The Plot Thickens

Today, I’m ready to say something a lot of people have been asking me while simultaneously hoping-and-not-hoping I would say: Based on my experience in SLAM, I think it’s more advantageous to be a man.

That, of course, is my opinion, and it’s related solely to my undertaking of resubmitting my previously-rejected work under a male pseudonym. I consider this project to be not a science experiment, but an art project—a lens through which I am examining the world. And this conclusion, that there’s a male advantage, is one I’ve been reluctant to make, having waited to say it until I felt “sure.” But I’m saying it today because what I’m seeing through my lens tells me more and more that people are kinder and more encouraging to men, and more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt. As a “man,” I have seen that my work and I come with an automatic level of authority and prowess, the type of credit that, as a woman, I have to fight to be given.

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Until recently, I had only received one differing result to Max’s work, in which Max was named a finalist and sent a kind, encouraging letter, while I’d received a template rejection for the exact same submission a few years prior. Today, I add two similar responses to the list.

The first is an opportunity that has asked Max to advance to the next stage, with the winners still to be determined. When I originally applied, I was not invited to the next stage, which involves submitting some basic additional materials, so seemingly Max’s status is something quite different.

I say “seemingly” because with Max’s successes, it’s my instinct to weigh all the factors in an attempt to assess whether there has been bias or differing treatment. And certainly that scrutiny is a part of administering this project. But at the same time if I, as Mya, applied two years in a row to the same competition, and advanced to the next stage the second year but not the first, I wouldn’t doubt whether I accomplished something or make a What If list (What if the competition opened up its second stage to a larger number of people this year? What if there were different readers? What if zombies ate the brains of this organization’s staff?)—I’d just do a little happy dance, and be excited about making the cut. And so it’s after a year of seeing all these nuanced ways in which Max fares better than me that I’m ready to just say, I think there was some bias here.

The other factor in the Bias Column is that the plays for this particular opportunity all have to fit a certain theme, which is the same now as it was when I applied. But the play that Max and I each respectively sent is a play I’ve always thought was a bit of a stretch for the theme. So for Max to still be in the running seems slightly more significant in light of that, because there are all sorts of numbers about how women will only apply to jobs if they’re 100 percent qualified, while men will give it a shot even if they’re only 60 percent qualified. But maybe there’s a degree to which a man who meets 60 percent of the criteria is still considered quite qualified, while a woman is not extended that same courtesy unless she meets 100 percent of it. And if that were true, then maybe Max fared better because his submission can speak to a portion of the theme and still remain in the running, while mine cannot.


As a “man,” I have seen that my work and I come with an automatic level of authority and prowess, the type of credit that, as a woman, I have to fight to be given.



The other recent differing result that Max got is a rejection letter that was distinct in its niceness
. This newest letter was notable because it was even more distinctly encouraging than the other encouraging rejection I mentioned previously.

I have applied to this competition twice as Mya, and both years, I received template rejection letters nearly identical to each other, following the standard three-paragraph form of most rejection letters: (1) Thanks for applying! (2) Sorry, we can’t offer you a spot! (3) It was nifty getting to know your work, so keep in touch, follow us on Twitter, and don’t be mad that we’ve automatically added you to our mailing list!

Max’s letter, however, was different. I pulled up both of my past rejections to compare them to his, and even had a close friend send me the one she got from this organization on the same day Max got his.

Unlike both of my past letters and my friend’s from this year (all three of which were identical save a word or two), Max’s letter was sprinkled with special nuggets of encouragement. Where the usual letter said, “Thank you for submitting your play,” Max’s letter said, “Thank you so much for submitting your play.” Where the usual letter said, “We can’t offer you a spot,” Max’s said, “We can’t offer you a spot because our decisions were really super extra challenging and we had to reject more people than we wanted to.” (“It’s not you, it’s me.”) Where the usual letter said, “Stay in touch,” Max’s said, “Stay closely in touch and be sure to submit again!

But above and beyond those, Max got an entirely new added paragraph whose sole purpose was to let him know how great he was. The paragraph gushed about all the enthusiasm Max’s play had inspired and let him know earnestly about the passionate dialogue the play created among the readers. He had truly enlightened them and hit on something special with his meaningful work, and it was important to them—really important—to let him know it.


To finally get some affirmation, after almost a decade, that I wasn’t totally wrong in feeling like I’d written something special was a real heartbreak. Because I only got that affirmation by being a dude.



What’s further complicated about this situation is that the woman who runs this opportunity and heads the literary department of the organization is an acquaintance of mine. In fact, I know her because she once saw my work and reached out to tell me how much she’d like it. And that’s exactly why I’ve applied to her organization a few times. What’s also interesting is that this organizationa prominent organization that is certainly a household name among theatre artistsis a public supporter of gender parity and diversity in the arts. They’ve even tweeted their support of SLAM on several occasions. And their track record supports their position of encouraging diversity—they’ve had no lack of women and minorities among their writers and artists. So to me this suggests that even those who clearly and measurably support diversity can still be subject to bias.

I’d be lying if I claimed this didn’t hurt, perhaps more than the others. This particular play of mine has always felt like “the one that got away.” It’s had some interest here and there, but it’s never been produced, and I’ve always felt that was a shame; I think it has real substance while being funny and uniquely theatrical. I wrote it almost ten years ago so I’ve mostly given up on shopping it around, but I often think back to it fondly, wondering if maybe there was someone out there who would finally see in it what I saw in it. So to finally get some affirmation, after almost a decade, that I wasn’t totally wrong in feeling like I’d written something special was a real heartbreak. Because I only got that affirmation by being a dude. And further to that, this experience lives alongside a lifetime of sexism: being mansplained about how to stand on a subway platform; being disparagingly called “honey” at the hardware store; being passed over for dream jobs when the all-male hiring team went with the guy. It’s yet again being treated differently because of my gender. And even if all I’ve been denied was encouraging rejection letters, those are still encouraging, and in this business we can all use all the encouragement we can get. And it seems to me that men get more of it.

