A Reflection on Women’s Representation in the Arts

A blog reflection written by Women’s Center intern Julia Gottlieb. 

After reading the Baltimore City Paper’s recent daily Power Rankings, I got to thinking a lot about white women and women of color’s status in the arts. Three weeks ago, UMBC’s Theatre department held their annual New Playwrights Festival, featuring student playwrights.

I attended one night of the Festival, and got to see Elizabeth Ung’s play, a story that on the surface is about a sister and brother surviving in a post-apocalyptic world, but underneath it poses deeper questions of morality and emotional survival. Ung, who is a student of color here at UMBC, explains that she was inspired to write plays after taking a play-writing class through the theater department last semester, saying “[Playwriting] was something that I felt like I always wanted to do, to tell stories. It’s something that I want to do to get my voice out there.” Additionally, her characters are inspired by her everyday experiences and interactions with those around her: “I definitely get a lot from my own experiences, because that’s really the only reliable resource that I can definitely count on. You know, the littlest conversations can inspire dialogue and conflict within the plot.” This is especially important given the severe lack of representation of women of color and their experiences within theater and the arts as a whole.

Here is a helpful infograph to visually show the state of women’s representation in the arts. Even here an intersectional view on this issue is missing, and women of color’s experiences are not represented.

We know that white women have significantly less representation than men in play-writing and in theater overall. Meanwhile, women of color’s voices and experiences are even more underrepresented. Along with this disparity, there is a lack of comprehensive studies that specifically track the numbers of women of color playwrights and directors within theater in both specific cities and across the country. One study finds that of the plays being produced in Washington DC this season, “80% of playwrights are white, 7% are African American, 6% are Latino, 2% are Asian American and 2% are multi-ethnic.” This study gives a sense of the vast disparities that already exist within DC’s theatrical productions. The study’s lack of attention to intersectionality is illustrative of the fundamental problem of representation–the voices of white men and white women have more representation than the voices of women of color. And as long as women of color’s voices are not represented, a vast number of important experiences and viewpoints go ignored and invalidated.

In his piece, Unpacking ‘Diversity’ in Musical Theatre, Michael R. Jackson explains that rather than focusing on fulfilling a diversity quota, theater’s ultimate goal should be “to hold the mirror up to humanity and reflect it back (or distort it) in order to share, person-to-person, what it means to exist in joy and suffering in the world.” Representation matters to me because it affects what stories are being told and who gets to have a place in the world. I want the mirror to reflect an honest view of humanity and its diverse voices.

For example, as someone who identifies as fat (or plus-size if you prefer), the character Rae from the British TV show My Mad Fat Diary was very important to me because I had never seen a larger girl as the main character of a TV show. Seeing someone who looks like me on TV–having the mirror held up to reflect my life and my experiences was so affirming for me and I want everyone to be able to have that experience.

Representation is how we find characters to relate to, take comfort in, and hold up the mirror to and for ourselves. The arts are at a crucial time to make that a reality for more women of color and other underrepresented people. 

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