What’s In A Name, Anyway?

In May 2010, when Elena Kagan was nominated to the Supreme Court, it became clear to me that names really matter. Justice Kagan and I are not, to my knowledge, related. But with her name plastered all over the media, I quickly found out how advantageous it can be to have a “famous” name. I was moving at the time, and as every New Yorker knows, there is nothing more treacherous and dog-eat-dog than apartment hunting…unless your surname is trending on Twitter. For a short, bizarre window, I got excited return calls from landlords who wanted to rent to me thinking they’d get bragging rights that the newest Supreme Court Justice’s cousin lives in 2A.

Once the frenzy of Justice Kagan’s appointment died down, life as a Kagan went back to normal. But in the years since, I have often reflected back on that experience and wondered if I would find continued benefits to my [coincidental] last name if I were a lawyer or aspiring judge. Or, perhaps better yet, what would it be like if I shared a last name with someone who was famous in my field? For example, what if I happened to have the name Mya Kushner? What about Mya Pinter or Mya Vogel? If you were reading play submissions, and you came across one with the name Mya Albee, you have to admit it would at least catch your attention, and it may consciously or otherwise influence your feelings about the script just a little bit.


What would it be like if I coincidentally shared a last name with someone who was famous in my field? 


What I’m saying is: names matter. I’m not saying that’s my preference, but as much as we can try to avoid bias, there are countless studies documenting that it often happens anyway. Take, for example, the well-known study “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?”, in which companies in Boston and Chicago were found to treat job applicants with common African American names differently than applicants with common white names. In the study, even the Equal Opportunity Employers—companies who were making a concerted effort to hire minorities—demonstrated a bias against resumes with the names Lakisha Washington and Jamal Jones.

dreamstime_xl_52741126 creditsIn the field of writing, there are countless examples of pen names chosen for these very sorts of reasons; I am by no means the inventor of the concept of “submitting like a man.” George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) is an example that comes to mind immediately. J.K. Rowling famously uses initials, evidently so boys would not be deterred from reading her books. And the list goes on: P.L. Travers (Pamela Lyndon Travers), George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin), E.L. James (Erika Leonard). In a way, writers are lucky because in other fields, the choice to take on a different identity is more involved. For example, Dr. James Barry, a British medical school graduate who was as a distinguished physician in South Africa in the early 1800’s, was found after his death to have been a woman, Margaret Ann Bulkley, who had been living in disguise for over forty years.

I have been asked by a lot of people if I am going to submit my new work as Max or return to using my real name, and I feel torn about it. I am very proud of and attached to my name. But the reality is we have a long way to go until we truly stop judging a book by its cover, or perhaps I should say, an author by her name.

Sometimes I think about the idea that all women writers could take on ambiguous or male names, and we could be done with this discrimination once and for all. But a big part of me hates this idea. Women shouldn’t be the ones who have to changethe people with bias should be the ones to change. For women to change names feels like a concession or a workaround; it doesn’t treat the problem at its root, and it feels wrong on principle. Yes, many groups seeking assimilation have historically turned to names as a way of achieving integration. But why should we have to deny our identities or heritage? It feels like a slippery slope to the end of diversity, where everyone is named off a repetitive list of five bland monikers.


The reality is we have a long way to go until we truly stop judging a book by its cover, or perhaps I should say, an author by her name.


Yet at the same time, women forming a movement and changing names together sounds really empowering. I see it as a brilliant coup to the discriminators, some sort of modern-day Lysistrata that swaps out withholding sex from men for withholding identity from the industry, where the women come together and take a stand. Huzzah!

Ultimately, a change of my own name is what I’m currently planning to do. Not a full-on male name, but initials or a gender-ambiguous pen name. I am tired and frustrated and ready to be treated equally now, and even if it’s a shortcut, I might not be here by the time things finally change.

Also, just because I pick the workaround and use a different name doesn’t mean I can’t simultaneously work to treat the problem at its root. Maybe some day men will want to “submit like a woman” so they can be taken more seriously, and we’ll have Buzzfeed lists for “Ten Male Writers Who Got Published by Using Female Names.” Fear not, I’d never actually propose to counter discrimination of one group with discrimination of another. What I really want to see is a list called “Ten Writers Who Got Published Without Having to Change Their Name to Disguise Gender or Demographics.” It would make terrible clickbait, but it would make me so happy.

