Songs for the Struggling Artist


Posse. Team. Community.

Here’s what I’m looking for: A Squad. A Posse. A Team. Specifically: a squad, posse or team that is ready to mobilize for protests and marches and events.

Here’s why: I do not enjoy protests and marches. I’m a highly sensitive introvert with an aversion to crowds and shouting. But I know they make a difference and I often feel as though I OUGHT to go. Unfortunately, sometimes I just can’t muster the will. The main obstacle is that while there are many many things I am very happy to do by myself – protesting is not one of them.

So going to a protest often becomes the act of trying to find a date for something I don’t even really want to do myself. (“Hey friend – you feel like going to go do something I am definitely not going to enjoy but feel like I should go to and which I’m hoping you’ll say no to so I have a good excuse not to go?”) There are just too many opportunities to forget the whole thing altogether. It’s too easy to NOT go.

What this brings to the forefront for me is how little community I have in my life. I have a lot of wonderful individual friends – but I don’t have a community anymore and it’s become clear that I need one. Or several. Because here’s the thing – if I had, say, a What’s App group of protest buddies, I could just find out where they were meeting at the reproductive rights rally on Tuesday and turn up. Maybe go get a drink after, even.

If I had a squad, I could start the conversation or just show up. Sometimes the community would call me to action and sometime I could call the community to action. I now really understand why so much of the civil rights movement began in churches – because that is a ready made community. You can speak to a room full of people all at once that way. You don’t have to call up each individual church member and ask them to come to the march. You just ask them all at once. And then those people can car pool to the event and the next and the next and if a strike gets called, everyone’s ready to walk. It is very handy for organizing people.

So where’s an irreligious person to go to try and get some community going? Where do I go to find a squad? I tried the feminist book club in my neighborhood but when I mentioned I was looking for protest buddies, I got a lot of blank stares and one person said, “I have to work.” Uh, the protest I was talking about was five days ago. You’re already off the hook.

The thing is – I know I am not the only one who is reticent to go to a protest on my own but who would be easy to include with a suggestion from a community. Humans are social animals – even the most introverted among us still can be brought into a circle by the desire of the group. I need a group to want me to show up – because it is just too easy not to.

I mean – “I have to work.” You know?

What time do I have to work? Oh, you know – um, when’s the protest? Oh. Yeah. Then. Then’s when I have to work.

The times are such that we are likely to need to hit the streets more than ever. Reproductive rights are under fire like never before and we have to get out there to save women’s lives. We all need squads. Maybe you don’t need a squad right this second. Maybe you, like me, live in a state that’s not in too much immediate danger of attacking women’s personhood but I think we have to start building our squads now so we can hit the streets at the drop of a text. Not because they’re coming for us right now but because they’re coming for everyone. We all need a protest posse, I think, even if we don’t think we’re going to go.

And since my feminist book club was a bust, I figure I’m just going to have to start my own squad. So if you’re in NYC and you want to be in my squad, let me know. I’ll drop you a text.  We’ll all hit the protest, maybe get a drink after and call it community.

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They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Excuse me, Ma’am

The man in an oxford shirt came up behind me at the narrow passage of the café and did not stop moving as he said, “Excuse me, ma’am” and walked on, scrolling through his phone.

I muttered, “Don’t you ma’am me,” after he passed but what I really wanted to do was set him on fire with my magical fire-shooting ability.

I know the offense was minor and he probably only called me ma’am because there’s no feminine equivalent to sir and even though it sounds like “Outta my way, old lady” to me, he thinks he’s being respectful and at least he didn’t say, “Move, bitch,” and I should be grateful for even an attempt at politeness. But maybe if I combusted enough people for calling me ma’am, we could finally find a respectful word for women instead of limping by with miss and ma’am and madam since forever. Sometimes it takes a little fire.

I want a fire shooting power or a spontaneous combustion ability or to just truly access my dragon self and be able to gobble up those that displease me. I am so weary of conceding and getting out of the way and I don’t want to make a mess but I do want to obliterate my enemies.

The thing is, though, even if I woke up with such a superpower tomorrow, I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t use it. If I got a skein, like the women in Naomi Alderman’s extraordinary book, The Power, I don’t think I’d go on a mad electrocuting spree. I think I would probably keep it to myself – but I sure would feel a lot better knowing I could do it.

If I had, in my back pocket, the power to vanquish a world of enemies, I might be a little more apt to speak my mind at a meeting or on the street or in the passageways of small cafes where boys feel they own the throughways. I might not mutter, “Don’t you ma’am me.” I might say it loud. I might let it resonate and hang dangerously over the air, as the power danced around my fingertips. And we could all feel the electricity I was keeping in store, what energy I was using to NOT combust someone.

My anger had abated somewhat after the fetid air of the Kavanaugh hearings cleared a little – or maybe my anger just went underground these last few months. Eventually, it seemed, I did not long to combust every man I saw. But the recent spate of attacks on reproductive justice have begun to once again stir the dragon I have within and I am longing to actually be as dangerous as I feel. Don’t ma’am me. You might not mean anything by it. But I’m not sure what I’ll do. You just better hope my magic hasn’t grown in yet.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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A Taste of Being a Patriarch in the Patriarchy

For most of the last decade, every day, I’ve been using a line of Hamlet as my prompt for daily writing. The Hamlet Project has nearly 100,000 views and most of them are not people I know. I don’t get a lot of comments on it but when I do, they tend to assume I, the author, am a man. I have been called “sir,” for example, and also “bro.” I think, even when I am not explicitly gendered in a comment, I am assumed to be a man. I don’t know this for sure, of course – but there’s something about the tenor of the comments that makes me feel like I’m being mis-gendered.

