I’m better than her.
And her. And her. And her and her and her.
I’m better than her at writing. I’m better than she’ll ever be.
I’m better than him too, by the by. My BAME counter-part, my physically and aurally and optically challenged shipmate.
My quill shoots sparks. My keyboard’s got buttons yours can only dream of. Audiences look upon my works and laugh and cry and shit themselves with gay abandon.
I am the best writer that ever was. My worlds are the greatest we have ever, or will ever, witness.
I am a god.
It’s a necessary arrogance. I’m Irish, so I don’t say these things. I bashfully say that maybe I’ve done something that might be on somewhere at some point. It took me seven years to call myself a writer in day-to-day conversation.
But underneath? You’re all shit on God’s shoe compared to me.
So being the best, you can see how I’d be furious with #wakingthefeminists. Inspired by Ireland’s Abbey Theatre’s — Ireland’s national theatre’s — decision to programme its retrospective ‘Waking The Nation’ with only one female playwright, Waking The Feminists is a call to the Abbey, to other theatres, to the arts in general and even beyond to start looking at how and why female voices aren’t being heard.
The initial furore centred around the Abbey, and artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail had the good sense to engage in the debate, but perhaps not the good sense to recognize when unconscious biases could be at play. This concept, that through no-one’s deliberate action, women and people from minorities are being excluded – is one worth pausing on.
People who oppose Waking The Feminists aren’t monsters (well some of them are, but that’s what you get for reading below the fold), they’re people who genuinely can’t see how a level playing field and a ‘level playing field’ aren’t the same thing. That there’s a difference between being treated equally and being treated fairly. Equality is making sure everyone gets to use the same entrance; fairness is installing a ramp. When a person walks into an interview or submits a play they are not just a piece of paper or a present moment, they are the sum total of all their experiences to that point.
But still… it doesn’t feel right, does it? I’m the best writer in the world. I have the best stories. Surely these things should be judged on merit.
There’s that word: merit. Meritocracy, more accurately.
When we talk about the situation at the Abbey, and about the idea of gender (or other) representation, this word keeps coming up. Everyone should be judged on merit, on the quality of their work, and not the colour of their skin or whether their junk is an innie or an outie. Again, this makes sense. Again, the people who oppose Waking The Feminists have a point. Again, they should be listened to. And again, I’m the best.
But the notion of a meritocracy does beg two questions: what is merit, and when should it be judged?
I’ll deal with the latter first, because as the best writer on Earth I am adept at playing with narrative structure.
In an ideal world, you would judge someone who walks into a room based on merit. And you would do this knowing that in every moment leading up to that they had been solely judged on merit as well. In an ideal world, our nipples would also secrete Nestle Oats ‘n’ More.
This is not the case. Everyone has a past, and we can say — with a vague degree of accuracy — that the experience of the average woman is not that of the average man. Women are valued, praised and categorized in different ways from men, and unfortunately these ways are not necessarily the most helpful. Being praised for your appearance over your articulacy, your home-making over your humour, or your sense of get-along-to-get-along instead of attempting to stand out: these are shallow nudges off life’s path that lead you to being a different person when you enter that interview room.
I see it when I work with children — boys encouraged to learn by making mistakes, girls encouraged to colour within the lines. Did I not mention that I work with children? It’s part of what makes me the best.
And this point of understanding someone’s background before they enter your sphere of judgement doesn’t even begin to tackle unconscious bias which, please, can we all stop saying we’re free of. If it helps to illustrate the point: I am a gay man. I am a gay man who is gay and enjoys the penis and other ancillary appendages. And yet I know that I, not once but many times, have unconsciously judged other gay man for being gay. For being too gay. For the lisp. The walk. The hair. For not ‘passing’. And if I can’t avoid unconscious bias about my own social group then how can any of us stand there with a straight face and claim it doesn’t exist?
And, hey, even those of us who hate feminism can get behind unconscious bias. It makes feminists turn to in-fighting and arguments and hilarious gifs on Jezebel comment threads, because it makes white, straight, able-bodied women question what biases they’re bringing to the table when they claim to be representing their gender. It’s fun for the whole family (or not, because it’s a woman’s right to choose her reproductive destiny).
So in the interest of fairness, maybe it is right to acknowledge our unconscious bias, to acknowledge someone’s experience before they enter an interview room. Maybe it is right to ask when we should judge on merit, because if we’re not doing it every step of the way — and we’re not — then it’s madness to think that your “equal treatment” on a random day on the long path of a woman’s life is fair.
