Not A Gimmick: The Lack of Diversity in Theatres.

by Abbie Cawser, September 24, 2021

Cameron Mackintosh is a well-known name in the UK, but this is less true in the US. While you may be unfamiliar with his name, his work is much more recognisable – Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Hamilton. He is a producer for some of the most famous and longest-running West End and Broadway shows in the history of theatre. With his reputation of featuring progressive themes of inclusion, revolution, and community in these shows, one would think that he’d be a proponent for the advancement of theatre into the 21st century, but recent comments have led him to face backlash throughout the theatre community. 

Recently, when asked about the potential for transgender actors in theatre shows, he responded, “you can’t implant something that is not inherently there in the story or character… to do that, it becomes gimmick casting. It’s trying to force something that isn’t natural.”4 This exclusionary mindset separates trans actors from the rest of the theatre community, suggesting that an artist who happens to be trans would not be able to play a role as effectively or convincingly as a cisgender artist.

Unsurprisingly, this faced a significant amount of backlash from a community largely based on acceptance and tolerance. Alexandra Billings, a transgender actress currently starring in Wicked on Broadway, asserted that

“I am an actor…I am these stories because I am part of the human fabric and no one has the right to take any this away from me.… I am an actor, Mr. Mackintosh, not a gimmick…. We have been playing these musical roles in the theater for centuries. The only difference is, now we are becoming visible. And that’s frightening. That’s upsetting. This is about you and your fear and the fear of many others, but it is not about the trans community.”

– Alexandra Billings

She was far from alone in this: countless actors from Mackintosh’s own shows, as well as the entire cast of a recent production of Rent (a show that features multiple trans/non-binary actors) stood up against his words, demanding an apology and highlighting the work that trans actors have done within the Broadway community.4

On September 6th 2021, there was a Trans March on Broadway, protesting Mackintosh’s comments and claiming that it should be transgender artists who lead the conversation, not Mackintosh.5 There are also plans for a concert entitled You Gotta Have A Gimmick, the goal of which is to put the spotlight on trans artists and allow them to share their talents separately from the discriminatory comments.

Following the backlash, Mackintosh posted another statement, apologising for his comments. He claimed that his words were misinterpreted and that it wasn’t transgender artists he was against, but simply their presence in classical shows; instead, he suggested, new shows should be written focused exclusively on trans issues. The problem with this suggestion, aside from the fact that it still gatekeeps classical roles from transgender actors and limits the subject matter that he sees as suitable for them to partake in, is that the creation of new musicals is not such a straightforward solution. Plays and shows have already been written with specifically transgender roles in mind, such as Jagged Little Pill, and Breakfast on Pluto.3,2

The issue? These roles are still being played by cis actors. 

By claiming that classical roles are not suitable for trans actors, whilst also casting cis actors in trans roles with the claim that fiction should be open to anyone, producers create a hypocritical paradox that only serves to exclude transgender actors. Additionally, certain new shows such as Tootsie (a show in which a male character adopts a female persona in the hope that this advances his career) create storylines that “profit from transgender stereotypes while casting cisgender performers, to share their experiences in the business.”2

The expectation that progress will come through new shows is an excuse that has allowed for the lack of diversity within classical theatre for decades. The majority of casting in older, more renowned shows is predominantly White, with the expectation that newer shows will create roles more “suitable” for actors of colour, actors with disabilities, and trans and non-binary actors. This lack of representation is far from limited to just sexuality and gender identity – race is also massively underrepresented. 

While the issue of needing more diverse actors is a frequently occurring one, an important discussion that is often overlooked is one of writers. In the last 3 theatre seasons, over 80% of plays and musicals on Broadway were written by White creatives, as outlined in “The Visibility Report: Racial Representation on NYC Stages,” which was published by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition.1 Given that diversity is supposedly meant to be enhanced through new art (which has occurred to a certain extent, with shows such as Hamilton and Hadestown casting much more diverse artists, but has still not come close to resolving the imbalance), it seems unlikely that this will be possible in an industry where even new art is staggeringly under-representative. In 2019, a study done on gender representation within Broadway revealed that there were only 4 artists who openly identified as non-binary, with non-gender specific roles making up just 7.1% of all characters on Broadway.6 When this study was released, actor Shakina Nayfack wrote that she “just want[ed] to be playing good roles that don’t necessarily have anything to do with transness.” In short – roles don’t need to be written specifically for trans actors because they should be able to occupy any space and role they choose on Broadway.

