Exploring the Gender Disparity in Theatre Criticism

Recently, Chicago Sun-Times theatre critic Hedy Weiss' out-of-bounds commentary within her theatre reviews has finally caught up with her. Her racist comments about the subject matter in the play Pass Over,  was certainly an unacceptable place for a theatre critic to go. 

When you combine this latest issues with her past ones such as anti-Semitism and body shaming, I'll be the first to say that Ms. Weiss has no business working for a major newspaper, let alone in a city as diverse as Chicago. 

But the Chicago Sun-Times isn't going to be letting her go anytime soon. First of all because the controversy she stirs probably results in sales of newspapers. But also because Ms. Weiss has attained the highest level in theatre criticism which few women have and firing one of the few female critics working for a major news outlet, just for expressing her thoughts, as ignorant and misguided as they may be, would look terrible from a PR standpoint. 

And that is where a major problem lies. There aren't enough women in the criticism industry and certainly not enough working for major outlets. 

There is no doubt that the criticism industry, whether it be film, theatre, even food, is a man's game. When you look at many of the major outlets, their critics not only currently are men but historically always have been.

For instance, the New York Times, home to the most influential theatre critics in the country, has only had one female serve as their New York theatre critic in the papers' 166 year history. Her name was Margo Jefferson and as an African-American, she was also the only non-white person to serve in that role. But her tenure lasted only six months before she stepped down. And this past year, when critic Charles Isherwood was ousted from the paper, the Time hired Jesse Green, a white male. 

While I criticized the Times for not making a more diverse hire, I can certainly understand if the pool was limited because there are simply not enough females who have been given criticism opportunities that would qualify them for a position at an outlet like the New York Times. 

So just how bad is it? Well, there isn't a statistic out there to demonstrate the exact number of female critics in theatre, there are some places that show there is certainly a disparity. For instance in the film industry, Rotten Tomatoes last year found that only 27% of the reviewers listed on their site were female. In the New York theatre scene, many of the critic's awards boards are dominated by men. The Outer Critics Awards which has over 80 voting members is only 37% female. The New York Drama Critics' Circle, which there are 22 members, only four are women. Again, this is not an indictment on the critics circles themselves. But it does show that not enough women who work for outlets that would qualify them to sit on these awards committees. 

So what's the reason for the disparity? I spoke to one major female critic, who wished to remain anonymous, who said it had a lot to do with who is hiring for these positions.

"When it's rare to see a female editor, it's even rarer to see a female critic hired. Men typically like to hire other men. I've also seen instances where my opinions might be called into question because I am a woman. Like I might not be able to see Hamilton the same way a man does because he cheated on his wife. Or I might be biased to a feminist empowerment piece. Yet men seem to be immune to that."

That is a real issue. It is ridiculous to suggest that a female critics review might be compromised simply because she is a woman. If anything, they might be more insightful. While male critics certainly praised shows like "A Doll's House Part 2" and "Indecent", they stopped short of detailing the feminist themes of each piece, while female critics would be more able to discuss that. 

What can be done to improve this? Well, it only really takes editors and outlets to give opportunities to women and also minorities with their critic positions. Not to toot my own horn but here at OnStage Blog, when it comes to our staff of critics, women outnumber men. We didn't do that on purpose, we just like to hire good writers. While this site might not yet qualify them to become voting members for awards or work at the New York Times, it's certainly my hope that it might be the starting point for them to get there at some point. 

While I will always believe that the best candidate should be hired for every job, I do feel that female and minority candidates should be considered just as highly as their white male counterparts. A diverse spectrum of reviewers commenting on the diverse spectrum of theatre right now is something that is sorely needed.