Sunday, February 22, 2015

Ibsen's Solness, John Lahr's Tennessee Williams, and Morrissey's Morrissey: The Terrible Cost of Greatness

Jonathan Demme's 2013 film of Andre Gregory's stage production of A Master Builder, starring Wallace Shawn as Solness (the elderly architect of the title), Julie Hagerty as his wife, Aline, and Lisa Joyce as Hilde Wangel, reminded me both of how great and of how awful theatre can be. Ibsen's 1892 play is the real star, retaining its fascination and black humour despite the production, the shaky-cam close-ups, the bizarre performances, the awkward dialogue of Shawn's adaptation (although it's no awkwarder than any of the other Ibsen translations I've read), and a totally unnecessary framing device that tries to contain the play's elements of heightened reality and account for its mutually contradictory perspectives by making Hilde Wangel's visit into a fantasy of Solness's dying moments.

There isn't much in the way of dramatic action in Ibsen's play, which consists of a bunch of people talking about incidents from the past that they're fixated on, and which the two people involved remember, or perceive, drastically differently. The other plot, the only thing faintly resembling conventional stage action, involves Solness trying to prevent the draughtsman who works from him from getting married and starting his own career as an architect, because Solness wants to suppress all competition, especially from youth.

Ibsen's Freakish Comedy

The first thing that threw me off (even before I saw the film, actually), was the casting of 69-year-old Wallace Shawn, who looks like he's ready to play Gollum without makeup, as Solness, whom I'd always pictured as a broad-chested, booming, blustery type. But fine, casting against type, fine: there's no reason a small, homely man can't be charismatic. (Solness is supposed to strike women as being able to control their souls.) In presence as well as physical appearance, however, the Ibsen character Shawn seems best-suited to play is Judge Brack, the sleazy blackmailer, in Hedda Gabler – or better yet, Hedda's husband Tesman, the befuddled minor historian.

It's not surprising, however, that a serious theatre artist such as Shawn would be uninterested in those parts, and his interpretation of Solness is, anyway, sensitive. The film and the interpretation of the play behind it are a labour of love: about 14 years prior to Demme's filming of the production, Shawn adapted the play after Gregory brought it to his attention, and afterwards they performed it occasionally for friends. In one of the few positive reviews of the film, in Film Comment, Jonathan Romney defends the framing device, and simultaneously, the casting of Shawn as Solness, although he doesn't explain how Solness is still able to control Kaia.

As the doubtless difficult-to-play Hilde, who is made up of sharply contradictory qualities and is part-symbol, part-unearthly apparition, Lisa Joyce is luminous and appropriately overwhelming, but spends most of the performance on the verge of tears or hysterical laughter, which is distracting. Hilde, true, is yet another proto-Manic Pixie Dream (or Nightmare) Girl, but Joyce takes the “manic” part a bit too literally. Hilde, a role I'd itched to play in my early 20s (not that I'm an actress, but you've got to be dead not to want to play Hilde Wangel in your early 20s and Hedda Gabler in your late 20s), calls for the uncanny quality of an actress like Jennifer Jones, and I also pictured her as much brasher and – except at crucial moments, where the force of her need to believe in him gets the better of her – as in control of every exchange with Solness.

The Master Builder (as the play is usually referred to in English) is, inescapably, about the attraction between a woman in her early 20s and a man who's at least in his 50s. (Apparently the relationship between Solness and Hilde was inspired by Ibsen's relationship with an 18-year-old homewrecking minx whom he met when he was 61.) This ought to be annoying for a female viewer, but one of its pleasures for me even now, at 39, is the way it depicts a comfortably equal relationship between a young woman armed with only her preternatural self-possession and a much older, powerful man. This is in part, I think, because the uncanny Hilde is removed from the social realm, unlike Solness's bookkeeper Kaia, who is completely dominated by him. But it's a sort of side-shoot of the tradition in Anglo-American literature that Harold Bloom memorably referred to as “Heroines of the Protestant Will” and that accounts for how Elizabeth Bennet can hold her own with Darcy – and even refuse his marriage proposal. (Pride and Prejudice has been popularly commemorated as the story of a woman who's desperate to get married, whereas in fact, although Elizabeth has much more pressing reasons to get married than Bridget Jones, she turns down two marriage proposals.)

Elizabeth and Darcy never talked in this much depth, though – or about these kinds of racy topics. To begin with, the film makes Hilde 12 years old when she had an encounter with Solness in which she imagined him kissing her and promising to return when she's grown to abduct her and, implicitly, ravage her. The Wikipedia entry on The Master Builder, on the other hand, makes her 14, which is very slightly more comfortable for a modern audience. I'm not sure which is true to the original, or why the Gregory production would make her younger – although of course 12-year-old girls have sexual fantasies, which is the entire reason for V. C. Andrews. It's possible that a contemporary, pre-Freudian (barely) audience would have rationalized Hilde's fantasy as innocent, whether she was 12 or 14, but I'm pretty sure Ibsen thought it was weird (Solness, after all, has to be prompted to even remember that he did such a thing – or prompted to share the fantasy).

Speaking of Andrews, later Hilde confesses to rape fantasies, couched in the language of Norse mythology – a return to the original, shared fantasy between them in which the (fully civilized and incapable of rape) Solness carries her off like a repulsive troll, or, in this version, a triumphant Viking. It's evident from the rest of the play that Hilde, who freely contemplates and (to Solness, anyway) expresses her perverse desires, identifies even more with the raptor than with his prey. One of the central questions of the play is whether modern man (or woman) has a sufficiently “robust conscience” to be able to realize and seize their desires, whatever the cost to others. Solness is suffering from two neurotic fears: on the one hand, fear of the future, or youth, of which Hilde is the half-enrapturing, half-terrifying symbol; on the other hand, fear of the events of the past, which, he believes, led him to his present position of good fortune, of great social and creative power. Yet he's unable to enjoy that good fortune for even a moment, due to his guilt over its sources and the fear of losing it that stems from that guilt. 

Another question of the play is whether he's right to feel guilty about past actions and wishes or whether what he can't bear is simply the fact of being singled out by fortune for success, and that is the reason for his guilt, paranoia, and delusions. Ibsen was a contemporary of Nietzsche and a direct anticipator of Freud (whose first major work, Studies in Hysteria, was published in 1895), and it never showed more than in this play.

By directing the actors to act, at moments (such as a scene in a kitchen between husband, wife, and Hilde), in stylized, Expressionistic ways that wouldn't be out of place in a David Lynch movie, Gregory and Demme miss the opportunity to contrast the repressed, middle-class surface of the play's world with the forbidden, outlandish desires of the characters, which belong instead to an amoral world of romance, and suggests a lack of confidence in the already adequate bizarreness of the material, which would probably be best served by being presented in as direct and unshowy a manner as possible. A single, brief scene, perhaps the strangest and most devastating (and freakishly comic) of the play, between Hilde and Aline, is acted and filmed in such an unshowy way, to its advantage. 


