Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Too Many Dicks in the Kitchen: Creative Team Gender Mandates

I came across a Tumblr post questioning the appropriateness of the all-male creative team of the opera, Anna Nicole, which will be playing at BAM this fall.  The show is ostensibly about Anna Nicole Smith.  The writer, Jeffrey Cranor, complains:
So the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the NYC Opera are putting on ANNA NICOLE the opera this September. It features a male composer, a male librettist, a male director, and a male conductor artistically exhuming the body of a strange, complicated, and ultimately tragic woman. Good to know we gave so few shits that no one thought a woman should be involved in creating this show.

I dunno. As a man, I feel weird complaining about that, like it’s not my place. But, look, I find it boring at best (dudes riffing on famous blondes!) and misogynist at worst (dudes thinking dudes are better at making art than ladies).
Maybe it feels to you like tokenism to seek out a woman specifically to work with. Maybe you feel weird bypassing a talented man to say “let’s see if there are talented women to work on this show about a woman,” but that isn’t tokenism. It’s logic. You wouldn’t hire four white guys to write a Flava Flav opera. You wouldn’t hire four straight guys to do an opera about Divine. Why would you write a show about a woman, and have no women in the primary creative credits?

Instead you have an opera about a woman who began her career being judged and stared at and by men, and whose death will apparently be spent in the same way on the stage at BAM.
I have not seen Anna Nicole yet. I did see Jerry Springer: The Opera (by the Anna Nicole librettist Richard Thomas, twice--once at the Edinburgh Fringe and once on the West End) which I found very impressive.  In any event, I'm not terribly comfortable with the idea of "requiring" men or women on creative teams.*  I think you can certainly criticize the actual content of the work if you think the perspective was abusive or weak because the creative team failed to consider other perspectives which you thought would be critical to the subject matter.  But as a "rule" for creativity I'm a little troubled by this. I'd like to think we have the creative freedom to express things outside our immediate life experience. 
I recall thinking that Chacun Cherche Son Chat (When the Cat's Away), a film directed and written by a straight French man (C├ędric Klapisch), was one of the best executions of the female gaze I had seen in cinema.  I thought Klapisch's work was akin to Jane Campion who I think happens to excel at that (see recently her miniseries Top of the Lake or previously Portrait of a Lady for a feminine perspective on filmmaking that is subtle, powerful and unsettling because of how rare we actually see it in cinema--or at least until 2002 when I stopped going to the movies). Not all female filmmakers concern themselves with it. Nor should they HAVE to if they aren't interested in it. 
Some men write great female characters. Some don't.  Some women write great male characters.  Some don't.  Some people might connect to this public figure, Anna Nicole Smith--men, women, gay, straight, white, black--based on the work as it is.   Or they might find it lacking.
Price Walden, having seen the opera, has criticized the work based on reasons other than those that Cantor raised.  But at this point I have not seen the show. And I reserve the right to criticize the final work when I see it for what angle they take on this material and how Anna Nicole is portrayed.  But I'm not particularly troubled at this juncture.  My pitchfork remains in the closet and I'm not practicing my "storming the castle" routine anytime soon.
I'm not going to boycott a work because the creative team is all men and I sure as hell don't believe in just seeing works because a female creative team is employed by it. 

The work has to be good regardless of what's happening in your nether-regions.  I will criticize Diane Paulus when I don't like her work.  I will celebrate Annie Baker when I do.  I will not just be happy when a female playwright writes a bad play about feminism.  I want women to have voices in the theater but when we start setting mandates for who is "entitled" to make art based on gender I feel like the "problem" and the "solution" are misguided and we are focused on the wrong thing.
*Are we talking about the institutional lack of women in opera? Sorry theater is more my field and I statistically there are fewer female directors and composers in theater.  Certainly an overall lack of women in opera is worth pointing out.  And a discussion of the lack of women in the field and the institutional problems that that engenders is a worthwhile discussion topic.  If we cannot create viable pipeline for female artists to work, get support for their work, and get their work out there, we won't have the diversity of perspectives we want to see BUT again not sure how that impacts this particular work until we see it.  Cantor did not seem to be focused on institutional sexism but that this team should not have had the right to make this work merely because of the all penises.  


  1. I feel like the institutionalised sexism in the performing arts industries (not just opera but theatre and film too) is really obvious when you come to a piece about a woman, and really really obvious when it's about this specific woman.

    It's like talking about quotas for, say, FTSE 100 board members. By imposing a female member onto the team, are you saying that the male members of the team aren't any good? No. Are you saying that the female member only made it because she's female and not because she's any good? Maybe. But there aren't any female members of the team and why is that? Even IF that one woman was a token and not actually any good, we don't actually think ALL women aren't any good do we? So my vague point is that the fact that there aren't any women on this production points up how there aren't any women on a lot of productions, but doesn't necessarily say anything about the quality of this specific production.

  2. I had a new thought! Well I didn't actually, I read someone else's thoughts and am trying to pass it off as my own thinking.

    The whole thing is here but it's long and about Strong Female Characters in film so I'll skip to the relevant bit (but worth reading)

    "Richard [II] has [a] huge range of other characters of his own gender around him, so that he never has to act as any kind of ambassador or representative for maleness."

    Perhaps picking a woman for the creative team for Anna Nicole or for the board of a FTSE100 company would be making her an ambassador for the whole of womankind, and after all, who says she's got any better idea of womanhood or how to run a business or how to write an opera than anyone else, male or female? It's only when there are lots of women around working in creative teams or on executive boards that each individual woman is truly free to be herself and not a representative for the rest of a gender.