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.

reading

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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I Ain’t Afraid of No Female Protagonists

This summer marked the end of my first year of resubmitting previously-rejected scripts under my male pseudonym, “Max.” Don’t worry, I am not closing up shop; I am still waiting to hear back from about half the submissions, and just in the past week, as this installment was being finalized, got two new exciting-slash-depressing responses to Max’s resubmitted work. (More on that next time.) Given how much I feel is still going on, I am planning to go into Year Two by doing a SLAM spin-off/continuation, in which I submit new work as Max (more on that another time, too). For today, I want to focus on an aspect of what made me decide this project needed to continue; specifically some experiences from my summer which reinforced to me more than ever that we need to pay immediate attention to the dearth of women writers being given opportunity to succeed, and the total lack of women’s stories that we’re telling.

Anyone who follows me on social media knows I felt strongly about this summer’s release of the new Ghostbusters reboot. I know, that was so three months ago, and pop culture has already moved on to Pokemon Go and Stranger Things and Taco Trucks on Every Corner, but I haven’t. I am a huge fan of the original movies (yes, both), not as much from childhood as from college, when they became favorites to watch with friends and roommates. We were living in New York City, and there was a kinship to the local places, jokes, and culture of the movies. So if I had an attachment to the movies because they represented my city (a city which is featured in no lack of stories, at that), you can only imagine how excited I was to see a reboot that would represent my gender.


We desperately, direly need more stories that show women as more than sex objects, more than romantic interests, more than airheads, more than nameless forgotten supporting roles. 


You might even have the same reflex as me (and, as I later learned, many others), which is to cry tears of happiness while watching the movie, particularly notable in my case because I have only cried one other time in a movie in my life, during the sad part of My Dog Skip. And I’m not saying this movie was perfect, but it let us watch women be smart and funny and significant—and that’s important.

the_warriors_husbandAnd if there’s one thing I’ve learned this summer, it’s that we desperately, direly need more stories like thisstories that show women as more than sex objects, more than romantic interests, more than airheads, more than nameless forgotten supporting roles. Women whose character could not simply be replaced by a sexy lamp.

This summer, I taught three classes in which students ages seven to fifteen were asked to create their own original stories and characters for a short play or short movie. I worked with about fifty total students, of whom roughly thirty-five were female and fifteen male. Between them they pitched about forty different story and/or character ideas. And of those forty pitches, only about five of them were pitched about female characters. Only about five.

Most pitches went like this:

STUDENT: “I have an idea for a story about a kid who travels through time using a magical backpack.”
ME: “Awesome! What happens?”
STUDENT: “He becomes best friends with a dinosaur.”

Do you see what happened there? The story went from being about “a time-traveling kid”a character who could be anyoneto being about “he.” Regardless of whether the student was a boy or a girl, the story would start out being about “a kid,” or “a doctor,” or “a famous music artist” and would inevitably end up being about “him.”

There is nothing wrong with having stories about male protagonists. But women are 51 percent of the population, and these classes were 70 percent female. So doesn’t it seem odd that only about 12 percent of the story ideas would be about girls?


Women are 51% of the population, and these classes were 70% female. So doesn’t it seem odd that only about 12% of the story ideas would be about girls?


Even when a co-teacher or I would model back the story idea by saying “okay, so your idea is about a kid who time travels, and then she or he befriends a dinosaur,” the student would nearly always revert back to “he.”

In one class, quite literally nobody was designing female characters and I had to go around the room and make a deliberate point of reminding the students that their characters could be girls. “Oh, I didn’t think of that,” they’d say. Or, in a moment of true heartbreak, “But I want my character to be funny.”

When over 70 percent of the programming you see portrays male characters as the leads, showing them as the important ones, the ones with authority and humor and brains and stories worthwhile of being made, why wouldn’t you want your character to be the same?


Our youngsters, our storytellers of tomorrow, are not learning that women’s stories deserve equal attention and time and praise and worthiness and authority.


So we need to keep going. Because our youngsters, our storytellers of tomorrow, are not learning that women’s stories deserve equal attention and time and praise and worthiness and authority. It’s not reflected by the stories in their books and on their TVs, and as such, we are positioning yet another generation to overlook countless amazing stories inside them, about “a goofy detective” or “a brilliant scientist” or “a catfish astronaut” who is female. And that’s why I’m continuing this project, spinning it off into another phase, so we can keep the conversation going and hope that every little bit counts.

