Time to bring down the curtain on stage critics' sexism

A week in which male reviewers provoked a storm by calling opera singer Tara Erraught 'unsightly' has provoked a much-needed debate on sexist attitudes in arts criticism

Below, women in the arts give their views on the controversy

The row about Tara Erraught and her body-bashing critics is both terrible and useful. Following her Glyndebourne debut in the "trouser role" of Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, the 27-year-old Irish mezzo was treated to a string of fierce reviews. Often skimpy on comments about her voice ("albeit gloriously sung"), they took her to pieces for what she looked like. "Unsightly and unappealing," said the Times. "A chubby bundle of puppy-fat," cried the Financial Times. "A dumpy girl," wailed the Independent.

Many of the remarks are gruesome; the debate they have generated is overdue. After all, there we sit, us critics, our spare tyres hidden by the darkness in the stalls and our crows' feet disguised with unchanging byline photographs. Of course we are not intended to be on display, or required to perform what we criticise, but the cover of that darkness should not allow us to behave with the untrammelled viciousness of internet trolls.

Cruelty and criticism are often hard to distinguish when you are on the receiving end. There is no critic, unless he or she is a complete patsy, who has not caused an artist some distress, and the distress must be worst for performers, who are obliged to repeat their derided acts in public. Actually, the most dispassionate criticisms are the most wounding: when I've had a walloping for my prose it helps to think that the writer is venomous; judicious disparagement is harder to shake off.

Nastiness is always easier to write than praise. It enables a critic to show off; it often generates flashy similes. But it is likely to tell you more about the viewer than the viewed. What does "unsightly" mean in the Times review of Glyndebourne? It does nothing to summon up the figure on stage. It simply registers the critic's need for a new pair of contact lenses.

A critic has an obligation to tell what they see on stage, rather than just slapping down a judgmental adjective. Obviously this may mean saying that a performer looks wrong for a part. It would be daft to cast someone my height (5ft 3in) as Rosalind in As You Like It without asking the actor to ironise her line about being "more than common tall". It does not mean assuming the criteria of attractiveness are shared by everyone. Erraught's detractors seem to take it for granted that only skinny can be gorgeous and that skinnies only go for skinnies. "It is hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy woman's plausible lover," said the Guardian. There is also a quaint suggestion that "a young nobleman" has to be slender. A canter through the House of Lords might help dispel that notion.

The Telegraph critic who characterised Erraught as dumpy succinctly pointed out that costume crime was at the root of the difficulty. Kiri Te Kanawa was more forthcoming on the point. She thinks Erraught a marvellous singer who is in danger of being thrown off track by these attacks at the beginning of her career. But she does not pretend to think the production a visual success. Not because of Erraught's shape, but because of the shape of what she was wearing: "Look at the coat. It's a shocker… I would throw the wig on the floor, stamp on it."

It is not surprising that the most eloquent complaints about these attacks have come from singers and from women. They know what it is like to be gawped at, and they know – in the case of opera – that the gawping will be by men. I work on a paper which has a female music critic, and had not until now realised what a rarity this is. Fiona Maddocks tweeted before her forthcoming full review that Erraught's Octavian is "touching, innocent, beautifully sung, beautifully acted". I would be surprised if she has put in an insult about dress size.

Things are rather better in theatreland, where the proportion of female critics has become much higher over the past 10 years, and where male critics are afflicted less by adjectival derision than by drool when reviewing female actors. I cannot think of many instances of ad feminam attacks, though even one ("looks like a horse") is too many. Oh well, there was of course the person who objected to the idea of Judi Dench playing Cleopatra. What did Peter Hall think he was doing, casting "a menopausal dwarf"? Who was that critic? Judi Dench.

