Blistered and Burned

The Absence of Female Critics

Daniel Jones
Daniel Jones. Photo by Daniel Jones. 

A single review can change everything, and it often does. That’s not news to the theatre community—even Alec Bladwin acknowledged it in an insightful and straightforward article in The Huffington Post last month. For years, theatre artists have been losing hair as previews end and the finality of opening night arrives. Critics hold the power to decide the fate of many shows. Yet, with the rise of female playwrights, directors, and arts administrators, one has to wonder: where are the female critics hiding?

Lauded playwright Gina Gionfriddo has been well-received by the critics as of late. Her last two hit plays, Becky Shaw and the more recent Rapture, Blister, Burn, were both Pulitzer Prize-finalists. Of course, most of the critics from major media outlets were white men over the age of fifty. I clearly remember the day last summer when the well-respected company Playwrights Horizons made an addition to their marketing—Rapture, Blister, Burn had just been named a “Critic’s Pick” by Charles Isherwood in The New York Times, and any tickets remaining for the run immediately disappeared as the literate New Yorkers snatched them up. “The image of women rapping away about gender roles may hark back to that seemingly distant era, but the rap itself is rich in new perspectives,” Isherwood raved in his review. Try as I may to weasel my way into Gionfriddo’s latest, it proved to be practically impossible. A box office employee confirmed this. “Once they name it a Critic’s Pick, it’s very difficult to get tickets,” she told me.

As the Fates would have it, I would wait a year to see the production at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston where it would be directed once again by Peter Dubois who helmed the Horizons production. I marked it on the calendar and was pleased to make it to opening night. By intermission, however, my high hopes had mostly vanished into disappointment. The show that critics had dubbed as a fresh look at feminism and gender roles in society instead offered a whirlwind tour through basic feminist theory that somehow still centered around a singular (and stereotypical) male character. In fact, the man seemed to be the central object of the play. Most scenes that were not packed with references to the writings of Phyllis Schlafly wouldn’t hold up to the Bechdel test for long.

 

The increasingly diverse gender representation in the theatre community at-large calls for a mirroring diversity in the journalism that so heavily weighs the fate of individual productions.

 

The Boston Globe released Don Aucoin’s glittering review of the production the night after I saw it. I sat in my room practically grinding my teeth as fifty-five-year-old Aucoin, much like Isherwood, praised Gionfriddo as having “crafted a shrewd, incisive, thoroughly winning comedy” in which she “ranges across the topography of the women’s movement.” Did these men actually see the same play that had sparked a heated discussion of modern feminism (and anti-feminism) amongst my colleagues and friends? Of course, tickets to the production once again began flying off the shelf because these reviews still somehow matter.

Then the real question had to be asked: why in the world was a woman not reviewing this play about women?

The answer is most likely something like: oh wait, the perennial critics at any of the major American news outlets are not women. I don’t mean to generalize here—consider The New York Times with Charles Isherwood and Ben Brantley (preceded, of course, by Frank Rich) who currently list zero out of the twenty-three Critic’s Picks as being reviewed by a woman; The Los Angeles Times lists nine theatre critics, led by veteran Charles McNulty, only two of whom are female; on the website for The Washington Post, Peter Marks and Nelson Pressley are the only two critics that  get their own categories for reviews; The Chicago Tribune devotes it’s Theater Loop page to the reviews of Chris Jones; and at The Boston Globe, Don Aucoin is almost guaranteed to be the reviewer of any major production in town.

As if to drive the point home further, American Theatre magazine published by TCG released a list of the Top 12 Theatre Critics in America in November 2011, and only two on the list were women—Misha Berson of The Seattle Times, and Christine Dolen of The Miami Herald (neither city quite the theatre mecca).

One can speculate as to why such apparent discrimination exists. Is it because media outlets have always preferred to employ men (at least in print)? Are these aging critics left over from an era before society became conscious of gender parity issues? Will audiences trust the voice of a woman over that of a man? Where America falls short, Britain seems to be making strong efforts to include the voice of female critics. Almost every other review listed on The Guardian website is written by a woman, and nine of the seventeen faces they include on their “Stage Staff” list on Twitter are women.