Hey, a girl can dream.

Originally published on Howlround.

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Max Gets Mail (The First Response Is In)

When people first find out about Submitting Like A Man, their reaction is almost always an expression of excitement, quickly followed by, “I can’t wait for your results!” Ah, yes, results. “Have you heard back from any of the submissions yet?? Will you tell us when you have? Do you think they’re going to be depressing?” Well, wait no longer. The first response is in, and I’ll tell you what it is, just as soon as you read the other things I want to say first.

First and foremost, let me take this opportunity to remind you that I know this project is totally, completely non-scientific. You will notice I use the word “project” instead of “experiment,” and that’s intentional. I consider SLAM to be art, not science; it’s a lens I’m using to examine an experience, not a set of quantifiable data coming out of a controlled environment.

woman-157445_640Bearing that disclaimer in mind, there are several “interpretations” that can be made based on the responses Max gets to his submissions over the course of the coming months.

If Max is marginally more successful than me, then it’s my opinion that there isn’t a lot to glean. Since this is so non-scientific, I feel it’s safe to assume that a small disparity is just random chance. A friend of mine disagrees with this reasoning, and believes any discrepancy between Max and I is significant, since it’ll mean someone said yes to him even though they passed on me. I think there are too many other factors at play to make anything of it in that situation.

That brings up the next scenario: What if Max is wildly more successful than me? I hear from a lot of people who simultaneously want Max to succeed more than me because it will make a [non-scientific] point, yet also do not want him to be more successful than me because it would be depressing.


I hear from a lot of people who simultaneously want Max to succeed because it will make a [non-scientific] point, yet also do not want him to be more successful than me because it would be depressing.


In my opinion, if Max were to be clearly, distinctly more successful than me, it would indicate this business needs to take a long, hard look at itself. Maybe there would be viral outrage (#DownWithMax), and maybe things would change for the better. For example, perhaps we’d create an industry standard requiring blind submissions, as many people have been advocating for years, and which famously worked wonders for orchestra musicians. That kind of progress would be great, although since we’ve been calling for change in theatre, TV, and film for a long time and not much has happened, it may be too optimistic.

What I think would actually be the worst about this outcome—Max being wildly more successful than I—would be the unavoidable feeling for me (and by extension many others too, I imagine) that I have seemingly been discriminated against. It will imply I’ve lost years of experience and opportunity that could have furthered my career, and it will be hard not to feel angry and cheated.

The final scenario, of course, is that Max may end up being equally or less successful than I have been. If Max is no more successful than I, it could be interpreted as a sign that I don’t need to worry my rejections ever necessarily had anything to do with my gender. But this outcome has a catch, because it means SLAM isn’t showing a gender bias—my writing just isn’t good enough.

You may think I hate the idea of that outcome, but it’s actually not something that would bother me; I am already accustomed to how tough it is to make it as a writer, and I’d happily accept that my writing isn’t good enough if it means I can confidently feel I’ve been treated fairly. If Max’s success rate is on par with my own, I can proceed with my life as a writer feeling that my gender is respected and equal, at least in the scope of this project.


The comments and messages I’ve received from men and women alike indicate that we, on the whole, are eager to follow this journey because we more or less expect Max to get different responses than I did.


So, are you ready to hear what happened with Max’s first response?

He was rejected. Just like me.

You’re probably not sure if you should “yay” or “boo.” In a way, although I would’ve loved an acceptance for the program that rejected him, it’s kind of the best rejection I’ve ever gotten, because it was a win for fairness.

Beyond this actual response and its happy/sad duality, what I think speaks volumes more is not the outcome itself, but the conversation growing around it. As I’ve spoken about in Thank You for Not Being Trolls, I have been so pleasantly surprised at how well SLAM has been received. Aside from a few dissenters who aren’t on board with the project because it’s not scientific enough, the comments and messages I’ve received from men and women alike indicate that we, on the whole, are eager to follow this journey because we more or less expect Max to get different responses than I did. It’s almost shocking—we live in a world where it’s normal, perhaps even obvious, to think there would be a difference in acceptance of the exact same piece of writing when it has a male versus female name.