In fact the worst case of critical body-bashing that I can remember did not involve a woman. When Simon Russell Beale's Hamlet was taken to New York, I was invited on to the radio not to discuss his performance but to debate the casting with John Simon, a critic who had made a career out of being severe and particular about people's appearance. He – and it seems to me amazing that this made it into print – had spent a lot of words, of the kind often described as witty – that's to say, unpleasant – addressing what he saw as the critical question of Barbra Streisand's nose. He decided that it "cleaves the great screen from east to west, bisects it from north to south. It zigzags across our horizon like a bolt of fleshy lightning." His complaint about Russell Beale was that he did not look like a prince. He was apparently too portly and not gorgeous enough. Had he never taken a look at the British royal family?

Blinded by his prejudice, Simon missed one of the most moving and intelligent Hamlets most of us will ever see. Russell Beale moved and gestured as if he had spent time at a court; he spoke as if he were any man who had lost a parent and part of his own sense of self. He did what Ellen Terry said of Henry Irving: he did not go out to the audience but made the audience come to him. A large part of his sympathetic power was due to the timbre and variety of his mellow voice. He used this as a weapon of seduction and in doing so proved that old truth. Men expect to be seduced by what they see. Women by what they hear.

'We can't expect the power of appearance to cease altogether'

Louise Chunn, editor of Psychologies magazine.
Louise Chunn, editor of Psychologies magazine. Photograph: Graeme Robertson Photograph: Graeme Robertson

"The world's biggest power is the youth and beauty of a woman." It's a long time since Indian economics pioneer Chanakya wrote that, in the third century BC, but it's worth remembering that mankind has long been in thrall to feminine beauty. Kim Kardashian is just the latest in a line of head-turners who seem to dominate our TV screens and print media.

But does the idea that the young and good-looking get the top slots really stand up to scrutiny? At first look, yes. There is no shortage of pretty women on TV. And people are more obsessed than ever with the way celebrities look – their size, shape, clothes, sexual allure. In fact, now the scrutiny is spreading to the men.

But I'm starting to think that other – more equalising – forces are coming into play. Where once good-looking meant being as cookie-cutter as an old-style air hostess, now we see many different versions. Sure, there are still clusters of fake-tanned white women with long blonde tresses and cleavage-ramping outfits (for those who can't stay away from Sky Sports), but the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 offer some real visual and cultural diversity with newsreaders and presenters. Dark hair, dark skin, blonde hair with untamed kinks, short bright-red hair even (that's Mary Portas, for you). The viewers didn't fall away when faced with non-stereotypical TV females; they like it.

Clare Balding would once have had "a good face for radio", but is now a national treasure. Mary Beard is building up a swell, andsince Miriam O'Reilly's victory in her age discrimination case, some of those over 50 (like my favourite, Kirsty Wark) are prospering. But we can't expect the power of appearance to cease altogether: TV is a visual medium and presentation is important.

Magazines rely on models and actresses to sell dreams to ordinary folk. Here too, though, we are seeing a change. While most Red readers will agree that Gwyneth Paltrow is a beauty, angular Sofia Coppola is a more acquired taste; for Vogue readers what's beautiful now stretches from curvy blonde bombshell Kate Upton to waif-like Alexa Chung. Editors can see that there's room for classics and alternatives. And the more we allow the alternatives, the less straight-forward "beauty" will count.

A Twitter storm every couple of days about how men get away with being bald or fat or sexist might be boring, but it also chips away at entrenched ideas and lets us all think a little harder about what we value and what it's really worth to us. Beauty will always be esteemed, but it's not the "world power" it once was. Louise Chunn, journalist and founder of welldoing.org

'It is harder to be noticed unless you look good'

Jessica Duchen
Jessica Duchen Photograph: PR

Classical music is primarily an aural art, not a visual one. But in an increasingly screen-dominated world, especially under the magnifying glass of social media, the industry has inevitably upped its concern with image – even though that is not key to the music's rewards.

As a result it has become much harder for soloists – young women most of all – to be noticed unless they look as good as they sound. Back in the 1980s ferocious controversy ensued when the cellist Ofra Harnoy was photographed draped over a sofa. Today I doubt anybody would blink.

