Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Let Me Nip This In The Bud Right Now

In the comments to my last post, about the Denver Post list of Important American Plays, Art had some questions and then wrote this in response to my answers:
Like I said, it is intriguing. But in order for this to make sense to me, I would have to interpret what you are saying as follows:

The top of the list, say, the first 50 entries, consists of everybody, (men and women,) just kind of paying lip service to what they know should be the right answers. However, as we go further down the rankings we start to see what men and women respondents actually like and/or think of as meaningful or good.

Is that about right?
This is my response:
I'm definitely NOT saying that. I'm saying that this is a list of what a group of men and women rank as the most important American plays and that we can extrapolate some things from where their rankings overlap and where they diverge. I personally don't believe that there is some standard of important play, so the whole thing is a bit subjective. Is A Raisin in the Sun less important than Death of A Saleman? On what points.

But, since this is, largely, a set of plays that most of us are familiar with, we can use our knowledge of these plays, their subject matter and their place in history (because some of the plays are indeed historic) to draw some conclusions about the way men and women view plays.

At the end of the post, I take that extrapolation and apply it to a real world situation.

That's it. I don't think anyone is paying lip service or holding back or anything. I can't know that. All I know is what's on the list. If the men in the survey rank American Buffalo as the 15th most important American play and the women rank it as 147th, that tells us something about how they each view that play. Then we can infer how they might view a play that's structurally or thematically similar. Or dissimilar.
Here are some quotes from the original post:
Now, the caveats. A) The women in the survey ranked fewer plays, almost fifty. B) This group was largely pulled from theatre professionals. And most importantly, C) the question at hand wasn't "What plays do you like," but "What plays are important." Oh, and D) the men outnumbered the women (68% of the respondents were men.)


There's an implicit bias in that that, I think, this list makes plain: people want to see their lives on stage. Men, women, minorities, we want plays that reflect our lives. It's a natural human urge and we all share it. There shouldn't be any shame in that.


The problem comes when the numbers are out of whack. American Buffalo? Number 15 on the men's list. Number 148 on the women's. What is its final rank? 20. Because there are way more men in the survey than women.
Emphasis added, because I have a feeling that's the part that will get singled out to say that I'm saying "Men like the top plays on this list." Which isn't really what I'm saying. So I'll just clarify.

Looking over this list, there is a trend that certain plays split the genders (this is also true of age, but that's another set of calculations). One common factor I noticed is that plays that have strong connections to men and to the male world have a tendency to rank higher among men than they do among women and plays that have strong connections to women and the female world rank higher among women. However, since there are more men in this survey than women, many of the plays that ranked particularly poorly with women, but not as poorly with men, rose to the top. Which gives a somewhat skewed perception of their overall importance to the society at large.

I drew two inferences from this, one I used in the post, one I'm making now: A) that leads the "general" list to be male drama heavy and give the impression that men write "better" plays or more important plays and B) that men are likely subject to a bias that's often attributed only to minorities, wanting to see their life on stage. And given B and the dominance of men in positions of power in industries like theatre and the film/television industry, that bias might be a reason for a lack of female writers and a lack of advocacy for female writers by other women.

I'm not saying that this list is skewed in any way, or that I have any insight into the hearts and minds of the people who took it. I'm basing all of this on my read of the list, the gaps that exist and how I see them correlate. If you want to talk about that, fine. If you want to say my expositions don't work or don't make sense to you, fine. But please don't say or ask me if I'm saying something I'm not saying.

I hope this keeps the conversation focused.

*Slight edit to remove a typo


Art said...

I hope you don't mind, but I am going to try and outline my thinking here.

You may think I am trying to be contrarian, but I'm not.

Hear me out.

The overwhelming trend, (to use your terminology), of this survey is that Men and Women agree as to most important plays that sit at the top of the list. That is what the data says.

Now, I have agreed with you that as you go further down the list, there are divergences, just as you point out.

So. All I am saying is that you are presenting this as if your thesis is demonstrated clearly by the data.

99 said...

Even amongst the plays at the top of the list, there are divergences. (Look at the top ten: same plays, but a very different order. And very much within the same parameters.) They are smaller and it does widen as we move further down, but they are present.

If you're reading the data differently, let me know how you're reading it. If you have a question about my extrapolations, ask it. If you have a counter-argument or opinion, please, by all means, state it.

isaac butler said...


I think the most important part of this post is this sentence:
"that men are likely subject to a bias that's often attributed only to minorities, wanting to see their life on stage."

this goes back to a point that's been made many times before (including, most hilariously, by Stephen Colbert).... because white male subjectivity is dominant, we confuse it for objectivity.

99 said...


That is very much my point.

Adamflo84 said...

Side note:
I am a brown male, so partially biased but plays with all men are, in my opinion, predominantly better than plays with all women.

There are exceptions ofcourse but mostly this holds true. No matter gender of author. Men plays seem to ring more true.

Is it a bunch of women together is so confusing or just no one has been able to capture the magic behind true female interaction...

I know there are folks who will disagree but I hold to it. And know many women and men who would agree.

Just think it's odd.