Gender quotas would devalue Cambridge theatre

Fabricated diversity isn’t diversity.

ADC ADC theatre Cambridge Theatre Corpus Corpus Playroom gender quotas sexism Theatre

Sexism is real, and it’s real everywhere – arguing it’s not a problem in the first-world just isn’t feasible.

From the erosion of women’s reproductive rights in America to the stigmatisation of male victims of domestic violence, both men and women face their share of sex- and gender-related prejudice.*

But is it a problem in Cambridge theatre? To the extent it has been feared, no – and to the extent that it does exist, gender quotas (a measure recently advocated in Varsity) would only worsen the divide.

[infogram id=”adc_and_corpus_shows_michaelmas_2015_to_lent_2016″ prefix=”EVr” format=”interactive” title=”ADC and Corpus shows, Michaelmas 2015 to Lent 2016″]

So, what’s the issue? I looked at ADC and Corpus Playroom shows with more than one cast member and more than one day of performance. For Lent and Michaelmas term this year, a total of 300 roles in these shows for women and 288 roles for men have been awarded, or a 51/49 split – 52/48 in favour of women at the ADC, and 51/49 in favour of men at Corpus Playroom. 53% of the actors are female. Out of the 66 productions, 30 had more men than women, 27 had more women than men, and 9 were gender-balanced. By this measure, if the ADC and Corpus had been given gender quotas, they would likely be meeting them.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that: ‘roles’ vary in significance, slightly fewer women are admitted to Cambridge each year than men, and the fact that more women audition for most productions must be taken into account – but we shouldn’t be so quick to yell ‘Sexism!’ without considering the nuances of the problem. Productions exploring masculinity are just as important as those exploring femininity, and I find it uncomfortable that a female role being given to a man is perceived as misogynistic, but a male role being given to a woman is empowering. Theatre should, at its heart, be merit-based. We shouldn’t gender-swap or gender-conform unless it benefits the production.

This term the History Boys became History Girls

One place where the gender divide is more concerning, however, is student comedy. The imbalance here is backed up by the numbers. Most sketch and standup shows in Cambridge are all-male, or have a single female performer (leading to accusations of ‘token woman’ syndrome); it’s by no means uncommon to see an all-male performance list at Smokers, and the last Footlights revue had a cast of 7 men and 1 woman. Granted, it was supposed to be 2, but whilst imbalanced casts aren’t an issue in themselves, they become an issue if they’re part of a greater trend.

The domination of the Footlights by white, middle-class men is a running joke and people aren’t laughing as hard anymore. More men pursuing comedy explains part of it, but there need to be steps taken to make sure that women receive fairer representation in Footlights and Corpus smokers (since they’re the trial grounds for new material) and also that women who don’t write gender-based comedy are given a voice. Steps are being taken in the right direction, however, with recent shows Xylophone and Quinoa having more balanced casts and female duo Ruby Keane and Luisa Callander hosting their own show at Pembroke New Cellars.

Mavericks had an all female cast


Quotas, however, just aren’t a productive way to solve the problem. It’s not only patronising to give people roles just because they’re part of the lesser represented sex, it’s artistically abhorrent to put on ‘female’ productions, for instance, just for the sake of representation. Brilliant shows exploring aspects of womanhood are regularly performed (from last term’s wonderful 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche and Girls Like That to this term’s breathtaking and difficult Trojan Barbie, as well as the upcoming Madwomen in the Attic). But they’re not good because they’re all-women – they’re good because of their skilled and nuanced handling of their topic, which happens to be certain facets of womanhood. The same applies to this term’s majority-male White Devil, which used its’ few female characters to illuminate and shadow the male characters’ games of power and desire.

The imbalance isn’t as great as has been feared, and where it does exist, gender quotas aren’t the way to go. Fabricated diversity misses the point of diversity: it’s meant to represent real life. And in real life, whoever best suits the role should get it – regardless of what bathroom they use.

*Disclaimer: I am aware that not all people identify within binary constructs of sex and gender, and I agree that they are overly reductive and do not need to correspond to each other. That said, the vast majority of performers do self-present as men/women, and so I consider it a relevant divide to explore.