Songs for the Struggling Artist

The Woman in the Room: Or, Complacency vs “I am a Strident Feminist!”
October 10, 2012, 6:58 pm
Filed under: art, feminism, theatre | Tags: , , ,

One of the themes I’m seeing pop up as a result of having posted my thoughts about sexism here on the blog is a bit of self-blame from women I love or admire, or both,  for having become complacent. That makes me sad.

We’re all fighting a hard fight out there in the theatre and I think we can be forgiven for not fighting sexism tooth and nail at every opportunity. It’s great when we can and we absolutely should when it’s possible, but:

1) It is not easy to do it. It takes being a certain state of mind. Either absolute security in one’s position or a certain willingness to risk losing it. (On the day I spoke up, I was feeling pretty good. My show had had a good run in Chicago and I was still a little high on a couple of weeks of performance.)

2) When you are the only (or one of the few) women in the room, you are usually so grateful to get to be one of the women in the room, against all odds, that you could not possibly take on the problem of there being so few women in all the other rooms across the country. And while you may be the woman in the room THIS time, you know full well that the next room is not guaranteed. Most women who are trying to survive in this business are not interested in jeopardizing their positions in those rooms to make a fuss – either about the content of the shows they’re in, or numbers. A woman who gets a reputation as a political troublemaker will likely find herself removed from the rotation, replaced by someone who might be a little less difficult.

Sometimes in these situations, men will ask “Why didn’t she say something?! How was I supposed to know that was a sexist thing to write/make/say etc if the woman in the room didn’t SAY something?!” To which I say – This is because SAYING something is not just a risk of saying something uncomfortable, but of saying something that may very likely have an effect on your livelihood. Because of the numbers problem, women are constantly the minority and rarely in a position to speak freely about this stuff.

I feel like I have a peculiar advantage in my position in the theatre culture. It’s a kind of inside/outside thing. I generally make my work outside the awareness of the establishment. I can risk saying something because the risk for me is relatively low. What’s the establishment going to do? Ignore me harder? Stick out its tongue and taunt me, too? Artwise, I’m pretty safe. The risk I’m taking is with my day jobs, which are mostly  in established theatres. And yes, it is a substantial risk, but I have several of those jobs, so the odds are good that even if one of them decided I was too much trouble, I’ve got some others to catch me. Also, my day  jobs are in theatre education – the only place the the gender numbers are possibly skewed in the other direction.  I guess, we’ve got time to work in education because no one’s producing our plays or letting us direct them or giving us an acting gig! So there’s that, I guess.

I think we make a little deal with the devil to be the one woman in the room. I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember. And when I got out of college and looked around at how things were done, I realized that I would need to put a muffler around those ideals if I wanted a career in theatre. And I DID want a career in theatre, so I got very quiet about this stuff. Yes, I did. I put up with a whole lot of nonsense (my favorite sexist nonsense: From the costume designer  on one of my first jobs: “What do you mean you don’t own a push-up bra? You call yourself an actress? You want to have a career, you better go buy one now.” Worst thing? For the career he had in mind? He might have been right.) I put up with sexual harassment from directors and actors alike. And I just made a decision to keep my jobs rather than making a fuss. And when I realized how crappy the odds were for being an actor, I became a writer/director. (Ha! Those odds aren’t good either! Joke’s on me!) I made my own work, where I never broadcast my underlying feminist ideals, aesthetic or methodologies, because I saw how those companies that did were marginalized and denigrated. I became a stealth feminist. It felt like the only available choice.

And a stealth feminist I have mostly remained until the bottom fell out of my good will a couple of weeks ago. I guess I’ve sort of outed myself as the feminist I’ve been all along. (Yes, I made Roar! The Women’s Thing. Live Girls Onstage! in college. Yes, My Sociology of Women professor would affectionately call out, “Here come the radicals!” when my friend and I came in. Yes, My friend and I gender-switched the misogynist play we directed in high school, making a very satisfying point, if we did say so ourselves.) And now that I’ve outed myself, I see that there are loads of other women who’ve been stealthily fighting this fight, too.