Oddly, in interviews Shawn speaks of the “naturalism” of the performance approach, in contrast to big-stage theatre performances, which I guess goes to show you the difference between what theatre people and regular people think is “natural.” He has, however, mentioned Ibsen's humour, and his delivery of Solness's line about his marriage right after this scene shows that he has an excellent grasp of that aspect of the writer. Ibsen, like Tennessee Williams, is nothing at all without his humour.

Mad Pilgrimage of the Word

The central theme of The Master Builder, the terrible cost of doing “the impossible,” transcending human and one's own normal limits and achieving greatness, came to mind while I was listening to the most recent audio books I've purchased: Morrissey's Autobiography and John Lahr's mammoth new biography of Tennessee Williams (the hardcover edition is 736 freaking pages, apparently), Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. As the title of Lahr's biography suggests, for two major 20th century artists who upset a lot of people with their sexuality, Williams and the famously “celibate” Morrissey could not be further apart, sexually. However, Mad Pilgrimage turns out to have extremely little to do with sex, and even less to do with the kind of ecstatic engagement in pleasure that the phrase evokes. Instead, it's a relentless, monotonous, depressing slog through the failure after failure – sometimes critical, sometimes commercial, usually both, and in one famous case (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), personal – that, as it appears, constituted the vast majority of Williams's career as a playwright.

Full disclosure: between them, Williams and Lahr all but ruined my life. Williams's reputation, and A Streetcar Named Desire, and Lahr's biography of Joe Orton, Prick Up Your Ears (which became the basis for the Stephen Frears movie starring Gary Oldman), were the main things that made me, as a teenager, want to become a playwright. And in fact I became a playwright as a teenager, although that was no one's fault but my own, and my first play to be produced was about Orton, for which I used the only biographical material available at the time, Lahr's biography and Orton's Lahr-edited published diaries.

I say “ruined my life” because my playwriting career didn't last, and, for its brief duration (about seven years – which, even more depressingly, a playwright friend who's managed to keep going for decades later told me is about the average duration of a Canadian playwriting career), was characterized, despite considerable excitement over that first play, by agonies of self-doubt and everybody else doubting me, too. If only I'd had Lahr's biography of Williams to inform me that that's what a successful playwriting career looks like. I probably still would have given it up, but out of dread, not defeat. In fact, Williams's experience seemingly only differed from mine in its magnitude and duration (give or take some wealth and fame). Skipping almost all of his apprentice years and skimming his childhood, Lahr's volume more-or-less begins with the original Broadway productions that established Williams as the greatest American playwright of the 20th century (which, since I haven't heard a peep out of American theatre since Kushner's angel plays at the end of that century, probably means the greatest American playwright, period), The Glass Menagerie in 1945-46, and Streetcar in 1947-49. They are dealt with swiftly, with hundreds of pages and decades of life to go and hardly a single ray of hope in any of them.

What emerges is that thanks to the one-two punch of these plays and legendary productions, Williams was permanently crowned the greatest living American playwright, only for critics, collaborators, and he himself to believe that he could never write anything comparable again. He suffered the mindfuck – the punishment doled out to any writer who has the misfortune of writing something well-liked early in their career – of being continually told that he was “great” while also being told that nothing he wrote was any good. And yet he went on writing, decade after decade. His last successful commercially successful Broadway production was in 1961 (Night of Iguana), and it seems like he only managed to keep his Broadway career going for that long by clinging to Elia Kazan, but he went on writing until his death in 1983. Lahr makes it sound like Williams was already feeling insecure and outdated a year after the production of Streetcar closed, and had already started to believe that his creative power was waning. That turns out to be Lahr's favourite note (like Williams's, possibly), and he returns to it again and again despite the fact that Williams still had decades of plays left in him, all of which Lahr treats respectfully.

So... what's the truth? Or at least: what's Lahr's position? Was Williams in fact, as contemporary critics thought, never as good again as in his early plays? Or was he hounded literally to death by homophobic, Oedipal critics while heroically producing a vast, rich body of work that still awaits reassessment, at the lifelong cost of a single moment's peace of mind? Lahr seems to want to have it both ways. (The virtues and flaws of the 12-years-in-the-making book are, obviously, not fully covered here: it has been well-received, but Sarah Churchwell, in The Guardian, gives intelligent consideration to some of its other limitations, such as a time-capsule version of Freudianism.)

Writers and Happiness

I have to wonder if Lahr's presentation of Williams's life is really unusually bleak, or whether my perspective has shifted enormously since I was a teenager devouring biographies of writers (and often turning them into plays). My most beloved biographies from that period (I have read none as an adult: one of the last I purchased, the 1997 trade paperback edition of Lyle Leverich's Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams – a sort of companion piece to Lahr's book, as explained in the Preface to the latter – sat on various bookshelves for years, barely touched), Richard Ellmann's Oscar Wilde, Gerald Clarke's Capote, Millicent Dillon's A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles, and Prick Up Your Ears, were hardly portraits of happiness.

The narratives portrayed, however, were ones in which the writers suffered because they were demon-haunted: undone, sooner or later, by an unhappy childhood, mysterious neuroses, or a self-destructive streak. That only made them seem like glamourous, romantic figures, and seemed like a small price to pay for having a great writer's power and being admired with such intensity. Although Williams has as much of a reputation for demon-hauntedness as any writer, Lahr hardly gives any attention to those demons (which led to alcoholism and drug addiction, which in turn led to increasingly erratic behaviour – all touched on by Lahr in passing), so focused is he on the unending horror of the work's reception – by agents, directors, producers, actors, critics, and the public. 

Williams comes across as a man who, despite at least one close, long-term relationship, really had no life outside of his work, and no peace within it. And not because of any psychological blocks preventing him from doing the work: Williams was no Jane Bowles or Truman Capote, and although he could have a hard time shaping his plays (like any playwright), he was prolific to the end of his life, and enjoyed the work enough to keep doing it after critics started literally telling him to shut up. His lack of peace had to do with the great desire to be successful that was probably, as much as anything, responsible for the success that he did have, and which – as in the fascinating story Lahr tells about his battles with Kazan over Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – filled him with irrational guilt, since he also wanted to be a great artist, and felt that the two desires were in conflict.

I did have one example before me as a teenager of a writer who was famous, well-regarded, prolific, long-lived, and also seemingly well-adjusted, and that was Colette, so there's no rule about writers having to be miserable. It's hard to imagine, however, that anyone could read, or listen to, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, anyway, and come away with the idea that the life of a great and famous writer is something to aspire to. But probably as a teenager I would have found a way to convince myself that it was.

