I was perusing Howlround.com earlier today and came across Emma Weisberg’s piece “The Language of ‘Gender Parity’: 19 Women Playwrights and Their Voices.” Something that comes up in the piece is the idea of “women playwrights” and the narratives they tell. Weisberg spent some time interviewing women playwrights and their perspectives on the gender parity within the world of theater. One particularly problematic question that came up was “Do you think women writers tell different stories than men writers?” Though Weisberg starts to unpack why this question is problematic, I’d like to elaborate.
When Weisberg asked this question, she got a wide range of answers–everything from “Yes. Yes, women do tell different stories than men writers” to “No. Women do not tell different stories than men writers.” This is a hard question. As many high school humanities teachers would say, “There’s no right answer.” Except, no. That’s not exactly it. Instead of there being no right answers, every answer feels like a wrong one. If you say “Yes, women do tell different stories,” you are passing a judgment on the types of stories that women are capable of writing. How exactly are these stories different from the ones that men write? They’re more feminine? They handle touchy issues with more grace? They’re just as good, but in a “different way?” That’s bull. I’ve seen men write complex and full female characters, because they know that their female characters are people; I’ve seen men write flat vapid women because they don’t realize that their female characters are people–either that, or they’re just bad writers. The same is true of women. No one has seemed to put boundaries on the type of stories men can write, so why should we try to put boundaries on the type of stories women can write. Herein lies the problem with the opposite answer to the question. Say you answer, “No. Women do not tell different stories than men writers.” It sounds a whole lot like gender doesn’t matter. It is not important in storytelling. Except, there is no way that is true. Though someone’s gender does not define them (or the types of stories they tell), their gender (identity and presentation) does affect the way they experience the world. Suzan-Lori Parks explained it best when she said, “I am an African-American woman–this is the form I take, my content predicates my form, and this form is inseparable from my content. No way could I be me otherwise.” (The Elements of Style). Parks would not be herself if she was not an African American woman, and she would not write the stories she writes if she was not herself. Her gender influences her, and thus, it influences her stories. If we erase gender, we erase an important piece of the process of creation. So in that regard, we have to admit that men and women tell different stories.
And there it is. One of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situations. Every answer is wrong. It would seem that the question is so flawed that we must disregard it entirely. Yet, that would be the worst answer of all. If we threw away the question, we would be throwing away our recognition of the gender parity. We would stop caring about the fact that (in the words of Emma Weisberg) “the gender disparity is our current reality. Racial disparity, ethnic disparity, economic disparity, disparity for those who identify as anything other than cisgender: all of these are our current realities.” The minute we stop caring that this is our current reality, we lose. And the entire theater community loses too. So we must continue to try to answer these unanswerable questions, working through the endless wrong answers, until the day there is no parity, the day where women are equally represented, where gender non-conforming individuals are equally represented. But until then, we should follow Weisberg’s lead; we should ask if women writers tell different stories from male writers.