Songs for the Struggling Artist


Ready for the Fight
January 16, 2017, 1:04 am
Filed under: art, Gender politics, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

After November, I cowered, I shook, I felt defeated and demoralized but I have turned a corner. I walk through the streets of NYC differently. I move like a truck. I don’t get out of men’s way. I take up space like it’s mine.

I wore army green on New Year’s Eve because I was ready for battle this year. I am on notice to fight for every one of my rights, the rights of others and even the rights we haven’t got yet.

Then – listening to one of my favorite podcasts, the host read her feminist version of the famous battle speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V and I cried like a baby. It was such a rallying cry. Particularly the first line about closing up the wall with our female dead. And I realized that in all of history, we’ve never had a speech like this for us. (At least not that I know of…) There’s never been a “Let’s storm the bastille” sort of battle for women. For all of history, women have borne the brunt of rape, of domestic violence, of domestic murder, of honor killings, of female infanticide and genital mutilation and we have never had a war over it.

And I’m not saying we should. I’m generally opposed to war. But…to imagine a world wherein we call upon our sisters to come together and go over the breach…well it’s a very different world than we’ve always lived in. We may need more models like this – a female Henry V – Imperator Furiousa liberating other women in Mad Max, Katniss Everdeen defending her sister in the Hunger Games.
I’m usually not a big fan of “Let’s re-write Shakespeare” but in this case, I make an exception, as this feminist breach undid me. And I needed undoing. And now I’m ready for the fight.

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The Sherlock Fridging
January 10, 2017, 1:36 am
Filed under: Gender politics, TV | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I should have been crying. The music was telling me that’s what I ought to be doing. And I cry at commercials so it is not usually hard to push the tears button in an emotional moment on a TV show. But I was not crying. I was flailing my arms in fury. My boyfriend looked at me and asked, “What?”
I explained that I needed a minute to deal with my rage. It didn’t take him long to work out what had made me so mad. It was (WARNING: SPOILERS for Sherlock Season 4 Episode 1 ahead) not just that they’d killed off one of the only complex female characters in the show to forward the story of the two male leads (a trope that happens so often that it has a name. It’s apparently known as fridging.) It was that in her dying moments she said to her husband, John Watson, “You were my whole world. Being Mary Watson was the only life worth living.”

Which is gross enough in its sentiment but was magnified by a million by the fact that the character was a super bad-ass spy type genius. It’d be like if James Bond jumped in front of a bullet and then while he was dying proclaimed that all his years as 007 were meaningless and only the previous year when he became a house husband and a father were important. No one who gave a shit about James Bond would stand for that but because Mary took John Watson’s name and had his baby, suddenly anything she ever did before was meaningless. And most people probably watched this show and cried as the charming lady died, the one who was a mother, too, oh no….but really the most important thing is , what are those two boys going to do! That lady’s death has caused a rift between them!

Now – surely I’ve seen this sort of story before. And maybe I’ve even cried if they played the right music and made me care about the character enough – but THIS TIME… this time, I was done.

I mean, really, I’ve had actual women say similar things to me…things like, “Pursue your ambitions all you like but in the end, the most important thing you can do in life is to have children with a nice husband.” And sure, I get that having kids and a husband is really profound and meaningful to a lot of women. I’m glad that it is so fulfilling for so many. But when this is our only story, when we learn again and again that a woman’s only value is a) her looks and b) her reproduction, I get furious. Diminishing Mary’s ambition to just being Mrs. Watson is insulting to us all.

And listen, if the writers wanted to have her deliver a sweet goodbye to her husband that made him feel super special, great…it could have gone something like, “I did a lot of pretty kick-ass things in my life and had a lot of amazing adventures. This one, with you, has been the best so far. I’m sorry to miss our future adventures. It would have been exciting and fun solving more mysteries with you. Also our daughter is pretty great. I love you both. I’m off to the Great Spy Story in the Sky!”

Instead we get a Mrs. Watson whose sole ambition is being Mrs. Watson. And every young woman watching internalizes the idea that nothing matters but getting married and having babies.

The best part of the episode for women and an actually progressive moment, was when the whole Watson family, including the baby, went on a clue hunt with the bloodhound. For a moment, we had a mother pursuing her own interest and passion, with her husband and baby. It was a great “Take Your Daughter to Work” moment and not something we get to see very often. I’d love to watch a show wherein a woman finds a great way to balance her life with her kid. But of course, rather than continuing to show us a sharp working mother, they had to kill her and undercut everything she ever did before.

