Susan Rubin is a playwright and blogger for MS. Magazine as well as the producer of the web-series The Vagina Dialogues; here is a link to her website:
Q: What is The Vagina Dialogues about?
A: Vagina Dialogues takes place in the TV newsroom of Women to Women News. Anchorwoman Christina Rivera de Jesus Gonzales Rajmanpour Kolontov Yng-Wong Schwartz, is a young journalist climbing up the ladder as a feminist news anchor. While Christina is brilliant, young and beautiful, she is a bit stiff, and the network feels she would get better ratings if they partnered her with a floozy, puff-piece of an actress named MeMe May. Without Christina’s okay, or even her knowledge, MeMe is brought on to the pilot episode of Vagina Dialogues to co-anchor the news with Christina. The producer of Women to Women News, Dick, has the difficult job of convincing Christina that MeMe’s participation on the show will not have a diminishing effect. The six-episode arc of the web series, give Christina and MeMe (with Dick’s frantic intervention) a chance to do some hilarious arguing about Big Feminist Issues!
Q: How did you come up with the idea?
A: I am a regular contributor to Ms Magazine’s popular online blog: http://msmagazine.com/blog/
When I had written a dozen blogs which all proved to be provocative and well received, and because I am primarily a playwright, I thought it would be fun to take some of the more challenging blogs and put them into a TV news format where the issues could be argued out by characters in a funny way. A friend with FILM/TV directing chops offered to direct, I got offered a TV studio for taping the shows, and I asked 3 talented actors to come along. I took six of my 12 posts and turned them into arguments. (I used some of the “COMMENTS” from the blogs to develop differing points of view). Then I worked with actors who took the script and improvised with it. When I felt I had captured their contribution, I revised the script. By the time we had six of these ready to go, we did a blitz of shooting the episodes in two days. There are so far only four up on line, we will post the last two in the very near future.
Q: What do you think has caused the backlash against the feminist movement?
A: I think the men who are used to women being What They Expect Women To Be are not enjoying their own new, less omnipotent place in the world. If we’re talking about the feminist movement that began in the 1970’s and continues today, then I think there has been a lot of time for the powers that be to figure out ways to diminish, ridicule, and otherwise hold back the onslaught of women demanding equality. But then there are also women themselves. Women are 54% of the population. We are a BIG group and we see life very differently in our different demographics: there are white women, women of color, gay and straight, rich and poor Women. Women don’t share the kind of affinity for each other that some groups share: the LGBTQ movement seems more unified to me, students have lots of issues in common, workers generally agree on wanting a better work situation with higher pay, better benefits etc. But women as a group differ on the Big Ticket Issues: abortion, reproductive accessibility, gay v straight, children, women and the workplace. The backlash against feminism that is fomented by the Good Ol’ Boys is easier to see and understand than the anti-feminist backlash that exists in the minds of many women. Even feminists often agree on very little.
Q: A lot of reality shows these days pit women against one another. Why do you think people are so fascinated by completion between women?
I’ll pick up where I left off in the last question: women are not a united front. Even on the subject of stiletto heels you can get a pretty maniacal argument going on line if you make a bold statement like: “there are women who cut off their pinky toes to fit better in their Jimmy Choos”. That is a true statement by the way. Yet the response I got when I quoted it in my blog was pretty violent. So it’s not just that people are fascinated by competition between women, and it’s not just that reality shows by nature do best when there is a lot of emotional hysteria going on, it’s also that women really don’t agree on how to reach equality. And some women don’t want equality. Or so they say. And a reality show that dealt with the differences between women on a more rational note, would pretty much be the old Oprah show. It seems like in the “old days” of talk shows, there was more emphasis on understanding the reasons that women disagree and often can’t stand each other. And of course, there’s the truly true reality that women do a lot of the socialization in families. Single mother families are a large chunk of our country, and this isn’t a generally wealthy population group. When you add in the struggle for money, the newness of the role of Mother as head of household, the new sexual mores that everybody has to adjust to, you can easily get a bunch of women on TV screaming at each other. Finally, shows like the Real Housewives of Wherever, are made to serve that particular taste; the love of seeing women hate each other. We don’t really know what would happen if more shows like “Girls” gain popularity. Maybe the taste will change as artists develop ways of putting women on screen in new ways.
Q: Do you think Hollywood is liberal or conservative?
