by Jordan Oakley
Jordan Oakley is a 19-year-old actor and playwright currently living in Houston, Texas. She has been working professionally in theater for 10 years.
Theater is, in most circles, considered a female dominated industry. However, the mere use of the word “dominated” makes the statement false.
Theater is female heavy. More women than men aspire towards and work for the theater. And why wouldn’t they? Acting is considered feminine and therefore below men. Even famous actors- Chirstian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio most prominent among them- go to great lengths to differentiate themselves from any traces of femininity in their industry. It is more socially acceptable for women and girls to enter the world of the arts. If this is true, why don’t women dominate the field?
In every facet of the theater and film industry, men are given higher positions of creative and financial power. Male actors are paid more, men direct more movies and plays, more men have their plays published. In an industry dubbed feminine, men hold the power.
This can be swept away by a simple statement that men have held power for so long, that they control every industry. It is, to many, a single issue. But speak to any woman in the industry and they will tell you it is not a problem that comes out of a vacuum. And it is not a problem that appears to be in any way slowing down.
I’d like to ensure the reader- some of which no doubt have already clicked away from this article in an offended huff- that I do not think men in the industry do not work hard. That has never been my take. I’ve worked with men who have been passionate and driven and kind, never once thinking he deserved something he didn’t earn. This is not the issue. The issue is that women of all kinds are forced to jump through hoops for any sort of break and are held to different standards simply because they are women.
Men hold power in creative fields without even knowing it. Affectionately dubbed “Penis Points” by a group of female and non-binary students in Seattle, the issue is boiled down the the fact that simply being a cisgendered man gives one an advantage. They go through shortcuts in education and auditions and pitch meetings that women have to battle through to earn the same amount of attention.
There is the surface level answer to all of this: there are too few roles for women. In the acting realm of theater, very few women are given roles of substance. Look at most films, a group of men with the exception of one woman, usually impossibly sexy. In live theater this holds true as well. Plays that are given a chance to be produced are written by men, starring men, produced by men and directed by men. It is no wonder that more male actors are given their shot early on when there are more shots to give away. Women, in contrast, are relegated to the role or the wife, the love interest, the shrew. The one representation of an entire gender. Non binary and trans people are given even less.
This power dynamic does not show up out of nowhere. It begins with education. For many actors and actresses alike, a degree from the right university can launch you into a career. Or at least a shot at one. As mentioned before, there are more girls auditioning for spots in coveted schools. Go to any college audition and you will see swarms of girls in brightly colored dresses strapping on their beige character shoes and facing a wall while trying to remember every line to their Shakespeare piece. It is clear the girls outnumber the boys. They even look different. Girls are dressed carefully with practiced hair and makeup framing their Proactive treated faces. They don heels and jackets and painted nails. Boys, however, will more often than seems reasonable come dressed in jeans and a flannel. If they dress up it’s with worn converse on their feet.
Results come out. As usual, the class will total out to around a third male. But the amount of men who did get in greatly outweighs the percentage that applied. More men get in on the basis that they are men who are interested in theater. This is not a surprise. Once in the school, men have a financial advantage. There are no major scholarships for women in theater, but there are for men. They are given more financial ability to afford an education than women. Continuing this trend is the professors. Male students get more attention than female students. It is an unspoken understanding that educators want to keep men interested in pursuing the arts to fill up required roles, therefore they receive more attention and instruction.
Having been through two conservatories myself, I have seen this system work firsthand. In my first, it was less overt. Male students received leads more easily because there were more male roles and less male students. In an educational setting, this meant they got more instruction on how to command a stage. It did not occur to me to be bothered by this because it simply was the way of the system and I had to survive either way.
However, at my first college conservatory, I learned how deeply this system cuts down young women. There were three boys in a class of eight. Two of them missed over half a semester’s worth of classes without any ramifications. They were asked to turn in their missed work and move along. A girl, however, asked to have the day off because of fairly severe physical pain that morning and was told that she needed to take the work seriously and she had no excuse to miss a class. She was then talked about in front of her classmates in a derogatory manner because she still had to miss the class that morning. Several other girls complained of being treated the same. The boys could skip, blow off homework or even treat their class partners with incredible disrespect with little to no ramifications all because the teachers were inherently biased towards their male students.
I myself went to a teacher, desperate for help when I said that a scene partner was scaring me and making me feel unsafe. This professor, a woman, looked me in the eyes and said a phrase that I will never forget and possibly never forgive.
“You should feel lucky to work with him.”
“Him” being the operative word.
Her words have forever changed the way I will trust authority figures with my own safety when it comes to men. They are words heard by people in the industry every day, essentially telling them they are worth less than their male counterparts. That is when I knew that men and boys would always have the upper hand until someone spoke out about what it was really like to be a woman in the theater industry.
Theater is saturated with male authority in both visible and invisible ways. Men hold the power. But this doesn’t have to be the truth forever. More women are being published, getting the chance to direct. Female roles are being written in complex ways that have not been explored in major media. From Booksmart to The Wolves, female heavy ensembles and production teams are garnering more attention and acclaim. There are more steps to take, more marginalized groups to bring to light in our industry, but steps are being taken. Big ones. Someday, we can say that Penis Points are a thing of the past.
Photo by Joanna Malinowska from freestocks.