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The gender representation debate in the Creative Arts Industry

Thu, 02/21/2019 - 10:46
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There has been a significant amount of debate and discussion lately about gender representation in the creative arts industry, mostly in light of more and more discussions about equality and diversity.  In this blog, I am going to explore a few examples of how the representation of women has been discussed and addressed over the past few months.

Articulating social change in the Theatre

The new London West End production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company sees the role of Bobby, a previously male lead, changed into a female. 

Originally opening on Broadway in 1970, Company was ‘non traditional’ at that time as it was one of the first musicals to openly tackle adult contemporary relationship issues of the time.

Sondheim said at the time of its opening in 1970:  ‘Broadway theater has been for many years supported by upper-middle-class people with upper-middle-class problems. These people really want to escape that world when they go to the theatre, and then here we are with Company talking about how we're going to bring it right back in their faces.’ 

It seems highly appropriate for this show to be updated to suit the modern times as this was its original purpose - representing contemporary issues - and it has the writer’s approval.

theatre sign for Company play

The main character ‘Bobby’ in the original production, was a single straight man, unable to commit to a relationship, who lives in a building with five married and straight couples. In this new reworking, the lead role of Bobby has been changed to a female along with the inclusion of same sex couples living in the building with the lead. 

The gender swap and rewrites have seen this new production become the most talked about production of the year - and it is has been a huge critical hit. No one seems to have been complaining in this instance about the gender change and it has been seen as a positive, natural and necessary adaptation.

However, a new production OthelloMacbeth has been hotly debated and generally has not been going down too well. OthelloMacbeth is a new reworking of the two plays - Macbeth and Othello - but it has been changed so that the focus is on the female roles and told with a feminst narrative - but still using Shakespeare’s original text, just reordered.

 ‘Shakespeare’s tragedies need to be told for today’s world. It’s time for their female voices to be brought to the fore’ Jude Christian

I am sure no one would argue that exploring Shakespeare’s female characters from a contemporary angle wouldn’t be fascinating, but one could question whether the changes in this production is just to be ‘topical’ and to perhaps deliberately cause controversy for publicity, rather than something more meaningful. However, personally, I am not a fan of changing someone’s work without their consultation. Write something new! Surely, a new play exploring the female characters in Shakespeare’s work would be interesting? Should we just be changing existing works to ensure equal gender and diversity representation, or should we be creating new work that is relevant to today’s society? 

This is, of course, not just about the Theatre world. The debate about a female James Bond or a James Bond from a non-white background has been going around for a while. Ian Fleming created the character of James Bond and personally, I would rather see a writer create a brand new character than try to change an existing one.

The fairy tale portrait of women

Another current debate has been about female role models in fairy tales and whether they should be changed. Keira Knightley recently explained during an interview that she will not allow her three-year-old daughter to watch the Disney films The Little Mermaid  and Cinderella. She explained that Cinderella is banned because ‘she waits around for a rich guy to rescue her’ and regarding the Little Mermaid ‘the songs are great, but do not give up your voice for a man!’.

Kristen Bell has also been discussing these issues and debating the consent message Snow White sends out. In the end, is it really ok to kiss someone when they’re sleeping?

All of these points are of course excellent conversations to have, and the female characters in fairy tales are of an age far removed from our current time and certainly do not represent women in today's society. The Grimm fairy tales were written in 1812 - a time when women were not allowed to vote, be educated and were expected to be the home-makers. 

Liv Lorent, Artistic Director and choreographer was awarded an MBE for services to dance in 2014 for her groundbreaking work in challenging the gender stereotypes through diverse adaptations of fairy tales. 

In her version of Snow White, the Prince is actually a Northern miner. But again, this has caused controversy and some traditionalist pantomime theatre lovers, for example, are up in arms about the thought of changing these traditional roles, insisting that the ‘Prince’ must always save the ‘Princess’.

Representing today’s women

Ultimately these debates are a huge positive step forward and a sign that times really are changing and diversity is truly not only being considered, but being challenged when not evident. However, I would like to see more new material being written and produced rather than adapting and changing existing text. 

There is a significant amount of value in tradition -  the exploration of this leads to awareness of how times have changed - we cannot just ignore history, but surely we should be learning from it, moving forward.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Pearson.


Trained in dance, drama and music Fiona Ross has been working in the creative arts Industry for many years with her first professional job at the age of two. Currently working in the jazz industry, she has released four critically acclaimed albums in the past three years and performed in London’s top jazz venues. Fiona is also a freelance journalist for three major jazz publications and passionate advocate for mental health promotion and is a patron for the mental health organisation Insomniac Club.

She is involved in teaching, leadership and arrangement in education and was Head of British Academy of New Music, London, for nearly nine years (Ed Sheeran, Rita Ora, Jess Glynne etc)


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