The Revolution Will Be Systemic: A Response by Hannah Hessel Ratner

In her HowlRound article, “Women Directors: Language Worth Repeating,” when Jess Smith describes the directors and some of her students, who speak in “a language of fear, a language of accommodation, and a language of insecurity,” it has the ring of truth for me. When she speaks of domineering directors who have built careers on making sure they are the sole authority, I believe her. I have seen those directors at work.

And I should mention, I have seen Jess at work. During graduate school she was a frequent collaborator of mine. What I miss the most about working with her was her ability to create a community out of diverse collaborators. Usually, that community was built around the sharing of food. From potluck rehearsals to a performance with a built-in break where performers shared food with audience, Jess succeeds at communicating without words.

But words are essential to both the creation and reaction to performance. Is language in the theater shaped by gender and does it guide the ways in which we work? Do women naturally want to create community and men naturally want to put their egos forward? I am not convinced of it. But I am convinced that we live in a society built on expectations. A society that makes men view themselves as powerful and women as accommodating.

Jess calls for a “revolution of language” and a revolution is necessary. However, the revolution is not about language, it’s about creating a world built on respect, understanding, and bringing to an end a system of domination and submission. What budding female directors are doing when their words betray their confidence is allowing themselves to be thought of as submissive.

A recent study, profiled in the article “Women, Work and the Art of Gender Judo“, looks at women in the workforce and how they use perceived gender inequalities to their advantage. The author Joan C. Williams notes:

The problem with our rules about how men and women “should” behave is that they separate very human tendencies that are best intertwined… What’s troubling about traditional femininity is that it married warmth with submissiveness. Tying femininity with authority instead is important feminist work.

Williams’ writes about a woman who uses “gender judo,” making use of existing stereotypes, by taking on the role of the “big sister with the big personality” in her effort to portray herself as someone worth listening to without being labeled a bitch. Perhaps, I too use the dynamics of a gendered workplace to my advantage. On more than one occasion I have been referred to as a sister in situations as disparate as an argument and most recently in a toast from a co-worker at my wedding. Each time, I felt flattered and surprised. I see these men as colleagues and friends, but perhaps this perceived familial relationship makes it subconsciously easier for them to be open to my opinions.

When I think about Jess’ suggested revolution of language this is where I want to raise my flag in solidarity: I want my voice to be heard and treated with respect as a woman just as strongly I want to make sure that other voices receive the same treatment. When I speak with audiences I make it clear that I want to hear from them and that their experiences are valid. This scares some artists. There is a fear that hearing from the “masses” will invalidate the artist’s authority over their work. This too is a dynamic of perceived submission and dominance. These artists think audiences are supposed to be passive and receptive. They are afraid that empowering the audience to have a point of view puts the artist in a submissive position where they lose control of their work. In my mind, artists and audiences are partners. They have very different tasks but they are both made of individuals with diverse pasts and experiences.

Maybe it’s idealistic, but I hope that the work we do as artists helps to change the power dynamics at play in our society. Near the end of her piece Jess says that even if you are not a teacher, “You will always be a teacher in the example you set, in the words you choose, in the way you work and the priorities you model.” I hope we model a society that recognizes all people as individuals. The revolution goes further than our language. It goes into what we choose to put on the stage, how we interact with our audiences and how we welcome each other to the table.

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