We should live in and strive for a world where this project would be pointless. But from the feedback I’ve gotten, we don’t think it’s pointless. Even the dissenters agree there’s a point to be made. To me, it’s this conversation, and the cognizance of and agreement about this subject, that says more than any actual results ever could.

Originally published on Howlround.

Gimme Your Ten Cents (Opinions Wanted)

On principle, I don’t submit scripts to opportunities that require a submission fee. While still a student, I was strongly (and smartly) advised to never submit to anything that requested money, and I have remained thankful for that advice ever since. A writer could go broke paying submission fees, and what’s more, it should be a theatre or organization’s pleasure to read our work. Yes, it requires time and resources on their end, but that burden should not be passed along to the writer; we’re no more suited to handle that financial strain than they are.

business-money-pink-coinsPostage and printing costs aside, I have never in nine years paid a submission fee, no matter how little the fee or how awesome the opportunity.

Here’s the dilemma:

There’s a deadline towards the end of this week for one of Max’s resubmissions. It’s for a fairly good short play festival put on annually by a prominent organization, and I have submitted to it more than once as myself. Turns out that in the years since I last applied, they now require a submission fee.

The amount they are asking is nominal, but this organization is well-known and I find it hard to believe they’re too strapped for cash to otherwise fund the application process (for reading SHORT plays, mind you). What’s more, they are one of these festivals where, if accepted, you are expected to self-produce and mount your entire production, footing all the costs for props, costumes, AEA transportation reimbursement, and rehearsal space. I’ve done these sorts of festivals before, and if I’m lucky, it costs me only $200—often more—to do even the most basic production. And in the case of this festival, there isn’t any sort of stipend, shared ticket money, or even prize money being offered. For a well-established organization to ask for a submission fee for this type of opportunity is like rubbing salt in the wound; this was already a really raw deal.

Normally, I’d run screaming in the opposite direction from this sort of submission. But…the project. I want Max to reapply to as many of my previous submission opportunities as possible. A part of me feels like the fee is nominal, and I’d be paying it for the sake of the project, and I should just suck it up and pay it. Yet at the same time, giving my money feels so wrong, and I don’t want to support the notion that it’s okay to charge writers for submissions. Plus, Max is only applying to things that I, myself, would apply toand I’d never apply to this (not under these circumstances).

So, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think submission fees are justified? Do you hate submission fees but think I should pay it, just this one time, since it’s nominal and for the sake of SLAM? Or do you think Principles Above All, and that by charging a fee this submission op has disqualified itself from being part of the project?

Leave your ideas in the comments below, or get at me on Twitter @theSLAMblog using #MaxMustApply or #SaveYourMoneyMax.

Am I Man Enough?

In order to launch Submitting Like A Man and begin resubmitting my scripts as a dude, one of the first things I had to do was create my alternate male self, who I’m calling Max. Max isn’t the real name I’m using, but I can’t blow his cover and reveal the actual pseudonym; the only person who knows it is my partner of eight years, and that’s because he’s the one who came up with it.

As a playwright, I am basically a professional character developer, so before I could do anything, I had to get my head around who this person was. On one hand, I felt the need to make Max as realistic as possible, and for him to truly be a realistic man, there were things about him that inherently seemed like they would have to be different from me. On the other hand, I felt obligated to maintain integrity to this project’s main concept—that the only differing factor between Max and I would be the gender a person would assume based on name.

Mya Typing

In case the bold text wasn’t a giveaway, I ended up settling on the latter. As I’ve discussed before, this project is far from scientific. Since there are many factors that I can’t control, I decided I should keep steady whatever components I could, and Max should be exactly like me, with no differences except for his name and the gender it implied. Creating a personality for Max would have been too much like creating a fake person and not enough like me working under what is essentially a pen name.

Max also needed to be exactly like me because it was important for him to maintain all my same demographics, other than gender. Just like me, Max would be 31 years old, white, heterosexual, and Jewish. Submitting Like A Man is about examining what happens when the gender changes—not a free-for-all way to make myself eligible for every competition out there. Max will not suddenly become Latino or gay just so he can apply to a festival meant for Latino or LGBT writers. Max is only applying to things that I am eligible to apply to as myself.

