I recently had the good fortune to have an op-ed piece on the dearth of women playwrights nominated for Tonys this year picked up by the Huffington Post. (Thanks to all of you who saw the piece and sent me notes.)

Turns out, I’m not the only critic thinking along these lines as the awards are handed out this evening. Christopher Isherwood posted his own thoughts about the lack of meaty roles for women on Broadway in his ArtsBlog on June 9, 2011. His thoughts about roles for actresses dovetail nicely with my complaints about the lack of notice for deserving women playwrights.

Isherwood notes that good roles for women are disappearing especially from Broadway musicals. He also remarks, as I did, that “of the four Tony nominees for best play, only one, David Lindsay-Abaire’s ‘Good People,’ featured a leading female role.” Isherwood says that although this year was particularly dismal for women, it’s not anomalous, and goes on to worry that “theater may be heading down an unhappy path pioneered by Hollywood . . . [where] fulfilling leading roles for women have been in eclipse on movie screens for a couple of decades now.” He goes on to say, “Given the evidence of the past couple of seasons, I worry that Broadway has come to share this unspoken bias against the idea of women’s stories and defining women’s roles as commercially viable.”

I’m delighted that Isherwood took time to notice and comment on this turn of events. At the same time, per my op-ed, I wish that Isherwood and other first-string male critics would take more responsibility for how they tend to write about those “women’s stories.” I can think of too many examples of Isherwood’s own reviews in which he seemed to condescend to or take less seriously plays by women, compared to how he (and his colleague Ben Brantley) writes about plays by men. I continue to think that the predominantly male critical discourse in this country has something to do with the very problem Isherwood’s ArtsBlog observes.

In the Times film pages, critic Manohla Dargis (the paper’s second-string film critic), in an essay called “The Living is Easy; the Women are Missing” (to be published in hard copy June 12, 2011), suggests that only women who write films for themselves and other women will fare well in the glut of summer movies, where big blockbusters invariably star and concern men and boys. Dargis says, “From now through August, American films will again be almost all male, almost all the time (the decorative gal pal notwithstanding) as this year’s boys of summer . . . invade the multiplex, seizing media-entertainment minds and your dollars.”

Dargis notes that the women who do appear in bigger summer films, like Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher, are framed in sexy clothes and provocative poses. Dargis suggests that to find substantive stories about women, spectators need to seek out “smaller dramas and romances from studio divisions and independents” in which talented women artists provide themselves or other actresses juicier roles.

Yet Dargis points out that Bridesmaids, the decidedly female-centered Kristin Wiig comedy (blog post on the film coming soon from me), is holding on to fifth position in the box-office sweepstakes, with $100 million of tickets tallied by its third week. Dargis asks, “Is there a lesson here for those big-studio executives who even now are reading the latest iteration of the three-men-and-a-monkey story (but no women) [Hangover Part II] and believe the current state of American cinema–separate and unequal–will continue to fly?”

How timely that Dargis and Isherwood are using their powerful public forums to call attention to this issue. But the dearth of good parts for and stories about women in popular culture and theatre isn’t at all new. These two critics sincerely wonder why this is the case, but after nearly 30 years of feminist activism demanding more notice for women in the arts, it seems time to stop simply pointing out the problem.

Critics need to share their burden of the responsibility and make sure that they consistently write about 1) the very issue both Isherwood and Dargis take time to note this week; 2) the continuing problem of how women are represented in film and theatre or, worse yet, remain invisible as significant characters; 3) how the gender inequality of American culture is not just reflected in these art forms, but helps to shape and teach what we know of gender and other aspects of identity.

I’m glad to be the “feminist spectator,” but I don’t need a monopoly on this perspective. Would that all first- and second-string critics for major news outlets would consistently think about gender as an important aspect in whose stories get told and how in film, theatre, and the other arts.

The Feminist Spectator

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