Playwright Julia Jordan pointed me toward a recent study about perceptions of male and female playwrights that showed that plays with female protagonists were the most devalued in blind readings. “The exact same play that had a female protagonist was rated far higher when the readers thought it had a male author,” Jordan said. “In fact, one of the questions on the blind survey was about the characters ‘likability,’and the exact same female character, same lines, same pagination, when written by a man was exceeding likable, when written by a woman was deemed extremely unlikable.”
So how do we strip away our prejudice? First, we have to see prejudice. The top prizes’ discrimination against women has been largely ignored. We can’t ignore it any longer. PW hasn’t yet owned up. Neither has the Pulitzer committee — though there’s hope. This year’s Pulitzer for fiction went to a woman (Elizabeth Strout) writing about — of all things — a woman (“Olive Kitteridge”).
What are the best books? The answer is always subjective, and I’m not a literary arbiter. But the message I received from this year’s lists was painfully familiar. It forced me to explain to my students — the next generation of writers — that the men in the class have double if not five times the chance of this kind of recognition. I’ll hand over the statistics and explain that an industry kept afloat by women is sexist. I’ll confess to my own sexism. And I’ll tell them that we have failed, but they don’t have to.
This is, unfortunately all true. And weird. How about that likeability thing? What, all women characters are shrews until Tom Stoppard gets his hands on them?