The Tony Awards season confirms what anyone concerned about the status of women in the arts has long come to expect: plays by women are excluded from the nominations once again. When will entertainment power brokers realize that until work by women is produced and recognized, Americans will continue to hear only one side of the stories of our lives?
Women’s unheard stories represent a gold-mine of narrative intrigue and revelation. But of the four plays nominated as the best of Broadway this year, none are written by women and three are almost exclusively about men: Nick Stafford’s War Horse (a gloriously theatrical British import that tells a basic boy-meets-horse, boy-loses-horse, boy-finds-horse tale); Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (another British import about a character the Variety review calls a “wild man,” a “once noble animal gone to seed”); and Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat, whose macho title can’t even be fully printed in most newspapers.
Only Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People is even about a woman, the salty, working-class Margie from South Boston, played with sharp dignity and empathy by Frances McDormand. (I posted a blog on the production on 4-25-11.)
Margie’s life story as fashioned by Lindsay-Abaire in fact hasn’t been heard regularly on Broadway. How often do we see smart and insightful leading female characters struggling to make ends meet? Margie’s childhood friend Mike escapes the economic constraints of his background through a scholarship and a medical school education. He lands in the luxurious comfort of Chestnut Hill with his African American lawyer wife, far from his poor, racist past.
Margie and Mike’s sharply contrasting stories tell us something about how gender, as well as class and race, influence our aspirations and organize our fates.
But it’s not a coincidence that Margie’s story is delivered by male playwright. Lindsay-Abaire grew up in South Boston; I’m not discounting his insights into a life like Margie’s. But how would her story be told differently if it were written by, for instance, Paula Vogel, another Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose work has never been produced on Broadway?
Maureen Dowd reported this week in the Times that Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman ever to win an Academy Award for directing, is now at work on a film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Screenwriter Mark Boal, with whom she collaborated on The Hurt Locker—which nabbed Bigelow her Oscar—told Dowd that since their film suddenly has an ending, once wary financiers are approaching them eagerly.
No one I know misses the irony that Bigelow won the Oscar for directing a film exclusively about men and war. Wouldn’t the story of Bin Laden’s capture be fascinating if she and Boal focused their film on Amal Ahmed Abdel-Fatah al-Sada, Bin Laden’s 29-year-old Yemeni wife, who was so determined to be martyred beside her husband that she was shot in the leg attacking the Navy Seals who came to capture him? If Bigelow told Ahmed al-Sada’s story, and Bin Laden’s from his fifth wife’s perspective, that’s a movie I’d be eager to see.
Dowd jokes that someone is probably now pitching Bravo on “The Real Housewives of Abbottabad.” While we think we might know all about the real housewives of New Jersey, let alone the fabricated ones of Wisteria Lane, I, for one, would like to hear much more about Bin Laden’s wives. The stories of women in the Middle East aren’t often told in Hollywood movies, certainly not with Bigelow’s keen eye for dramatic tension and telling detail. What would we learn about Bin Laden if women told his story?
Instead, Bigelow will tell another male-centered military story for Hollywood while Lindsay-Abaire tells a working-class woman’s story on Broadway.
Meanwhile, Julie Taymor, one of the first women to ever win a Tony for Best Director (for The Lion King in 1997), was fired from Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark for reasons that look to me like gender trouble. Taymor’s desire to balance the comic book hero’s righteous quest with a chorus of women and a villainess based on the Arachne myth was considered tangential to the real (read “male”) story of the musical.
I’m not suggesting that only women should tell women’s stories (men have of course told men’s stories for millennia). Lindsay-Abaire’s Margie is a welcome addition to the canon of American drama. And Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is a powerful, empathetic story of men’s valor and arrogance.
But Taymor tried to tell the story of a male superhero against the backdrop of female mythology. And now, she’s out of a job.
Since 2000, of the 48 titles nominated for Best Play, only six have been written by women, and only one has won—God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza, in 2009. In other words, no American woman playwright has won Best Play since the turn of the 21st century and only 12% of those nominated have been written by women.
What stories might we hear if women playwrights and filmmakers were produced in the same numbers as men? What new things might we learn about both men and women? What possibilities might be opened for how we imagine our lives—past, present, and future—if the boy in War Horse were a girl who decides to pass as a boy so that she could fight in World War I and find her beloved horse? (History is full of women passing as men to join war efforts.) What if the wild animal gone to seed in Jerusalem were a middle-aged woman instead of the character Mark Rylance plays so well? What if the motherfucker with the hat were a woman?
Those are stories I, for one, would love to hear. They describe a world of possibility in which we learn something about ourselves we don’t already know.
The Feminist Spectator