While diversity is starting to emerge within shows, without the hiring of actors in classical shows – given these shows’ reputations of prestige and their security as a symbol of Broadway, especially amongst older audiences – progress will be slow, as these actors will still believe theatre isn’t a place for them. The responsibility shouldn’t be on young actors and writers to create roles for themselves when existing roles should be open to them.

(Dates and artists for You Gotta Have A Gimmick have not yet been announced, but follow @youcancallmesis on Twitter for updates)


References

  1. Asian American Performers Action Coalition, Racial Representation on New York City Stages 2018-2019’, American Theatre Wing, 2019 (http://www.aapacnyc.org/uploads/1/3/5/7/135720209/aapac_report_2018-2019_final.pdf
  1. Annie Lord, ‘Actor felt forced to quit musical after man was cast in trans woman role’, The Independent, March 2020 (https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/news/trans-actor-breakfast-pluto-cillian-murphy-kate-odonnell-a9396421.html
  1. Christian Lewis, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Broadway’s Jagged Little Journey Toward Nonbinary Inclusion’, The Brooklyn Rail, April 2021(https://brooklynrail.org/2021/04/theater/One-Step-Forward-Two-Steps-Back-Broadways-Jagged-Little-Journey-Toward-Nonbinary-Inclusion
  1. Greg Evans, ‘Trans Actor Alexandra Billings Blasts Producer Cameron Mackintosh: “I Am An Actor, Not A Gimmick”’, Deadline, Aug 2021(https://deadline.com/2021/08/alexandra-billings-cameron-mackintosh-trans-casting-not-a-gimmick-1234824340/
  1. Michael Appler, ‘Transgender March on Broadway Protests Cameron Mackintosh Casting Comments, Calls For Greater Representation’, Variety, Sept 2021 (https://variety.com/2021/theater/news/transgender-march-on-broadway-cameron-mackintosh-1235057686/ 
  1. Sammy Gibbons, ‘Trans, nonbinary musical theater pros make ‘a place’ for their work that Broadway hasn’t’, Rockland/Westchester Journal News, Lohud, July 2021 (https://www.lohud.com/story/life/2021/07/12/transgender-nonbinary-theater-pros-fill-broadway-gaps/7811342002/

Fa-Shun the Fashion Industry: Acknowledging Sexism in Fashion

by Sara Giarnieri, September 21, 2021

It’s no secret that the fashion industry controls a big part of our media consumption. We see it in movies, clothing websites, advertisements, and other platforms. However, fashion isn’t as beautiful as it seems in its deceiving haute couture shows and eye-catching magazines; it is a dark industry. The fashion industry is sexist because of the workplace ‘glass ceiling’, sexual objectification, and its influence on disordered eating, making it an industry of little mobility and a lot of exploitation.

The ‘glass ceiling’ of the fashion industry is a persisting problem. It is hard for women to obtain higher roles in the workplace. According to “Shattering the Glass Runway,” a 2018 report by Pamela Brown, Stacey Haas, Sophie Marchessou, and Cyrielle Villepelet, only “14 percent of major brands have a female executive in charge” (Brown et al.). This number is concerningly low considering that “70 percent of women aspire to become top executives, versus 60 percent of men” (Brown et al.). More women want to achieve those higher roles in the workplace than men, yet less than 15% of women actually have those roles in top fashion brands. According to the article, women are prevented from achieving these positions because of lack of advice from senior colleagues, lack of promotions, and childcare burdens at home, as women are expected to play a larger role in caretaking for their children (Brown et al.). Women should be able to provide insight on certain things that men may not know, such as size-inclusivity for clothing or wider shade ranges for undergarments, but they are stuck in less influential roles.  For an industry that is so heavily marketed towards women, there aren’t many women that represent the industry.

Another problem in the fashion industry is its sexual objectification of women, often to appease the male eye. According to  “Disordered Eating Behaviors and Sexual Objectification during New York Fashion Week: Implementation of Industry Policies and Legislation” (2020), female models experience sexual harassment and invasion of privacy: a study surveyed 76 models, 87 percent of them female, that participated in New York Fashion Week in the Fall of 2018 (Austin et al.). Of the 76 participants, 32 said that they “experienced invasive photography or lack of privacy while changing backstage” (Austin et al.). It is clear that the basic human need for privacy is not respected in the fashion industry. Sexual harassment in the fashion industry needs to be addressed. It is illegal, and it is morally wrong.

