Originally published on Playbill.com
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“I got in trouble once,” admitted Fish in the Dark cast member Jenn Lyon when remembering an audition. This was an interesting confession to make during a conversation about the ongoing problems faced by women in the entertainment industry. Sitting at a round table with several women eager to discuss the subject, one didn’t expect to hear such an admission.
Lyon went on to describe an audition for a crime show for the role of a nun who had been raped and was being pulled from a lake. After arriving at the audition with little makeup on, her agent called and said people from casting had reported that Lyon looked sick and ordered her to go home to change clothes and style her hair.
“The message was ‘you need to be attractive enough to warrant being cast in the first place. The audience needs to be worried about you. You have to be pretty enough to be worried about. So when you’re dragged from the lake you still have a measure of pretty,'” Lyon said, adding that she cried while blow-drying her hair. “I went home to change and thought, ‘I’m part of the problem.'”
The problem Lyon referred to – the perception and representation of women in entertainment, including Hollywood, Broadway, Off-Broadway theatre – has been addressed in numerous and varied forms recently. In a comedic video addressing the dominance of men in the industry, the #MakeItFair project released “a call for gender equality in the stories we tell, the wages we earn, and the future we shape. The goal is vast and so, as artists, we decided to do what we do best: create.”
#MakeItFair’s video featured numerous high-profile women in entertainment, including Rita Wilson, Mamie Gummer, Orfeh, Jessica Hecht, Donna Lynne Champlin and Rebecca Naomi Jones, among many others. The video was filmed in the style of a public service announcement, bringing to mind the music video “We Are the World” and emphasizing that “only” 93 percent of popular films were directed by men and only 80 percent were written by them, as well as other statistics that highlight the lack of gender parity in the entertainment industry.
Patricia Noonan said the idea for the video was inspired by a gut reaction to the Academy Award nominations and the lack of female representation. Collaborating with Emily Tarver and Nadia Quinn, they strove to create a product that offered a unique and humorous look at the subject but still informed and entertained the viewers.
“Something that we were very attentive to was finding a way to approach this topic that didn’t offend or say that men were doing anything to us,” Quinn said. “We don’t feel that way, but we made everyone go, ‘Oh, those are the real numbers? That’s super f*cked up. Wait a second.'”
The video was created with an all-female cast and crew, which Champlin described as “the most immaculately run set I’ve ever been on.” But the staffing of the set was another reflection of the gender norms of the industry, Noonan said, admitting that they thought of five male directors of photography but instead made an effort to seek out a female one.
The credits for the video follow: Adrienne Campbell-Holt: director; Crystal Arnette: DP; Zoe Sarnak: music; and Erica Rotstein: producer.
Released in April, the video immediately went viral, receiving hundreds of thousands of views. The women realized they had hit a nerve.
“We can’t ignore what’s happening out there in terms of our rights,” Champlin said. “It’s legitimately distracting. All of a sudden we start emptying the water out of the boat and ignoring the bigger boat. We’re constantly distracted from trying to catch up on the rights we got 10 years ago.”
One aspect of being a woman in the entertainment industry everyone involved in the #MakeItFair video commented on was the objectification focusing on youth and physical beauty.
“In your last screen test for Hollywood, don’t they say, ‘Would you f*ck her? Is she f*ckable?'” Olga Merediz (In the Heights, Man of La Mancha) asked. “The litmus test: Is she f*ckable? That’s the key. Yes, she’s talented, yes, she was great, she really was fantastic in the scene. But is she f*ckable?”
“We’re never asked if men are f*ckable,” Lilli Cooper (Spring Awakening, Wicked) added. “Like those Judd Apatow movies — I’ll laugh at them. They’re funny. I’m not going to say they shouldn’t be made. But is there ever a movie where there’s an overweight woman with a hot Thor type that they’re dating? You never see that.”
Cusi Cram, whose work includes A Lifetime Burning and the Showtime series “The Big C,” was a performer before moving into writing plays and movies, and she said the objectification of women was one of the reasons behind her career change.
“I always felt like my hair wasn’t right or I wasn’t wearing the right skirt or shoes,” she said. “It was sort of impossible for me to do. Recently, I had a meeting to work on a TV show and was talking to my agent. She was like, ‘You need to have hair perfect makeup perfect. I want you in a suit.’ I was like, ‘I’m a writer.'”
Champlin, who recently appeared in Bruce Norris’ play The Qualms, playing a plus-sized woman who participates in sexual swinger parties, said she was surprised by the sexism and objectification at numerous post-show talkbacks in the questions asked by audience members.
“It’s always a middle-aged white dude who has to say something about the measure of the attractiveness of the women. It never comes up for the guys [in the cast],” she said, adding that one of the questions posed was, “‘At this party there’s one woman that everyone wants to sleep with. How does that make the rest of you ladies feel?’
“One of our male cast members said, ‘All the women in our show are gorgeous in their own way. And you can choose as an audience member to walk away from this play thinking only one of them is beautiful or you can walk away thinking all of them are,'” she continued. “He kind of threw it back on the guy to say, ‘This is really on you, dude. If you’re walking way from this play thinking only one of those women deserved to be in a sexual relationship because she was pretty enough, then that’s on you.'”