Morrissey's Poison Paeons

Morrissey has also suffered the fate of critics much preferring his early work to his later. I haven't read Williams's late plays (that's a project for another year... or maybe another decade), but I have listened to all of Morrissey's albums since his 2004 comeback at least once, and my feelings about them are most generously captured by Stephen Troussé's remark in a review of the dismal 2009 B-side compilation, Swords: “For a long time now, he's been a great pop star first, a great singer second, and a lyric writer somewhere around fourth or fifth.”

Morrissey's creative power as a writer really does seem to have waned. Yet, as he has often explained, he only exists when he's performing, and he appears to be too proud, or too bored, to rest on his back catalogue, and also to still have a lot to say, even if it's no longer being said in an especially compelling way – and so the albums continue to come out, although it seems as though hardly anyone is still listening. But as the sales of Autobiography have proved, the world is still interested in Morrissey, even if it's not especially interested in Morrissey's current or recent work.

Since it was not released in a digital edition, I bought a paperback copy of Autobiography when it first came out. I think I even had to have it shipped from the States. I gave up on reading it in frustration, however, when I discovered that Morrissey, an undisciplined autodidact, constantly misused words, and that Penguin Classics had not given enough of a shit to properly edit him. Needless to say, this discovery did not reflect well on either of them.

However, in audio version, David Morrissey's vocal performance glides over mere lapses in sense and carries you along on the gist, and anyway who listens to every sentence of an audio book. As many reviewers have noted, the best part of the book is the recounting of Morrissey's formative years (which does not include any close look at his home life: I'm not even sure if he mentions his parents' divorce, or if he does it's in passing). We hear about struggles with authority figures, witness Morrissey's fascination with acts of violence by human beings (i.e. working-class men) and chance (e.g. car crashes), and come along for the ride as he discovers the salvational qualities of pop music, especially in the form of The New York Dolls, David Bowie, and Patti Smith. Morrissey is at his best as a prose writer when penning – admittedly barely comprehensible, syntactically or emotionally, so ambivalent and intense are they – poisonous paeons to the idols and influences of his youth, proving that if he had not been the best pop lyricist of his generation, as well as one of the great pop stars of all time, he would have been an excitingly original pop culture critic.

Just as Mad Pilgrimage zips past Menagerie and Streetcar, Autobiography refuses to linger on The Smiths, and what Morrissey lingers on about those years are his struggles with management and his surprising obsession with chart positions. Then we're on to the rather anti-climactic, and rather longer, rest of his life. To be sure, there's a period in the late 80s and early 90s, when his relationship with the British music press is already, but not exclusively, combative, where, if anything, his fame peaks and his relationship with his audience deepens: when he's surprised by a sudden surge of eroticism in his male fan's reactions to him at shows; when he breaks The Beatles' record for selling out the Hollywood Bowl in the shortest amount of time.

What emerges from Autobiography as a whole, however, is the picture of a gifted, unusual man who defied the odds and became a pop star to avoid the fate of being entombed upon entering adulthood as a working-class male of unspectacular academic ability, but who, in his 50s, is deeply embittered, paranoid, and possibly delusional: about the break-up of The Smiths; about the court case successfully brought against him by The Smiths' drummer, Mike Joyce; about all of the critics and journalists who, he believes, have printed lies about him and tried to destroy him; about the critics and journalists and managers and record companies whose malice and incompetence prevented The Smiths from being more successful, and prevent him, now, from being successful.

It's a personality not a lot different from the one glimpsed at moments in Mad Pilgrimage, when Lahr – in between tales of famous actresses' bad behavior, critics' viciousness, boyfriends' violence or whininess, and silly female literary executors' avarice and ignorance – lets us see what an unpleasant person Williams, too, often was to friends and collaborators. For example, when Kazan complained to Williams in a letter about Williams's repeated blaming of him in the press for the altered ending of Cat, when in fact Kazan gave him a chance to reinstate his original ending before the Broadway opening, I thought of a review of Autobiography in Rolling Stone, in which Rob Sheffield, clearly a fan, finds the sense of humour that one needs to admire the book's thorny merits while objecting that, contra Moz, of course Rolling Stone covered The Smiths in the 1980s, and helped the band a great deal in doing so. In other words, like Williams, Morrissey is a paranoid and self-exculpating fantasist, and nothing he has to say can necessarily be believed.

The change in my perspective is that whereas once I thought that being a great writer was the highest form of happiness, and that therefore, even if a particular great writer was unhappy (and even though many famous writers appeared to have a tendency to be tragically so), that unhappiness was, in the end, superficial; now it seems obvious to me, and yet somehow still shocking, that the ability to write well does not bestow happiness upon one. Perhaps it would, if one could always be in critical favour. But if you're lucky enough to write something that means a lot to a few people, or one of the extremely few who are lucky enough to write something that means a lot to an entire culture, it's human nature for critics to want you to keep writing the same thing over and over, just as it's human nature for you to change, and to want to change; and, after a while of that, it's human nature for critics to then complain that you're repeating yourself, because they see that the culture's changed, or they want new writers of your stature to emerge and see you as Oedipally blocking the way.


Until youth comes knocking at the door. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Gender Parity Gap in Three Areas of the Arts: An Overview

The idea of this post is to see how women are faring in three areas of cultural endeavour: writing, popular music, and TV and film. Much more extensive research would have to be undertaken in each area to get a real picture, but even at a glance it's easy to see that women haven't achieved parity in any of these areas of either sales or prestige.

Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I absorbed the idea that feminism had already happened, in my childhood. Nothing and no one around me suggested that a husband and children were mandatory, or that working wasn't. By the time I was in my mid-teens, in the early 90s, I had become aware that feminism was still around, and inequality was, too, but I assumed that the latter was left over from before I was born and would soon be gone. Certainly, it would be gone well before I reached middle age.

As I discovered, growing up, that I had a fondness and talent for writing, I had no reason to think that it was something men did. Through early adolescence, female writers came my way with a much greater frequency than male writers. My favourite author of what are now called “chapter books” was Lois Lowry; my 5th grade teacher assigned me a novel by Agatha Christie, whereupon I read almost her complete works; in the 6th grade, a female friend introduced me to V. C. Andrews; as a young adolescent I adored Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon, a postcolonial, feminist, and slash fiction-y retelling of Arthurian legend from the POV of Morgan Le Fay, and the (also slash fiction-y) vampire novels of Anne Rice. 

