Books

I Was a Guerrilla Girl: Unmasking the Ugly Face of Misogyny in the Arts

A rare look from inside the famous feminist activist group.

Photo Credit: Skyhorse Publishing

Editor's Note: When Donna Kaz moved to New York City in 1977 as an actress seeking “smart female roles,” she was greeted with nothing but stock roles—and the only plays being produced were written by men. In response, she was an early and tireless advocate for better female representation in the New York theater industry. She became a playwright (as well as a waitress, to support herself in an industry still hostile to female entrepreneurs). But her battle was an uphill one.

In her new book, Un/Masked, Kaz shares a glimpse of the mysterious feminist activist Guerrilla Girl group she joined. The group was famous for donning gorilla masks and causing a stir with posters and vigilante acts of rebellion against their white-male-dominated art worlds. But Kaz’s recollections of her experience reveals the shocking depth of the misogyny specific to the New York theater and Los Angeles film industries—as well as the complexity of the Guerrilla Girls’ cause, from intersectional feminism to the best methods to call out sexism.

The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book Un/Masked: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl on Tour by Donna Kaz (November 2016). Published with permission of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

I ignore the sad statistics about New York City theatre and dutifully submit my scripts to theatres for development. I quickly find myself a New York City playwright stuck in development hell. My plays are read and revised, read and revised, read and revised over and over, again and again.

MALE PRODUCER: Loved your script. Let’s do a reading of it!

ME: I learned so much from that reading. Here’s my second draft.

MALE PRODUCER: Great! Let’s do a reading of it.

This cycle repeats, month after month, until I’m ready to climb out the window of the 15-story building.

It begins to sink in. I am not the right gender.

What to do? Return to LA? Become a man? Tackle sexism in theatre? I discard the easiest choice, the hardest choice, and lunge for the most righteous. People just do not realize what is happening, I think. When everyone is hip to how sexist Broadway and off-Broadway are, they will not buy tickets. If people do not buy tickets, the theatre will collapse. Producers will have no choice but to produce plays by women. There is a tragedy on Broadway and it isn’t Electra, and, by golly, I am going to make sure people know about it!

Around this time the Dramatists Guild, a national advocacy organization, announces a panel discussion for women playwrights. Perhaps I can start my campaign for women playwrights there. I enthusiastically show up.

“Oh, just ignore all those producers and produce your own plays yourself! Stop whining and waiting for someone else to put your play on. It’s that simple!”

The woman on the Dramatists Guild panel is flipping her heels up and down on the carpet under the table, practically kicking in glee, proud of her gumption and ability to coax a shitload of cash donations from family and friends to self-produce her plays. I raise my hand.

“There is nothing wrong with producing your own plays,” I say, “but why is self-production the only alternative? Why aren’t plays by women produced?”

I hear faint mumbles of agreement come from several other women in the room. Then another playwright stands up and asks if perhaps the problem is discrimination.

The woman on the panel gulps. “Did you just say dis-crim-in-a-tion!? Why, it’s the 90s, for gosh sake!”

I rip my copy of the New York Times out of my bag and open it to the theatre listings. “Look at the listings. There is just one play by a woman in the entire lot. If that’s not discrimination, what is it?”

“Good point,” a woman playwright to my right whispers.

“Things will never change until we find out why plays by women are not produced,” says another.

A few of us linger when the meeting is over. One of them, playwright Anne Harris, proposes that we continue the discussion. The director of special events at the Guild agrees and puts us on the calendar. The following month we facilitate a meeting at the Guild called “Producing Plays by Women,” which begins as a quiet sharing of statistics and quickly dissolves into a strident bitch fest. It is not just about own work being ignored, it is about the fact that there are no women’s voices in mainstream theatre and those voices should be heard. The lack of equality affects everything from world hunger to war. For 90 minutes women playwrights stand up and share their stories of being kept out of the white boys’ club that is theatre, culminating in a collective cry: Where are the women? Without the vision of women and artists of color the theatre is like a play without a second act!

In 1995, I am awarded the Quidel Corporation fellowship residency at the artist’s colony Djerassi in Woodside, California. Back on the West Coast, I spend the month of August working on a brand-new play in a private studio overlooking acres of secluded land next to Neil Young’s cattle ranch along with two other writers, two performance artists, a composer, and a visual artist.

At the first communal dinner, I sit across from the visual artist, a woman from New York City. Between forkfuls of rice pilaf and sips of red wine we discuss our work and the current state of women in the arts. As we compare notes, we agree that both the theatre and the art world are blatantly sexist. Sensing my smoldering rage as I recite the lack of women being produced on Broadway and beyond, she reaches into her bag and pulls out the newly published Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls.

“Read this,” she commands.

“What is it?”