The shocking lack of diversity across the board in American theatre criticism, however, should be considered, at the very least, incredibly out of date. In 2013, female playwrights are running rampant, doing much of the best work in the country. (Shout out to Suzan-Lori Parks, Annie Baker, Amy Herzog, Katori Hall, Young Jean Lee, Kirsten Greenidge, Sarah Ruhl, Jackie Sibblies Drury, and Kathleen Tolan.) Women directors are hot like never before—consider the recent Tony Awards given to Diane Paulus and Pam MacKinnon, not to mention established talents Anne Kaufman, Mary Zimmerman, and Rebecca Taichman, among others. Although the scales are still unbalanced in terms of female artistic directors, we are lucky to have the strong presence of Martha Lavey, Molly Smith, Emily Mann, and the aforementioned Paulus, to name a few.

With women writing, selecting, and directing plays, where are the women reviewers? Wouldn’t it be nice to get a female perspective on some of these plays in addition to the established male vantage point?

The truth is that women have been burned out of their place in dramatic criticism by a tradition of misogyny in the field of journalism. But the times, they are a-changing. The increasingly diverse gender representation in the theatre community at-large calls for a mirroring diversity in the journalism that so heavily weighs the fate of individual productions. I, for one, look forward to the day I can sit in front of the latest newspaper and read reviews by both women and men, critiquing plays written by and directed by both sexes as well. 

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As others have pointed out, you have overlooked a good many perceptive and experienced women theater critics -- which is rather at odds with your thesis that they are largely absent. Were you not really looking for them? Or just assuming that anyone who doesn't write for the daily lpaper in a "theater Mecca" isn't to be taken seriously? Speaking of Meccas, your swipe at Seattle is a little odd given that it has become a launching pad for recent award-winning plays by Yussef El-Guindi, Robert Schenkkan, Keri Healey Elizabeth Heffron and others of note, has a very lively fringe theater scene and is a try-out town for a lot of Broadway musicals. And one last thing: Some of us appreciated "Rapture, Blister, Burn" because of its dialectic about first and second wave feminism, not because the big boys liked it.

Just dropping in to point out that the Theater Loop blog at the Chicago Tribune also houses the reviews penned by myself (a freelancer of over ten years' tenure at the Trib and also a vet of the Chicago Reader, which has had many female freelancers over the years), and the reviews of Nina Metz, who joined the Trib a few years ago as a full-time arts and entertainment writer after several years as a freelancer. So yes -- while Chris Jones is the "critic of record" in some ways (and he too spent many years freelancing for the Trib before joining the staff), there are many shows, particularly in Chicago's vibrant storefront/off-Loop scene, that are regularly covered by women for the Tribune.

And as noted, Hedy Weiss has been at the Sun-Times for many years covering theater and dance, and Barbara Vitello at the Daily Herald covers theater and other things -- including, in this brave new world of multitasking in old media, criminal court cases. There are many more women I could name who write regularly about theater in Chicago -- which, of course, was the home base of the hugely influential Claudia Cassidy. In fact, I would probably argue that in terms of the broader culture, the lack of female film critics is a bigger problem now. And yes, the lack of critics of color across the board trumps gender disparity.

I am also proud to be a mentor with the Cindy Bandle Young Critics -- a program run through the Association for Women Journalists and the Goodman Theatre that fosters critical thinking and writing skills, as well as general theater knowledge, for young women in the 11th grade. (http://www.goodmantheatre.o...

Obviously finding paid work in criticism is increasingly difficult, as Lily Janiak notes in a comment here. And I can't say that most of the young women in the CBYC are planning on entering the field professionally. But encouraging teenage girls to embrace the power of their critical voices has been an incredibly rewarding experience for me. I would love to see other theaters and theater communities develop similar programs for bringing young women (and young men) of diverse backgrounds into critical dialogue with the work being created.

Perhaps there's a lack of female critics at the New York Times, but there are plenty of women covering theater in the regions (myself included). At my paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, two out of three of us are women. But if you cast an even wider net and look not at just the dailies, but at the weeklies and web critics, you see many women. Since I began reviewing as one of those under-30 women many years ago I've noticed a seismic shift in the number of women who have taken up the trade. This may be the result of the rise of freelancing, as freelancing allows for a more flexible schedule. I know it certainly allows me great latitude while raising my family. It may be the result of the rise of the internet, which, as the gatekeepers lost their keys, opened the field to the those who were previously excluded. In any case, I've never burned out on criticism because of misogyny--I've burned out when I've had a crappy run of shows, for sure. It sucks writing one negative review after another.