It felt like a slap in the face – particularly in a world where women have recently had so many losses. If we lived in a world where we saw more of another narrative for women – more Good Girls Revolt and more Hidden Figures and we got some of those genius movies people like so much but with a woman instead – like a female Beautiful Mind or a Lady Good Will Hunting or a Woman Theory of Everything – well, then I might be able to tolerate this sort of story as a nice change of pace. However, due to the fact that is 100% status quo and getting more quo-y all the time, I would like to politely suggest that the Sherlock writers go fridge themselves.

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My Hagification has Begun
January 5, 2017, 1:18 am
Filed under: Gender politics | Tags: , , , , , , ,

The patriarchy won big time on November 8th, 2016. Enough voters and enough Russian hackers wanted the patriarchy to win. Enough people were like – “Yeah, the primal expression of the patriarchy is for us!” and voted for it. It’s pretty fucking awful but the patriarchy won. And I hate it. It made me cry big sloppy tears. And I was paralyzed and horrified and ready to hide in a basement for as long as was necessary.

But then a switch got flipped. And I realized that just by existing, I am a middle finger to the patriarchy. The guy who won the contest is the straight up Id of the patriarchy and he has a lot of opinions about how women should look. As does the culture, in general. I do not fit most of his criteria and am therefore, like his opponent in the election, nasty. And like many of my sisters in the fight, I am embracing my nastiness. Because when the Patriarch Elect called Clinton a nasty woman we all knew what he meant. And we all knew that for him, nasty woman was redundant because “woman” means nasty to him, just by itself. We know he means women are gross, with body fat and hair and blood coming out of our where-evers. He’s offended by any woman who isn’t aesthetically pleasing to him. He is on record on this point going back decades.

All my life, I’ve struggled with the feeling that my body wasn’t culturally acceptable – that I was not pleasing to look at in one way or another and therefore failing at being a woman. That’s what the patriarchy wanted me to feel. That feeling is, in fact, what entire industries are devoted to invoking. The patriarchy wants me to spend all my time shaping my body –with Spanx, with diets, with razors, with creams, with make-up – in order to make it the most palatable for the patriarchs. It wants me to spend all my money on clothes, on weight-loss products, on cosmetics. It wants me in heels. It wants me in hair and make-up for a couple of hours every day.

So now my body becomes a signal. My body, my body hair, my clothes, are all a signal that I do not comply. Now more than ever. I’m thinking of going full-on hag to really magnify the effect. I want to develop 12 warts and some super gnarled fingers. Maybe I’ll start wearing a pointy black hat. I will no longer be aesthetically pleasing for the patriarchy. I am interested in full-on hag-i-fication.

All my life, some part of me was still struggling to please the patriarchy. Will the patriarchy still like me with this haircut? Am I shaving my legs correctly for the Man? Is this the right dress for the patriarchy?

(Side bar: I am going to start adding “for the patriarchy” to my fortune cookies – replacing the standard “in bed” – so I’ll see such fortunes as “You will soon go on a great journey. For the Patriarchy.” You can play, too! It’ll be fun!)

This new regime is a Shit Show but its extreme patriarchal nonsense is such that it has finally liberated me from some of the last bits of the Patriarchal Pleaser in my subconscious. I don’t care if the patriarchy likes me. In fact, it’s better if it doesn’t. I would take it as a point of pride at this point to be dismissed by the patriarchy. I am done cultivating my image. I am done worrying if I’m pretty enough, if I’m fitting in, if I am aesthetically pleasing. I had decades of that and now…I am embracing my inner hag. And she is pissed. And NASTY.

And I am not alone in this feeling, I have recently discovered. After I wrote the first draft of this post, I read an article by Madeline Davies in Jezebel, essentially pointing to the same impulse. Women on the street, the sorts of whom have never given me a second look, are suddenly smiling at me and nodding. I think we recognize each other now – the dissidents – the patriarchal warriors. When I go out into the world now, I strap on my beat-up boots (Snaps Missing; 4, Fucks Given: 0) and feel like I’m gearing up for battle. This doesn’t mean that I’ll never wear lipstick again or that I’ll never wear that sexy black dress. But it does mean that I’m only putting that stuff on for me. The patriarchy can go fuck itself.