“It just always amazes me,” Champlin added. “There was no guile. Then I found out another actress had run into him before the talkback, and he said very blatantly, ‘I wouldn’t want to sleep with any of you.’ Is it sexist? I don’t know what he says to the men. I do know at talkbacks, I find the subconscious misogyny is exceptional because only the women are asked if they’re married. The women are only asked if they have children. ‘As actresses, how do you balance both?’ At my particular play, ‘How do the rest of you ladies feel about being ugly?’ is basically what he was saying.”
“It makes you wonder, is that his fault?” Quinn asked. “I think the root of this is our entire society has been revolving around this way of thinking for thousands of years. I don’t blame him for being such an idiot, but how do we change that? One of the facts in the video that struck me is the highest number was the advertising executives: 98 percent are men. Because what that really says is, subconsciously, you never see a man loading a dishwasher on a commercial during the day. You never see a man folding laundry. It’s more the subconscious ways we’re being told society is through the media. That is such a root.”
The representation of women onstage and behind the scenes in theatre has been a topic of recent discussion, with Fun Home, the musical adaptation of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s memoir about her sexual awakening and her father’s death, winning Best Musical at the Tony Awards and marking the first time an all-female writing team won Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score. The last time two women were nominated for Tony Awards for Book and Score was 1991, when Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman were nominated for their musical adaptation of the young adult novel “The Secret Garden.”
The 2013 season featured two dramas by women, and both were revivals: Machinal, by Sophie Treadwell; and A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, as well as the new musical The Bridges of Madison County, which featured a book by Marsha Norman alongside Jason Robert Brown’s music and lyrics. Additionally, Lynn Ahrens contributed lyrics to the musical Rocky with her frequent writing partner Stephen Flaherty, who wrote the music. In response to the lack of gender diversity on Broadway, the activist group The Kilroys released the first annual List, which features plays by women ready for production, and recently partnered with the Lilly Awards to present several of them in readings.
Cram recalled a conversation with a literary manager following the reading of one of her plays — a mother-daughter story — and being told that it was “too girly” to be produced.
“I remember at the time — this was probably seven or eight years ago— thinking rage. This rage. And not really knowing how to respond. Not knowing how to say, ‘Well, I obviously would write a girly play because I’m a girl. That’s what interests me. That’s what I care about. That’s why I do this. I want to write interesting parts for women.’ And he’s an enlightened person, someone I’m still friends with. He was saying, ‘For this theatre it’s just too girly.’ That’s texture in a lot of places.
“It’s strange to say this, but I feel like female protagonists are still unfamiliar to people even though they’ve existed for centuries, and Shakespeare wrote them,” Cram continued. “It isn’t a given. There is an onus on us to create really interesting female protagonists, and have them drive the action of stories and have amazing kick-ass actresses interpret them. If you’re a female performer [you can be] supporting those stories that tell really interesting, complicated tales of women. It isn’t the norm in the culture we live in. It’s the norm in a lot of our lives.”
With the majority of mainstream entertainment being written by men, the lack of diverse representation is sometimes inevitable, Quinn said. “The executives in a room — it’s nine men and two women. Of course it swings that way,” she said of the large number of stories involving romances between older men and younger women. “That’s their fantasies. That’s the entertainment they want to see. I don’t even have a problem with that stuff existing when I think about it. Those are those men’s fantasies, and if entertainment is part fantasy, but where are our fantasies realized? Where do we get to see them realized? Men should have their fantasies. Half of what we see in entertainment should represent that. But I want to see what I fantasize about, which is not hot women and old fat men that makes me feel like my time is through. That only makes us feel bad about ourselves and shames us in a way.”
A recent study conducted by the trade association The Broadway League reported that the vast majority of theatre tickets last season were purchased by middle-aged white women: Sixty-eight percent of the audiences were female. The average theatregoer is a 44-year-old woman who attends plays frequently. A question often asked is, if women are buying the tickets, why are they not buying tickets to plays by women?
“It always comes down to money,” Champlin said. “We should put our money where our mouth is. We should support [and] watch ‘Orange is the New Black.’ Let those numbers go up and up and up. Support women directors. When a play opens and it’s by a woman, put your money down. No matter what gender, money speaks… There’s talk and then there’s doing. It comes down to action in whatever way — buying two movies instead of one and going to that play. I think we talk and we talk and we talk and we have talked for a very long time. For me, it’s about doing something. Do something. Anything.”
Attempts to “do something” have been met with resistance. “It’s also the question of the backlash of women in power,” Noonan said. “It’s not normal. We’re not used to it. The fear comes out of it. I think what we do is so important because the stories we put out there can change what’s normal — eventually — if we start seeing some different things.”
“I think there’s a fear or a misconception of what feminism is really based on, which is not, ‘Women should take over the world and down with men,'” Cooper added. “We can do everything you can do and sometimes better. But that’s really what the basis of it is. It isn’t, ‘We’re going to take over the world and steal your jobs,’ but ‘We can do your jobs, also.'”
“No one’s anti-men,” Quinn said. “The main point to me is men are so valuable. And women are so valuable. We are most valuable when we work well together in equal percentages. We can help each other be more valuable. Our opposing ways of thinking can compliment each other and make everything better. Somewhere along the line, I think the conversation was changed to being like, ‘Men are this way and women are this way and we should have this and men are oppressing us.’ Not at this table but in the world. It’s balance. Balance will make everything better. Let’s have a little more balance.”