What's frustrating is working at theater criticism for almost 20 years, seeing these enormous changes, and then reading an essay that still claims there's a dearth of women writing about theater--Staffers, yes, but there's a dearth of them anyway. If you're seeking female critics, look a little harder, and you'll find lots of female freelancers and bloggers creating their own channels for visibility. We're "hiding" in plain sight.

I've often written that the New York Times doesn't really need TWO superficial gay white men as their theatre critics. Really - the situation would be funny, if it didn't underline an embarrassing editorial attitude at the Times - "theatre's for queers," or something like that.

Linda Weiner has been the theater critic for Newsday since 1987 and before that held the same post at the Chicago Tribune.

I used to be a female theater critic (for The Stranger--and as you note, Seattle is not a particularly notable theater town), and the most important factor in this disparity is, without question, the disintegration of paid criticism. Legacy discrimination can't be flushed out if no one new is being hired. (I'm a lawyer now. Even ladies have to make a living.)

Besides everything else, Daniel Jones wasn't paying close enough attention to his evidence. On the (two-year-old) TCG list of the "Top 12 Theater Critics" (scare quotes intentional), three are women: Jones failed to notice The Philadelphia Inquirer's Toby Zinman, despite the fact that the blurb used "she/her" pronouns more than once.

Am I nitpicking? It seems to me that when your sample size is only 12, getting one of them wrong is statistically significant.

I agree with Lynn Becker that the TCG list's omission of Hedy Weiss is a mistake, though I can understand how it happened. (David Cote and his editors probably felt they couldn't include more than one critic from each city - include two from Chicago and you're snubbing Denver or Austin or Miami - and they really couldn't leave Chris Jones off that list.)

Sub in Hedy Weiss and TCG's list becomes 1/3 female - perhaps not ideal, but not exactly dire, either.

I am a female theater critic, both for HowlRound's NewCrit section and for SF Weekly. I am also under 30, which makes me a rare breed. I think the bigger problem in diversifying the theater critic population is recruiting younger members, who would be more likely to be women than the generation theater criticism tends to recruit from, but I think more young women AND men would do wonders for the profession, particularly in recognizing the kind of stereotyped characters the author discusses. The most obvious reason we don't have more young folks is that, as the author points out, the jobs simply don't exist. While playwriting, for instance, is tough to get into, criticism is even tougher. By my estimate, here in the Bay Area, there are only two full-time critics and a handful of other respected ones; by contrast, there are many more opportunities to get heard as a playwright. Second, where opportunities to write criticism do exist, they aren't often the kind of opportunities that get writers excited. When I write for SF Weekly, for example, I get about 350 words to review a show. Most smart, talented, ambitious young writers I know would rather work in a medium that at least gives them the space to write work of substance. Finally, our young peers don't read criticism the way older generations do (and even those audiences are dwindling). Few young people, even among thespians, read criticism unless it's about a show they themselves are working on. Almost no one reads it for pleasure. And writers do want to be read!

What I will say about writing as a woman is that we are sometimes held to different standards -- I mean by the artists whose work we review. Female artists sometimes expect us to be friendlier to, or, worse, forgiving of their work simply because we share a gender. When we write about women, be they artists or characters, our work is more scrutinized, I feel, than a man's work would be.

I will also say that being among the first or the few female critics -- a token, if you will -- in a metro area is not easy. I have been condescended to (and much worse) by male critics, usually the ones who are as old as my grandfather. It's crucial, I believe, that we get a critical mass (nyuk nyuk nyuk) of women in the field, despite all these obstacles. One day, a critic's gender (or race, or sexuality) will be unremarkable. For now, I'm proud to be part of the movement toward parity in the field.

I'm intrigued by your implied contradiction of Jones's thesis. He seemed to suggest that women would be tougher on female playwrights than men would be. You state something like the opposite - that female artists expect you to be "friendlier to, or, worse, forgiving of their work simply because we share a gender." I admit that's my impression of the atmosphere in Boston, too - and, ironically enough, often the atmosphere at HowlRound. Which brings up the ticklish question of whether a larger number of female critics would improve our declining critical standards or damage them further.

I'm also afraid you're not one of the "first" of "the few" female critics, nor could you be construed as "a token." I note that there are several women listed as members of the San Francisco Theatre Critics Circle, and the comments below are overflowing with mentions of your predecessors in other cities.