“Just read it. I will talk to you about it when you’re done.”

That night I pace the floor of my studio and devour every page of Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls. I get it. I so get it. I hear the message as if a hot mouth screams it dangerously close to my ear—sexism is alive and well and living in the art world, shout the Guerrilla Girls.

The gorilla-mask-wearing, miniskirted, high-heeled, and totally badass Guerrilla Girls: a group of women artists who funnel their outrage at discrimination in museums and galleries into the creation of deft black-and-white posters that humorously state the sorry statistics surrounding women artists: Over 80 percent of the nudes in the paintings in the Met Museum are of women, but only 3 percent were painted by women. The Guerrilla Girls conclude by asking if, in order to get into the Met, women have to be naked.

The Guerrilla Girls wheat-paste their posters all over SoHo in the dead of the night, slapping up posters on construction fences, postboxes, and lampposts. They call themselves Eva Hesse, Rosalba Carriera, Djuna Barnes, Lyubov Popova, and other names that are not their own but those of dead women artists who have struggled and created before them. They do this to avoid being accused of carrying out their actions to promote and float their own careers as artists. Their posters are funny and poignant and force you to rethink what you know about women artists and sexism. Soon everyone wants to know who they really are. I was told that for their first press conference a member was sent out to buy Guerrilla disguises to cover their faces. This particular Guerrilla Girl was a very bad speller and came back with gorilla masks instead. The mistake turned out to be the perfect look. With black rubber gorilla masks over their heads, the Guerrilla Girls instantly turned themselves into modern masked avengers in the tradition of the Lone Ranger, Zorro, and Catwoman.

Well into the night I read and reread Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls. I envision an attack on sexism in the theatre world lurking in the text for every poster about sexism in the art world. What a coup it would be to name the theatres that do not produce women playwrights or plays by writers of color. How cool to prove bus companies are more inclusive in their hiring practices than theatres are. Finally, the word would be out and theatres would no longer discriminate against women and minority artists.

On the last page of the book are instructions: How to be a Guerrilla Girl. Yes! Wait. No.

Alas, one cannot just up and join the Girls. But there are further instructions. Readers should steal the Girls’ ideas, make posters, and form their own groups. Already there are Guerrilla Girls groups from Pennsylvania to Paris. My spirit lifts and I am buoyant with the hope I might have stumbled on a way to end sexism in the American theatre.

The next morning on the way to breakfast I ambush my new visual artist friend at Djerassi. I explain to her the Guerrilla Girls are exactly the kind of activist intervention the theatre world needs. I open Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls and blabber on and on about how the tactics of the Girls might be used to attack the theatre world. Then I ask her if she happens to know any Guerrilla Girls.

She lowers her eyes and looks around.

“What? Do you know who they are? You must put me in touch with them!”

“Shhhhhh. Not so loud!”

My new artist friend pulls me off the path and scans the barbed-wire fence for anyone who might be close enough to eavesdrop on our conversation. We are surrounded by nothing but cows. Convinced the coast is clear, she leans her face in to mine and with a minty exhale whispers:

“Yes, I do. You’re looking at one.”

Lyubov Popova is the Guerrilla Girl I meet at Djerassi. Lyubov Popova promises to call me as soon as the Guerrilla Girls are accepting new members but warns it might take a while. Lyubov Popova explains that some of the Girls, like her, are burned out and want to retire, but not before they make sure new and energetic members are added to the group who can bounce the Girls into a future where when people talk about art they also talk about gender parity. But, she admonishes, the Guerrilla Girls are a collective of women artists with strong opinions and various different goals. Not all Guerrilla Girls are alike.

Renewed by the residency and ebullient with images of myself as a future-feminist masked avenger, I return to New York City and throw myself into my work. I begin to understand what I am trying to say as an artist. I weave together distinctive experiences with the erudition I have gathered in the course of my life as a woman. I feel a heightened connection to the human race, as if it is impossible to disengage with other human beings. This humanness is what makes me an artist. I begin to believe that being an artist means taking responsibility for the world I saunter, breathe, and create in. Is there a difference, then, between being an artist and being an activist? I ask myself. It is often a sense of oppression that prompts me to create. As an artist/activist I want to change the narrow, male-centered focus of the current theatre because I believe it is for the greater good.

This has been an adapted excerpt from the new book Un/Masked: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl on Tour by Donna Kaz (November 2016). Published with permission of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Donna Kaz is a playwright, a performer, a producer, and the author of the book UN/MASKED: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl on Tour (Skyhorse Publishing), in which she reveals her alter ego Aphra Behn, member of the feminist activist Guerrilla Girls. Find her at websites: donnakaz.com, ggontour.com or on Twitter: @donnakaz, @GuerrillaGsOT.

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