Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Streetcar Named Bite Me

When I first began my playwrights group, NYCPlaywrights, I advertised it as a group for liberals. The first couple of years I paid for the meeting space myself, which is mighty expensive in Manhattan, and I did not want to give any conservatives a free ride.

I soon gave it up, because to have such a stricture meant I would have to give prospective members a test to weed out the right-wingers, and that would have been a pain in the ass and would have turned me into some kind of commissar. And besides, plenty of people who think of themselves as liberals carry some appallingly regressive attitudes around in their heads, especially about gender roles.

Harvard psychology professor Elizabeth Spelke has documented the sexism of people who consider themselves enlightened and fair-minded. She mentioned it in her debate with evolutionary psychology proponent Steven Pinker:
I will give you one last version of a gender-labeling study. This one hits particularly close to home. The subjects in the study were people like Steve and me: professors of psychology, who were sent some vitas to evaluate as applicants for a tenure track position. Two different vitas were used in the study. One was a vita of a walk-on-water candidate, best candidate you've ever seen, you would die to have this person on your faculty. The other vita was a middling, average vita among successful candidates. For half the professors, the name on the vita was male, for the other half the name was female. People were asked a series of questions: What do you think about this candidate's research productivity? What do you think about his or her teaching experience? And finally, Would you hire this candidate at your university?

For the walk-on-water candidate, there was no effect of gender labeling on these judgments. I think this finding supports Steve's view that we're dealing with little overt discrimination at universities. It's not as if professors see a female name on a vita and think, I don't want her. When the vita's great, everybody says great, let's hire.

What about the average successful vita, though: that is to say, the kind of vita that professors most often must evaluate? In that case, there were differences. The male was rated as having higher research productivity. These psychologists, Steve's and my colleagues, looked at the same number of publications and thought, "good productivity" when the name was male, and "less good productivity" when the name was female. Same thing for teaching experience. The very same list of courses was seen as good teaching experience when the name was male, and less good teaching experience when the name was female. In answer to the question would they hire the candidate, 70% said yes for the male, 45% for the female. If the decision were made by majority rule, the male would get hired and the female would not.

A couple other interesting things came out of this study. The effects were every bit as strong among the female respondents as among the male respondents. Men are not the culprits here. There were effects at the tenure level as well. At the tenure level, professors evaluated a very strong candidate, and almost everyone said this looked like a good case for tenure. But people were invited to express their reservations, and they came up with some very reasonable doubts. For example, "This person looks very strong, but before I agree to give her tenure I would need to know, was this her own work or the work of her adviser?" Now that's a perfectly reasonable question to ask. But what ought to give us pause is that those kinds of reservations were expressed four times more often when the name was female than when the name was male.

So there's a pervasive difference in perceptions, and I think the difference matters. Scientists' perception of the quality of a candidate will influence the likelihood that the candidate will get a fellowship, a job, resources, or a promotion. A pattern of biased evaluation therefore will occur even in people who are absolutely committed to gender equity.

No member of NYCPlaywrights is a raging misogynist, as far as I can tell, but it’s clear that some of them have gender-role concepts that are informed by attitudes from about the middle of the 20th century. Especially by Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire.

In case you don’t know the plot of Streetcar, I’ll sum it up: Blanche Dubois and her sister Stella were once Southern belles. But they lost their money and so had to depend on the kindness of strangers. Stella gets married to a lower-class lug and Blanche has sexual adventures. As a result, Blanche is a social leper, and has to go and live with Stella and her husband Stanley Kowalski. Soon Stanley gets fed up with Blanche and once he finds out about her sexual past, rapes her, which causes her to go nuts. In the last scene she’s carted off to a looney bin, with Stella refusing to believe Blanche’s story about being raped.

Blanche does make one attempt to create a new life for herself before the assault – she tries to get Mitch, a schlubby friend of Stanley to marry her. But then Stanley clues him in to Blanche’s past. So Mitch dumps Blanche. He doesn’t mind that she’s so very old – the same age as he is, around 30 – but she’s not a good girl and so he won’t marry her. He does offer to have sex with her though.

Academic types like to make a big deal out of Southern gentility versus cold modern cruelty as the theme of this play. They ignore that fact that the play contains the greatest hits of male supremacy – female economic dependence, domestic violence, sexual double-standards and unreported rapes. Without those things, there could be no A Streetcar Named Desire. Thirty-year-old women aren’t considered washed up old maids any more who have to grab the first man who will have them, be he ever so unsavory. Women have options in the 21st century that have changed gender power dynamics forever. Everybody knows this.

Or so I thought.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the NYCPlaywrights members had a reading of his play, in which one of the characters was a woman pushing 30. She’s living in an apartment of a building owned by her uncle. Her boyfriend is a cab driver. She doesn’t like to have sex with him, she doesn’t think his jokes are funny any more, and he’s an all-around big jerk. But she’s considering adopting a baby with him, because she’s pushing 30 and she has to settle down. And mind you, this is in the same play where a male character in his 60s is trying to get it on with an 18-year-old woman. At the beginning of the feedback session, I asked if the play was set in the present, dreading the answer because I knew what it would be. Yes, it was set in the present.

I lit into the playwright pretty strongly during the feedback session. I think some of the people in the group disapproved of me because the playwright is pretty old.

But he asked for feedback, and so he got it. That’s how it works at NYCPlaywrights.

OK, so it’s a fluke right? One old guy has not reconsidered gender roles since the 1950s. Except that exactly one week later, another guy, younger than the first one, but still over 50, does a reading of his play in which a woman pushing 30 meets a man who she thinks is unattractive, and who has been rude and obnoxious to her for the entire 10 minute play, and decides that she’d better settle for him, since she’s, you know, so old and desperate.

But even worse than the play was the reaction on the part of some of the other people in the room, who were under 50. Under 40 in some cases. They saw the play as one in which the woman “wins” because she gets the last word at the end - an internal monologue about how she has to settle for this creep. And when I vehemently disagreed, one of them says “yes Nancy, we know you think this play is sexist” in this exasperated tone. As if I’m crazy for thinking the play is sexist. Or I’m annoying for making a big deal about the sexism.

Apparently a woman wins if at the end of the play she hasn’t experienced total humiliating defeat - like being raped by her brother-in-law and getting carted off to an asylum.

Maybe the refusal to incorporate the reality of female economic independence, the growth of female aspirations and an upgrade in the concept of female success into dramatic works is part of Patriarchy’s last hurrah, along with evolutionary psychology. If women can’t be persuaded by the likes of Steven Pinker and Lawrence Summers that they are genetically inferior or are not sufficiently interested to succeed in some fields, then perhaps we can pretend that women still believe they must settle for any creep they meet once they get to their sell-by date.

The Japanese have a term for it, “Christmas cake” on the theory that Christmas cakes aren't worth much after the 25th, and neither are women. Perhaps we should be grateful that the age has been pushed to 30 in the West.

Well I’m 45, it’s the 21st century, and anybody who thinks I should settle for the first creepy old loser who comes along can bite me.

UPDATE: Interesting blog post about the power of plays to influence gender attitudes