When is it sexism and when is it lack of quality?

by d
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The $25,000 Wasserstein Prize, named for late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, is awarded to emerging young (under 32) female playwrights. As you can imagine, an award like this can make a woman’s career.

So the theater and literary worlds were rocked when the prize committee announced that they would not be granting the award this year. Their reason? They had finalists, but none were “truly outstanding.” A furor went up and petitions begun. The committee finally relented, saying they would re-evaluate their methods and select a winner.

Many said this was a big setback for women, who are hugely underrepresented in all manner of scriptwriting. “Only 20% of plays produced by American theatres annually are written by women” claimed the SheWrites email urging us to censure the prize committee. As if I needed further proof of this hideous imbalance, my Zemanta image suggestions contain only 3 women playwrights against 18 men.

But I’m not sure how I feel about this. 

Perhaps it’s my disillusionment with long-running awards like the Oscars, or even competitions like Writers of the Future, but sometimes the winners, nay even the nominees, just aren’t that good. It is possible for an entire year to go by with a complete dearth of talent. I hate seeing someone undeserving walk away with a prestigious award because they happen to be the best of a bad lot.

Prizes with no gender requirement are being challenged for not selecting enough women, minorities, etc. Surely, when there are thousands of applicants, there must be someone of color, someone with a vagina, someone who likes to rub his dick against another dick, who can write, sing, act? I’m torn on this as well. I don’t think these demographics should be mandated–but that should applies to a more perfect world, one we don’t live in. It seems that, when given the choice of a wide array of roughly equally brilliant people, the committees will always go first for white men, then men of nearly any other description. It is a persistent trend, and a damning one.

So what do we do when the prize is geared toward one of these maligned groups? Only women can enter.

What does it say about that demographic when their most sympathetic judges don’t think they’re good enough?

It certainly feels like it gives the naysayers more fodder. White men win those other awards because they’re just better.

That isn’t true, and we all know it. But how do we prove that when we can’t even live up to the expectations of an award created specially for us?

Maybe the “outstanding” women just didn’t apply. Maybe it’s the times. Maybe women just weren’t inspired this past year.

Maybe the judges are (perhaps unconsciously) trying to judge these women by the rubric created by and for those white men of yore. I find that one a bit hard to swallow, but that might just be my idealism kicking in again. I don’t want to believe that a womens’ prize is unwittingly undermining them.

So, what do we do in such a situation? Do we grant the award to someone of mediocre talent? Or do we return to the original purpose of the prize, which is to honor young, emerging playwrights.

Young. Emerging.

Not perfect.

I don’t know what the right answer is, but I know it bears more thought.



2 Comments to “When is it sexism and when is it lack of quality?”

  1. I feel if there is no one to meet the standards this year as in previous years, then they made the right decision. I don’t feel its sexist. I think changing their tactics and having someone win because they’re the best of the bad lot diminishes the prize and demeans women. It might be disappointing and sad that this year’s crop did not have anyone of the usual caliber, at least one woman to win, but that does occur sometimes. I would rather it go to a deserving woman of exceptional talent. But, that’s just me.

  2. This has been done before with other prizes. With me, I feel sad when this happens; it goes to show that there are some serious subjectivities in play it comes to evaluating writing.

    Are we supposed to think this is sexism? I don’t know if that’s the answer. I just think that these judges suffer from thinking that there must always be something better than what they receive.

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