sexism is still rampant on stage in the #MeToo era

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If the theater industry were to conduct an internal audit of what has been achieved since the #MeToo milestone of 2017-18, how would it fare? There were certainly big signs heralding a new era immediately after the Harvey Weinstein case. Equity launched Safe Spaces, a campaign to reduce workplace harassment that is still active; artistic directors scheduled new works tackling the issues head-on; and female practitioners became more visible. Even the uproar over the lack of female representation in a 2019 season at the National Theater marked a kind of grim progress, to the extent that everyone took notice and demanded more balance. And the National, to be fair, has featured an encouraging number of works by women since then. However, in terms of the real and calculable numbers around gender inequality, the optics are quite far from the cold facts. Last year, a report found minimal progress had been made in the industry, with post-lockdown research throwing up even more worrying numbers.

Every time there is progress, there is pushback from those who feel most threatened. We’re seeing a reaction far beyond the theater right now, from an increase in male sexual violence against women to more political control over reproductive rights. But the reaction is also visible in theater and other cultural representations of women.

A film called My Name is Andrea, shown at Sheffield DocFest in June, documents the life and work of the late radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, who spoke of rape, pornography and “taking back the night” in the 1980s and 1990s. What was so striking about Pratibha Parmar’s film, which features footage of Dworkin’s speeches and interviews from decades ago, was that she could easily be talking about today. Where she was considered controversial then, her ideas seem eminently reasonable and alarmingly relevant now.

I’ve seen some signs of regression that give me goosebumps in recent revived shows from the pre-#MeToo era in which women are casually objectified or ridiculed. First, the musical adaptations of the films Pretty Woman and Indecent Proposal, in which the central female character is a thoroughly romantic sex worker who wins a millionaire and a sexual bargaining chip, respectively. Then in the Menier Chocolate Factory, Alan Bennett’s 1973 comedy Habeas Corpus, whose raunchiness manifests itself mostly in puerile jokes about breasts. Many roared with laughter, most of the audience, at the performance I attended, but some of us were confused: was it being staged with a wry wink? The production seemed to be playing straight for laughs.

Uncomfortable… The Still Room by Sally Rogers at the Park Theater in London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

David Mamet’s 1977 battle of the sexes drama The Woods was staged earlier this year at Southwark Playhouse and featured old-fashioned debates on women and biology. Sally Rogers’ new play The Still Room dramatized the rampant predatory masculinity of the 1980s and showed us just how barbaric it was, but its comedy sailed so close to Benny Hill-style banter and hormonal school humor that it seemed more an uncomfortable retort than a criticism. even if that is not what was intended.

It’s hard to tell if the industry is simply looking back on past gender politics or if this is all just legitimizing sexism under the guise of irony and clever humor. Is yesterday’s humor today’s abuse or vice versa? How should we receive it? And is it any less offensive if sexual pejoratives come out of the characters’ mouths as part of the drama, as is the case with Rooster and his crew in Jez Butterworth’s recently revived Jerusalem, who refer to women in graphic and demeaning ways? ?

Those who think so are branded sanctimonious, censorious, or part of an “awakened” brigade with a seriously failed sense of humor. Defenders speak of artistic license and freedom to commit crimes. In relation to Jerusalem, say, they would point out that it is not Butterworth who is speaking, but he is drawing a world in which these crude characters exist, and in which they have every creative right to say what they say.

(Tanya), Mark Rylance as Rooster, with Charlotte Mills and Jessica Barden in a 2010 production of Jerusalem.

Degrading ways… Mark Rylance as Rooster, with Charlotte Mills and Jessica Barden, in a 2010 production of Jerusalem. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Some proponents compare such jokes to the obscenity and sexual obscenities of Shakespeare. The difference, however, is that Shakespeare was writing in and for Elizabethan times. Any enlightened contemporary director staging his sexist (or anti-Semitic) scenes now would surely frame them in cleverly subverted or undermined ways. A recent production of Measure for Measure at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse did just that, giving the play’s themes of predation and rape a 1970s makeover, thus highlighting the misogynistic norms of that decade.

Beyond Shakespeare, there are many examples of revisionist stories that extract fanaticism from a story, such as Lucy Moss’s Legally Blonde. Or those that underscore their chauvinism, like Oklahoma! by Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein. and Girl at an Altar by Marina Carr.

Of course, we don’t need to send dramas that are beyond salvation to the trash, although Habeas Corpus might be one that we should, in my opinion. But revivals like that point to a depressing reality in the post-#MeToo era, showing us that some people still find breast jokes, female virginity jokes, and obscenely sexualized pejoratives funny.

The humor on stage can approach a form of psychic violence or intimidation. What society laughs at or considers entertainment is an indicator of who we are and where we are. Pointing fingers at plays that use nuances of sexist language may seem like a nitpick when set against the growing body of work criticizing it. But the idea that we should be good sportsmen and ignore this chauvinism, laugh or stay silent, sounds very 1970s to me.

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