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Questioning the Canon

Questioning the Canon

When I arrived at graduate school for theatre we were told to have read books entitled “Famous American Plays” of the 20s, 30s, 40s etc. before we arrived. I did as I was told and really didn’t think too much about it until we were sitting in a circle on the first day of class. I remember that a discussion of the books came up and I mentioned that it was sad that there were so few female playwrights. Dead silence. And then the typical answer which I have heard so many time over the years — well, there was a play by Lillian Hellman. One woman is not enough.

Since this was 20 years ago, I am sure my facts are a bit off but my impression and feelings of that day have stuck with me. I spent four years at a liberal arts college reading so many things, mostly by men, except in my classes that actually focused on women. But here I was about to embark on the next phase in my life and for the first time I made an attempt to question the canon. Now I probably had no idea what I was doing at that moment but it was a beginning for me.  Even though I didn’t really comprehend what I was doing, the question stuck with me and with my classmates and I was as of that moment the resident feminist.  

We are all taught not to question the canon. We are taught that men are the writers of the “famous” or “best” or “greatest” or “essential” works because that is just how the world works. But we all know that women have been writing plays and we know that there are many women who if circumstances and the world were different could have ended up next to Clifford Odets or Eugene O’Neill.  

Yesterday, we wrote a piece on the blog that focused on a list of “essential” films by Spike Lee. Highlighting this list (and we do these things with regularity) is not so much to tell Spike Lee that he is a sexist. The point is that we need to figure out how to open up our thought process and let other things in. While maybe there would not have been 62 women to include on the list, there are no doubt some women who should qualify as having made essential films in ANY directors mind. But we are stuck thinking about things in a certain way.  

Essential and greatest and famous and best are seen primarily as male and white and we must challenge that assumption. Even as women make more movies their work is still not valued in the same way. Women’s stories must respected and valued so that in the future there will be no doubt that women will be included in all the canons.  

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…Also, a few more generations of women training in this art form (and every other aspect of this once-male-dominated-society) and women will be populating the canon as much or more than men… At which point even the most ardent feminist will want to preserve the canon. Questioning is a good thing… claiming that women and their works aren't being valued at this point I think goes to far… social norms just take a few generations to change sometimes.


"We are all taught not to question the canon. We are taught that men are the writers of the "famous" or "best" or "greatest" or "essential" works because that is just how the world works." I agree we should question the canon but we should admit that it is male dominated because that's how the world worked, not how it works (though the past is always present). Most of those men who make the canon of old were probably the type of men who pushed boundaries and wanted women to succeed and progress… Therefore I think it's actually doing a disservice to women to dismiss the canon outright and not acknowledge the male dominance of the canon in it's historical context. A man's perspective… take it or leave it.


When I was in college, I took a French Literature class and every single writer and poet we studied was male. Some of the students protested but we still had to stick with the status quo. For the past ten years, I have read several great feminist critiques of "the canon" but until we have feminist organizations that really put pressure on these patriarchs and their female protectors, almost nothing will change.


Your post reminds me of a 20th century American Literature class I took when I was in high school. All the books we had to read were by men. I thought some of those "classics" were highly overrated. I wasn't impressed with The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, Catch 22 and The Bridge of San Luis Rey. When I told the teacher that my parents suggested that he put Willa Cather's great My Antonia on the list, he flinched.


Thanks for your posts on this subject, you wrote what was (I'm sure) on other women's minds (mine!). As I read through Spike Lee's list, I kept looking for women's names. I got excited when he listed Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep and thought, for sure, he's going to list Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust. He didn't. And thank you for using your blog to call attention to this. There are many films by women that deserve to be a part of the "canon."


Yes! Well said, Melissa. I think that's the kernel of truth that most deniers don't get– if women's lives/stories were more respected, there would be more stories by/about women included in these types of lists. Until then, women's creative work, and stories about women, are seen as second tier to the "universal" storytelling of men.

Stephanie Rosenfeld

It's not even that "essential" and "great" and "best" are what gets men's work into the canon. It's that men's work (back when you were in grad school — I went to art school in the same era) was and maybe still is just the norm — trying to represent, wrongly, "what life is like" — what's significant, important, and worth talking about — for all of us. When I was in grad school for visual art, the all-male faculty was always telling me who my influences were — citing artists I'd never even looked at! They were trying to fit me, and many of the other women students, into the only tradition they knew, the only tradition they cared about. The question they asked over and over and over again, looking at the women's work, was , "But is it SIGNIFICANT?" because it made no comment on the things they cared about. Runner-up question was, "But is it too PERSONAL?", for work that had content they didn't want to respond to. No, of course not all women's work did this. Some of the women did work they "got" — mostly abstraction and formalism. But anyone's work that they didn't understand, that was coming out of a different "tradition," or from a different set of influences — and, the visual art at that time that their female students were relating to and being influenced by — the male canon-protectors had no desire to even look at or acknowledge. The canon is just an outdated, not very useful idea at this point, in my mind. I think the idea of canon is for scared people.

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