Wednesday 18 November 2015

Je suis homme blanc / Wir sind alle weißen Männer

[on representation, equality and narcissism (in theatre)]

Now’s not a great time to be a white man.

No, no, stop laughing.

Of course it *is* a great time to be a white man. It’s never not been a great time to be a white man [depending on how we’re designating the Ancient Greeks or Romans, depending on how we’re choosing to classify European Jews, allowing that we’re excluding homosexuals from counting as “men” for long periods of time, assuming that we’re often only comparing the white men in question to white women in comparable social brackets, etc.]. And it’s *still* a great time to be a white man, if you have absolutely zero social conscience, and the means by which you can continue to avoid reality in an increasingly unstable society.

But let’s assume that you’re a white man who is left-leaning, avowedly anti-racist, anti-sexist, trans-positive (or whatever the best term for that is), etc. etc. etc. Maybe you’re gay, disabled, Jewish, Muslim, a trans-man, or “white” only because your mixed heritage is invisible in/on your skin, and so on. Or, even if you’re a straight, white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class, Christian-atheist man (i.e. the God you don’t believe in is by default the Christian God first – it would never even occur to you to confirm that you also don’t believe in the Hindu Gods, for example), maybe you feel marginalised (though, God, you’d be the first to point out that you’re not as marginalised as anyone else) by your mental health, or by addiction, or by your physical health, or even just by your minority political beliefs. You are the sort of white man who would be the first to admit that, by comparison, you are still privileged by your “white identity”, and your “maleness”.

What are you going to do?

It’s tricky isn’t it?

Because the best thing you can do is resign. Now.

[This essay is about theatre, but I’m reasonably sure it holds good for everything else in Great Britain too.]

If you are a white man holding a prominent position in an organisation (or even just starting on the ladder towards one), it is numerically probable that it would be better for society if you resigned your job and it was given to a woman and/or someone from an ethnic minority. And, ideally – in many, many cases – not just given to the white, upper-middle-class, privately-educated woman who’s already in the office next door to you.

If we want The Arts in Britain to resemble society in Britain, Then only 10% of those working in The Arts can have been privately educated. Only 50% may be university educated. 40% AT EVERY LEVEL in London must be BAME; although nationally that figure is only 20%. And 51% of all arts jobs must be occupied by women. And it would not be enough that the totals add up. If most of the artistic directors are still white men, then it’s still unbalanced and unrepresentative. And if, even after a shake-up, 51% of artistic directors are women, if 95% of them are white and privately educated, then it isn’t a triumph for of feminism but a further failure of equality.

Now, as a good socialist – irrespective of my race, gender or class – I find this level of mass redundancy, especially during such a period of ongoing economic fuck-up, troubling. But there is not nearly enough “natural wastage” to achieve anything like equality coming up any time soon, and apparently there isn’t the money to expand the arts to achieve equality simply by adding all the people necessary. So it is the only way. A few fig-leaf appointments won’t do. Just putting someone different in charge of the National Theatre won’t make everything okay (although it would be a start). No. There has to be a systematic root and branch purge of white men.

Or, at the very least, plans have to be put in place to ensure that this gradually becomes the future – over the next ten years, say. Of course, ironically, given who’s mostly in charge now, those plans will, like-as-not, have to be drawn up by white men. Which will, of course, be a problem...


I wrote the other day about Critical Tribalism, or “teams”, considering a modest division into two teams (the existence of which I was denying anyway). And I stand by that as an analysis of the current situation. In criticism We *Are* All Individuals. But that situation – even in the self-selecting, do-it-as-well-as-your-day-job world of having a blog – is, with painfully few exceptions, *still* very white and very middle-class.

