I spent Thanksgiving with friends that I met doing theater, meaning that before the turkey came out of the oven, I got into a debate with someone about whether The Light in the Piazza is a great musical or not. I am an enthusiastic fan of this musical; my friend is not all that impressed with it. At one point in our conversation, he said, "Maybe it's 'cause you're a girl."
"Really?" I said. I felt slightly patronized.
"It's just, in my experience, the people I know who've loved this show the most have all been young women. And I have to wonder if it's because this show is an unabashed, sentimental romance, and we don't get a lot of those in the theater nowadays, so it feeds some kind of hunger."
"Huh, maybe," I said. "I can see your point. But I don't just relate to it on the level of romantic fantasy. It's not that I want to be Clara--"
"Of course you don't, Marissa--you'd never want to have the mental age of a 10-year-old!"
"Ha, ha -- I mean, the reason I like the show is not because I want to go to Florence and fall in love with a handsome Italian. It's really the mother's story, after all... and I thought that that was very well done."
I do see my friend's point about The Light in the Piazza feeding a hunger for a musical that is a real, rapturous love story. After all, I saw it when I was still in my teens, and far more liable to be swept off my feet by romance. I remember that the guy I had a crush on at the time told me he'd been to see The Light in the Piazza, and hated it -- he'd left at intermission. "Oh no!" I thought. "How can I possibly be in love with someone who hates The Light in the Piazza?" It was as though by rejecting this musical, he had also rejected me, and my love, and the way I feel and express love. Which would seem to prove my friend's theory correct. Nowadays, though, I'm still a fan of The Light in the Piazza, but it wouldn't bother me if I had a crush on a guy who hated it!
But I want to return to my friend's other comment, "maybe it's 'cause you're a girl," and my feeling vaguely patronized by that remark. I want to ask: did I have a right to feel patronized?
On the one hand, I bristle at the suggestion that men and women have inherently different reactions to works of art. It seems awfully reductive, saying that gender trumps all. Also, it's a slippery slope from "because you're a girl, you have different taste than me" to "because you're a girl, you have worse taste than me." We were trying to have an argument about aesthetic merit, after all.
On the other hand, don't I praise works of art that I feel capture the essence of being a woman, plays and novels that touch something in me that stories about men do not? (Of course, I can also be moved by works of art that feature male protagonists! But I must admit that they move me in a different way.) Aren't I annoyed when theater companies produce far more male than female playwrights in a season? Don't I always say "Female playwrights are still in the minority, so I think it's very important to tell women's stories in my writing?"
Well, I can't have it both ways. Either women and men are inherently different, or they're not. If I want to go on touting the importance of women's stories and female authors, I must realize that such stories don't necessarily speak to a male audience, and not be bothered when someone suggests that I might have liked a certain work of art "because I'm a girl." Conversely, if I feel patronized when someone suggests that I liked something "because I'm a girl" -- that is, if I want to take gender out of discussions of artistic merit -- I can't complain about theaters that produce plays by men four times as often as they produce plays by women, as long as the work that ends up onstage is good.
It's a thorny issue, and logical consistency is a real pain.* I guess I just can't decide whether it is more feminist to say "I am a woman, I am proud to be a woman, hear me roar," or to say "I am so secure in who I am that I don't need to keep mentioning that I'm a woman, and the best way to stop sexism is to stop insisting that the sexes are fundamentally different."
*I was going to say "logical consitency is a bitch," but that would just open up a whole 'nother can of worms about gender and language and whether I am a self-loathing female if I use the word "bitch" in this context!