The good news is that I can fight the patriarchy just by existing, just by walking around in my body. And for every “fat bitch” that gets shouted at me, just for taking up space in the world, I am now receiving nods and solidarity from my fellow warriors in equal measure. It’s a fight out there, for sure – but I am hagged up, geared up and ready to go. The patriarchy may have won this round but the fight’s not over.

 

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A Day Without Immigrants
December 31, 2016, 2:28 am
Filed under: Racism | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

London. 2016. The day after the Brexit vote. The city was in shock. I was visiting and that day I saw multiple friends, coincidentally all of them born in other countries but residents of the UK for well over a decade. One of my friends proposed a response to all the immigration hysteria gripping the UK. She suggested organizing everyone who had emigrated/immigrated to the UK to pick a day to not go to work. The country would inevitably grind to a halt – and everyone would see what a vital contribution immigrants make. I thought this was a brilliant idea.

NYC. 2016. My own city is devastated by the news that our election yielded us a xenophobic, racist, sexist, internet troll who ran on an anti-immigrant platform. It seems that a lot of my fellow countrymen voted against immigrants.

I’m heartbroken for a lot of reasons that it will likely take me years to sort through. Meanwhile, the most heartbreaking emails come from the college where I do some adjunct work on occasion – they’re about how to help undocumented students, how to assure immigrants’ safety, how to get the message out about keeping them safe so they can get through the end of the semester. The xenophobia is already destroying people’s lives. Already. And it’s only just begun.

And then – on the subway – I see tourists whom I imagine made this horror waterfall happen. (I know, I know, #NotAllSoutherners, #NotAllMidwesterners) And I can’t help feeling my own version of xenophobia – a fear of xenophobia – a fear of xenophobes. Is there a word for this ? Xenophobicsphobia?

And then I hear these tourists talking about where they’re going to find good Thai noodles in the city and I become irrationally furious. It kicks off a whole imaginary rant in which I tell them:

“Oh? You voted out of fear of immigrants? And now you want to eat Thai noodles? No. You don’t get to. You can’t eat Thai noodles or Chinese dumplings. You definitely shouldn’t get to have tacos anymore or burritos. No hummus. No pita bread. If you’re afraid of immigrants, you shouldn’t get to benefit from their contributions. Why don’t you commit to your old school America? You can now only eat the foods of your white ancestors from Britain. It’s Hard Tack and Ale for you from now on. Maybe you can have some canned veggies but be careful! Most of our agricultural goods are farmed by migrants – so if you want to really commit to your traditional white-only ways? You’re going to have to grow your corn yourself.
And you’ll need to turn in your iPhone. The founder of Apple was the son of a Syrian refugee so his work is not for you. Turn it in.
Like Broadway shows? Too bad. There are a lot of immigrants on Broadway stages. And not just white ones, either. Plus, given the concurrent homophobia that travels with xenophobia, you’re going to have to give most culture a miss – because we sure have a lot of gays in the theatre and I know how you feel about them. You’re not allowed at the theatre anymore. Or the ballet. Or the opera. Or popular music – which, by the way has been very much influenced by people of color who are really what you’re afraid of let’s face it. So – sorry – you can’t listen to pop music, not rock, not hip-hop, not R&B, not country. It’s only English folk songs for you from now on.
If you can’t support the people who make the things you like, you shouldn’t get to have them. You wanted new rules? You get them.”

But of course I know this would be exactly the wrong strategy to take. I know it is through art and food that bridges can be built and it would be counterproductive to deny their diplomatic power to people who need it the most.

It is, perhaps, lack of exposure to this sort of difference that causes people to behave in this nationalistic isolationist way.

There’s a Trump voter I know who, when I knew her, was a big fan of the word “different.” If she had a food she’d never had before, she’d report it was “different.” And if she saw a show she’d never seen before, that too was “different.” For her, even just a new flavor of Dorito might qualify as “different.” There was a hint of both excitement and distaste in her use of this word. And I think she is not alone in her response to things (i.e. foods, people and culture) that are different. I think that’s maybe what she was afraid of. Difference. At the heart of xenophobia is just a fear of difference.

But everything was new and different once. Even original flavor Doritos.
And it is that difference that has historically made the United States great. It is that difference that a lot of us embrace and celebrate. Maybe anti-immigrant voters embrace more than they realized as well. If we take their tacos away – their Thai noodles and culture – maybe they’ll start to appreciate them and the diversity of the people who make them.

We can’t do that, I know. Not yet anyway. But maybe my English friend’s post-Brexit protest idea would work here as well. One day without immigrants – documented, undocumented, long term and new. One day.

