. I put together some notes for an upcoming grant. I wrote a letter to a collaborator from my recent directing freelance gig for Ego Po.

I was doing things that were adding up to a happy and productive art-maker’s day. Things that would never lead me to think about the fact that being a female creator might put me at a disadvantage in my community. Too bad then that I had to go and read the Inky’s review for Luna Theater Co’s current production of Animal Farm.

I’m not linking to it because I don’t want to drive up the readership stats but I’ll summarize and quote here the relevant stuff. If you really want to find it, you can look it up online.

The review begins with an overview of Orwell’s story and then follows up by saying that the production’s performances (carried out by an all female cast) are genuinely terrifying and display a “startling physicality.” It cites some issues with direction and overall vision. It says that two of the performers Michelle Pauls and Tori Mittelman are both “brilliant” in their ability to “contort themselves by gait, posture, tone, and expression into pigs.” The review rounds out this first half of the review by stating that the “six actors craft stunning physical performances.”

I haven’t seen this show. I have no idea if these are accurate assessments of the directorial issues the reviewer hints at. I have no idea if the performers are “stunning” or “brilliant.” But I do know that up to the halfway point I was reading an article about a classic work performed by an all female cast that hadn’t yet cast aspersions on the quality of the project simply based on the performers’ gender rather than their unique and individual abilities to carry out the roles for which they had been assigned.

Some days I read about productions doing things like this and I see reviewers manage to actually see female artists taking on roles traditionally walled off from them by the default power of the canon just as “artists” that don’t need to be defined by gender. Some days I see such reviewers not remark or wonder whether female performers are equally capable of taking on such roles. Some days I think, “Gosh, maybe there is hope to finally just erase that Smurfette Principle “men will always and forever be the default” thing. Some days I start to think that maybe we don’t need to just wholesale throw out the canon because maybe I’m thankfully wrong in my fear that it’s just too hard for people to re-imagine stuff that comes from a time of straight white cis-male privilege into a world where we all see that straight white cis-male privilege should no longer be the case.

Today, alas, is not that day.

Because after citing the power of these particular performers for several paragraphs the reviewer gets to the crux of his review. After stating the terror induced in the audience through the performances the reviewer begs a question:

The only question is: Why?

And following that question there are a lot of other questions. There are plenty of these I have no problem at all with. There are plenty of these that I think are great questions to be asking a contemporary theater artist making a modern adaptation of a work from the past. Questions like:

Why create one disturbing moment after the next without offering more than the horror of slaughter?

And:

Why unleash Pauls’ fear-inducing portrayal to prowl the stage, appear at random like a spy, direct the atrocities, if only to terrify in the abstract, and point no real or allegorical fingers at modern targets?

And some days I might have read this review and its thoughtful questions been able to move on. But today that series of questions also had to include this one:

The only question is: Why?

Why cast all women as animals clearly identified as male in the book?

Perhaps I might respond to this particular rhetorical question with a bit of rhetoric inquiry of my own:

  • Why do you need to lump useful negative criticism about directing choices and staging with a comment on casting choices that create more inclusivity and space for female creators?
  • Why question such casting when you just called their performance abilities “stunning” just a second ago?
  • Why are you subtly implying a director ought not cast people with “brilliant” acting ability for a particular role simply because they do not posses the talent-irrelevant attribute of being a dude?
  • Why would I bet a million dollars that you would never ever ever ever have commented on an all male casting even if it meant a cross-gendered Muriel the goat and Clover the mare?
  • Why do pigs and cows and horses and donkeys need to be so obviously gendered to be performed well?
  • Why does a pig’s gender even matter when animals are clearly being used as an allegory anyway?
  • Why do I have to sit here for an hour and wonder if this stupid random sentence is an emblem for the embedded anti-female sentiment that runs deep in our creative community?

Back to that original question:

Why cast all women as animals clearly identified as male in the book?

Because if we don’t fucking figure out a way to get women’s voices and perspectives into stories from the past that previously excluded them then as we inevitably progress to a more equitable and just society where female voices are no longer marginalized we will have to ditch this shit into the garbage bin because apparently you’d rather do that than find a way to modify such works to be more inclusive.

That’s why.

That tiny line, one in an otherwise unremarkable and potentially totally relevant review, bothered me enough to take an hour out of my day to write this. That’s an hour that could have gone to raising money or researching or admin upkeep or even just farting around on the internet. Instead it went to venting frustrated feelings so that I didn’t feel like I had to just sit there and take casual undercutting of female bodies being represented on the stage.

Some days I wake up in the morning feeling excited and refreshed. Some days I manage to put my nose the grindstone and define my work path and get shit done and make some amazing art. Some days I manage to do all those things without someone making a comment in a public paper of record that makes me stop and write a blog post about how much better we’d be as a creative community if they didn’t make an offhand comment about how my gender isn’t as useful a default as the male one.

Today, alas, is not that day.

– A

74 comments

  1. “Because if we don’t fucking figure out a way to get women’s voices and perspectives into stories from the past that previously excluded them then as we inevitably progress to a more equitable and just society where female voices are no longer marginalized we will have to ditch this shit into the garbage bin because apparently you’d rather do that than find a way to modify such works to be more inclusive.”

    Check, meet Mate.

