Cumulative advantage and women playwrights

11 Mar

At The Summit, a public conversation with prominent DC theatres’ artistic directors convened by Washington Post theatre critic Peter Marks, Ryan Rilette tried to explain why it was more difficult for prominent theatres to stage women playwrights than to stage their male peers. Part of his reply–that there were fewer women “in the pipeline” (meaning a production circuit from major London and New York stages) went viral on social media, inspiring some very funny memes like Daniel Alexander Jones’:

Daniel Alexander Jones' meme

Daniel Alexander Jones’ meme


It also inspired Elaine Romero to initiate WE EXIST, an open-source, editable list of female and trans* playwrights to which anyone can add herself or another playwright. (see my previous post.)

But I don’t want to make Rilette the bad guy here; his theater, Roundhouse, is committing to gender parity in future seasons, and is part of a group of 44 DC-based theatres who’ll be premiering women playwrights for the Women’s Voices Festival in DC in 2015.

Instead, I want to tease out what’s useful and important in the problem he named.

Firstly, his comment hit a nerve, because, as Elaine Romero commented while she, Rachel Jendrzejewski and I built WE EXIST, “women are tired of having to ask permission to be included.” We are also tired of too-familiar excuses— it’s easier to find male playwrights; they write better plays (OK, that one’s almost retired); they promote themselves better than women.

These excuses are effects, not causes, of why women and trans* playwrights are so persistently under-represented–and here’s why Rilette’s comment is so important.

He wasn’t making these excuses. He was saying something else. The “pipeline” comment went viral, because it articulates an explosive–and very useful– truth. It points to the way disadvantage has its own momentum. (Obviously, this doesn’t just apply to gender–it’s the reason affirmative action programs exist.) It’s a vicious circle: women playwrights are hard to produce, because they’re not produced enough to create name recognition, making them hard to produce (and therefore ACHIEVE name recognition). It’s a form of cumulative disadvantage.

So how does cumulative advantage work? In his article J.K. Rowling and the Chamber of Literary Fame, Duncan J. Watts writes that “market success is driven less by intrinsic talent than by “cumulative advantage,” a rich-get-richer process in which early, possibly even random events are amplified by social feedback and produce large differences in future outcomes.”

Watts continues:

To test our cumulative-advantage hypothesis, we recruited almost 30,000 participants to listen, rate and download songs by bands they had never heard of. Unbeknownst to the participants, they were randomly assigned to one of two groups: an “independent” group, which saw only the names of the bands and the songs, and a “social influence” group, whose participants could see how many times songs had been downloaded by others in the group. In addition, those in the social-influence group were assigned to one of eight different “worlds” that were created concurrently, allowing us to effectively “run” history many times.

If quality determined success, the same songs should have won every time by a margin that was independent of what people knew about the choices of others. By contrast, if success was driven disproportionately by a few early downloads, subsequently amplified by social influence, the outcomes would be largely random and would also become more unequal as the social feedback became stronger.

What we found was highly consistent with the cumulative-advantage hypothesis. First, when people could see what other people liked, the inequality of success increased, meaning that popular songs became more popular and unpopular songs become less so. Second and more surprisingly, each song’s popularity was incredibly unpredictable: One song, for example, came in 1st out of 48 we sampled in one “world,” but it came in 40th in another.

He goes on to describe the reception of The Cuckoo’s Calling, J.K. Rowling’s recent novel (published under a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith) which was critically well received but achieved only modest sales until its author’s identity was revealed. At that point, sales took off. Watts concludes,

Rowling made a bold move and, no doubt, is feeling vindicated by the critical acclaim the book has received. But there’s a catch: Until the news leaked about the author’s real identity, this critically acclaimed book had sold somewhere between 500 and 1,500 copies, depending on which report you read. As they say in the U.K., that’s rubbish! What’s more, had the author actually been Robert Galbraith, the book would almost certainly have continued to languish in obscurity, probably forever.

So, how does all this apply to “the pipeline” and the situation of women and trans* playwrights?

Watts points to “early downloads” and people being able to see “what other people liked” as major factors in songs’ future popularity. We could consider the leg-up given playwrights by factors such as prestigious MFA programs, white privilege, and most definitely by gender, as equivalent to “early downloads”. And the echo chamber of “what people liked” (the passing of names and plays between a small influential group of overwhelmingly white and male artistic directors) feeds into the pipeline, because popularity is influenced by other people’s opinions–in different ways, depending on what “world” you’re in.

Add to this the fact that this echo chamber, leading to a “pipeline” that includes archiving and publication–or, if you’re not in it, to historical erasure—has been amplifying its effects in the Western theatre tradition for thousands of years, and it starts to look amazing that we have any women playwrights in “the pipeline” at all.

Surely, the cumulative-advantage hypothesis provides a more compelling explanation for the persistent DIS-advantage facing women and trans* playwrights than the notions that it’s “hard to find good plays by women,” and “women don’t promote themselves enough.”

If this is the case–what else can we do to support “early downloads” and alternative echo-chambers of opinion (“what others liked”) to help women and trans* playwrights make use of cumulative advantage, instead of being sidelined by it? One of the knotty problems here is that projects specifically championing women can easily be side-barred, away from the echo-chamber of opinion that’s about “real” playwrights.

We need to change the center as well as agitate from the margins, and to do that we need “early downloads” and the power of group opinion and social pressure.

In my next post I’ll outline some possible strategies, talk about some great initiatives already underway and meanwhile I welcome your comments.

9 Responses to “Cumulative advantage and women playwrights”

  1. chasbelov March 12, 2014 at 10:19 pm #

    Reblogged this on Exit, Pursued by a Lark and commented:
    I feel like I’m up against this as well, as an unknown non-MFA gay/queer white male playwright. Still, I’m just one guy, and this is a whole gender. A must-read about who becomes well-known and why.

  2. Johne591 July 14, 2014 at 11:22 am #

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