The final notable thing is that between the three different results Max has received, something that stands out to me is that each of these scenarios involved a different play. So it’s not this one same play that I’ve yearned to see succeed being treated differently over and over, it’s three different plays from my body of work. Meaning it’s not that I have one single script that really shines but has been held back by Big Bad Bias; it shows me that, in fact, a variety of my work is given better consideration when someone thinks it’s been written by a man. It brings me back to a conclusion I’ve made before: It doesn’t necessarily hurt to be a woman, but it does help to be a man.

Originally published on HowlRound.

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Happy Manniversary to Me

Max, like me, is on the cusp of turning 32–but this month, he’ll also celebrate turning one. That’s because it was a year ago, in July 2015, that I first “invented” him. If you’re looking for an excuse to eat a cupcake this week, Max’s first birthday is more than valid.

In my year as a “fake man,” there are many things I’ve observed, experienced, and been asked. So far no jock itch, but maybe that’s still to come. As I’ve said many times before, I feel it’s an important part of this project that Max and I be as identical as possible, except for gender. But what I’ve learned is that despite any of it, being him—actually interacting with others online and by email as a seeming man—is most certainly a different experience than being me.

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The short of it is that I’ve found being Max to be wonderfully freeing. There is a part of it that I think has nothing to do with gender; there’s something inherently freeing about simply being someone that nobody actually knows. But above and beyond the sense of anonymity, I’ve found life as Max to be freeing because as him, I feel like I have more permission to fail—not because of being a faceless pseudonym, but because as a man, my feeling is that Max already has one foot in the door on pretty much everything he does.

At this point, I am going to make an aside to say that I am not criticizing men for having advantages; what I am criticizing is the system and history and bias that has allowed it to stay that way. And I know that not all men experience advantages across the board—there are many cases in which white women (such as myself) have more of the metaphorical foot in the door over men of color, such as equal pay. And even among just white men or straight white men, it’s not like there is a universal rule of advantage; every person is unique in their makeup and experiences. But from resumes to pen names, it’s no secret that we live in a world where there are frequently advantages to being among Max’s demographic, and that’s precisely what this project is here to examine and the very reason for the invention of Max.


I’ve found life as Max to be freeing because as him, I feel like I have more permission to fail…as a man, my feeling is that Max already has one foot in the door on pretty much everything he does.


The reality of how it felt to have these new advantages did not hit me until April, when I did an interview about SLAM and was asked if I felt that Max had taken on a life of his own in any way. And as I thought over all the ways in which I was making sure Max and I were perfectly identical, it occurred to me that the one way in which we’ve become different is that I don’t worry if he shows natural flaws, which is something I try very hard not to do when it comes to myself.

I am very detail-oriented about my own professional writing endeavors, and when I prepare a script submission for myself, I usually check my spelling twice, make sure my handwriting looks nice on the envelope, and am very cautious and aware of the way it’s presented. The same goes for my website and social media presence—I’m exceedingly careful about coming across super-professional, avoiding anything that could be misunderstood or misconstrued, and having good online etiquette. It can be difficult because, as someone who primarily writes comedy, I want my style and tone to come across in everything I submit—not just scripts but also artistic statements and other such documents, but I often find myself censoring the humor for fear of not being taken seriously or looking like I don’t care.

With Max, I feel much more free, and don’t feel the need to do most (or sometimes even any) of the self-censoring or cautious checking. And it didn’t dawn on me until the April interview that the reason for that difference was my feeling and perception that people are harder on women than on menthat as a woman, I am going to be put under a microscope and judged and critiqued (conciously or otherwise) for every little “i” that’s not dotted or hashtag that isn’t hilarious. As a man, I feel less like I have to worry about these things. Again, this isn’t something measurable. I can’t “prove” that I have reason to feel this way, but when I look back at my year as Max, it’s a feeling I can’t deny. And this idea that women are more heavily judged and scrutinized and criticized than men is not something true across the board for all men and all women, but when you look at how we treat women in the public eye, it’s hard to feel otherwise.


At every corner, life as Max is easier and less intimidating than the equivalent interactions I have as myself.


So it’s interesting now, on Max’s one year “manniversary,” to realize that a huge part of this project has been living life as someone who by default gets the benefit of the doubt on almost everything. When I started SLAM, I was interested in examining how a male name might allow otherwise-rejected work to be considered in a different light. But it turns out SLAM has also been about the experience of living in a man’s shoes, even more so than I knew.

And let me tell you: It’s freeing. Not because of some trite joke about how women’s shoes are so uncomfortable, haha high heels suck, LOL emoji. But because as Max, I don’t have to worry—at least not as much—that his leadership skills will be labeled “bossiness,” or his humor will be dismissed as “silly,” or his edgy Tweet or blog post (#meta) will be met with responses that he should be bludgeoned and left in a ditch. At every corner, life as Max is easier and less intimidating than the equivalent interactions I have as myself. So for Max’s anniversirthday wish, I hope that everyone can have this kind of freedom. And not just for a day or a week or a year, or as part of a pseudonym identity, but forever and as themselves. It really shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Originally published on HowlRound.

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.