As such, it’s not so far-fetched to suggest that there is only one real “team”, and all it does is quibble about minor differences in how best white, middle-class interests are represented on stage. Criticism has at least pulled its socks up a bit in terms of gender, to the extent that at least 50% of the critics I read are women (personally I’m not really interested in the pretend hierarchies of newspaper critics’ ranks, or divisions between “blog”, online, and print. With those taken into account, a) it’s doing a bit less well, but b) so is what it covers, and c) how it covers it).

What interests me about this state of affairs in criticism, is how much it affects the situation in theatre (might we extend this to the equally self-selecting world of audiences?). Implicitly, explicitly, whatever. And where the fault-lines lie most deeply.

I like to hope that theatres know better than to try to please “the critics”. I like to imagine that good reviews and bad reviews have no impact on what theatres do. I do also imagine that this is a somewhat naïve view to take. I’m not a theatre, I don’t know. But it would be a catastrophe if all our theatres programmed to please the tastes of whomsoever is writing about their work. Of course, the argument can be made that while the critics resemble the race, age and class of a theatre’s core demographic (and indeed its artistic directorship), there’s already a certain confluence of interests there, and the rest is merely quibbling about approach and outcome. A realist might point out, however, that the reason the core audience coincides so exactly with the race and age of the critic is not simple coincidence, and the elision of interests began a lot longer ago than them all happening to turn out to be in those positions. At which point the appointment of the artistic director of the theatre becomes rather inevitable-looking. (In this respect, it is an oddity that more women go to the theatre, proportionally, than run them or (until recently) wrote about them. Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone’s recent speculative comments were fascinating on this subject.)


I’ve been nursing a vague question in my head for a few years about how much theatregoing is narcissism. Put bluntly, to what extent do we want to go and see things that we “identify with”? And, to what extent is something being “relevant to our interests” a deciding factor (in whether or not we go and see it; or, if we’re already there, in whether or not we like it)? Is “identification with” the same thing as “something we’re interested in/by,” and does that matter? [I wrote most of this piece on 8th November – bookended by watching Andy Brooks’s Blake Remixed at the Royal Exchange and the first series of Master of None on Netflix – a week before the terrorist attacks on Paris refocused this debate on “relevance” “narcissism” and coverage.]

My perspective is obviously white, male, middle class, able-bodied, ostensibly heterosexual, lapsed-protestant, and socialist. The most important of those things (to me) is socialism. And I suspect that’s because it’s the only one of the things that (for me, unconsciously,) make up my identity which is in any way in opposition to the (hitherto?) main-stream of British culture. I’m also apparently “quite bright” (at least, arts-bright; I’m fucking hopeless at languages, maths and natural sciences) according to the way that UK society is set-up.

It may or may not be relevant to note that I smoke at least 30 cigarettes a day, and am consequently not terribly sporty or fit (although: chicken and egg; maybe I started smoking because I don’t like sports), and have never been much of a dancer (understatement). I preferred drawing to writing, and then alternative music to chart music when I was growing up. I’m probably more shy than people realise and dislike speaking in public immensely. I could go on, listing more and more niche aspects of myself until someone could write and stage a play that is tailored solely to my interests. And there’s every chance that I’d think that play was better than Hamlet (that other great play about an indecisive ex-goth, right?).

You get the point. Troublingly, there aren’t, as we might have been brought up to believe (and that might depend on how old you are), “universals” in quite the same way we hoped. White men are not the neutral figures someone once imagined they were.

Now, no one but white men needs this pointing out to them. The best recent comment on this was made, almost identically and nearly in the same week, by theatre director Rachel Chavkin and writer Vinay Patel. Here: “I’m a woman, so I think in women. I think through women. When I read Astrov or Hamlet on the page, I see qualities I identify with. Often, in production, I don’t.” Cast a woman and, hey presto, it’s back.” and here “I’ve spent my entire life (happily) transmuting stories of white Western characters/families into my own experience. It doesn’t ask a lot of me. I still want to be Indian(a) Jones.” (Both those pieces very much worth reading in their entirety, btw.)

