Alice Flynn is not happy about the flippant use of the term ‘female-led’ for shows that really, just aren’t. Does she think a show directed by a man can ever be feminst? Let’s find out.

In the wake of #MeToo and the rise of fourth-wave feminism, there have been more and more productions which reclaim the stories of women from canonical texts. Tanika Gupta and Rachel O’Riordan’s production of A Doll’s House, which transports Nora to colonial India, is a great example of a ‘radical’ new adaptation of a classic. RashDash Theatre company’s 2018 reimagining of Chekhov’s Three Sisters is another feminist update of a canonical play written by a man, as was Polly Stenham’s Julie (after Strindberg), directed by Carrie Cracknell. All of these productions have been re-written, directed and led by women, and that is something to be celebrated. However, there is an epidemic of similar shows which claim to be ‘female-led’ despite having a male director. So I wonder… how can a piece of theatre be ‘female-led’ if the leader of the cast & creative team is a man?

The phrase ‘female-led’, and indeed the word ‘feminist’ itself, has become something of a buzzword in recent years. Politicians who aren’t actively fighting for women’s rights can invoke the label by sharing a GIF of Beyoncé in a sarcastic twitter clapback, wearing a ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt, or worse, simply by virtue of being a woman – cue that disastrous Eric Andre interview of The Spice Girls claiming Thatcher had ‘girl power’. In the theatre world, the equivalent of this performative feminism is the abundance of male-directed Shakespeares, Ibsens, and Chekhovs claiming that because they’ve cast a woman in a role not written for a woman, their show is ‘radical’.

Your show is not female-led just because there’s women in it. I’ll say it again in case it didn’t sink in: your show is not female-led just because there’s women in it.

Am I saying that a show directed by a man can never be feminst? Of course not, there are plenty of shows out there directed by men with a feminist message and I support them. But claiming your show is specifically ‘female-led’ when the authority in the rehearsal room is a man? That is not a female-led show, that is taking credit for diversity you haven’t fully committed to. Doing a gender-blind call and casting a woman by chance, casting a woman in a traditionally male role, or having a male director stage a woman’s experience are not valid reasons to put ‘female-led’ on your promo materials. Doing any of this stuff is absolutely fine – please go ahead, but you don’t get a prize for it.

An example of this is a recent production of Macbeth by Reading based company RBL. On their marketing copy they claimed their show ‘[puts] women at the fore’. The production was inspired by the high-octane violence and female power of Killing Eve, and drew influences from cinema horror, which is a fascinating genre in terms of its relationship with women. Despite often being labelled as sexist due to so many films featuring sexualised women being spectacularly killed like Paris Hilton in House Of Wax (2005), or hysterical ‘psychobiddies’ like Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990), the genre has a large female fanbase. Although the male gaze is very present in horror, there is something unconventionally feminist about films like Alien (1979), You’re Next (2011), and Midsommar (2019), which tell stories of women surviving against the odds. As a horror buff and a feminist, I was excited to see a take on one of my favourite Shakespeares that examines women in horror scenarios, but upon realising that RBL had chosen a man to lead this ‘female-led’ production, I felt a little bit like I’d been tricked. For a show to so proudly claim what a ‘radical’, ‘female-led’ statement it is despite the text and direction being controlled by men, is quite misleading and I’m glad I didn’t spend £20 on a ticket.

Frustratingly, a horror-themed Macbeth with a female lead had a lot of potential to shine a light on horror cinema archetypes, but it’s difficult to do that without a woman’s perspective on the direction. In interviews, it’s revealed RBL’s Macbeth’s rampage is a trauma response to a miscarriage, and the Witches are combined as a singular Nurse Ratchet-esque midwife. While I’m sure Director, Hal Chambers had good intentions, the childless woman becoming a killer is already an overplayed trope, with ‘powerful women’ gratuitously murdering each other not feeling like a feminist statement when the implication is that Macbeth becomes this hysterical killer because she cannot be a mother. Furthermore, the production also chose to have a pregnant Macduff kill Macbeth, inadvertently suggesting the idea that women’s sanity and righteousness is intrinsically linked to their capacity for motherhood. That’s not ‘radical’, that’s been the status quo for centuries.

Staging horror featuring women with a male director, acts out a dynamic where a man is reenacting violence against women for an audience. There’s a risk of it becoming voyeurism in the guise of feminism. It makes you wonder who this production is for? If it’s really about putting women at the forefront, then was it really so hard to find a woman director? There is something viscerally uncomfortable about a man directing women to brutally murder each other Giallo-style in front of an audience, then marketing it as feminism. In interviews, Chambers talks a lot about showing Macbeth as a ‘powerful woman’, but showing women being capable of murder isn’t empowering just because it’s a woman doing the killing.

Am I accusing all male directors who try to make feminist work of being raging misogynists? Absolutely not! There are often good intentions behind such productions, but for work to be truly female-led, you need to have women leading it. We don’t need a #ThisGirlCan campaign for murder, we’d just like to tell our own stories, thanks.

The fact of the matter is, too many companies get away with it and it’s a real problem. But why is it so common? One very cynical explanation is that it’s a marketing strategy. Feminism is in right now and it’s an easy way to make your work look more progressive on funding applications and cash in on the feminist audience. It’s also a way for male directors to feel like they’re making a difference to the gender gap in the arts, without actually creating space for women directors in the first place. A more optimistic take is that maybe it’s just a lot of well-intentioned, naive male allies wanting to make a difference, and just going about it the wrong way. For the sake of women of the arts though, I hope that it’s the latter.