What Kimberly Peirce And Marin Alsop Tell Us About Women, Leadership, And The Arts

Kimberly Perice Credit: Stumped Magazine
Kimberly Perice Credit: Stumped Magazine

This week brought another round of depressing statistics about the number of women who are making entertainment with the latest Directors Guild of America report revealed that women are directing just 14 percent of television episodes (of that 14 percent, 12 percent of those episodes are directed by white women, and 2 percent by women of color). But reading terrible numbers like these over and over again can be a dispiriting experience — just knowing that things are bad doesn’t help us diagnose why they’re bad, or move us towards sustainable change, rather than season-by-season spikes and dips.

But two pieces published this week help connect the experience of women in leadership positions in the arts to the perception of women in other professions. First, there’s the New York Times Magazine profile of director Kimberly Peirce, who helmed the remake of Carrie. The profile is evenly split between a discussion of Peirce’s core subjects — as she puts it, “I deal with misfits, with what power does to people, with humiliation and anger and violence.” — and her management style, including a story about her being excluded from an outing organized by male members of her Carrie crew — “I wrote: ‘I can see you guys! And by the way, why didn’t you invite me? Director or girl?’ And he responded, ‘Girl.’” A discussion of her style of dealing with actors seems revealing:

The set of Peirce’s “Carrie” was also a hodgepodge of gender politics. On the one hand, Moore said, “it was extraordinary for me to have a female director, because it’s so very rare, and to have that point of view, particularly when you are telling a story that is so female-dominated.” Peirce is known for being an empathetic director, teasing wonderfully naturalistic performances out of both greenhorns and veterans. She studied acting for three years simply as a way to improve her craft. Glickman referred to her as “a great, great actress director.” When I told this to Moore, she paused. “I’m not sure I agree that she’s better with women — I think she’s just as good with men,” she said. “People talk about this a lot, that women sometimes have a different managerial style than men do. We respond to each other very well, you know? There’s a collective when women are working together, which is great. It’s unusual for men when they see that kind of managerial style. Sometimes they don’t understand that it’s a different style based on gender. . . . I do think that sometimes they can misinterpret what that is.”

You could call it misinterpretation, or you could call it sexism. “Julianne said no other director had been spoken to the way I was spoken to,” Peirce told me. “And that was amazing, because you don’t go to your actors with trouble. But it means a lot when they come to you as an adult to say, ‘I see what they’re doing.’ ”

The piece suggests that the perception that women are different, stylistically, from men when they take the director’s chair can be both a strength and a challenge. For Peirce, it can create intense bonds with the actors she’s working with, particularly with women. But she also talks about the desire to fit in with male directors, and the extent to which her wife has encouraged her to think more carefully about hiring women. It’s a revealing portrait of the constant decisions the few women in power in Hollywood have to make in order to retain their authority and to consolidate the power that will get them new opportunities.


Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s classical music critic, offers up another perspective when he writes about what the reaction to the selection of Marin Alsop, the music director of the Baltimore and São Paulo Symphonies to direct the Last Night of Proms, the culmination of eight weeks of classical concerts in the UK, taught him about sexism in the classical world. “I was naïve about the degree to which male-chauvinist attitudes persist,” Ross writes, saying that he realized that after reading comments by conductors like Vasily Petrenko, who said that “a sweet girl on the podium can make one’s thoughts drift towards something else,” or Yuri Temirkanov, who declared in an interview that “The essence of the conductor’s profession is strength. The essence of a woman is weakness.” Ross draws to a tough conclusion:

The principle of male power is so deeply ingrained in the mythology of the conductor that sentiments such as these are still not uncommon, although they are seldom expressed so bluntly in public. The bias against female musicians is hardly confined to Russia — and it should be remembered that composers such as Galina Ustvolskaya, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Elena Firsova achieved prominence in the Soviet Union at a time when their female counterparts in the West were struggling for recognition. The Vienna Philharmonic appears at Carnegie Hall season after season, despite the small number of women in its ranks. (It began admitting women only in 1997.) When Jane Glover leads “The Magic Flute” at the Met in December — in an abridged holiday version — she will become only the third female conductor in the company’s history. The stiflingly male atmosphere in the upper echelons of classical music reinforces the image of a dim, hidebound art, out of tune with modern reality. If people in the classical world are uncomfortable with taking a political stance, they might at least worry about appearing to be stupid.

I think this is absolutely true, and it’s a concern that I wish that more people who were resistant to change in culture shared. But I think that it’s one that many won’t be able to admit until they acknowledge something much larger: that there are a lot of different management styles that can produce desirable results, and a lot of roads you can walk to reach the same destination. That’s not a challenge that’s particular to the arts — the idea of a singular vision plays as much a role in tech companies, or the mythos of Warren Buffett as it does on the composer’s podium or in the director’s chair. Until we can accept, broadly, that difference (whether it’s tied to gender or not) isn’t deficit, we’re going to have a lot of trouble improving the percentage of women in leadership in the arts, and everywhere else.