Obviously, if you are a white man, then your base rate for specificity has hitherto been set very high. Almost all the celebrated high-points of your culture have been made by white men, been designated as the high-points by other white men, and agreed upon (or quibbled over) by countless further white men. We white men (and all the other things that we are that we never think about being) can then happily oppose Hamlet with King Lear, or argue the toss over Marx against Friedman, or Martin Crimp versus David Eldridge, David Hare or Heiner Müller, Rupert Goold or Jeremy Herrin, etc. etc. etc. without ever once leaving our cul-de-sac. And of course these things do *matter*. A bit. At least to us. (More than just a bit in the case of Marx v. Friedman, I’d say.) But we should also acknowledge that all the above could also reasonably be construed as entirely narcissistic as well.

That isn’t to say that only white men care about those things. And it’s not an admission that white men care *only* about these things – it was near impossible not to bring white women Katie Mitchell and Sarah Kane into those oppositions of writers and directors I just gave, for example.

*OBVIOUSLY* for *ME*, those things matter a lot. They’re my favourite things. I’m a white man and some of my favourite things are: Joy Division, Sleaford Mods, Beethoven, Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Heiner Müller, Martin Crimp, Marx and Engels. Some of my other favourite things are the work of Katie Mitchell, Sarah Kane, Gisèle Vienne, Cornelia Parker, Jenny Saville, Megan Vaughan, Sixth June, Onutė Narbutaitė, Lizzie Clachan, Rosa Luxemburg and Ulrike Meinhof. I also like debbie tucker green...

Ok, so maybe I’m overstating a point, but you see what I mean. My tastes up to this point in my life have probably been overwhelmingly white, and probably more male than female. They’re just one person’s subjective tastes, and I don’t think anyone has a problem with that, per se (after all, apparently all *anyone* wants to see is *themselves* represented. I should go and read some Freud on Narcissism and the Mirror-Phase). The problem bit starts immediately afterwards when my tastes become my work, and my work then occasionally becomes a matter of record and maybe influence. And then that record/influence goes on to contribute to a knock-on effect. (A very grand way of putting it, but suggested in the spirit of concern, not boasting or delusion).

And I’d be the first to say that my views are relatively minor in the grand scheme of theatre in Britain; compared to more senior critics, compared to literary managers, compared to the artistic directors of theatres, compared to the people who appoint those artistic directors of theatres. On the other hand, it would be stupid not to recognise that while my tastes are my tastes, informed by who I am, so are those other, more important views, and while we all keep coming from a relatively narrow background, is there not going to be, at the very least, the risk of an unbroken cycle?

Moreover, what is absolutely crucial to recognise is that my tastes – while they might record my favourites – do not, can not, amount to any kind of objective or pseudo-objective index of “quality” (or, ahem, “Greatness”), even though I do have *really good taste*.

I mean, Christ, after everything I’ve outlined above – and what with none of it being news to anyone – I REALLY CAN’T SEE HOW ANYONE CAN’T SEE THE PROBLEM.

Basically, while there are any people with different lives to mine living in the UK, those people’s life-experiences and conseuquent tastes need to be represented at every level of any artform that wants to account itself relevant. It is in no way good enough for me to have tastes and for everyone else to have to shut up and listen to me (or people like me) about them.


That said, this isn’t a counsel of despair. Indeed I kind of hope it’s the opposite.

At the same time, what my idea of hope is might not necessarily be everyone else’s. So that’s complicated. My hopes are after all, the hopes of a [we know the drill now, right?]...

My hope is that if theatre in Britain were more diverse, more cross-cultural, and more inclusive, then the net result would be that *everyone* – both audiences and those involved in making it alike – would end up feeling more represented. Theatre would feel more “relevant” to all of us because we all live in the same society. (By extension, we might also one day get round to watching theatre from other countries while understanding it as itself, rather than as examples of failures to be more like British theatre (as if such a single monolith exists anyway).)