I think Hollywood is both. There are more shows now that have women as central characters, which might seem “liberal” but these women pretty much tow a similar physical line in terms of their body weight (skinny) and their faces (beautiful). There are more ethnic people in movies and TV as well, this also seems liberal right? But I think Latinos and Blacks probably feel they are still largely cast in subsidiary or criminal roles. I don’t know. It’s changing pretty fast in terms of who we see on screen. I’d call that progressive, not liberal or conservative. There is still only a small fraction of directors or writers who are women or from minority communities. But once you get through a listing of which parts of Hollywood are more diverse than they used to be, you are left with the fact that networks and cable channels are still owned by huge corporations. To me that means that no matter how diverse the casting gets, and even when more women and minorities are show runners, directors, etc., until a venue exists that is not beholden to the Bottom Line and to the corporate message, Hollywood will still ultimately skew conservative. The web world seems different. Anybody who can put their material together and get it on line has a much better chance of making a radical piece of work.
Q: Why do you think someone would be for overturning Roe Versus Wade?
A: There are people who believe that Roe v Wade has been misused by women as a casual excuse for having casual abortions. (I have NEVER seen a woman make a casual decision to end a pregnancy, but this is a part of the anti Roe v Wade argument).
There are people who believe that if you “play” you have to “pay”, meaning if you have sex, and get pregnant, then having a baby is the price you have to pay. This is a harsh stand to take since it is vengeful not only towards people having sex that results in an unwanted pregnancy, but also vengeful towards the child born to parents who do not want a child.
There are also those who believe that life begins when the sperm fertilizes an egg. I do not agree with that belief – not scientifically, not emotionally, not spiritually. But for those people who think a zygote is a living being, the termination of a pregnancy even at two weeks is unacceptable.
And in keeping with everything else I’ve written, there is also anger at women for taking control of their own bodies. As I’ve alluded to already, there are many people who wish that our culture could return to the 1950’s when women douched with Lysol (yes, that’s true) and when smacking your wife around was an acceptable way for a man to let off some steam. For those who are distraught that time has moved on, that women are seeking a freedom and equality never dreamed of before the mid 20th century, being against abortion is a natural, although slightly desperate way to regain power over women.
And yes, as discussed in the question about women and competition, there are a stunning number of women themselves who rail against another woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy. There are women in state government who were adamant that pregnant women must submit to an invasive ultra-sound (an instrument stuck up their vaginas to take a picture of the fetus that the woman would be forced to look at!!!) before being allowed to have an abortion. Once again, women hating women shows itself in the nastiest way!
Q: You were a Bourbon st. stripper for eight hours and you say that the experience is still with you. What is it about working I the sex industry that has such a lasting effect on people?
A: I don’t know about other people, but I was a young feminist, figuring out my sexuality and leaving home for the first time. I “forgot” that Bourbon Street in New Orleans was not my college campus, and that the men who come into strip clubs, were probably not interested in my take on the world! I had not shaved my legs in two years (as a protest against women having to look a certain way!!) Ditto my under arms. The first thing the strip club owner said was “Shave everything!” That included shaving my pubic hair which I thought was a bizarre and disgusting request. (I still have a little confusion about women waxing, but I’ve learned to mind my own business and to know that today’s young woman is finding her own sexuality her own way). In my first burst of sexual freedom, Not Shaving was part of the code. So. The club owner sent me off to shave, which I found humiliating and itchy. I had to buy my own pastee and G string. Expensive. I was given high heels to wear that matched the peignoir set I was given. The whole costume he gave me was mildewed and home to A LOT of the previous strippers germs, smells, etc. So yeah, some of my dislike of the sex worker’s life was just plain snobby college girl stuff. (I still wouldn’t want to wear somebody else’s shoes or peignoir set BTW). Then I was told I had three songs on the jukebox in which to get down to pastee and G string. Fine. But I had to put my own money in the jukebox. This seemed unfair to me since I was being paid such crappy money. And finally, when I was not stripping, I had to tend bar which I did not know how to do, and which really amounted to conning already drunk college boys into getting puking drunk while chatting with me. I did this for as long as I could but remember, this is back, back, back in the early days of Feminism. And I was in Louisiana, and words were thrown at me about women, black people, etc that I had never heard spoken out loud. So some of what I felt was a cultural difference between me and the people I was stripping for.
I don’t have anything good or bad to say about women who currently choose to be in the sex industry, I just know I am too opinionated, too much of a big mouth, too Something to allow a sloppy drunk to insult me and not say something back to him. Ultimately, I was fired for screaming at one of the boys at the bar. After that, I was offered a much better strip job at the club next door. In this venue I was going to be the girl in the pastee and G string who swings in and out above the clubs marquee, swinging for the tourists as they walked underneath me on Bourbon Street. I did not take the job.