Objectification of women also stems from advertisements and campaigns. A 2019 article posted by FashionHarp called “Hyper Sexualization in the Fashion Industry” highlights the oversexualization of women in brands like Dolce & Gabbana and Vogue. They also emphasize the racism that black women experience through their portrayal as “wild, sexual beasts that just can’t seem to shed their animalistic spots” in many of their sexualized photos (“Hyper Sexualisation in the Fashion Industry”). This objectification of women is harmful to display for the public, as it insinuates that women should be treated as such, making the important progress of feminist movements backpedal.  The racist and sexual portrayal of black women as animals is also a huge issue that needs to be acknowledged. Equality has been growing for decades, shutting down prejudices and unfairness along the way. Why hasn’t the fashion industry done so as well? Presenting black women as “animalistic” is a negative stereotype that needs to be left behind in order to truly be inclusive. The industry, rather than simply focusing on fashion, finds a need to simultaneously objectify women in the process.

Lastly, the fashion industry pushes such unrealistic beauty standards that many women are pressured into developing eating disorders. Disordered eating can happen to anyone, but in the fashion industry, it is prominently something women must battle. Many female models are forced to stay “slim,” thus creating long term unhealthy relationships with food. Looking back on the 2018 New York Fashion Week study, it was reported that in order to lose weight during the event, participants were “skipping meals, exercising, using fasts/cleanses/nutritional detoxes, using weight‐loss supplements or diet pills, using stimulants such as Ritalin, using intravenous drips such as “banana bags,” self‐induced vomiting, or other methods” (Austin et al.). The pressure to lose weight in the fashion industry comes with dangerous consequences, as shown by the concerning behaviors reported in the survey. Another concerning statistic is that “20% reported that an industry professional had suggested that their weight/shape had prevented them from booking a job” (Austin et al.), which further shows how big a factor weight is in the fashion industry.

In addition, Vogue uploaded a video directed by Shaina Danziger in 2019 called “9 Models on the Pressure to Lose Weight and Body Image,” as a part of their docu-series The Models. Ali Michael, an American model, recalled a past experience and said, “I went to Paris, and after the first day of castings my agency told me that the response from my first day of castings foreshows us that I had gained too much weight and was unusable for the shows” (Danziger). The emphasis on weight is alarming, as it could cause self-confidence issues amongst models or even amongst women in the general public watching this unfold. A few comments such as this on the video also raise some points of concern: “I’m confused about why Vogue is interviewing them & posting this… when they’re a part of the problem” (I Can Relate). It certainly feels hypocritical that Vogue is giving models a platform to talk about their body image issues in the industry while simultaneously causing these issues. If Vogue’s intention is to make a change, they have to practice what they preach.

Now, the question is: how do we combat sexism in the fashion industry? Spreading awareness is a significant first step in combating sexism. According to “Shattering the Glass Runway,” “100% of the women surveyed see gender inequality as an issue in fashion, while less than 50% of men do” (Brown et al.). It is clear that many people don’t seem to be aware of gender inequality, especially males in CEO fashion industry positions that look to exploit women for the sake of fortune. It is likely because they are in a better position in the industry that makes it hard to imagine the other side’s difficulties. If more statistics, studies, and personal stories regarding females in the fashion industry were publicized, maybe the heteropatriarchal perspective on inequality will change. Sexual harassment in the industry needs to be further exposed. Women, as well as anyone else, deserve to be protected and respected. Consequences regarding disordered eating need to be spread, sharing the disturbing numbers of people who suffer from disordered eating and showing how it affects health. 

Though there is some effort to try and change the fashion industry, much more progress is needed. There are not enough resources out there to transform the fashion industry into something that promotes equality. A memo to the fashion industry: women are not objects, not toys, and not inferiors. Respect is something that everyone deserves. As people unveil the horrors you hide, more will start to change. Women will gain the respect that you fail to show.


Works Cited

Brown, Pamela, et al. “Shattering the Glass Runway.” McKinsey & Company, 19 Feb. 2019, http://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/shattering-the-glass-runway#. 

Danziger, Shaina. “9 Models on the Pressure to Lose Weight and Body Image | The Models | Vogue.” YouTube, uploaded by Vogue, 23 Apr. 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKd38G338Qw. 

“Hyper Sexualisation in the Fashion Industry.” FashionHarp, 13 Feb. 2019, fashionharp.com/promotions/hyper-sexualisation-in-the-fashion-industry/. 

I Can Relate. Comment on “9 Models on the Pressure to Lose Weight and Body Image | The Models | Vogue.” Youtube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKd38G338Qw. 

Rodgers, Rachel, et al. “Disordered Eating Behaviors and Sexual Objectification during New York Fashion Week: Implementation of Industry Policies and Legislation.” International Journal of Eating Disorders, vol. 54, no. 3, Mar. 2021, pp. 433–437. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1002/eat.23432.