After SLAM launched, I heard from a lot of men who admitted they had been tempted to change their names and apply as women so they could be eligible for female-only opportunities (my impression is that none had actually acted on the temptation). It’s my opinion that it would be unfair to change my name in order to gain entry to something for which I otherwise would not be eligible. In fact, Max is excluded from some of the opportunities on my list I am eligible for as a woman. So in those cases, I had a foot in the door that Max does not. (Take that, fake alternate male self!)


Even though Max may write like me, think like me, and interact with the world like me, the world’s response back to him is different than mine.


What’s been interesting to discover is that, even though I chose to make Max identical to me, being him does not feel the same as being my regular self. Take Max’s Twitter, for example. Yes, that’s right—Max has his own Twitter, which means I now administer three Twitter handles: @Mya_Mya for myself, @theSLAMblog for this project, and @HaHaYouThoughtI’dTellYou for Max. (See what I did there?) What’s been unusual about managing Max’s Twitter is that for the first time in my life, I’m on the flip side of targeted marketing. Instead of Real Simple Magazine and fashion blogs, Twitter suggests that Max should follow sports, finance, and business. So even though Max may write like me, think like me, and interact with the world like me, the world’s response back to him is different than mine. And even though it’s no secret that there are ways in which men and women are treated differently (especially in marketing), it’s bizarre and somewhat enlightening to actually experience it from the other side.

The other notable experience is that even though—or perhaps, because—Max is exactly like me, I sometimes find that I resent him. For example, if I stay up late finishing a submission he’s sending out, I grumble; it feels a little like doing someone else’s homework. What’s more, it feels like doing someone else’s homework when you expect that person to get an A even though you already turned in the same assignment and got a B. Obviously that’s a generalization that works on the assumption Max will be more successful than me, which will not necessarily be true, but considering the statistics that around 80% of shows produced in the US are written by men, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Max will have a better shot at this than I did. Think about it: his qualifications are identical to mine—no more, no less—and yet he stands a four in five chance of being produced, whereas I had a one in five chance.


Max’s qualifications are identical to mine—no more, no less—and yet he stands a four in five chance of being produced, whereas I had a one in five chance.



Does this mean I resent all male writers for their four in five chance? Of course not. Their scripts are different than mine, so their chances are also different because of their plots and characters and word choices. But in Max’s case, his plots and characters and word choices are exactly the same and yet, at least statistically speaking, his script is four times more likely than mine to be produced. And what did Max to do increase his odds so dramatically? Nothing. Just change the name on the cover.

In moments like that, I have to remind myself that Max is on the side of gender parity. Like me, he supports efforts to create equal opportunities for men and women alike. But for now, he’ll be here, submitting like a man.

Originally published on Howlround.

Thank You For Not Being Trolls

Thus far, I have been pleasantly surprised and really quite flattered by the responses to Submitting Like A Man. In the days leading up to the launch, I had become quite nervous about how the project would be received. It pushes some buttons on a sensitive issue, and it’s no secret to me that there are many people in the world who hate button pushers, especially when it’s women doing things that invoke the F-word (feminism). I mean, I’ve seen the episode of Last Week Tonight about Online Harassment, and beyond that, have lived for 31 years in a world where I can hardly so much as walk out the door in sweatpants without being catcalled. All that’s to say that I know very well the variety of scenarios in which women are harassed, and was concerned that my project would incite it.


Isn’t it sad that I had to consider I might be harassed for conducting a project that examines a seeming gender bias?


So I’ve been holding my breath about the launch of this project, basically assuming I’d get a bunch of misogynistic hate mail. But it’s now been ten days since the project launched, and so far, I am happy to say—and honestly, quite floored—that I have had no trolls!

David King Flickr Troll(Trolls: If you’ve been hiding, please don’t take this as an opportunity to step forward. Maybe you’re over there thinking, “I thought Dave was on this one! He was supposed to send a bunch of emails with pejorative terms for women and a some pictures of his junk.” I am NOT complaining. If Dave forgot, just sit this one out.)

