Confessions of a Sexist Playwright
Thanks in part to the #MeToo movement, mansplaining, gaslighting, and privilege have become familiar terms in theatre communities. Whether in the rehearsal room, the office, onstage, backstage, or in the scene shops, straight, white, male, cisgender, and temporarily able-bodied privilege is being called out. Up and down the lines of production, people are challenging inequity and speaking truth to power. And while calling out oppressions and isms is crucial, for many theatremakers the call needs to come from inside the house.
Learning I was a sexist playwright didn’t come easily. It came—like many of life’s hardest lessons—in the form of a one-act play festival. After submitting a ten-minute piece to a popular short-play series, I was thrilled to get a call from the producers. The woman who would direct my piece asked if I was open to making adjustments. Specifically, she and the company’s artistic director, also a woman, wanted me to make the female character stronger—as strong as the two male characters.
I agreed to work on the script, but something twisted in my guts. I was mad. Despite the company’s desire to produce my piece, both the director and the artistic director thought my play was sexist. Did that mean they thought I was sexist? It didn’t make sense. I respect and admire strong women. If there was a problem with my play, then it had to be a technical mistake—a slip of the pen that I could solve by analyzing the script. Yes, I thought, the play’s the thing.
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.
I put the queen in charge. I made it her plan, and not the advisor’s, to sack the jester. Her character remained a softy at heart, but her softness no longer made her ditzy or passive. Instead, in the revised version, she enlists her advisor to do the dirty work, and when she can’t bear to see the jester fired in the end, she makes the irascible advisor improvise a story about why they put the jester through the ordeal. Her strength comes from how she contends with the opposing sides of her personality. By recognizing her weakness and altering her course to save face, Queen Helena became multidimensional, and, hence, the strongest character in the play.
The play was produced. The audience laughed. The producers were happy with the adjustments, but the biggest adjustment wasn’t to the play. It was to me as a writer and as a person. To grow beyond my sexist writing—writing in which a queen can’t rule and needs a man to protect her from her silly heart—I had to see the sexism in myself.
The women of this company challenged me to look beyond my worldview, and my first response was confusion and anger. Being challenged to do better is uncomfortable. But if we want to grow as writers, we must become comfortable with discomfort, question our resistance, and probe beyond our understanding for the truths lying just out of sight. If we believe that theatre has the power to change people, then we must let it change us as writers. In the process, we may discover—like good Queen Helena—that our true strength lies in recognizing our weakness.