Articles for July 2016

Women Missing From Comedy

A couple blogs ago we did a quick review of the Kennedy Center’s entertainment offering for the 2016 summer season. A new festival this year was the “Kennedy Center District of Comedy Festival,” co-commissioned by The Second City, a club for comedy and school of improvisation. Reviewing the events of the fest, we found only two of the comedians slated to amuse listeners were women. The two woman-focused events were a performance by Jane Lynch and a tribute for the deceased Joan Rivers.

At least nine men, conversely, had their own events. While the tribute to Joan Rivers was to celebrate the way she “changed the way America thinks about women in comedy and paved the way for an entire generation of stand-up comedians,” the preponderance of men performing doesn’t illustrate a change in the thinking of women in comedy. It shows the same-old-same-old. Beyond equity issues, this doesn’t give women in the audience, who may like the angle of some jokes from a woman’s point of view, an opportunity for that. As is typical, women are left with entertainment solely from a male vantage point. In addition to limited press, limited in-person exposure, and matters of taste, women comedians miss the opportunity to be paid for appearances, which the men receive. It seems time, almost 20% of the way through the 21st century, that organizers select a more even sampling of performers for this brand new festival and ensure women also reap the benefits.

Here is a comedian that might have been a selection to lessen the gender gap: Aparna Nancheria. She began as a stand-up in Washington, DC. After living and doing stand-up in various cities, she is now based in New York City and says she does two or three shows in one night. She was covered by the Arts section of the New York Times recently. In the Lori Holcomb-Holland article about her, we learn that she has had her issues with perceived gender differences in comedy, despite what the Kennedy Center reported Joan Rivers had accomplished.

When asked in what ways is it different for men and women trying to make it in comedy, Ms. Nanchuria had a revealing reply. ”I think the most obvious difference is that male comedians aren’t asked this question in interviews. But I think the reason women are tired of talking about what it is like to be a woman in comedy is it diminishes the fact that women have been a part of comedy forever. ….To treat it as if it is some kind of new movement feels ludicrous. I am proud to be a woman in comedy and I am proud to support other women in comedy.”

How about bringing living, hard-working women comedians into the Kennedy Center fold.


Policing Can Teach The Arts a Thing or Two

What do policing bias and gender bias in the arts have in common? 

It is called “implicit bias.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City spoke recently in a Brooklyn meeting about killings by police.  He reported that, in an effort to prevent the annihilations of human life and public trust, officers would soon begin to have training to help them understand “implicit bias.”

The implicit bias curriculum, according to Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times, is “a fad right now in law enforcement circles and in certain segments of the corporate world seeking to become more sensitive to issues of diversity and difference.”

“The theory behind it…maintains that we are all, as human beings, acculturated to certain distasteful perceptions and attitudes, some of which we may not even be aware that we carry.”(Emphasis added.)

Does that sound like what this organization, Awareness of Gender Bias in the Arts, is about or what?  Acculturated negative perceptions and attitudes – toward women and girls — of which people, male and female, may not be aware.

The police make a strikingly important point.  The goal of implicit-bias training is not to rid people of their dispositions – that would, Ms. Bellafonte says, be like trying to convince someone with an instinctive dislike for Abstract Expressionism that the art form is worthwhile.  Instead, the objective is to help people see where and when they succumb to stereotypes and teach them how they can keep from acting on them.

“The point is to decouple the bias from the behavior,” says Philip Atiba Goff, a Stanford-trained social psychologist and president of the Center for Policing Equity.

Let’s apply this to the arts.  That could mean that a male theater administrator who prefers plays written about men, with male-focused story lines, can learn to “decouple” his preference from his action of hiring mostly male playwrights and actors and, instead, hire an equal number of women playwrights.  A male museum administrator can learn to “decouple” his preference for female nudes (painted and viewed by men), and take action to put some of them in the museum attic for awhile and display the works of women artists on a multitude of subjects.