Even when I was reading novelizations of sci-fi series, even though I'd encountered the notion that "women didn't write sci fi," I couldn't get away from female writers – like Star Trek novels writer Vonda N. McIntyre and 'V' novels writer A. C. Crispin – an “Ann,” I was surprised and pleased to eventually find out. Later I understood that prior to the 20th century, the female writers who were taken seriously could be enumerated using one hand: Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson. As frightening a blow as that was, however, there was no reason at all, glancing at the Fiction section in bookstores or libraries, to think that women weren't as successful as men as writers now.  

Whatever good or bad can be said about it, it's internet feminism that, by calling attention to things like the underrepresentation of female contributors in the elite literary journals and the lack of good roles for women in Hollywood movies, has made me aware, in the past decade, that even if it seems like there are powerful female celebrities everywhere, all may not be equal. And it's the internet that makes basic research into this area unprecedentedly easy, providing us with information on everything from album sales to prize winners to the names of the writers and directors of TV shows, all just a google away.

Writing

Part 1: Awards

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (formerly The Novel), 1917-2014:

1920s: 5/9 (women/total)
1930s: 6/10
1940s: 1/8
1950s: 0/8
1960s: 3/9
1970s: 2/7
1980s: 4/10
1990s: 3/10
2000s: 3/10
2010s: 2/4

31/87=35.6%
1980s-present: 12/34=35.2%

First female PP winner for the Novel, Edith Wharton
Most recent female Pulitzer winner for Fiction, Donna Tartt

Man Booker Prize, 1969-2014:

1970s: 5/11
1980s: 3/10
1990s: 2/11
2000s: 4/10
2010-2014: 2/5
Total: 17/48=35.4%
1980s-present: 11/36=30.5%


1940s: 2/10
1950s: 3/10
1960s: 2/8
1970s: 3/10
1980s: 3/10
1990s: 3/10
2000s: 3/10
2010-2014: 3/5
Total: 24/75=32%
1980s-present: 12/35=34.2%


Total: 12/34=35.2%


Total: 16/34=47%

Part 2: Sales


(No. of female authors out of total no. of authors per decade)

1895: all men
1896: 2/10
1897: 1/10
1898: 2/12
1899: all men
Total: 5/42=11.9%

1900: 2/10
1901: 2/10
1902: 2/10
1903: 3/10
1904: 5/10
1905: 7/11
1906: 4/10
1907: 4/10
1908: 2/10
1909: 2/10
Total: 33/101=32.6%

1910: 7/11
1911: 4/10
1912: 3/10
1913: 3/10
1914: 3/10
1915: 2/10
1916: 5/10
1917: 3/10
1918: 4/10
1919: 4/10
Total: 37/100=37%

1920: 3/10
1921: 5/10
1922: 3/10
1923: 4/10
1924: 3/10
1925: 3/10
1926: 4/10
1927: 4/10
1928: 3/10
1929: 3/10
Total: 35/100=35%

1930: 3/10
1931: 7/10
1932: 3/10
1933: 2/10
1934: 5/10
1935: 3/10
1936: 3/11
1937: 2/10
1938: 4/10
1939: 5/10
Total: 37/101=36.6%

1940: 2/10
1941: 4/10
1942: 5/10
1943: 3/10
1944: 4/10
1945: 3/10
1946: 4/10
1947: 2/10
1948: 4/10
1949: 1/10
Total: 32/100=32%

1950: 4/10
1951: 0/10
1952: 4/10
1953: 1/10
1954: 3/10
1955: 1/10
1956: 4/10
1957: 5/10
1958: 4/10
1959: 1/10
Total: 27/100=27%

1960: 3/10
1961: 0/10
1962: 2/11
1963: 4/10
1964: 1/12
1965: 0/10
1966: 3/10
1967: 2/10
1968: 3/10
1969: 4/10
Total: 21.5/102=22%

1970: 3/10
1971: 1/10
1972: 2/10
1973: 2/10
1974: 1/10
1975: 2/10
1976: 3/10
1977: 3/11
1978: 2/10
1979: 1/10
Total: 20/101=19.8%

1980: 2/12
1981: 2/10
1982: 2/10
1983: 2/10
1984: 3/11
1985: 4/10
1986: 3/11
1987: 2/10
1988: 3/10
1989: 3/10
Total: 26/104=25%

1990: 5/10
1991: 5/10
1992: 5/10
1993: 3/10
1994: 4/10
1995: 3/10
1996: 3/10
1997: 6/10
1998: 6/10
1999: 2/12
Total: 42/102=41%


[Note: 2000 and 2005 Harry Potter novel excluded from this decade; Twilight books excluded: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008]
2000: 3/12
2001: 1/12
2002: 4/12
2003: 3/11
2004: 1/12
2005: 5/10
2006: 2/12
2007: 5/12
2008: 4/10
2009: 4/10
Total: 32/10=32%

[Note: Adult Fiction and Children's Fiction tallied separately as of 2012; but women also dominated AF with 8/10]
2010: 3/10
2011: 3/11
2012: 8/10
Total: 14/31=45%

The Publishers' Weekly lists are a bit weird. Seemingly they concentrated on adult fiction up until the YA boom of the 1990s, with some exceptions for anomalous runaway bestsellers – like the Eloise children's books in the 1950s. The Harry Potter books were excluded from the lists during the 90s; a couple get into the Wikipedia lists in the 2000s, but the Twilight books are excluded (but Meyer's adult fiction novel is included). The 2012 list above, however, is drawn (as the Wikipedia reference link reveals) from both the adult fiction and children's fiction lists, which I guess is how it's going to be for as long as YA and children's fiction are selling like crazy (or – which may be more accurate – are the categories that still sell print copies).

Nevertheless, the rough picture that emerges is this: Jonathan Franzen was talking complete crap when he complained that in America, reading is considered an activity for women, and therefore books “for men” (and, presumably, by men) don't sell. With a sudden jump in numbers at the turn of the 20th century, female novelists hold steady at 30-40% until a bad dip in the 1950s, from which they do not recover until the 1990s. God knows why, but suddenly in the 1990s female authors are at near-parity even without taking J. K. Rowling into account. With Rowling, they are probably at parity. And Rowling changed everything, paving the way for the Twilight series (which paved the way for the 50 Shades of Grey series) and the Hunger Games series. In the 2000s numbers dip down again, but would probably be higher than pre-1950s numbers if all of Rowling's Harry Potter novels plus the Twilight series were included. And in the 2010s, so far women are at near-parity.


But Franzen's vision of women's petticoats sweeping away serious men's fiction was clearly always a fantasy. Decade by decade, there have never been as many novels by female authors among the Top 10 bestsellers as there have been books by men, and I assume that the Top 10 is roughly representative of what's going on below. It hasn't been 50/50 – and, just sticking to the 20th century, often it wasn't even close. And sure as hell female novelists weren't crowding male novelists – whether serious or frivolous – out of the market.  

