Gender Bias in the Performing Arts

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Gender stereotyping and gender bias overlap, both representing social ignorance. Both frustrate and stymie interaction between the genders. A lack of awareness or a serious lack of social education may also be at play in those who practice gender stereotyping and gender bias. It is up to us to change these practices for the better.

The change has to happen now, and it has to be dramatic.

~ Academy Award-winning actor and advocate Geena Davis

Issues of gender inequality and stereotyping are rampant across the performing arts. Women were the backbone of protest in the movements of the 70s, 80s and 90s when it seemed as if things would change. Those moments passed, but we are now at a tipping point because women worldwide are coming out, speaking their minds, and voicing their frustrations as never before. They are building awareness across the world about inequities by openly discussing pay inequity, disparate opportunity, and women’s rights. In the past decade or two, women have been turning up the volume, and hopefully the tides are shifting in a more positive direction.

Gender Bias in Opera          

Traviata crowd scene Photo credit Branco Gaica

Stories of a woman’s undoing lie at the heart of many of our most famous operas. From La Traviata to Madame Butterfly, Tosca to Carmen, women take center stage, only to be deceived, deserted and ultimately to die for love – and often, it seems, death is punishment for their perceived immorality.

Reading the texts, more than in listening at the mercy of an adored voice, I found to my fear and horror, words that killed, words that told every time of women’s undoing.‎

~ Catherine Clément, L’Opéra ou la Défaite des femmes (Opera: The Undoing of Women), 1979

How can opera today present such libretti with a more contemporary and humanistic viewpoint?

The staging of productions can make a significant difference, as can the advancement of women into positions of power in the opera world. Washington National Opera Director Francesca Zambello is a stellar example of an influential female director making informed staging choices. In her New York Times article from July 16, 2015, author and musicologist Micaela Baranello has director Zambello on record stating she “would not stage a rape scene in an opera ever again” noting that through such graphic portrayals the violence “becomes the end rather than the means.”

Beyond subtleties of staging, casting, and interpretations of libretti, audience education is required. Program notes can be written to emphasize the differences between the attitudes, laws, and social mores of the time in which the opera was written and today. The frequent portrayal of women as victims of legal and literal violence, treatment of women characters as chattel, and the tragic endings of these women demand more attention and illumination to help balance the inherent bias in these plot lines.

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A good place to start would be a warning to the audience (as is frequently done on public radio) when mature themes, or unexpectedly disturbing staging, are part of certain productions.

The frequent portrayal of women as victims… demands more attention.

This way audiences are informed and members may elect (or elect for their children) not to attend a performance. In the reverse, audience members are given a platform to inform management if content of a production is too distasteful or disturbing. This will build awareness of gender bias in the viewing audience and management, and will empower audiences to react demonstrably to performances, ultimately facilitating positive change in opera.

How can you help?

Gender Bias in Theater

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The Pulitzer Prize and all finalist nods went to women in 2014 and 68 percent of the Broadway audience is female, but there was not a single new play by a woman on Broadway in the 2013–14 season.

However, the Huffington Post reported in 2012 that on Broadway, shows written by women actually make more at the box office than plays by men, and women statistically write more roles for women than men do.

With women being the ones who buy tickets, it is really absurd not to be putting women’s stories front and center.

~ Robert Falls, Goodman Theatre Director, in “Women Push for Equality On and Off Stage,” by Suzy Evans, American Theatre, October 2014

Across the Atlantic, the situation is much the same. A study by The Guardian identified a 2:1 problem—twice as many men as women were represented in virtually all aspects of the London theatre. In the newspaper’s sample, women accounted for:

  • 36 percent of the artistic directors;
  • 33 percent of board members;
  • 38 percent of actors;
  • 24 percent of directors; and
  • 35 percent of the plays produced were written by women.

One way in which theatres are answering the call to give greater prominence to women is through reversing the casting required in Shakespeare’s day. Instead of casting all roles, male and female, with male actors, some theatres are producing classic plays with all-female casts, including a recent production of “Julius Caesar” in London.

The theatre world remains strangely passive in the face of overwhelming evidence of its failure to address the gender imbalance both on and off stage. Programming, commissioning and casting decisions are routinely made without any consideration of gender.

~ Elizabeth Freestone, Artistic Director, Pentabus Theatre, Shropshire, UK

The way women are depicted, especially for Shakespeare and other classics, must be addressed. Commissioning and writing of plays is a good place to start. New staging, new ways of approaching the female characters by actors, and education on how women were viewed in the ages of prominent playwrights should also help to put the role of women in the theatre into better perspective.

Highlighting the Scope of New Plays written by Women

Molly Smith, Artistic Director of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., is one of the founding members of “Women’s Voices in the Theater Festival.”

As part of this event, more than 50 D.C.-area theaters premiered new plays by women. This event is a significant milestone that will positively influence gender bias in our local theater scene and eventually instill a culture of zero stereotyping in stage productions.