Originally published on HowlRound.

Submitting Like A Woman

Regular readers of Submitting Like A Man (lookin’ at you, mom!) will know my oft-quoted statistic: that 51% of the population in the US is women, but only about 20% of our writers in theatre and TV are female. It’s a statistic that’s been shown by numerous data collecting initiatives (such as here, here, and here) and as something that’s fairly straightforward to calculate, the number itself is not something most people I’ve encountered are highly contesting; in fact, if anything, it’s something far too many of us accept as believable/normal.

It’s the sort of discrepancy that’s so entrenched in the workings of our industry, the story of our history, and the behaviors of our society that it can’t be pinned on one singular cause. Discrimination of any kind is a multifaceted problem, which is why it’s so damn hard to stop or change. SLAM is a project I created to examine the part of the discrepancy stemming from unintentional bias. And there are all kinds of other factors that are almost certainly weaving together and causing the discrepancy too—producers who don’t believe women’s stories will sell, awards shows that are rewarding the same white male old-guard over and over again, and so on.  

boxing-women

But recently it was brought to my attention that there’s another factor in the mix when it comes to the under-representation of women writers in the entertainment industry: It seems that in some cases, fewer women writers are submitting work, with some instances showing as few as 25% of submissions from women.

It’s the sort of problem that at first glance seems to imply we, lady playwrights, are somehow at fault for this large, looming problem. And if the numbers are correct, I definitely think we could stand to do better; it certainly would not hurt to be half the submission pool. But the problem we’re facing started before anyone reading this would have even been born, and it’s so complicated and layered that there’s no way we can wag a finger at lady playwrights and call off the investigation. There are many reasons why we would be remiss to say that women making up half the applicants would solve the problem, not the least of which is because submissions and open calls for work are just one of many ways new writers and new scripts are discovered, developed, and produced. But as someone administering a gender bias project that utilizes the submission process, I can’t help but wonder what’s going on.

Female playwrights, and our plays, most certainly exist (I swear I’m not a hologram). So why are we seemingly submitting so much less? It’s one of these things that’s impossible to “know” (again: if we could, it would be easy to solve) and that other women and organizations have pondered before me—which, in fact, is how I came to be aware of it. And since launching this project, I’ve had many people tell me that they don’t think I’m submitting enough. I’ve publicly stated that in the last nine years, I’ve sent out 117 submissions. To me, the number is a Goldilocks-esque “just right,” but others have suggested that perhaps I am “submitting like a woman” by simply not submitting enough. (What’s tricky about that idea is that I’ve had many of those same people remark that my success rate—about 10% of submitted work has been accepted—is higher than most. I can’t say if that’s true or not because most writers I know will guesstimate their success rate but actually don’t keep track closely enough to calculate a specific number.)


My hunch is that if we work together to give more women the opportunity to succeed, more women will come forward to put their hats in the ring.


What I ultimately can’t help but wonder is if it even makes any difference for women to submit in smaller numbers than men. And if it is true that women are submitting less, is it still “fair” for us to expect to be half the resulting productions? Let’s say a play festival is producing ten pieces. In a perfectly “equal” world, there would be five plays written by women, and five by men. So let’s say their applicant pool is all comparable quality work, and breaks down to 30% women and 70% men. Does that mean they choose three female winners and seven male? Or are they still obligated to choose five and five? My personal answer is five and five, but I can certainly see how others may argue that’s unfair or nonsensical.

In essence, it’s a philosophical question. Do we choose and present work representative of the applicant pool’s demographics? Do we choose work that doesn’t necessarily reflect the demographics of those who have submitted but does represent the demographics of our society? Or since this is art, do we have an obligation to put aside the composition of the applicant pool and make a deliberate effort to choose work that promotes voices that have historically been under-represented, oppressed, and/or denied opportunity? The only answer I have is that, as with so many issues we face as a society, what we need is an all around awareness, cooperation, and a commitment to figuring it out together. And my hunch is that if we work together to give more women the opportunity to succeed, more women will come forward to put their hats in the ring.

Originally published on HowlRound.

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.