Songs for the Struggling Artist

“I’m encouraging her, actually.”

In a round table discussion featured in The Hollywood Reporter last year, – five white male directors (Richard Linklater, Bennett Miller,  Christopher Nolan, Morten Tyldum and Mike Leigh) and one white female director (Angelina Jolie) discussed their trade. When someone asked Mike Leigh why he was picking on Angelina Jolie, he said, “I’m encouraging her, actually.”

This phrase blew my mind. Because it seemed to me (and probably, also, to the guy who asked the question) that Leigh had been particularly condescending and rude to her. It seemed like a case of the playground phenomena of boys hitting the girls they liked. Mike Leigh’s idea that he was being encouraging was baffling.
This made me question all the times I’ve been condescended to and (seemingly) discouraged over the course of my career. It’s possible that all of those men in power genuinely thought they were being encouraging by being assholes.

This also made me think of all the ways this develops over time. If there’s a whole swath of the population that genuinely thinks they’re encouraging and does it again and again – they must be so baffled by why so many women leave the business or fail to go on to become directors or leaders or whatever it is. Because this kind of “encouragement” is actually incredibly discouraging for almost every woman I know. And if you endure enough of it – it can be enough to get you to quit.

It makes me think of a concept in psychology I just heard about – a sort of cultural bias. That is – the field of psychology has found itself to be culturally biased – that it has a very Western point of view. As an example, the You Are Not So Smart podcast reported that a child in the West will do better when told what he or she has done well. A child in the East will do better when she’s told where she can improve.

In a way, I wonder if we have as big a divide culturally when it comes to gender norms – maybe a male protege of Mike Leigh’s would be encouraged by his condescension. I know I wouldn’t be. Jolie, however, handled it all with grace. She’s experienced enough as a performer to not be thrown by a condescending director. I’m sure she’s received all kinds of “encouragement” over the years.

But – I was struck, too, by the set up of this panel. They put 5 highly experienced male directors – ones who’d been directing their whole lives – in a room with a former actor who had only directed two films so far. In a way, Joile was set up by the panel to be condescended to and “encouraged.” Why not put some true female peer on that panel? Like a Jill Solloway, Julie Taymor and Kathryn Bigelow? I was not encouraged by that set up. But it did all make me think about encouragement – the word itself suggests the putting of courage into someone. Maybe, for some people, they think this means pushing someone until they snap and suddenly fight back. It’s a giving of courage by instilling fear.

But for me and most women I know, this aggressive approach is terribly discouraging – and only makes the challenging work we do against all the odds all the more challenging. In a world with so little gender parity it just feels like an attack on the most vulnerable member of a group. It feels like an assertion of the already implied idea that you don’t belong. You’re the outsider. And all this “encouragement” just serves to remind you how outside you are. I’d love to understand just exactly how Leigh thought he was encouraging Jolie – it might help me understand what’s happening when I experience such “encouragement” myself.



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