But let’s talk for a minute about what it means that I was so prepared to be on the receiving end of hate (and for the purposes of this article, I am conflating things like trolling, harassment, hate mail, and so on). Even if it didn’t end up happening, isn’t it sad that I had to consider I might be harassed for conducting a project that examines a seeming gender bias? As if it’s not bad enough that there is a seeming gender bias, and my fellow female writers and I are only about 20% of all produced work—on top of that, to add insult to injury, I should also reasonably worry that if I speak up about it, I will have to deal with hate mail. In fact, I was so prepared to be hated that I apprehensively checked my spam boxes several times on the first night of the blog’s launch, like peeking under the lid of a Tupperware filled with old soup that you just know is going to be moldy and chunky and rank, which just has to get poured down the sink so you can be rid of it.


I was so prepared to be hated that I apprehensively checked my spam boxes several times on the first night of the blog’s launch.


And yes, I did get a few messages that were defensive or negative. There were the comments insisting, despite the studies cited in my post, that there isn’t an industry discrepancy between male and female writers, and those declaring that my project was some sort of illegality or corruption (even though it’s just the well-established practice of using a pen-name). But even then, the messages were mostly polite, and even those that weren’t were at least totally, completely non-threatening. So does that mean my concern about being harassed was misguided or an over reaction? Or was my concern legit, and I avoided it simply because I’m lucky? It’s food for thought; obviously we can’t know the answer.

Now, bear with me for a minute while I get meta and talk about this post itself.

I wrote the first draft of this post in the wee hours of late Sunday night January 10th, right after the blog launched, as a reaction to the surprise I felt to the positive response. I have been sitting on it since then, chewing over whether or not to publish it, because I wondered if perhaps posting it invited the exact kind of harassment I was so excited to have avoided. And then the next morning, David Bowie died, and among all the great sound bites and remembrances, The Daily Show aired this wonderful clip of Bowie saying: “If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just at the right place to do something exciting.” And so I release this post to you with Bowie’s wisdom and my feet not quite touching the bottom.


“If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just at the right place to do something exciting.”


However, I would be remiss to give all the credit for my decision to David Bowie alone because a huge part of my experience these past ten days was also the supporters. So, so many supporters—real human people I know, real human people I once knew and now see around on social media, and real human people who are total strangers. The outpouring of support was fantastic, and I am so grateful to everyone who read, followed, shared, and commented. You have helped me find renewed courage, and I am so thankful.

In fact, one supporter who appears to be a Facebook friend-of-a-friend summarized quite well the overall sentiment of the initial launch: “Love the experiment, but can’t wait for the day when dudes have to submit as a woman to be accepted or taken more seriously.”

And that, ladies and gentleman, is why I am doing this.

So thank you for not being trolls. Now please re-read that sentence, and this time, sing it to the tune of the Golden Girls theme song.

You’re welcome and goodnight.

 

Manning Up

Strap on your balls and grow some chest hair: For the next year, I will be submitting like a man—resubmitting every script I have written, but under a man’s name.

Let me explain.

From the day I graduated NYU nine years ago with a shiny new BFA in Dramatic Writing, I started submitting plays. There are many ways one can build a resume as a playwright, and submitting to calls for scripts was the one I chose. A few months in, I started keeping a list of all the submissions I was doing. Part organization, part paranoia—I wanted to have a record of where I’d sent my stuff.


I started wondering what my career would be like if I had an indiscernible name. Would I have been more successful if my gender was uncertain? Or better yet—would I have been more successful if people straight-up thought I was a dude?


Fast forward to today, and that list is 117 entries long. The majority is submissions to theatres, theatre companies, and festivals. A handful (especially recently) is submissions to TV networks’ writing programs. All of them are submissions sent in response to open calls for scripts; none of them are works I sent unsolicited, and it doesn’t count anything sent to someone I know or a friend-of-a-friend who was looking for plays.

Woman at typewriter

Here are the results: About 10% of the scripts on the list have been accepted, 5% have been semi-finalists or “almosts,” and 85% were rejections. That may sound grim, but this business is a numbers game.

Or so I’ve always assumed.