I'm glad others have observed these different standards! Of course, I also have to be aware of how I, in turn, might hold women artists to different standards than I do male ones, but that's a different story: http://www.howlround.com/ge...

You're right that I'm not among the first female critics in the Bay Area. I should have been clearer about switching from speaking hypothetically to speaking personally. But it sure does feel like there aren't many of us!

Strange the Top 12 list doesn't include Hedy Weiss, long-time theater critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who's been around a lot long than Jones and appears to cover a far wider range of productions.

I exist. You can access my reviews on Pinterest or on my Facebook page in my 'Notes' section. Google + also has a couple of my early ones.

J. Helmke from Austin, Texas

"But I don't really see how misogyny has 'burned women out' of the all-but-dead critical profession - and at any rate, the point is almost moot, unless the author is suggesting our few remaining critics be fired for their gender (as the profession is rapidly approaching zero job openings across the nation)."

I agree. (One of the things I like about howlround is that on those occasions when the essay falls short, the comments usually make up for it.)

Women as an oppressed group have always suffered the same fate as people of color in this country. One could ask "where are the critics of color?" and get the same answer and the same results in terms of how plays by this non-represented group are critically reviewed.

Just btw, the Globe's previous lead critic, Louise Kennedy, was female. And the Globe does print the work of other female critics - Terry Byrne, for instance, still appears in its pages. Carolyn Clay led the Phoenix's critical roster for over thirty years, of course - and was often the only voice they published. Of the fourteen Independent Reviewers of New England (of which I am a member) 6 are female (43%). There are 11 critics listed on the Norton Awards website; 5 are female (45%). Some of these women reviewed the mediocre "Rapture, Blister, Burn," and one or two of them actually gave it the mixed-to-negative review it deserved (something Aucoin and Isherwood, given their gender, may have been afraid to do).

I applaud this writer's apparent desire to see more accurate (read: in this case negative) reviews from women of plays by female playwrights. But I don't really see how misogyny has "burned women out" of the all-but-dead critical profession - and at any rate, the point is almost moot, unless the author is suggesting our few remaining critics be fired for their gender (as the profession is rapidly approaching zero job openings across the nation). As for the local scene - well, female critics are "hiding" all over town.

What's most amusing about this post, of course, is that it misses entirely the real elephant in the room. The vast majority of practicing critics, here and in Britain, are white.

I'd also note that The Boston Phoenix ceased publication shortly before the the Huntington run of "Rapture, Blister, Burn"-- so Clay would have likely reviewed it for Boston's most widely circulated weekly had it been able to stay in business.

I do find it ironic, however, that when Daniel Jones is citing the critical praise that "Rapture, Blister, Burn" received in New York, he can only name Charles Isherwood in an essay in which he complains about the lack of female theatre critics in Boston.

Jones does seem to be shooting himself in the political foot, doesn't he. Or does he imagine that the kind of debate he and his friends have over plays like "Rapture, Blister, Burn" could hold sway in a major publication, against the indifference of the public? Or is this just more Howl Round fodder - liberation boiler plate that has no purchase outside a few Starbucks in various college towns?

Jones also misses the fact that the sort of venerable print publications he is citing are part of an industry that is suffering-- not only are theatre (and other arts) writers being given less space to do critical work (in favor of previews and profiles) but that in most cases both dailies and weeklies are cutting back full-time staff, and not unreasonably, if they can't entice a senior writer to take an early retirement, it's a more recent hire who gets laid-off (something I think both Thomas Garvey and I know first hand since both of us have written for newspapers.)

Besides, does anyone really not grasp that what qualifies as "middle-aged" these days, that is late-Baby-Boomers to early-Gen-Xers, largely went to school in an era where even male undergraduates in the humanities and social sciences likely likely had to read at least some feminist theory?

"What's most amusing about this post, of course, is that it misses entirely the real elephant in the room. The vast majority of practicing critics, here and in Britain, are white."

That would be the subject of another blog post. The subject of this post is the perceived lack of female critics.

Thomas Garvey: "Some of these women reviewed the mediocre "Rapture, Blister, Burn," and one or two of them actually gave it the mixed-to-negative review it deserved (something Aucoin and Isherwood, given their gender, may have been afraid to do)."

Indeed. How many of us think that, if Aucoin and Isherwood had been lukewarm or worse toward "Rapture, Blister, Burn", there would have been a HowlRound column about how unfair it was that this serious examination of women's issues was being panned by middle-aged male critics?