    And mate can be a male or female pal. ;)

  2. A wonderful day can be anything. if you think like that. so work with all your efficiency.
    Those were great writing. it gave me much pleasure.
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  3. You have conveyed a beautiful thought here. But the irony is, only the people who already believe in creativity being gender-neutral field will appreciate this post and rest of the population will stick to their belief system. I know this because I have tried pointing error in the thought process of my ever-women-judging breed of relatives and yet nothing changed. The roots of such belief system are dug so deep in their souls and brains that they believe they are authorised to assign which specific task has to be assigned to whom.

    1. I feel you. I do think that publicly pointing these things out, at least in the home community they occur in has made a substantive difference, if in no other way that artists are more considered in the way they talk to me personally.

      1. You are absolutely right. Thinking nobody would listen and deciding to be quiet is definitely not the right way. It breaks heart when we know the society is going in the wrong direction and our words do not help steer them in other,just, direction. But not speaking would be devastating because we would not know “What if someone could have been influenced by listening or reading our words?”

  4. It’s still intriguing to think that after so much history over gender discrimination that we’d still have these problems. However it was a very interesting post. I like the mention towards Animal Farm – I studied that book some years ago. It must be interesting to see it played by a completely female cast.

  5. Writers know that including gender-biased comments in articles will stimulate reactions. If you take the bait, more people will read the article if only to see what got you so enraged. It’s good that you resisted adding a link to the article.

  6. Great post.. Actually people should do away with the thought of “chauvinism ” and see both male and female equally.. This article helps in that sense.. Thanku for sharing it..and great style of writing.. :)

  7. Some of your ideas are very refreshing. I would like to see more people think this way. If art is about destroying the typical cultural barriers, than your suggestions should be effective as hell. It made me laugh to imagine typical gender/stereotype movies being reacted with female actors.

  8. I do not come from an art background but I understand what you are saying. . How being a good or bad artist is related to the gender of the person is beyond me.. I come from a business background and women are required to prove their worth here before they get the respect their male counterparts get.. and then also at every stage their decisions and views are questioned. . We are talking about equality and women power but we have a long way to go.

  9. The difficult thing is that the writer himself (assuming male?) probably still has no idea that his questions are offensive. Unless we recognise and share this mindlessness we may never become unstuck from gender stereotype. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Thank you so much for this! As a woman of colour who has been doing drama for a while now, and attempting to participate in it now that I’ve graduated university, I needed this read. I think the issues are different or just added onto what you’re talking about when we think about women of colour as well, but this is still so relevant! Especially, “Why do pigs and cows and horses and donkeys need to be so obviously gendered to be performed well?” Seriously… the story only has those characters as male because of the allegorical reference to the men of the real life story.

    I do think some plays that focus on gender and such call attention to whether characters are women not, but even those can be stretched to include cross-dressing a lot of the time. What do you think happens when we think about women of colour in the context you discuss? Would that change things, or should that not matter either? I am conflicted about this, because it seems that skin colour can never be ignored either — and it shouldn’t be, necessarily. (See my conflict.) Interested to hear your response! Thanks again for the read :)

    1. This, as you mention, is a super thorny issue. That said, as a default my instinct is to push for choices that create more inclusivity. As you say, race is a different issue but perhaps those conversations that come up – even if difficult – offer an opportunity to create dialogue around the inequities those usually defaulted to white roles produce. My answer most of the time is to only take on the “classics” when I can find a way to subvert those inherent problems. Otherwise, I prefer to make new stories where more perspectives can be included. Keep up the work and keep fighting for your space in the arts! You deserve it!

      1. Thank you! That’s a fair take. A lot of the time, it’s actually pretty important that the characters are white, but there are definitely plays where the race isn’t important. I think it’s interesting how in plays the colour of the actors’ skin can change the meaning so much, while in real life it doesn’t necessarily. At least not all the time. Theatre is pretty interesting that way. Thanks for the response!

  11. Nice post. It’s probably useful to get people thinking “Why not?” when a character is changed away from the original gender or ethnicity. I’ve spent the past few years working with a youth theatre group and due to the disproportionate numbers of girls to boys we’ve either had females playing male roles or deliberately changed the gender to female. There are a few instances where the “why not?” question delivers a list of good reasons, but often the material is packed with characters who, frankly, can be anyone. But they happen to be written as male, so we change them.
    Animal Farm, though? Yes, we all get that it’s a reference to Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, and Orwell did that deliberately. But because it’s such a well known piece, we all get that and can move on. Let the actors focus on being Napoleon & Snowball & co. because that’s who they are playing! Those characters are essentially genderless, so who cares if they are played by a female? The only physical requirement that I can think of is for Boxer to be bigger than everyone else (and even then, that doesn’t automatically rule out a woman).

    1. Exactly. Thanks for keeping that perspective when working with young actors who especially need to see alternative and more positive models for female performers.

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  13. Bravo, cheers! I feel blessed I came across this post and right at the moment in my life that I did. I work in the automotive industry, a high-stakes and high-reward, male-dominated industry. I love it, but I hate it. Last night a female co-worker of mine was honored as SEMA’s person of the year. This award is like the Grammy of our industry. The pride I felt seeing the video of her accepting that award is indescribable. To witness a WOMAN, an intelligent, witty, always-hold-her-own-in-a-room-full-of-men type of woman was the highlight of my year and a groundbreaking act in our industry. So cheers to these moments of success – the all female cast, the recognition, the progressiveness. And while we have a long ways to go, let’s consider this a win!

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