Bean Counting Comes to Broadway

The theatre of the absurd enjoyed a run on Broadway this summer as the theatrical world reacted to the publication of a new study on gender bias. Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender, by Princeton economics student Emily Glassberg Sands, features a three-part inquiry into the scarcity of female playwrights in American theatre.

There have been whispers of discrimination on Broadway for years, as less than one-eighth of the plays produced are written by women. In 2008, female playwrights called a town hall meeting with several of New York’s major Off-Broadway theatres to protest the disparity. Those in attendance cited as possible causes, the male-dominated field of artistic directors, as well as the barriers that all professional women in America face. Female playwrights, producers, and other would-be victims of discrimination recently assembled again, fully expecting Ms. Sands to verify their suspicions. Instead, the Harvard-bound economics major dropped quite a bombshell.

Female playwrights, she discovered, have exactly the same probability of making it to Broadway as their male counterparts. How, then, can one explain the scarcity of plays written by women? Ms. Sands’ analysis ratified what theatre executives have been saying for years: good scripts by female playwrights are in short supply. There are roughly twice as many male playwrights as there are female, and the men are much more prolific, turning out a higher number of scripts per year.

In addition to their smaller numbers, Sands found that women are more likely to write plays featuring female protagonists and difficult thematic material. As Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout observes, these dynamics present considerable obstacles to commercial success: “Broadway almost always plays it safe—and next to no ‘safe’ plays have been written by women.” Indeed, Teachout concludes, “If female playwrights really want to muscle their way onto Broadway, they’ll probably have to start by writing middle-of-the-road scripts with solid and self-evident commercial appeal.”

The discrepancy between the anticipated outcome of Sands’ study and her actual conclusions illustrates how truly inane the bean-counting practice has become. The feminist mind, upon observing an instance of “unequal representation,” is typically blind to any possible explanation for the disparity other than sexual discrimination. It doesn’t matter if less than one-eighth of playwrights are women, and it doesn’t matter if they write fewer plays per year and tend to focus on thorny or downright unpopular themes. The beancounters firmly believe that a small fraction of the total playwright population should be given a 50-percent share of the market, simply because they are female.

The second part of Ms. Sands’ study revealed an even greater setback for the feminist movement. Identical scripts written by four prominent female playwrights were sent to artistic directors and literary managers across the country. Half of the scripts listed “Mary Walker” as the author, the other half, “Michael Walker. ” Scripts by “Mary” drew significantly lower ratings in quality, earning potential, and audience compatibility than those of her fictional male counterpart. At last, proof that gender discrimination does exist on Broadway, but that failed to account for dramatic irony.

Male theatre executives, it turns out, rated the plays equally. Female executives, however, did not. The auditorium was struck dumb at Ms. Sands’ conclusion. “These results are driven exclusively by the responses of female artistic directors and literary managers. ” That does not constitute the dénouement, however, because Sands, along with nearly every journalist who covered this story, was willing to give the women the benefit of the doubt.

She assumes that female artistic directors and literary managers give their sisters lower ratings because, as women, they have a heightened sense of the barriers female playwrights face in this oppressive, chauvinist world. So here’s the ringing curtain line for this Broadway show. Even when women discriminate against other women, men are still to blame. Bravo, girls!

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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