Part 3: Literary Journals

The London Review of Books and New York Review of Books have already been called to task by feminists in recent years (as in, 2013) for their extremely low numbers of female contributors. Did anything change in 2014?

Well, if the numbers from last year are an improvement, they're still a joke. The number of female contributors per issue in the NYRB didn't once reach as high as one third, and only three times (out of 18!) reached as high as a quarter. That would be pretty good, if this were the 18th century. LRB did mildly better: out of the 24 issues in 2014, the number of female contributors got as high as a third twice and as high as a quarter six times.  

But these offenders pale in comparison to The Paris Review. Check out the dismal gender numbers for their author interviews:

1950s: 3/25=12%
1960s: 5/37=13.5%
1970s: 8/39=20.5%
1980s: 15/75=20%
1990s: 18/88=20.4%
2000s: 26/66=39%
2010s: 10/43=23%

Holding steady at 20% since the decade of second-wave feminism, TPR only got into the game, in the previous decade. So far in this decade, however, they've fallen back into old habits. And yet somehow we find ourselves talking about a past Dark Age for female writers. Fucking pathetic.  

It's one thing when dinosaurs like the LRB, NWRB, or Paris Review offend. What's really irksome is when sexist attitudes are carried over into a new medium, and perpetuated by young people. This is the case with Scott Esposito's The Quarterly Conversation, an online journal devoted to international modernist literature in translation that I'd like to love, if only it weren't for the distinct odour of machismo presiding over the proceedings. As proof, here are the stats from the past 10 issues, nos. 29 (Fall 2012) to 38 (Winter 2014). These are the number of articles about women out of total articles about a woman or a man (usually an author, but sometimes a filmmaker); so themed articles are excluded. (I also excluded translators as contributors, which is ironic given the nature of the publication, but less confusing.)

Issue 29, articles about women: 5/20
Issue 29, female contributors: 4/21

Issue 30, articles about women: 3/25
Issue 30, female contributors: 11/27

Issue 31, articles about women: 11/31
Issue 31, female contributors: 12/31

Issue 32, articles about women: 2/18
Issue 32, female contributors: 9/21

Issue 33, articles about women: 3/19
Issue 33, female contributors: 4/19

Issue 34, articles about women: 4/21
Issue 34, female contributors: 6/25

Issue 35, articles about women: 11/22
Issue 35, female contributors: 7/23

Issue 36, articles about women: 1/10
Issue 36, female contributors: 4/10

Issue 37, articles about women: 3/16
Issue 37, female contributors: 5/16

Issue 38, articles about women: 3/12
Issue 38, female contributors: 7/14

Total articles about women: 46/194=23.7%
Total female contributors: 69/207=33.3%

So, about a quarter of the articles over the last 10 issues are about women, and a third of the contributors are female. What are we to make of this? Are women, internationally, not writing experimental fiction and poetry? Are they not being published? Are they writing and being published but not being taken seriously enough to be translated? Are they writing and being published and translated but not being taken seriously by TQC?

The links along the right side of the QC website, to articles on the site's contemporary heroes (two of them dead at a young age), McCarthy, DFW, Murakami, and Bolano, so no women, were what made me first start pondering the place of women in serious contemporary fiction. I knew that the traditional heroes of modernism and postmodernism were men: all of the High Modernists except for Woolf, and especially Joyce and Kafka; Faulkner, Beckett, Pynchon. But that was in the past. Surely no one would perpetuate such preposterous hero-worship now that so many more women were writing, and we were all alert to, and on the same page (SO TO SPEAK) about, the injustice of gender bias.

Or then again....

There are of course other, more female-friendly places one can go on the internet to read about serious new writing, such as Jessa Crispin's Bookslut. My quarrel with TQC is not that there are no alternatives to its modernist machismo, but that that machismo is unnecessary and antiquated, and especially disappointing in an online-only publication, which should break with the biases of the past.

Popular Music



For me, the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Reader's Poll is the only bright spot out of all of this research, revealing as it does how the number of women in rock has risen, and the profile of women in rock with it, while the profile of women in pop has also risen, and with it, the prestige of pop. Still, as we get to the most recent poll, only 34% of the top 100 albums have female artists attached to them – and I counted cases where there was even one woman, not necessarily the singer, in the band.

1970s: The website only lists 10 albums up until 2008. In the inaugural year, albums by female artists creep into the 9th and 10th spots: Joni Mitchell's Blue and Carole King's Tapestry. In 1975, Mitchell's Court and Spark tops the list, but there are no other albums by female artists on it, or any women in the bands on the list. In 1974, Patti Smith is the only female artist to get on the list, with Horses, in the second spot. There is obviously already goodwill toward women who are serious songwriters – but not many around. In 1976, Kate & Anne McGarrigle take the 5th spot, with Joni two spots behind. In 1977, only Fleetwood Mac, in the 4th spot with Rumours, features women. In 1978 there are finally none at all, and in 1979 we're back to the initial situation, with Donna Summer's Bad Girls sneaking into the 10th spot, and the B-52s at no. 7.



1980s: Things remain pretty much the same in the 80s. There are no women to be found on the list in 1980, but in 1981, X (whom I confess I've never heard of before) is in the 2nd spot, Rickie Lee Jones in the 5th spot, and The Go-Gos in the 10th spot. In 1982, Richard & Linda Thompson are in the 2nd  spot; X sneaks into the 10th. In 1983 – X again, this time in the 4th spot... and that's it. In 1984, Tina Turner is in the 5th spot; in 1985, Aretha Franklin's at no. 9; in 1986... nothing. In 1987: nothing. In 1988, we're in business again: Sonic Youth at no. 2, Tracy Chapman at no. 3, Michelle Shocked at no. 5. In 1989, Neneh Cherry is at no. 5, and The Mekons and Soul II Soul have women in them, as do The Pixies, at no. 10.



1990s: This is where things change. All of a sudden, a lot of women are being taken seriously across the board, in rock, in punk, in electronica, in country, and in hip-hop, and there are a lot more all-female or female-led bands around. Sinead O'Connor takes the second spot in 1990; Sonic Youth is at no. 4; and Roseanne Cash is at no. 8. In 1991 (the year of Nevermind), there's only The Mekons, squeezing into the last spot. The following year, P. J. Harvey appears for the first time; the next year Liz Phair takes the no. 1 spot (beating out In Utero), Harvey is in the 3rd spot, and The Breeders are in the fourth. Hole take the no. 1 spot in 1994, with Liz Phair in the 6th spot. In 1995, top spot to P. J. Harvey (third year in the row for a woman or female-led band), Elastica is at no. 4, and Bjork at no. 7. In 1996, the Fugees are at no. 2, Sleater-Kinney at no. 3, and Amy Rigby at no. 8. The following year it's Sleater-Kinney at no. 4, Missy Elliott at no. 6, Erykah Badu at no. 7, and Bjork at no. 9. In 1998, it's Lucinda Williams at no. 1, Lauryn Hill in the second spot, and P. J. Harvey at no. 7. The decade closes on a slow year for women, with only Fiona Apple, at no. 7, and Beth Orton, at no. 9; and there's a woman in The Magnetic Fields.