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“Art under fascism is good, actually”

As soon as it became clear that the worst had happened on November 8th, my friends and fellow artists began saying things like, “Well, it’s horrible. But at least we’ll get some great art out of this.” and “Repressive regimes make for great art movements.” Ethan Hawke in a recent Hollywood Reporter interview said, “The Artistic Community thrives when fascists are in charge.
While I understand the impulse to look on the bright side, this is not really a bright side. Nor am I 100% sure that this is true. I think, artists make great work in repressive regimes in spite of the repressive conditions, not because of them.

It might be comforting to imagine the great art ahead but meanwhile, every artist I know is practically paralyzed by the current political climate. Everyone I know is just barely holding on. Where is this great art going to come from?

Listen, I’m marginalized already due to my gender. People of color are marginalized already. People with Disabilities are marginalized already. People without economic privilege are marginalized already. If we’re not in the mainstream now, how will our voices be heard when all the progress on social issues starts to fall apart? We’ve been making the greatest art we can on the margins but in the new landscape, what hope is there?

If feels like the most vulnerable artists, already straining to break through, are now vulnerable on multiple fronts. Sure, there were some great Jewish artists during the Holocaust. But not as many as there had been. And where are the great women artists of the fascist era? Trans artists? Artists with disabilities? I mean – sure. Let’s celebrate the possibility that we MIGHT survive and we MIGHT make great work despite the oppressive regime that we are likely about to experience.

Sure – yeah – let’s get excited about some paintings that a white dude might make in response to the very real life threatening conditions for women, for Muslims, for LGBTQ people, for people of color and people with disabilities.

It is cold comfort to me. My feeling is that mainstream culture wasn’t listening to us before and I have no real hope that we’ll be listened to now that we’re looking at a fascist future. Before November 8th, the real I hope I held for my work as an artist were all the progressive policies that encouraged and supported the inclusivity of women. I bet the same is true for other marginalized communities.

If we’re busy fighting for survival, if all the resources are engaged in fighting for justice, I don’t see a lot of hope for making inroads in artistic equality. We have been making great work all along and the mainstream culture gave no shits. Why would it start listening now, as alarms are ringing, as people are screaming, as the sprinklers rain down on the burning building?

In times of crisis, most things return to a kind of status quo. People rely on the familiar when the chips are down. And the familiar is sexist, racist, homophobic and ableist.

Is there a way to shift this? Is there a way to respond to the four alarm fire in politics and simultaneously make space for artists on the margins? I don’t know. But I certainly don’t expect it.

I will keep making art, as I have always done but I don’t do it with any hope or expectation of it being recognized as great at some point just because I’m doing it in the new repressive world order. And I will not celebrate the loss of progress for all the vulnerable, marginalized artists, already at the edge.

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The Discomfort of Being Different Part Two

Occasionally, right after I push PUBLISH on my blog, I get a flood of additional ideas on the topic. I start to think of ways I should edit it or concepts I want to add. Sometimes I’ll go back in and edit or add – other times I’ll just let it lie. And sometimes I need to continue the thought in an entirely new blog post. That’s what happened when I opened up the floodgates on sexism in theatre. Thoughts just kept rushing in and I had to write follow-up-post after follow up. Some of those were based on the feedback I was getting and some of it was the swirl of it all marinating in my brain.

This post is of the marination variety. In thinking about being different – from the social science around non-conformity to my own history, I realized there was an additional factor that I didn’t factor in to my initial thoughts on the subject. That factor, in my case, was gender.

Because, in theatre (as in almost everywhere else,) the best way to be the Same – to conform, is to be a middle class white man. The numbers mean that nine times out of ten when I’m in a theatre doing someone else’s show, I’m in the minority. I am already different, just by being born a woman. And because of that, there is an added pressure to fit in, to do things the way they’ve always been done. Working female directors (all 22% of them!) mostly make their names directing plays about men. Women playwrights get more productions if their plays are about men. In order to assimilate, one has to take on the dominant culture – and that culture is male and white. (This all applies to race, too, but I will save that post either for someone else or the moment after I push publish on this one.)

What this all adds up to for me is the sense that I’m already a foot behind in the FITTING IN GAME and it is tricky to be perceived as the Non Conformist I am, rather than the woman who doesn’t know the rules because she’s a woman. There is a presumption, right at the outset, that I don’t know what I’m doing, based on my gender. There are theatre companies who will baldly state that they don’t hire women. So if I’m DOING the job of directing, for example, I’m expected to be too feminine, to be doing things wrong. There’s a sense that I should be doubly aggressive to make up for my gender.