Q: Hugh Hefner’s girl friends had several hit reality show. Do you think people would watch a reality show about Gloria Steinem? (why or why not)
A: Yes I think people would watch a reality show about Gloria Steinem! I have spent time around her and she is not only still very beautiful, she is also magnetic. There is a reason why she was influential in the lives of so many women. And men. Gloria Steinem is among the smartest people I have ever heard speak. And she is shrewd about how to make her positions clear in the least argumentative way. Whether people would watch her daily or weekly would – as is true for any TV show – have to do with the people producing the show. Gloria Steinem cooking her favorite recipes might or might not have mass appeal. Gloria Steinem in a setting that was prone to the dramatic and the thought provoking would be unstoppable.
Q: What are the advantages of doing live theater in Los Angeles instead of film?
A: MONEY! That’s the big differential between producing a play and making a film. The COST. Ironically, the relative low cost of Los Angeles theater compared to theater costs in NYC, make LA theater infinitely more doable. More on this below.
Aside from money, the biggest advantage of doing live theater in Los Angeles is that there are so many incredibly talented actors who are in LA and who are often between gigs, and desperately miss doing theatre. This is getting truer all the time. Theatre in LA has become (a bit) more respectable as more and more TV and film writers, actors and designers have done some theatre here in town.
Also, as with my own web series, Vagina Dialogues, any writer would like to have their work exposed to the maximum number of people possible. This gives film and TV a huge advantage. Even my web series was seen by tens of thousands of people thanks to Funny or Die, YouTube, etc. The average small theater in Los Angeles houses about 99 audience members per show. And it’s VERY hard to fill those seats. Again, this is getting better, but theater is still a hard sell here. But having said that, the talent available is fantastic, and the Los Angeles theater community feels to me, and this is a personal perception, to be less mired in certain provincial ways than let’s say New York. Obviously New York theater is plentiful, it is also prone to Old School thinking: last year, at an open forum at the supposedly cutting edge New York Public Theatre, the artistic director said that he doesn’t produce plays by women because men are better playwrights. And nobody slapped him, let alone torching his feet! This kind of thinking I find prevalent in NY theatre where the percentage of women writers and directors remains pathetically low. Okay, is LA more progressive than that? I work a lot at Bootleg Theatre which has a woman artistic director, and a woman managing director. Does this make them more prone to do more women’s plays? I think so. I think they also take a lot of risks that can be taken in a city like LA, where a production of a play can still be accomplished on a shoe string. That’s another big advantage to LA theatre: if people are making a living in the industry, on TV or in films, they are better able to do theater without a union salary. This goes for the designers, stage managers etc. It is SO MUCH CHEAPER to produce here that more risks can be taken. This is a big deal if you are a new voice, a maturing artist who wants your work to be done, a person who needs to maintain a little control over your plays.
Q: What are some of the disadvantages of it?
A: The biggest disadvantage of doing theater in Los Angeles is so simple: if you are lucky enough to attract working actors to your play, you could be in deep trouble if that working actor gets a TV or film job during the rehearsals or even the run of your play. Because they will have to leave you and go do the film or TV gig. And I have had really good actors in lead roles get a Mercedes commercial on what would be my play’s World Premiere Opening Night. And guess what? They took the commercial! This almost unbearable reality makes a lot of theater producers double cast projects so that they are never in the hideous position I was in when my leading lady wasn’t there for our opening show and I had to announce to the press that therefore we could not open. But double casting has its own problems, one of which is you don’t always get equally good actors to play the same role. Some actors don’t want to be double cast since it means they do all the rehearsing but only half the performances. There are egos to deal with if you double cast. There are decisions to make about who goes on the night the critics are coming. And if you pay anything at all (and my company has a proud history of trying to pay all the actors a close to Actors’ Equity salary – yes, the lowest rung of Actor’s Equity salary scale, but still!!) anyway, as I was saying, if you’re paying your actors, then double casting is expensive.
The other big disadvantage of theater in Los Angeles is that in some circles it isn’t very important. While the New York theatre scene is considered Where the Art Form Begins, the Los Angeles theatre scene is not nearly so well regarded.
And finally, with more than 200 small, somewhat unknown shows going up every weekend, and with the geography of this huge metropolis, it is very hard to get audiences in LA. New York theatre tends to be a stopping off place for tourists – who now make up a large per cent of the Broadway audience base. While tourists in NYC are less likely to find their way to the small more experimental shows, the city itself is theatre friendly. It is a part of New York as much as Central Park or sidewalk hot dog vendors.
Los Angeles has not yet generated the enthusiasm for theater that I believe/hope it will in the near future. As more recognizable actors choose to spend time on a stage play, Los Angeles theater will get more attention, bigger houses, etc. Also as more writers with TV and film jobs choose to put up plays, more actors will perform on stage in LA, and more audiences will be drawn in. It is a long slow process.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)