2000s: The 2000s start strong. Year 1: P. J. Harvey (2), Shelby Lynne (4), Jill Scott (9), and Sleater-Kinney (10). 2001: Bjork (3) and Lucinda Williams (9). 2002: Sleater-Kinney (5) and Missy Elliott (10) – but where are the new artists? There are some in 2003: The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (5), led by Karen O; and The New Pornographers (7), featuring Neko Case. But in 2004, there's only Loretta Lynn, at no. 3. 2005 is a good year, with a new artist, M.I.A. bursting onto the scene at no. 2, Sleater-Kinney and Fiona Apple at 4 and 5, and The New Pornographers at 9. In 2006, a Neko Case solo album gets into the 8th spot, with Joanna Newsom right behind it. M.I.A. takes third position the following year, with Amy Winehouse's Back to Black right behind her. 2008: Portishead in the 3rd spot, Erykah Badu in the 5th spot, and Santogold at no. 7. 2009: Neko Case at no. 3, Yeah Yeah Yeahs at no. 4, Dirty Projectors at no. 5., and The xx at no. 7.

Only including bands with significant female content, then, the 2000s hold strong, with female artists making up about 25% of the Top 10s in both the 1990s and the 2000s. That's compared to about 15% in the 80s and around 10% in the 70s. The importance of the 1990s to women in popular music can't be underestimated. But what about the current decade – and the Top 100 albums?

The wondrous Janelle Monae emerges in 2010, taking the 4th spot. There are women in Arcade Fire, and Beach House and Sleigh Bells are male-female duos. Merrill Garbus's tUnE-yArDs take the no. 1 spot in 2011, with P. J. Harvey back in the second spot, Wild Flag in the 4th spot, and Adele in the 6th spot. In 2012 there's Fiona Apple at no. 3, Grimes at no. 9, and Beach House at 10; in 2013, Beyonce's at no. 4, My Bloody Valentine at 6, Haim at 7, Janelle Monae at 8, and Kacey Musgraves at 10. Finally, in 2014, St. Vincent took the no.4 spot, with FKA Twigs (a producer!) at 5, Taylor Swift at 7, and Angel Olsen at 8. For the decade so far, content by (cis) women is at 35.6%; in the Top 10, 40%, a big leap again from the 2000s. 




2008: 3/10; 25/100
2009: 4/10; 42/100
2010: 4/10; 32/100
2011: 4/10; 39/100
2012: 3/10; 39/100
2013: 5/10; 34/100
2014: 4/10; 34/100

Verdict: The 90s were the breakthrough decade for serious female artists in popular music, following in the wake of pioneers like Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith. But although there were suddenly a few dozen female artists and bands of major reputation, the mass of buzzy bands and rappers out there, most of whom will only appear on these lists once, are still overwhelmingly male. Women hover at 35-40% of the total content, but only if you include a lot of bands with only one female members, who is not the lead singer or main songwriter; or a couple of female members, if it's a large collective. If you stick to girl bands, female-led bands, male-female duos, and female solo artists, it would probably be more like 30-35%.   

Part 2: Best-Sellers

In commercial popular music, women have also gained successes in recent years without attaining full parity – as sellers; who knows how well they're paid. If the music industry is anything like the movie industry, which it probably is, there's probably even less parity there, but probably also some gains in recent decades.

I didn't bother to look at prizes for the music section because my time is limited and I'm way more interested in which albums Village Voice readers like than in which albums win Grammys. Whereas although I don't give any more credence to the Pulitzer Prize than to the Grammys, I was more interested in finding out how women had fared with the former than in tracking down decades of year-end best-books lists. So basically, the research I did for this post reflects partly what I happened to want to know about a particular topic and partly what information was (readily) available on that topic.

To get a rough idea of how women in popular music sell, I looked at this Tsort site, which has compiled chart info from worldwide sources.

Out of the 50 biggest chart acts, worldwide, by decade:

1960s: Barbra Streisand (22); The Supremes (23); Aretha Franklin (29); Peter, Paul, and Mary (33); Petula Clark (35); Joan Baez (42)

1970s: ABBA (4); Donna Summer (23); Fleetwood Mac (27); The Carpenters (28); Carole King (42)

1980s: Madonna (2); The Eurythmics (12); Whitney Houston (15); Tina Turner (31); Diana Ross (35); Pat Benatar (42); ABBA (46)

1990s: Mariah Carey (1); Madonna (2); Celine Dion (3); Whitney Houston (7); Janet Jackson (17); Alanis Morisette (20); Spice Girls (21); Roxette (24); Ace of Base (34); TLC (36); The Cranberries (37); Cher (47); Sheryl Crow (48); Shania Twain (49)

2000s: Madonna (2); Britney Spears (3); Beyonce (7); The Black Eyed Peas (8); Pink (10); Avril Lavigne (11); Alicia Keyes (14); Norah Jones (15); Jennifer Lopez (20); Rihanna (21); Mariah Carey (25); Shakira (28); Celine Dion (30); Christina Aguilera (31); Destiny's Child (35); Kelley Clarkson (36); Kylie Minogue (38); Nelly Furtado (39); The White Stripes (40); Evanescence (43); Taylor Swift (46)

In the 1960s, the women who chart highest, making up only 12% of the Top 50, have nothing to do with rock. In fact there are no women in rock, at all, at this point, and the only women on the list that have anything to do with modern pop are The Supremes. In the 1970s, the supreme decade of the rock group, it's worse. ABBA, the epitome of modern pop, get into the Top 10 with two women, and Donna Summer, the queen of disco, is the first female solo artist on the list. There's also Fleetwood Mac, another 70s supergroup of married couples, and, of course, The Carpenters.

Madonna leads the way to the light in the 1980s, showing what a female pop superstar really looks like. Annie Lennox and Whitney Houston are other pioneers, and Streisand comes back strong, but other than Madonna in the no. 2 spot, women haven't made that much advancement.

But wait! We were just warming up. In the 1990s, female solo artists occupy the first three spots, and female acts or acts featuring women make up 28% of the Top 50. It seems as though the 1990s are a breakthrough for women in music commercially, as it was for women in music being taken seriously. Second-wave feminism may have failed to produced any theorists that I wanted to read, but I can't argue with its effects on music. The seeds were sown, however, in the era of first-wave feminism. Patti Smith showed us what a female rock star looked like, and even if The Runaways were manufactured and exploitative, afterwards it was possible to envision a female rock band. By the 1990s there are a lot more women in bands, even if they're usually in bands as vocalists, and Madonna has provided the model of a female pop star who's obviously and unapologetically in control of her image and career. But few post-Madonna female pop stars will give us the impression of control over their careers and personas from beginning to end, and few – certainly none of the white ones – will be allowed to not be girls-next-door, however crossed-with-porn-star their image may be.