But perhaps I’m kidding myself here. And this is the bit I really don’t know, or can’t know. After all, just as my tastes don’t even necessarily represent anything like even those of just the next white middle-class man (etc. etc.), I don’t for a moment believe that Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic taste or experience is a single thing. Or that working class taste and experience is one thing. Or that female taste and experience is. Or that gay taste and experience... And so on. Etc.

So, something else that fascinates me is: along what lines theatre may differ in a more diverse future.

Is society (helped along perhaps by the internet?) becoming more fractured and entrenched in its smaller, more niche communities? (Or was it ever thus, with the internet just making it more apparent?) Will taste and experienc be divided not just by race, class, gender, sexuality, etc., but smaller and smaller intersectional subdivisions of these? And will micro-communities want to pursue a theatre dedicated more and more specific to themselves? Or, if we ever manage to achieve greater equality (and, well, Christ, not just in theatre obviously), will we watch and engage with less narcissism? Will it be discovered that people have more things in common than not, or will difference continue to be emphasised? Indeed, is the internet not already bringing more and more members diverse communities into contact and making collaborations that cross every previously described division (except maybe political) ever more possible? [Or are other cultural boundaries also as immutable as politics?]

Frankly, who knows?

What remains unarguable is that the issue of equality can’t keep on being dodged. Representation needs to be tackled properly and tackled now. Only when everyone feels represented at the table is there any point in arguing the toss about the things that get put on the table. Right?


Mark Fisher said...

Another white, middle-class (etc) man responds.

Lovely post. I'm finding it hard to say the thing I want to say without sounding like I'm minimising the problem. So let me say, for all the reasons you explain, there is a problem and I'm in favour of finding a solution to it.

But I also want to say that, in terms of theatrical representation and critical interpretation, the problem is one of degree. If women understood only women and men understood only men, then we wouldn't see mixed audiences in the theatre. Everything would be segregated by race, class, age, gender, etc. The reason that isn't the case is that there is a lot of overlap in all our experiences. You don't have to be a Victorian lesbian to appreciate Tipping the Velvet and you don't have to be a royal living in the near future to get King Charles III. You just need to be a human being to understand the dilemmas the characters face.

I'm fascinated by Jane Griffiths's claim in this article What Women Critics Know that Men Don't that "women are good at translation". She says this because she believes women are so commonly asked to interpret male stories that they have to develop a special skill.

But you don't have to disagree with her claim to make further claims that could be just as true: "working-class men are good at translation" because of all the middle-class stories they hear; "disabled people are good at translation" because of all the able-bodied stories they hear; "Welsh people are good at translation" because of all the English stories they hear. Growing up in the north-west of England, a friend of mine used to watch the washing-up-bottle-and-sticky-back-plastic bits on Blue Peter and think, "That'd be a good thing for children in London to make". It didn't occur to him that this experience could also be his.

My point is that, one way or another, most of us translate stories to understand them in terms of our own experience. Actually, it must be all of us: even a patriarchal rich white male will sometimes encounter stories about poverty, disenfranchisement, etc, unless he sticks to a very narrow cultural diet. (That man may be more inclined to reject stories that don't chime with his experience, of course, and that can indeed be a problem.)

So, yes, we should have more non-mainstream stories and, yes, we should have a wider variety of critical voices, but we shouldn't imagine that the problem is so great that none of us can understand each other at all.

Or am I just being a blinkered patriarchal white male? (Genuine question, not rhetorical.)

Andrew Haydon said...

First thing: ARGH! That Jane Griffiths quote was actually the one I first thought of, and then elided with the Rachel Chavkin one. How interesting.

Second thing: I honestly don't know if you're being blinkered or not. I've decided that, to a certain extent, I live inside my privilege/taste so much that possibly the worst thing I can do is tell people telling me that I don't understand that I definitely do, actually.