Over the past few years, I have been increasingly disheartened by the statistics on women in theatre and TV. The exact number varies from study to study, but they all come in around 20%. That’s right – 51% of the population in the US is women, but only about 20% of our writers in theatre and TV are female. Wanna see the data for yourself? Read The Count from the Dramatists Guild, or American Theatre’s article that aptly likens statistics on women writers to the old “Really?!?” bit from SNL’s Weekend Update. And if those aren’t enough to convince you, Women in Arts & Media Coalition has a whole list of depressing studies, as does WomenArts.


51% of the population in the US is women, but only about 20% of our writers in theatre and TV are female.


With all these numbers reminding me that my industry sees and treats me as inferior to my male counterpart, I started wondering what my career would be like if I had an indiscernible name. What if I was a Jordan or a Morgan? Or what if I was an unfamiliar foreign name, like Sizwe or Hideyoshi? Would I have been more successful if my gender was uncertain? Or better yet—would I have been more successful if people straight-up thought I was a dude?

Enter “Submitting Like a Man”—One year in which I take all the rejected scripts on my list, and resubmit them using a man’s name.

For convenience sake, we’ll call my new male self Max Kines. That’s not the name I’m actually using (the real name, of course, will have to be kept secret), but it’s in the same vein as the name of choice, by which I mean, the name keeps me in the same demographic as my real self (white and Jewish) with the exception, of course, of gender.


The name keeps me in the same demographic as my real self…with the exception, of course, of gender.


Everything else about Max is the same as me. Max is 31 years old, and a New Yorker of 13 years. Like mine, Max’s work is presented with adjectives like smart, lively, and deliciously absurd. Max went to NYU, has a professional website akin to my own, has a Twitter handle, and has the same resume as me. For the sake of tricking Google, the titles of each script have been changed, but the content of each script—the actual words on the page—remain the same. Oh, and Max loves summer, hates grapefruit, and is definitely a Democrat.

There is more to all of this—rules and guidelines I’ve set up for how it will work—which I’ll elaborate on at greater length in a forthcoming post. Of course, despite all the structure I have given to this project, I do acknowledge this experiment is far from scientific. Although I am submitting the scripts to the same places, I can’t control for pretty much anything else at all – I will be amongst a different applicant pool, at a time when any given organization will be looking for different things than before, and in all likelihood will be evaluated by a different set of readers. There is nothing in this that will “prove” anything, it’s just a project that I am conducting out of curiosity.

I know there are many more questions that I’ve not yet addressed. What do I hope to gain? What will I do if Max is accepted? What’s in a name, anyway? Stay with me, and I promise they’ll be answered.

Originally published on Howlround.

Birthing SLAM: A Timeline

Early 2015: The idea for Submitting Like A Man starts swimming around in my head. By the spring, I am putting out feelers with fellow writers and artists whose opinions I trust: What do you think of this idea? People are into it.

Early Summer 2015: I design all the parameters of how this project would work. For example, deciding that my alternate male self needs to have all the same demographics as me (age, race, religion, etc.) with the exception, of course, of gender. *All the guidelines will be detailed in greater length in a future post.

Mid-Summer 2015: I cross-check all 117 entries from the original list of my own submissions, and make a master list for SLAM of the opportunities that are still running and when they will have their next deadline. As it turns out, cross-checking an Excel with 117 lines of data is a lot of work.

During this time, I also establish my alternate male self, “Max.” As it turns out, creating a fake person is as much work as cross-checking an Excel with 117 lines of data.

Flickr ArtByChrysti credits


September 1, 2015: Max begins sending out his first submissions, to continue over the course of one year (Sep. 1, 2015 – Aug. 31, 2016), running on the same calendar as most theatre seasons. I also begin notes and drafts of various blog posts.

Fall 2015: Max continues sending submissions, with the blog side of the project waiting until closer to the time when I will start hearing back about Max’s applications.

January 2016: SLAM launches here at submittinglikeaman.com, a domain name that I was surprised was still available and never thought I would own.

Remainder of 2016: Max will continue sending out submissions through the end of August. The blog will post regular updates about what the responses are like, continuing through the end of the year or whenever the last replies roll in. People will talk about the weather, someone will claim to have trapped Bigfoot, and smartphones will continue to take over our lives. This paragraph was written using my fortune-telling crystal ball. #future