One of the lovely commenters on the blog recommended Caitlin Moran’s book and it got me through the initial aftermath of all this. In it, Moran suggests reclaiming the term STRIDENT feminist, since it’s what is often leveled at us when we speak up about injustice. She recommends loudly proclaiming “I am a strident feminist!” while standing on a chair. I find this terrifying and very exciting. I have always hated the idea of being seen as strident. It’s what keeps me quiet sometimes. I’m pretty attached to my friendly identity and am much happier when everyone’s getting along. I have, on many occasions, been accused of being “too nice.” I’m not much of a shouter. I’m a go-home-and-write-about-it-er. However, no matter how I say it or what my tone is or how polite I am, I will likely still be seen as a strident feminist. I think this is probably the sort of assumption that my boss made when he felt comfortable saying what he did. (You know, she’s a feminist! She probably shouts about burning bras! She needs to be taken down a peg!) So the idea of just taking on being Strident, just laughing about it, by god, takes a little bit of the sting out of it all.  And maybe I’ll take to calling my fellow feminists Strident, too. We’ll create a secret handshake and say, “What’s up, my strident feminist friend?”

So, you know, as a Strident Feminist, let me say, Can we just give ourselves a pat on the back for surviving in a business that would really rather we shut up and play that hooker with the heart of gold or that selfless cardboard mother it wrote for us? You don’t have to be a Strident Feminist. (Although, personally, I could use all the Strident Feminists I can get around me right now.) You just have to keep at it. By all means, speak up when you can, when you’re feeling strong, or secure in your position – like when you’ve got a sympathetic director or a playwright who’s ready to listen, or when you know that actor or administrator will hear you. Speak up when you can but if you’re the woman in the room, your job is already hard and it is to STAY in the room, however you can.

7 Comments so far
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Excellent case for embracing the role of “Strident Feminist”! And while we’re at it, could we embrace the ownership of a Feminist Agenda? Yes, I have a Feminist Agenda: to promote the outlandish notion that women are human beings.

Comment by cslplaywright

Oh, do let’s have a Feminist Agenda! I am ON BOARD with that. Whoo-hoo! I wanna try this out in casual conversation whenever I have to leave: “Excuse me, I’d love to hang around but I’ve got to go out to promote my feminist agenda!”

Comment by erainbowd

The other reason we shut our mouths is, I think, the inevitable eye roll we are bound to receive when we do speak. That eye roll manages to dismiss us before we’ve even spoken. It tells us that our concerns are repetitive, obvious, and not worthy of remark – and it places us firmly in the role of obnoxious feminist, overly aware of our insignificant issues. The eye roll tells us that we ought not to be concerned with feminism, that it was resolved a million years ago, and that we should just shut up and enjoy whatever material it is we’re commenting on without bothering everyone else with our little woman problems. To bring the fun back in the room – I’m going to be prancing around in my collection of feminist t-shirts. Maybe if the eye-rollers see me coming they can brace themselves and prepare for a good ol’fashioned debate with some educated, aware and strident feminists.

Comment by sevrin

Bring out the t-shirts! And the hats! Maybe a little banner we could hang up over our heads wherever we go? “Here sits a Strident Feminist!” – written in 70’s summer camp font, with like, pictures of rainbows, smiley faces and kittens frolicking.

Comment by erainbowd

I’m a strident feminist with an excellent sense of humor. And I’m both listening to you and speaking my own mind. I ran an all-female Shakespeare company for over a decade, and it is living proof that audiences, both male and female, will flock to shows that feature women in leading roles, and will financially support the companies that produce those shows. Anyone who isn’t looking at those numbers or isn’t acting on them is either sexist or a chickenshit coward. Audiences for the Miller/Mamet/etc programming you’re putting on are predominantly women, and why wouldn’t women want to see women on stage and off? It’s all a bunch of nonsense, and if the people who are in power now won’t change it, the rest of us are going to have to take over. So you can feel free to call me a radical feminist too. Equity for women now!

Comment by Erin Merritt

Preach, my Strident Feminist Radical! Let’s storm the theatrical bastille! And your success story warms the cockles of my strident feminist heart.

Comment by erainbowd

I’m so proud of you, Emily! What a woman and great human being!

Comment by Bill Davis

I'd love to hear from you. Gentleness and kindness encouraged and appreciated.

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