The second question is about what constitutes merit.
For the moment, I’ll leave myself out of the equation, because — as mentioned before — I am the best. But in the pantheon of the other millions of writers around the world, how do we judge merit? How do we judge what is the best?
It’s a nebulous concept, and one that requires us to drill down into the specifics of the matter. Let’s talk about writing. Good writing, quality writing, should be well-structured, well-researched, well characterized and feature someone falling down a well. But lots of writing does that. So is good writing enough? Perhaps not. We need great writing — if we’re going to reflect a nation as it approaches its centenary, we need the best of the best, top of the top, up of the up.
But what metrics do we use for this?
Popularity? Well, yes, because if we’re going to reach the nation we need to actually reach the nation. Except, well, Mrs. Brown’s Boys might be good, if you like it, but it’s not great — so there isn’t a direct correlation.
What about pedigree? Of course, yes, let’s look at a writer’s back catalogue, their roster, quality plus quality must breed more quality. Except for all the examples where that isn’t the case. And the inverse: Harper Lee Syndrome, especially prevalent among groups who traditionally haven’t been encouraged to put pen to paper. And if we start going into the other sort of pedigree, with our Cusacks and Gleesons, we get into the realm of theatrical eugenics.
Let’s leave such metrics aside then, and think of a broader question: why do we tell stories?
Many, many, many reasons abound but at the end of the day they come down to two: to entertain, and to inform. From the most ancient parables to the latest episode of Corrie, these two intertwine to form the point of story-telling. The former can seem fluffy, until you consider that “entertain” covers Pinter’s dialogue and Spielberg’s eye. The latter can seem dry, until you consider that “inform” comes by way of lessons taught by anything from Wicked to Have I Got News For You.
Judging merit on entertainment level is frustratingly subjective.
But judging it on its ability to inform is not. And here’s the nub. The number one question asked of theatre-makers when they’re pitching new work is this:
It’s an awful question, we all hate it, but it’s one worth asking. Why now? What makes great art rise above good art — well maybe it’s the idea that we haven’t seen it before. That it electrifies us, yes, but also that it opens up parts of our brains and our opinions that we haven’t articulated before. It’s a noble calling, and it’s why Shonda Rhimes is one of the richest women on Earth.
The Abbey was not interested in staging a retrospective. If it was, it wouldn’t have called it Waking The Nation, but rather Assuaging The Nation. Coddling The Nation. Giving The Nation Warm Milk, A Swift Reach-Around And A Lullaby So It Could Get A Full Eight Hours.
If you’re the national theatre, then your job is why now. Your job is to challenge. Your job is to say that if we look back at the last one hundred years and see only men then we must admit to ourselves that that is a lie. The women were there. Their stories were happening. Their journeys had meaning.
Their lives had merit.
And while I’m the greatest writer that ever lived, even I’ll admit I have my limits. I have a tendency to write for myself, and about myself, even when I strive for diversity. When you look at the “golden age of television” that we are supposedly living through, it falls into two distinct categories: on the one side you have The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad — stories that have great value but are overwhelming white, straight, male or some fantastic combination of all three.
The second category, which we might as well call Shondaland, is the home of black and white and gay and straight and queer and disabled. It is the home of Transparent, of Empire, of How To Get Away WIth Murder. These are stories about those outside the “norm” – and they got made because the people creating them had experienced that same feeling.
If you want to talk about merit and qualifications, then talk about this: if your experience is the norm, the middle, the established, then that makes you less qualified to tell stories that are new. Less qualified to tell stories with merit. Not unqualified, but less qualified.
Your experience informs your writing, and your writing had better be fucking fresh.
And that’s a meritocracy I can get behind.
If all things were equal, Waking The Nation wouldn’t consist of a plethora of different men telling our nation’s so-called history. It would consist only of me: because I am the best. And as the best, I will push and shove and obliterate the competition in any way I can.
I’m better than her and her and her and her and my stories deserve to be told more than anyone else’s.
Which is maybe, maybe, why I shouldn’t be the one making the decision.
Which is maybe why the Abbey should.
Which is maybe why our national theatre should stand up and say:
“Everything you’ve been told is a lie. Our history is not what we’ve been fed, our potential is not what we’ve been sold, and our future is not even close to what we could imagine. But pay attention, because we’re about to tell you a different story.
And trust us: it’s a doozy.”