An opera manager can “decouple” her old habits of using existing, “pure” but demeaning libretti (the words) of the last two centuries and take action to use modern wordings that don’t belittle, demean and stereotype women’s roles and live singers in current operas.  There is precedent for this. The language used in the performing arts to refer to African Americans was “cleaned up” in the 20th century; it is time to take action to make references to girls and women respectful.

The police understand “implicit bias.” Our arts administrators need to “decouple” their biases and pursue unbiased action. Our audiences must demand this!


Bro Talk, Wall Street, and the Arts

Earlier this month, the New York Times published an instructive opinion piece by Sam Polk entitled “How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down.” In the piece, Mr. Polk discusses how men often bond through a culture of hyper-masculinity and objectifying women, and how hard it can be for men on the “in-group” to recognize this objectification and actively fight against it.

For Mr. Polk, the realization that he had to speak out about the objectification of women in his field as a Wall Street broker came when he learned he was to have a daughter. As he says, “My daughter would soon enter a world not just of unequal pay and unequal opportunity, but one in which almost 20 percent of women are raped, and a quarter of girls are sexually abused… If you think that this violence has nothing to do with bro talk, you’re wrong. When we dehumanize people in conversation, we give permission for them to be degraded in other ways as well.”

Dehumanization and objectification of women occur not only on Wall Street and places of business, but in the arts as well. As Maura Reilly points out in her astute piece, Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Sexism, “Sexism is still so insidiously woven into the institutional fabric, language, and logic of the mainstream art world that it often goes undetected.”

As Mr. Polk points out in his piece, this is not just an issue for women, but an issue for all of us, men and women alike, particularly those of us with daughters. We need men to take a pro-active stance against objectification in order to make the world a better place for our children.

Men can, and do, often get involved in the fight against gender bias in the arts. For more information on how men can be allies in the fight against sexism, check out our Men’s Engagement page of the website. There you will find stories of how men are helping in the fight against inequality, within and outside the arts.

Together, we can all fight for women’s equality in every facet of our lives, whether it be on Wall Street or at the local theater. We owe it not only to ourselves, but to our daughters who must live in the world that we shape.



If you do care about women’s participation in the live arts, be aware of some gender bias in the offerings over the months.

Reviewing the Kennedy Center News Magazine for May – August, you’d find in May at the 21st annual salute to woman jazz legend Mary Lou Williams. Many women of jazz performed in honor of Ms. Williams.  Special rhythmic performers were five Cuban women in selections from their self-titled debut CD which won a 2015 Juno for (Group) Jazz Album of the Year. Nice event promoting women in the arts.

But in June, at a “Night at the Kennedy Center DC Jazz Fest” honoring Howard University Jazz, jazz men dominated the field – 9 or 10 — to 2 or 3 jazz women (hard to get an exact count).

The KC’s new plays festival “New Visions/New Voices” celebrated its 25th anniversary in May.  It presented six new works by American playwrights, and partnered with the University of Maryland School of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, and with young theater organizations in India, Korea and South Africa to develop new plays for young audiences.  Boundaries were pushed, creativity stressed.  An anthology of 25 years/25 Plays is being assembled.

Throughout June, the “Kennedy Center District of Comedy Festival” was cracking jokes.  In its first ever comedy festival, the KC showcased an array of celebrated comedians in performance spaces around the voluminous building.  Hope you particularly liked males, since you’d have found only two women amuse you (Jane Lynch and Mellisa Rivers in a tribute to Joan Rivers and how she changed the way America thinks about women in comedy), while nine funny men were there to give you laughs.

In the upcoming colder months, if you will be in the capital and don’t have to report to work on a weekday, you can keep warm with a Continental breakfast and coffee at National Symphony Orchestra late morning “Coffee Concerts” in the Concert Hall.  However, beware, if you are sensitive to gender concerns:  of the five concerts, October 2016 through May 2017, all five conductors will be men; two soloists will be women, one in-house; and all 15 of the compositions performed will be well-worn works by dead white men, no women composers, dead or alive.