The fact that I refuse to do this has been a problem throughout my career. And I think it’s a problem throughout the culture, too. We lose so much potential by leaving out the female experience of leadership. Jill Soloway’s work on The Female Gaze is the FIRST TIME in my decades on the planet, that I have heard a woman in a position of prominence able to advocate for a female aesthetic and style of leadership. It is incredibly inspiring. And incredibly unusual. It requires a great deal of tolerance of that discomfort of doing things differently. Soloway asks her camera operators to feel with her subjects. She hires a crew that can cry. I can only begin to imagine how the established film crew guys react to that. What I don’t know is how she manages those confused and angry folks used to doing things the usual way. That is the trick I’d like to learn to master.

I think a lot of that finessing of the world around one comes with age. The older I get, the less I care what other people think – that is, the desire to fit in has begun to diminish dramatically. At the moment, I’m still straddling the line. I’m not yet able to wholly reject the dominant culture. Probably because I’m not really part of it.

Soloway, having already achieved traditional success in film and TV has the credentials to tell the patriarchy to go fuck itself. She can say something as radical as: men should just stop making movies and make space for women’s voices and while I’m sure that blowback is intense, she can perhaps, watch it roll by from the top of the heap. I’m still hoping to make a little mark and it is hard to do from the fringes. So – time, I hope will help me to tolerate more and more the feeling of my own differences. Every decade I live, I lose more of that people-pleasing shame that limits me now.

photo by Cassidy Kelley

 

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We Almost Had It. 38 Years to go now.

Ever since I read Marge Piercy’s Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York, I have been obsessed with Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president. I’ve read numerous biographies of her and her sister, Tennessee Claflin. Despite there being no shortage of plays, stories and movies written about them, I have been unable to resist writing my own version of their story. (It’s either called Public Women or Hamlet, Without the Ghost.)

When I read these histories, I see this extraordinary moment when women ALMOST got the vote, when Victoria Woodhull could advocate for “Free Love” and when women’s rights ALMOST happened in an expansive and profound way. And it didn’t happen. The backlash was forceful and intense and rather than ushering in a new age for women, it led to a more repressive age and women didn’t get the right to vote for another 38 years.

Victoria Woodhull was a very modern woman in the late 1800s. She was a fierce advocate for women being able to divorce their husbands, for women to have access to birth control and to be able to control their own lives. With their newspaper, she and her sister wrote about the cruelties many women were compelled to endure at the time. They told truths others were afraid to report. She insisted that she be allowed to speak to Congress. She and her sister were the first woman to run a stock brokerage, one specifically created to serve other women. (How many of those have there been since?)

Woodhull wasn’t perfect but she was inspiring and a kicker open of doors. Part of my despair at the election results this year has been related to my sense of history. Hillary Clinton got much closer to being president than Woodhull ever did but I fear the blacklash will be the same or maybe worse because of it. History is full of these moments of women lifting their heads out of the fray and then being fiercely pushed back down.

For one short day in November, before the horror kicked in, I could imagine what life would be like if we had a woman as president. And not just any woman. A highly capable, intelligent woman. And on that day, I felt like my life might be valuable, that I might finally be able to make a contribution to the world in a meaningful way that there was hope for us. And then the hammer came down. And I am afraid that the repression that will follow will be a lot like what happened all those years ago. The same tropes have already emerged – punishing women for getting abortions, decriminalizing sexual assault, making birth control less available. It’s an old old strategy. And I am very afraid that the glorious freedom and future I imagined is now beyond the scope of my lifetime. That’s what history suggests. I hope it will be different this time. But….history is history.

In the end, Victoria Woodhull landed on her feet. She moved to England and had a jolly time of things with her third husband. But…but – what could have been for the rest of the country? That’s the heartbreaker.

The stories that have moved me the most in the aftermath of this election are all the little girls who watched their mothers devastated by the news and who will grow up to do something about it. I have heard numerous stories of tiny daughters proclaiming their candidacy for the future. This is gorgeous and encouraging and I have faith that those little girls will make a better world for us. But we’ll have to wait for them to grow up. I assume, given history’s likelihood to repeat itself, that we will have to shoulder the burden of the patriarchy another 38 years just as the women of the 1880s did. I hope it will be sooner. But given the circumstances —I doubt that it will.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist




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