Why I still don’t want to be a woman writer
When I scanned the bookshelves of the little bookstore on South Street I was looking for authors and books I could relate to. People recommended to me Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, and other tortured souls who may or may not have walked into the water with a pocket full of stones. It was fine work, it was all fine, and while some of it spoke to me, what spoke to my want was their earnest desire to be considered brilliant writers, and not just brilliant writers considering their sex.
These women, and so many others, didn’t have a choice in the matter of their gender. They were born female, they lived female, they wrote with their small hands, and their classifications pissed them off. I get it; it pissed me off too. I used to argue with Dave about these classifications. We had friends who were seriously into David Mamet who argued that they could “tell a woman writer just by the feel of their prose,” to which I replied that the only feel of the writers that felt female were their boobies.
I fought against this classification. I considered changing my name, or going with initials, so as to appear either non gender specific or outright male. But in the end I was too proud of my own name, perhaps too vain in wanting all the credit for my own work, good, bad or indifferent, that I kept my own name. I wanted to be a writer without all the hang-ups that go along with the label of woman.
I thought we all wanted that, all us lady artists. I thought we wanted to be artists without all the associated nonsense of gender classifications.
Apparently, shockingly, I was wrong.
The emergence of the gender parity movement for American stages has proved me wrong. 50/50 by 2020, The Kilroys, The Female Playwright Project, are all clamoring to put the womanhood of the writer first, and the art second. The perpetrators of these movements no longer believe, as I thought we once all did, that talent will out. Instead, they believe that the barriers between women and productions of their plays are all about gender discrimination. They believe that misogyny and a bias against women’s voices is so ingrained in the psyche of the American theatrical producer that women’s work is not considered valid from the outset, and that only direct and consistent pressure to include women can change what American theatrical producers will put on American stages.
But what does that do to the American female artist? It puts her in a box. More accurately, it puts her into the Woman Box. When American theatrical producers and granting organizations and not-for-profit development and workshop labs are looking to increase gender parity, they go to the woman box, and ask for women’s stories. Us women in the box are expected to own our womanhood, to consider this womanhood as an essential part of our political identities. Which means of course that we’re meant to have a political identity that we align with, and subscribe to labels and identifiers to assist ourselves, and others, figure out in which marketable boxes we ought be put. Gender boxes, racial boxes, ethnic boxes, ability boxes, these are all boxes of varying sizes and shapes where artists can be put so that no one has to deal with them until they want something that is in that given box. Make no mistake, a box than can be opened from the outside can be closed from the outside, too.
What if we are Flannery O’Connor who wrote mostly men? What if we are James Baldwin with lady parts instead? What if we are interested in telling stories of neutered space creatures? Or stories told round the fire after a prehistoric hunt? Or perhaps stories about contemporary men? What if we are writing about bridges and Winston Churchill and ant hills of the Mojave? What if our womanness is not on the block at all, but rather our rich, dream filled imaginations and boundless storytelling potential are what are on sale? What if we don’t all fit in the motherfucking box?
It doesn’t feel good to be in the box, even surrounded by all these brilliant women, whom I admire, whom I adore and believe in, whose fan clubs I president.
Still I look around me, and I see a box.
Lady at the front, could you open the door please? I need to get out, I need some air.