Crowdresearch update: Much Ado About the Gender Play Gap

Hi friends! It’s time for another crowdresearch update. If you thought our statistics on women novelists at KS3 were bad enough (find out more here), the statistics on playwrights are even worse.

Out of the schools researched up to 16th July 2021, 544 had useable data. A quick review of these schools shows:

1415 plays were taught across Key Stage 3

11.5 of these are by women
(one is co-authored by a woman, hence the .5)

1074 are by Shakespeare

These statistics demonstrate a glaringly obvious gender gap, but there’s also a deeper issue at play here (no pun intended!). The dominance of Shakespeare when it comes to teaching Drama within English means that playwrights of both sexes are barely getting a look-in. 

One reason for Shakespeare’s monopoly comes from Michael Gove’s 2013 amendments to the English National Curriculum (Drama is considered to be part of English in the secondary National Curriculum). Though schools are directed to teach a wide range of plays from across historical periods, Gove stipulated that two of the plays taught at KS3 have to be Shakespeare. Given that most schools only teach one play a year, it doesn’t take a maths genius to work out that these requirements are pretty much mutually exclusive. While some schools get around this by teaching extracts from Shakespeare alongside modern plays, most stick to whole Shakespeare plays, leaving them with no time for any others. This narrows the Drama curriculum to an extreme extent, squeezing out all other voices – most notably women’s – from children’s experiences of the theatre in classrooms. 

Michael Gove himself isn’t really the problem here, though; the problem lies in why Michael Gove believes Shakespeare to be so worthy of monopolising the teaching of Drama in the first place. For starters, the theatre has always been a patriarchal institution, with women historically being barred from performing and writing for the stage; it is no surprise therefore that a male playwright has grown to have such dominance in an industry where women have always been bit players. However, Shakespeare’s specific dominance of our literary culture dates back to the nineteenth century, when he was used as cultural and political currency to reinforce British values across the Empire. The same society that revered Shakespeare was responsible for the relegation of women to the home and the denial of their political, economic and cultural agency; Shakespeare’s plays, in which women are mostly minor characters who are victims, whores, monsters, or a combination of all of these, reflect that society’s values perfectly. When English Literature became a valued course of academic study at the beginning of the twentieth century, the canon of literature was created by male academics, brought up in the nineteenth century. Unsurprisingly, they saw Shakespeare as central to upholding the patriarchal, colonial view of the world they had grown up with, and their belief of Shakespeare’s importance to our culture has remained very much unchanged – and unchallenged – ever since. In many ways, Shakespeare has come to represent the patriarchy, and so any questioning of Shakespeare is a questioning of patriarchy itself. Is it any wonder, therefore, that anyone who questions the value of Shakespeare is ridiculed and silenced?

When over 75% of plays taught in our schools are by the same dead white man, we stand with those who challenge the narrative of whose voices are considered to be worth hearing in our classrooms. Shakespeare should be read, watched, studied and enjoyed, but not by continuing to exalt him to the exclusion of others in a self-perpetuating justification of patriarchal values. It seems that when it comes to teaching writing for the theatre, we’re still stuck in the nineteenth century. We would never mandate that schools only teach one novelist throughout the first three years of a child’s education, so why do we consider it acceptable to do just that for plays? Regardless of Shakespeare’s perceived genius, a curriculum so limited and so exclusionary of female voices – when girls make up over half of our classrooms – is, in 2021, unacceptable. We need to change the status quo. Girls need to see themselves reflected in the stories they read and boys need to hear women’s stories from women’s viewpoints. Girls also need to see that they can write stories for the stage and have their voices heard in this medium; leaving school only having studied male playwrights makes it very clear to girls that this door is closed to them, and we can’t let this continue.

If we are to ensure Britain remains a bastion of theatrical creativity for generations to come, we need to ensure our English curriculum teaches children that the theatre is something alive, evolving, and accessible to all, no matter their sex, race or class. Is it any wonder that the theatre is still dominated by privately educated white males when pupils subjected to the National Curriculum know nothing of the theatre beyond a single white male dramatist whose last play was written four hundred years ago?

If you’d like to be part of the movement to end sexism in schools, get in touch today and join us. Together, we can make a difference.

Jen Eden
Jen Eden
Articles: 11

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