I mean, yes, what you ask is partly the provocation of this piece. But I think it breaks down across lots of different angles.

The first and most important is representation in concrete employment now. This just needs to happen. A reasonable proportion of writers, directors, designers, and leading roles need to be allotted a lot more evenly than at present.

The question of what this will do the stories told, the interest taken in them, and so on is what I find more unguessable. I mean, I keep thinking of Heiner Müller's Hamletmaschine as being pretty "universal". Cast it differently and everyone can get everything from it, kinda thing. But of course it's not. It's very specific (and actually sort of ludicrous in its eighties sexism). So I wonder what would and wouldn't be alienating for me in other people's work if I wasn't me.

While writing this I was thinking, for example, of how I've never once listened to 1Xtra or The Asian Network on the BBC. And then, does that mean Radio 3 should just be honest and rebrand as White FM. Or Radio 4 most of the time? And is that how other people feel? The idea that because the cultural mainstream is *so* white (and so often male), that literally everyone who isn't feels like they're watching someone else's interests represented. When thinking about it in terms of 1Xtra and The Asian Network, I honestly felt quite dizzy at the scale of alienation that would therefore involve for everyone else. (Of course, I don't suppose everyone Asian does listen to the Asian Network instead of R4, but if I *never* listen to it, and why would I...)

Mark Fisher said...

Agreed. And your comments are reminding me of John McGrath's A Good Night Out in which he makes the case that there's no point in having left-wing political theatre if it comes in the clothing of the same old bourgeois theatre. The very form of the theatre has to change if it is to have a real impact. Yeah, so who knows what forms, what interpretations would appear if mainstream theatre was created and reviewed by 1Xtra/Asian Network listeners? And who knows how many people are being written out of the story because of unconscious biases that people like you and me have?

Mark Fisher said...

PS I think the non-white population of the UK is more like 13% or 14% than 20%.

Anonymous said...

Reading this I couldn't help but recall the Rotterdam-related interview with Jon Brittain (Exeunt). The question is whether a straight man can write a lesbian/trans story, is this moral etc.
Brittain makes an eloquent defense of the imaginative powers of the playwright and points out that limiting him would limit minority writers still more (because the limits go both ways and there are only so many lesbian/trans stories we will see on stage.) Fair enough.

But there he hits upon a problem, a problem he acknowledges but ultimately turns away from. To paraphrase, he hopes his work has not taken away an opportunity from someone else to tell their own story. All very noble and nice, but the reality is OF COURSE you're taking the opportunity from someone else. You have Theatre's blessing to tell any story you like, and your qualification for this job is that you are a white man.

Does that mean your play isn't good? Is it 'inauthentic' (whatever that means)? Honestly, who cares? The point is the biases work in your favour. If YOU write it, it's universal. If I - gay, working class, minority-white and female for the record - write it, it gets 'developed' for a few months or years and eventually dumped in a niche women's festival. This is a reality that needs to be stared down unflinchingly if we want things to change (and I do believe Brittain does).

Any and every good play (or devised piece for that matter) is both specific and universal almost by definition. It lives through but also outside the playwright. But that's not the way it works under our system. By revealing myself as I just did I automatically forfeit my universality credentials and take on a bunch of hyphens.

Btw intersectionality is a strangely inert way to describe real human experience. It's as if we run out of energy when we get past the one or two obvious differences, as if having more than one or two is asking too much or piling it on (Oppression Olympics!) But I don't cease being a woman because I'm gay, and I don't cease being gay because I'm working class. What I'd like the straight white men (and occasionally straight white women) to understand is that I'm as capable of transmuting this experience into art as you are yours. I can write about other things - and still write about myself.
I'm not asking for your guilt or pity, but your openness. And trust.

So what would happen if we had proportional representation?

More of everything. Literal and metaphorical difference. Perspectives you've seen and know and others that will be new to you. Sometimes all at once. An end to ticking boxes because there won't be any boxes left.

