The play in question is a light farce set in an Elizabethan-inspired royal court. In the draft I had submitted, the royal advisor tried to convince Queen Helena to fire an inept court jester who could not juggle, dance, or even tell a joke. The jester only retained his job because of the queen’s loyalty to his deceased father. The conflict stemmed from the queen’s difficulty in firing the wretched comedian.
Queen Helena was the lead character, and she was royalty. So what did they mean by making her stronger? Did they mean she had no moral fortitude, or her backstory was shallow? Was her role too small? I considered each notion carefully, but I was no closer to understanding what kind of “strength” was wanted. I thought if the queen were “stronger,” she would simply give the jester the axe, and there would be no conflict.
Learning I was a sexist playwright didn’t come easily.
I explained to my girlfriend what was going on. She responded by showing me an essay by Peggy McIntosh called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In her seminal essay, McIntosh listed the conditions of her daily life that are unique to her as a white person. I related to these everyday conditions of whiteness, such as the ability to buy Band-Aids in my skin color. Until then I had been entirely oblivious to these unearned advantages, this privilege. If there was this much I’d never considered about being white, how much was I blind to about being male? And was this ignorance blinding me to the truth of my characters and my writing?
I decided to unpack my own knapsack and examine the conditions of my maleness. I devised a list of ten conditions in my life as a theatre artist—a director, writer, and actor—that my female-identifying colleagues cannot consistently count upon.
- I’m seldom the only member of my gender in a room of artists.
- I’m seldom asked to represent my gender in a piece of art (and a male character in a play seldom represents all men.)
- As an actor, I can normally count on there being more than one character of my gender in a play.
- I’ve never had to consider whether or not my nudity was artistically necessary.
- My nudity has never been used as a marketing tool.
- I’ve never felt “watched” while changing clothes backstage.
- As a director, I am seen as a being stern or take-charge when encouraging discipline in a large cast.
- When I speak up, most people listen respectfully to my opinions, even when people disagree with my ideas.
- When my point of view is challenged, I am seldom belittled or talked down to.
- When I become emotional or cry during a creative process, my feelings are validated, and I’m viewed as courageous for being vulnerable.
The first thing I noticed after making this list was the disparity in the theatre world. And not only was I totally complicit, but I also benefited—and continue to benefit— from it through no overt actions on my part. In conflict situations, my goodwill is assumed while others are suspected of being catty. My ideas are often moved to the front even when they’re not necessarily the best. My booming male voice is more likely to be heard and my ideas given a chance. For all these reasons, I am more likely to persevere in this competitive industry while others meet more resistance. I’d never seen this advantage before because I never had to. The quintessence of privilege is not knowing you have it.
The quintessence of privilege is not knowing you have it.
Blinders off, I took another stab at the puzzle of the queen’s strength. I asked myself, What makes her less (of a person) than her male counterparts? Was she seen as a patriarchal mouthpiece, a symbol of feminine servility, or just plain dull? Still drawing a blank, I decided to ask the least dull and least servile person I know—my mother. I told Mom about Queen Helena’s attempts to fire her court jester and how her royal advisor pushes her to make the final cut. My mother responded, “So, who’s really in charge in this play?”
Was it that simple? Did it come down to the credibility of the given circumstances? Even in the fictional world of my play, it seemed that all the ideas came from a man. The royal advisor, a man, was trying to convince the silly queen to do the hard work of firing her employee. The queen had no agency in her own realm.