And the improvement holds during the following decade, with female acts/female-featuring acts getting up to 42%. This has little to do with women in bands and a lot to do with remaking pop, after the example of Madonna and the decline of Michael Jackson, as exclusively female. No need to fight the perception that the role played by women in popular music is as vocalists and, with few exceptions, eye candy. The exceptions are the true legends, but the standards of appearance for people in the public eye seem to get higher all the time, especially for women, that it's hard to think of Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand becoming superstars now – and it was implausible enough at the time. Reality TV let an ordinary young woman, Kelly Clarkson, become a star, and the internet allowed Adele, a plus-size woman, to become a megastar, and those seem to be the only means. A different, “edgier” style of attractiveness is favoured in the indie rock world, and being too conventionally attractive, like Lana Del Rey, can get you kicked out of the cool kids' club, but the ornamental function of the frontwoman still has few and usually partial exceptions – which is why someone like Merrill Garbus is such a delightful surprise.

Merrill Garbus

Now women seem to be stuck – and men too. Once it was considered acceptable for men to be crooners – neither songwriters nor musicians. Elvis wielded a guitar but didn't write his songs, and was primarily known as a voice, face, and set of hips. A decade on, it had become necessary to be “authentic” and write your own material. But women had a harder time making the shift, and have continued to have a hard time going behind the scenes in other ways – notoriously, as producers and engineers. For one thing, women were going into popular music as vocalists rather than forming bands, so writing their own songs wasn't a natural step. For another, there was no shame for women in being ornamental – at least not yet. Ultimately, this situation – where “authentic” rock or indie musicians wrote their own material but “manufactured” pop singers had their songs written for them – led to an unfair devaluation of the role of vocalist. But perhaps this was also partly because it was so easy to sell a pretty white girl with a pleasant voice.

Despite the huge success of Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill (1995), somehow the notion of marketing female rock singer-songwriters didn't take off, whereas the solo female pop star after the Madonna model became a juggernaut. But then if you look at the albums that are selling in the US in this decade, there are no performers that one would call “rock,” either male or female, while “rap” is only one category among many (and there are even some top-selling female rappers). The favoured categories are male solo performers, female solo performers, and bands, in about equal numbers, and rock and roll might never have happened (whereas the favouring of country acts is an American eccentricity). The female percentage suffers because the all-male band continues to be the norm while the all-female band continues to be an eccentricity.

The idea that there should be more women in rock or rap has nothing to do with women's success in popular music – at least not at this stage. Women are doing great as solo vocalists, probably much better than they did in the pre-rock era, although they'd do better still if there were more women in bands, which appear to be the only legacy from the rock era in the charts. Only hipsters (such as the Village Voice readers) keep rock alive, and increasingly rap as well, it seems. 

No, the main reason to care about women getting into rock or rap has to do with the prestige accorded these genres as originally male genres. Of course women have great reasons to rebel and be angry, and no doubt it's helpful to the cause of feminism for women to show that they can project aggression, intimidation, and power, so it's easy to see why the idea of women in these genres appeals – to women, and to fans of the genres – and why the idea of these genres appeals to women. Still, encouraging women who want to try non-traditional (i.e., “masculine”) things easily turns into denigrating “feminine” things, since our culture is already eager to encourage the latter. And we should be wary of this as feminists, even as we're aware that asserting the awesomeness of Disney princesses is not a sufficient kind of feminism.

(As one example: you still hear well-meaning people bemoan the fact that there has never been a queen of late-night TV. But why is this such a terrible thing when women clean up as day-time hosts? Ellen DeGeneres already out-earns David Letterman. Just because an area is female-dominated doesn't always make it pink-collar. Of course the domination of the daytime talk show by female hosts depends on a lot of women being at home with the kids, at least temporarily. But that's another story.)


Film and TV

Hollywood's problems with women seem to get endless attention without anything ever changing. And I'm just talking about its problems developing movies with female leads or even non-perfunctory supporting female characters, and, when it happens, paying the actresses as much as the actors. Let alone with getting women into a directing role.

I'm sure that many more women are directing now than in my early 20s, when I took it for granted that film directing just wasn't something that women did. (Since I like movies a lot and admire many directors, that thought did bug me a little, but not that much, since I had no interest in directing movies myself.) Even now, though, there's usually only one fashionable female director at a time, and without the help of the internet, I know the names of less than half a dozen that are currently working.

The gender parity gap in the US entertainment industry has been well-covered, so I'm not going to add new information here. I'll just restate some of the points and discoveries that have been made:



Now that TV series creators are starting to emerge as auteurs, it also bugs me that the problem from film seems to belong to the entertainment industry in general. And it's not just the entertainment industry. The problem is also a culture of fandom, criticism, and its overlap – as with cinephiles and auteurists in film criticism/fandom and modernist machismo in literary culture – that perpetuates the idea of the hero-worship of men by men (and sometimes by women) as culture. Hence the hilariously solemn celebration of Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan, or, in geekier corners, the giddier fandom directed toward Dan Harmon (and Joss Whedon and Gene Roddenberry before him). (In fact I'm pretty sure that TV auteurism emerged in sci-fi corners first – didn't it? Not counting British comedian comedy.)

The only high-profile female tele-teurs to date have been Lena Dunham, who also gets a spectacular amount of hate, and Jenji Kohan, who is generally considered to be extremely uneven as a showrunner based on her first series, Weeds. (Which really does suck after the second season.) Among the series creators that one hears less about because they make popular television, the phenomenal Shonda Rhimes had two TV shows among the Top 50 broadcast TV shows of 2013/2014, both near the top; 2 Broke Girls was co-created by Whitney Cummings; Maurissa Tancharoen co-created Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with the Whedon brothers; Gemma Baker co-created Mom with Chuck Lorre and Eddie Gorodetsky; Elizabeth Meriwether created New Girl; Elise Doganieri co-created The Amazing Race; The Middle was, amazingly, co-created by two women, DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler; the now-cancelled (after one season) Super Fun Night was created by star Rebel Wilson; and that, of the 53 non-football shows on the list, sometimes with up to four male co-creators, is it.  

