2 December 2014 •
A game on the tube...Article by Christopher Haydon
I have a game that I play when I am on the tube. Every time I see a film poster, I count the number of women in it. I get a point if there is more than one. I also get a point if a woman is the clear central focus of the poster. I lose all those points if any of those women are wearing a bikini. I don’t score many points.
It constantly amazes me the complete blind spot that we, as a society, have for the under-representation of women in the cultural sphere. There are countless plays, films, and TV shows in which women barely register at all, and even fewer where they exist as more than simply a device to develop the story of the male protagonist.
That this is wrong should be self-evident. If we marginalise 50% of the people in our society we get a profoundly jaundiced view of ourselves. We limit opportunities for young children to find inspiring role models and we paper over the deep social iniquities that persist in this country. From an artistic point of view, we end up with much more boring art – in which the incredible plurality of stories we could be telling
My own blind spot in relation to all of this was brought home to me when I was programming our 2013 Autumn season at the Gate. Called These American Lives the season presented three shows – each of which had a different take on working life in America. Grounded told the story of a female drone pilot, No Place To Go was a piece of cabaret theatre about office life and unemployment, and The Body of An American told of the experiences of a Canadian war reporter and photojournalist.
I am intensely proud of each of these shows but it was only after we had announced everything that I noticed a startling imbalance – of the seven performers appearing onstage across those three shows, only one was a woman. On top of this, all three plays were written by white men. As progressive and challenging as these pieces were in other ways, the season was clearly not striking a blow for gender equality.
Now I can try and reassure myself that this is an anomaly – overall, across my first three years of programming, the Gate has employed 26 male performers to 21 female - not an exact balance I admit, but not far off either. But what strikes me hardest is how easy it can be to inadvertently take one’s eye of the ball when it comes to this issue. The lesson, it seems, is that we should never underestimate the gravitational pull of the white man.
Perhaps this is the key problem – we still have a deeply ingrained habit in our society of using white men as the default for any story we want to tell. There is often a sense that if a story were to be told through the eyes of a woman, (or, indeed, a Chinese character, a blind character, or any other diverse perspective) that somehow that aspect of their identity would automatically dominate any other element of the narrative – so women are often shoved to the side lines to prevent them from distracting from the story or issue at hand.
Yet there are some great examples of stories that demonstrate how nonsensical this approach is. No one sees the Alien franchise of films, for instance, as being ‘about women’. They are films about an awesome person called Ellen Ripley who repeatedly beats the hell out of some badass space creatures that are all bones, slime and teeth. Or look at Armando Iannucci’s US TV series Veep. This is a show in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays the Vice-President of America. It is not a show in which she plays the ‘Female Vice-President of America’. Her gender is, at best, incidental.
To take an example that is closer to home –The Gate’s production of Grounded is currently touring both nationally and internationally. When we get in to discussions with audiences after the show, the fact that the pilot is a woman is hardly ever the first thing they want to discuss – they are far more concerned with the terrifying reality that powerful governments now appear able to fight wars remotely as if they were just video games.
If these examples prove anything, it is that if we are to really make progress, we need to be taking aim at this white male default position. We need a deep, structural change in the way we think about stories and story-telling. At one level, this, of course, means putting more female characters on our stages. We should be aiming for an overall balance of 50:50 representation, at least.
Yet we need to go further than that – it can’t just be about numbers. We need to examine the roles those female characters play within the story. We need to ensure women are not always consigned to the marginal, supporting roles. A truly balanced picture would need to see equal representation when it comes to the protagonists within a story, or the central relationships that exist within that story. Of course, greater representation on stage is going to require greater diversity in terms of those off-stage artists creating the work – the writers, directors, designers etc. And it is the responsibility of theatres and producers to be seeking out and developing this talent proactively.
What this does not mean is that every story we tell necessarily needs to be specifically or explicitly feminist. Our upcoming season at the Gate is called Who Does She Think She Is? It brings together three plays that examine the personal, political and scientific aspects of identity through the prism of three very different female protagonists. The Edge of Our Bodies, which I am currently in rehearsals for, tells of a teenager growing up; Chimera, asks whether our DNA defines us; and The Chronicles of Kalki is the story of a girl who may or may not be the 10th incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.
Some friends of mine have called this a ‘feminist season’. But I avoid this description. This is not because I am frightened of the F-word, far from it - indeed the impulse behind the season as a whole certainly is feminist. It’s just that the plays themselves – or at least two of the three of them – are not especially focussed on questions of gender politics - only Kalki explicitly has patriarchy in its sights. If the season demonstrates anything, I hope, it is that female characters can be used to talk about more than just the female experience.
Whilst we certainly should be telling feminist stories, these should not be the only stories that have women at their heart. A really equitable approach to gender representation should require us to allow female characters to have true autonomy - to exist independently not just of other male characters, but of the expectations and baggage that is traditionally attached to their gender. This radical approach needs to shift our audience’s focus from a character’s sex to their personhood. It is only when we have as many different women on our stages as men, sharing equally exciting stories, that we will truly have equality.
Christopher Haydon, for the Stage