After this week's Glyndebourne debacle, we know some of the issues that face singers, but things are not so different for instrumentalists. A thrilling contingent is emerging, for instance, of young pianists in their twenties, including two stunning talents, Yuja Wang and Khatia Buniatishvili. Unfortunately Wang has gradually become as well- known for wearing short skirts on stage as for her dazzling playing, while some of Buniatishvili's publicity photos seem to concentrate on highlighting the curve of her behind. Their looks give them an extra edge – and it may be their own choice rather than industry coercion – but in an ideal world it shouldn't be an issue.

On the one hand society still tends to consider a woman "cheapened" if her image is overly sexualised, but on the other, I have heard fabulous young female pianists who won't play the glamour game – and do not receive the attention they deserve. They may have won important international piano competitions, but they don't get the cover shots, the YouTube hits or the recording contracts.

Wang and Buniatishvili roundly deserve their success in musical terms – they have "the complete package" – and that's fine. But it's certain that other performers, of both sexes, are filling concert halls on the basis of their marketed image rather than their musicianship. No one can fake the ability to play, so a basic level of accomplishment must be there – but if indifferent artists who are supremely photogenic are snaffling the opportunities – and keeping out potentially great ones who are not – audiences are being duped. Why? Publicity, sales and cash.

It happens. Not all the time, but it happens. Of course it's wrong to assume that just because a musician looks good, he or she can't possibly be worth hearing. But the ultimate proof needs to be in what reaches the ears, not the eyes. Otherwise why bother with the music?

One hopes that talent will out – but there's no guarantee. The bottom line is that neither looks nor talent is what today's music industry is about. It is all about money. Jessica Duchen, author and classical music journalist

I overheard my auditioner say, 'She's very old.' I was 34

Lisa Gifford
Lisa Gifford Photograph: Michael Wharley Photograph: Michael Wharley

Several years ago I decided to give up a career as a sales agent in film and television to study for an acting degree. As I left the audition room of one very famous drama school I overheard one of the assessors say, "She's very good." Her (male) companion replied, "Yes she is – but have you seen her date of birth? She's very old." I was 34.

I recently worked in a writers' room for a television pilot. There were two female writers; the rest were male. "The girls", as we were known, were expected to write meeting minutes, run errands and get the coffee.

My female co-writer and I are professional, published and produced writers and had the most experience in the team. However, we were automatically seen as junior to the men. Not surprisingly, we both quit.

I'm often asked to add younger female characters into my writing, for apparently no other reason than that a pretty face sells. I run a production company with my husband, and over and again we are receiving scripts where the female character is there simply as something for the (usually) older male to have sex with. As an actor, I am continually being sent scripts where my character is naked and having sex with a guy within a few pages.

Fewer and fewer female writers and directors are working in the industry. Look at the recent Directors UK report, published this month. The number of female directors in British television is falling at an alarming rate. But women who want to get into the industry are finding new ways to get their voices heard, and many of them are turning to online media.

I am the show-runner on my webseries 3some. Because it's online, I'm free to tell the story I want. All the major characters in the series are over 30, there is a bit of sex, in the right context, and there is nudity – but of the male variety. We have over half a million viewers (more than many cable TV shows) and have notched up 16 awards and nominations internationally, so I am doing something right.

Received wisdom says that the online audience is teenage boys and girls in their bedrooms, but in fact we know that the majority of our viewers are women aged 35-65. We're giving these women something they're not finding through the conventional channels. As it happens, we've got a very healthy audience of 15–25-year- olds, too.

I don't for a second believe that the public only wants to see pretty young things on stage and screen; there's room for a multitude of personalities, shapes and sizes. However, it's going to take a big shift in perception from what is, essentially, an industry dominated by white middle-class men.

It is going to happen eventually. but there needs to be a concerted, concentrated effort right now to make the change – not just for women but for all those under-represented on our screens for reasons of race, disability, social group and so on. Lisa Gifford, writer and actor


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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