Shonda Rhimes
The one area where we can trace improvement for women, both commercially and in terms of prestige, is popular music. In the mainstream, there hasn't been much challenging of gender norms by women, but in the 80s, the solo pop star regained the ground lost to bands, and female pop stars became a charts fixture, ever-increasing in numbers and stature. Nor should it be forgotten that Madonna's projection of both financial and sexual power as a global superstar was its own kind of challenge of gender roles, and allowed women in pop to have more assertive personas – although that, of course, has now become simply a box to tick (not unlike male rock “attitude”). Among music lovers, the prestige of female artists has steadily grown, and although the 90s burst of all-female rock bands didn't keep up, it's now more common in indie to see female-led bands (but not that common).

Film is still going through a Dark Ages as far as gender parity goes, and TV isn't much better. Presumably women have had trouble breaking into film directing for the same reasons they've had trouble breaking into music production: because it requires combating stereotypes about women and leadership and women and technology. But we notice this more in the area of film, because the director is the auteur, whereas in music, the artist is usually assumed to the be the auteur. Music journalists and critics pay some attention to producers, but overwhelmingly their attention, and the attention of the public, is directed toward the artist. In mainstream music, often producers have more creative control than the artists, but that is precisely the area that receives less attention from music journalists and critics. Only in the area of club music are producers considered auteurs by aficionados.

In literature and fiction, the position of women as either prize winners or sellers hasn't substantially improved since the beginning of the 20th century, and it is notably vulnerable and subject to setbacks. For the past couple of decades women's writing has had a commercial boom, I think largely due to the phenomenon of female fandom, which saw adult women reading YA genre lit and teenage girls reading online erotica, as well as vice versa, and the YA lit becoming online erotica and then becoming a best-selling print erotica series. This boom relies on marketing literature by women to women, but then so did the successful marketing of commercial fiction by men to men for so many decades. In this moribund time for books, publishers have found a way to tap into a thriving market of female readers.

In the area of literary prizes, there's no clear rhyme or reason at all to the fate of women. In recent decades women have won the Pulitzer for Fiction more often than in the 40s and 50s, but less often than in the 20s and 30s. Overall, female writers have won the Pulitzer 35% of the time, which is the same percentage as female winners of the Man Booker Prize – but since the 1980s, which is to say, in the era of modern feminism, women have won the Man Booker only 30% of the time.

Meanwhile, in the Canadian poetry scene, women would appear to be at parity. Now how did they manage that? Was there such an abundance of female poets, or such a dearth of male ones, that women got in control of the prize-giving? And if parity can be achieved in this area, why not in all of them? While it's easy to see how having children could interfere with the career of a TV writer or a Hollywood director, it's less easy to see how it could interfere with the career of the majority of novelists, poets, playwrights, musicians, or indie directors, who make very little money and, accordingly, have low stakes attached to starting late or taking long breaks. I could see the low income of being part of the arts community making a woman put off having children more easily than I can see the choice to have children being a blow to her career. Is institutional sexism the biggest obstacle to women's advancement in the arts, or do most women, whatever else they want to do with their lives, simply prefer to put motherhood first? I don't know, but I don't think we can deny that the combination of the two, and the way they reinforce each other, is the reason that parity seems to be so difficult.

In cinema, not only are things slow to improve behind the camera; in front of it, things may have actually gotten worse. Conventional wisdom attributes this to a combination of late capitalism and competition from TV, which made the marketers panic and decide that they should only make movies for teenage boys. Lo and behold, those teenage boys grew up and became middle-aged men, and still wanted to see the same kind of movies: even better for Hollywood, but worse for women who like movies, and worst of all for actresses. And since corporate filmmaking has no investment in diversity, only in making money, no one wants to make the effort of making action blockbusters with female protagonists, even though at least once a decade someone comes along and proves that they can make money.

I think some blame also has to go to the auteurs and auteurists, though. American independent filmmaking has always been a macho enterprise, led by the Kubricks, Scorseses, Coppolas, and Altmans, and their fanboys. Whatever the virtues of these filmmakers, it is rare for American auteurs to be interested in telling stories about women (the alternative tradition is represented by De Palma, Cassavetes, and Lynch); whereas in Europe, as Molly Haskell has pointed out (with a lot more savageness than I would use, especially with regard to the heroines of Dreyer – and yet I take her point), directors kept using women, but as symbols more than as characters. In any case, in recent years it's hard to find a female protagonist whether you're in the mood for a blockbuster or for arthouse fare.

But what do the execs of publishing houses, movies studios, and TV networks think that women are doing? They don't think we're going to movies; they've only recently found out that we read; and they can't think we're watching TV, since few shows with female main characters can be found there. Of course there are exceptions on network TV: Grey's Anatomy is a soapy monster; Modern Family features upper-middle-class men and women who are in completely traditional gender roles, for which the “clueless,” yet understandably smug, men are endlessly beaten down by the “assertive,” yet economically dependent, women; the female characters on The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother are almost as important as the male characters; there are lots of genre shows with female sidekicks, like Elementary, Bones, and now Sleepy Hollow. It does look like things are a little better for women in front of the camera in TV than in movies, though not great.

Modern Family, a convincing argument for the extreme horror of traditional gender roles (the gay couple included), where no one wins

I'd like to know, however, if female stars ever had the box-office draw that male stars did, and if “woman's pictures” were ever made in greater numbers than they are now. That genre is remembered primarily because the memory the great female stars of Hollywood was kept alive by gay men (definitely not by auteurists), which allowed young women of later generations a point of entry into film history. So as much as I admire Stephanie Zacharek's Kael-influenced critical voice, I can't share her bewilderment and seeming distaste (in an interview on the podcast The Cinephiliacs) at the fact that well-known female film bloggers like Kim Morgan and Farran Smith Nehme have come to share the gay male admiration of these actresses. Men worship men all the time, and women worship men, too, because there aren't enough celebrated women to worship – so we can always do with finding more. 

Presumably the parity gap that remains in these and other areas is the result of a combination of unconscious sexism on the part of men; women being less interested in these areas than men; and the difficulty of combining motherhood and career. Although the basis of one kind of classic feminism is to argue that women would be exactly like men if the obstacles to it were removed, it is also possible to argue that biology predisposes men and women differently and that they should not be forced to be the same or exact parity expected in everything. The evidence, however, is that the number of women in areas once thought reserved for men climb as attitudes toward what women can do change over generations.  

How do attitudes change? Through the actions of pioneering women (and the men who welcome them and even champion them) and through men and women calling attention to sexism. The best way to prevent calling attention to sexism from descending into petty bullying and harassment of men is, I think, to have a movement that's centered on women's achievement: on what women can do, not what is done to them. But that's for a future post. Others think we have to take action, such as by creating special classes or camps for girls to combat the societal message that there are certain things they can't do. Should change happen organically, over time, or should it be pushed along by directing girls into male-dominated areas? I don't have the answers, but I think we should all keep asking questions.