Mark Fisher said...

Great post. I'm sitting here thinking about your provocation about proportional representation. And I'm trying not to get distracted by thinking things like, "Well, what if there were five fantastic plays by women, but only three female spaces available?" and, "Would the proportions have to represent vegetarians and cyclists and people over 70 and those with rare skin diseases and wouldn't that be just more tick-boxes than ever?"

I think those questions are distractions because there's a bigger question: "Who is the 'we' who should have proportional representation?" There isn't a centralised body making artistic decisions for all theatres, so it's not obvious who a PR system would apply to. The only practical way to campaign for better balance is to focus on the bigger institutions and demand action from the top.

The recent #wakingthefeminists campaign against the lack of female playwrights in the Abbey Theatre's anniversary programme is an example of that. Even here you could say there were contradictions: are the campaigners happy with the Abbey's record on representing other excluded groups? It's good that they're making a stand, but any change they bring about will just be the start of a long process.

So I guess the question I'm throwing back is to do with knowing your enemy. Who are the people or institutions who are not showing openness and trust? And how can their conscious and unconscious biases be challenged?

Anonymous said...

Well proportional representation raises the spectre of quotas and quotas scare everyone, even the people they are meant to help. But they're only provocative if you accept that the system as it currently stands is meritocratic (and if you do, how do you account for the two to one difference in productions of men to women? The unspoken assumption is obvious.)

The truth is that a quota system *is* currently in place, it's just invisible and (mostly) unconscious. The Bruntwood and other blind submission prizes average out to 50/50 gender wise but what happens after, during the development process? The stats for commissions to women are absurdly low, something like what, 16 percent? Well below their productions and far below representation of men (where commissions roughly track stage representation.) When women do get commissions they are disproprtionately plays for children.

This is an issue of trust. Can she open on a big stage? (Current answer: no) Can she fill the house? And most perniciously - is it a niche play? how will this make our institution look twenty, thirty years from now? I was thrilled that the new National season includes some black playwrights we don't typically see in the UK, then disappointed to find it had been qualified as a 'season of black plays' or some such. Does this not telegraph a certain ambivalence?

So what to do. Well first let's acknowledge, as the Abbey eventually did, that we have a quota system in place masquerading as meritocracy. Let's admit that young writer programmes advantage the middle class, the white and the male and replace them with emerging writer programmes without age cut-offs. This is key to getting a broad talent pool, so no one can ever say again 'there weren't enough plays by x out there I could develop'. Let's expand blind submissions wherever possible and where not possible let's adopt (artistic directors, literary managers) a critical attitude to our choices. The idea isn't to replace one quota system with another but to replace reflexive thinking with critical thinking.

I think it's happening already. It is a long process because the enemy is within. Most of the men who run theatres think of men to develop and commission because it seems natural. They don't mean to cause harm, but they do. Nor are men the only problem. Women/minorities participate in the system and internalise those ideas. The challenge is to show these numbers for what they are - unnatural, strange, novelty theatre. The product of bias.

It starts with an openness to subject matter (and possibly form). It's hard to blame theatre for something that begins in childhood, when boys are made to feel odd for reading about girls. Shakespeare is for everyone, Bronte is for girls - isn't that the defense of the new passport in a nutshell? These are products of that childhood in 2015. But things do change, even in such impenetrable fortresses as Hollywood. How long did it take for women authors to stop using male pseudonyms in order to be taken seriously? Two hundred years, give or take. We're still doing it in theatre. Change can't come soon enough for us.

Mark Fisher said...


And it may involve challenging very deep ways of thinking.

When we tell a joke, we say, "This bloke walks into a bar . . ." and we all accept it.

But if we said, "This woman walks into a bar . . ." it would cause consternation. What was the woman doing in a bar? Was she one her own? Was she an alcoholic? What was she wearing? Was it really safe for her to be there?

Anonymous said...

One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry!