One step forward, two steps sideways ILLUSTRATION: Ching Ching Cheng

One step forward, two steps sideways

Women performers are suffering in an industry run by estrogen-phobic people, regardless of their gender

By Ellen Snortland 07/08/2010

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“There’s WAY too much estrogen here — I gotta go,” the disgruntled husband said to his wife as they sat in the theater before a performance of my solo show, “Now That She’s Gone.” He promptly called a taxi and left.
 
Hey, Mister! Wait! You didn’t even see my show! I could have given you a lot more reasons to disdain me than the hormonal make-up of my audience!
 
I see it all the time: the gender ghetto-ization of entertainment. I assert that unless and until women’s stories are considered as universal as stories about men, we will continue to be second class in our own minds, as well as in the minds of the “green light” folks in entertainment, whether on stage or screen.
 
I don’t know how much you think about the feminization of poverty, but I think about it a lot, because (1) duh, I’m female, and 
(2) like many other women, I have wrestled with the fear of being one relationship or job away from the street on at least a few occasions in my lifetime. And (3) I’m essentially an artist. If you’re a female writer, director or actor, you too are likely suffering in an industry run by estrogen-phobic people, regardless of their gender. (Yes, “actor.” I rarely use the word “actress,” for the same reason I would not call a female physician a “doctress.”)
 
And then there is the double standard of self-promotion. Men are “supposed” to promote themselves, schmooze and network. Women who do that are looked upon as shameless self-promoters, or “pushy.” Whether you are aiming for the bright lights of Broadway or the pinnacles of Hollywood, you’ve got to be self-promotional. There’s no other way to get known for your work.
 
Someone explain to me how you become a director, for instance, without being “pushy” or “bossy.” Those qualities are prerequisites for being a director, and yet women are labeled as bitches if we tell people what to do. Hmmm … See the conundrums here?
 
On the big-screen front, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally saw fit to give an Oscar this year to Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker.” It took 80 years, and while Ms. Bigelow won her award because of her individual ambition and artistic vision, rest assured that women were watching that night and praying that we all might FINALLY break that cinematic ceiling.
So what the heck does this have to do with the gynophobe at the theater? Lots. He’s a ticket-buyer, and the plays and screenplays that get selected for production are selected based on him and his ilk — or his much younger brethren in the audience.
 
Chick flick? The term is a death knell for big audiences and big prizes. Bigelow and the other active women in Hollywood frequently have to select scripts that have BIG themes, like war. 
 
Of course, there are exceptions, but they often prove the rule. For every mega-hit with a big female fan base like “Sex and the City,” there are smaller, thoughtful pictures that get branded as a chick flick and fall flat — not on artistic merit, but on gender perceptions.
 
All sorts of so-called male themes are called “universal.” I call them dick flicks. Hey, it’s fair. And there are a lot of dick flicks I love, but let’s call it as it is, OK?
 
Having recently been in the trenches with my show, which I consider to be highly universal, since I’ve never met a soul without a mother, I am constantly having to deal with the perception that men won’t like it, even when I have ample evidence to the contrary. Older men love the show. Both conservative and liberal men of all ages have enthusiastically embraced it. A recent example: A dear friend of mine dragged her 20-year-old son to my show. He liked it so much that, afterward, he spent three hours talking to his mom about all sorts of intimate topics. In a recent performance, about half the audience members were male … and they were laughing the loudest.
 
“A theater that is missing the work of women is missing half the story, half the canon, half the life of our time. That is the situation we have now,” says Marsha Norman, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in drama for the play “‘Night, Mother.” Her quote is center stage on the Web site for the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, which is online at lafpi.com. LA FPI is engaged in the arduous task of studying the institutionalized discrimination against women playwrights in the larger Los Angeles area. Currently, our work is under-produced, which means we’re underemployed. Thank goodness the LA FPI is going to be “pushy” on our behalves. When they publish the study, they’ll reveal what most of us all know: we’re missing.
 
Theater is the mother of entertainment, and as long as we’re MIA in the theater, we’ll be missing on screen, too. Yo, estrogen guy! Hopefully you’ll be taking a lot more taxis home in the next decade. Or, if you finally understand that women have lives that can inspire even men, you’ll transform and decide to stay. 

Ellen coaches first-time authors and playwrights. Visit her Web site at snortland.com.

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Comments

Yes, the terms "chick flick" "chick lit" etc are grating and derogatory. How sad that our society glorifies destructive violence as an ideal (war movies, certain video games, etc). When will we wake up to the wisdom expressed in all indigenous cultures (that I know of) and in Nichiren Buddhism - that we are one life and cherishing our interconnection is a way to truly experience the "universal"?

- Lynette Yetter, author of the novel "Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace"

posted by LynetteYetter on 7/16/10 @ 05:13 a.m.
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