What is that tenor? Well. The comments tend to be respectful. They tend to endow me with a level of authority I am not used to receiving in situations wherein my gender is more obvious. It’s just kind of a vibe. And it is very nice, actually.

I’m not trying to obscure my gender identity in this venue but in not making it obvious, it leaves a lot of people room to assume that I am the default gender. I’m also talking about one of the most famous male characters in history – featuring one of the most famous patriarchal struggles – AND – I say on my ABOUT page that the project began from an interest in playing Hamlet. Hamlet is a male character. It thus follows, as the night the day, ipso facto, I must also be male.

Except of course I am not. And depending on the piece that someone might read, it might or might not become obvious. I mean, sure, there’s a lot of feminist content that shows up but maybe I’m just a super woke feminist dude. There’s a way that once the assumption has been made, it will be hard to see the “narrator” differently.

That is, until it becomes obvious. Recently, I started getting lots of views and comments from a man whose website describes him as his country’s “most versatile living writer.” For a few days, I knew he was reading because my statistics reflected a lot of views from his country. He commented several times. I clicked “like” on his comments but didn’t respond to them. Then, he asked me a question, so I answered. The act of commenting revealed my picture and my name and thereby also my gender identity. And wouldn’t you know – I haven’t had a comment or a view from his country since.

I don’t think this is a situation of a person realizing I’m a woman and stalking off in fury saying, “By god, I don’t wish to know what a WOMAN has to say!” I suspect I just suddenly become a lot less interesting. A dedicated reader might just wander off for no particular reason, you know. It’s not sexism, no. It’s just – what’s that over there?

This is the thing a lot of people don’t understand about things like sexism (and racism and ableism and so on) – that it isn’t the overt stuff that gets to us. It’s really the indifference that’s adds up over time and wears us down.

It is actually super nice to be seen as the default. The misgendering is so pleasant because it comes with an assumption of capability, authority and collegiality. I know what those things feel like now and recognize that I don’t usually feel them in any of the other venues (like this one) wherein my gender is a lot more obvious.

Before I tuned into this experience of reading as male, I couldn’t have really articulated what experience I wasn’t having. I didn’t have any sense of what it felt like to have male privilege. I’m thinking of that email experience/experiment those two co-workers had when they switched email signatures for a week. We focused a lot on the male co-worker’s eye-opening interactions when he was perceived as female, how formerly easy interactions became confrontational when he was perceived as his female colleague. The story for me felt like, “See! It’s not all in our heads!”

But now I’m thinking more about what the female co-worker’s experience was when suddenly the way was cleared. I think I imagined it a little bit like that Eddie Murphy SNL sketch where he disguises himself as a white guy and people just give him stuff and throw white people parties on the bus. But of course it’s not that dramatic. No one gave that switched email co-worker an award or a pile of money when she was perceived as male, her job just got a lot faster and easier. Similarly, I’m not getting any special kudos or winning awards or praise or pats on the back in being perceived as male with my Hamlet Project, it’s just a more pleasant atmosphere and I get twice as many views.

I’m not saying it’s a paradise over there. An occasional dickhead makes his way there just like anywhere. But the dickheadery is somehow less dickheaded. The vibe over there is nice.

So I’m in no hurry to disabuse anyone of their perception and I might really enjoy using a pseudonym for some stuff in the future, just because it’s nice to roll around in male privilege for a bit.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast episode of this post. (It’s like an audio version of the blog.)

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Get Out of the Boom Boom Room

I was trying not to listen but you know how it is with actors, you kind of hear them no matter what. These two seemed to be meeting for the first time to work on their assigned scene for their class – a scene from David Rabe’s In the Boom Boom Room.

Do you know this play? If you’re a woman and were in an acting class, you surely encountered it at one point between its premiere in 1973 and… today, apparently. It’s the story of a dancer who finds work in a seedy nightclub. Acting teachers used to assign it a lot. Apparently they still do.

It’s kind of a terrible play. Like, really. The thing of it is, even if it was a great play – this was a terrible scene to assign to these two women across from me at the cafe. Not only would neither of them ever be cast in it or anything like it in their lifetimes, but they are pretty much guaranteed to fail at it. I listened to them struggle with the scene. They thought it was them. But I just wanted to scream –“Nah, girls. Nah. It’s not you – it’s the mantrification! (This is the word I was looking for in my previous post. Newly coined. Very useful.) It’s sexism.”

These two young women in the cafe were clearly beginning actors but eventually these ladies could be great in any number of parts. I’d like to see them play scientists, astronauts, horse trainers, accountants, courtiers, foot soldiers, etc, etc. But could they play a go go dancer and her go go boss? Nope. Never gonna happen. Not even with the best teacher in the world.

I think I know what this teacher was thinking. He was thinking, “I need to get these girls in touch with their bodies. I need to get them to open up and be able to play sexy.”

And, indeed, for the entirety of my lifetime so far, being able to play a sexy dancer who’s also an ingénue (or a seductive dominatrix or dominatrix who is also an ingénue with a heart of gold) really is going to get you the most jobs as an actress. If you can play a scientist, but sexy, or a girl next door who takes her glasses off and is suddenly hot, you’ll be much more marketable. I was given scenes like this back in my acting class days and I was also no good in them. Only a handful of people can be good in this sort of thing. We do the others no favors in repeating these same old tired tropes.

Many acting teachers think all women have a secret Christie Brinkley within – they just have to teach us how to unlock it. They feel this is their duty – to help every woman perform a certain kind of sexuality. But becoming Christie Brinkley is more than just shaking out your hair and taking your glasses off.

I’m not saying these ladies in the cafe weren’t sexy. Put them in the right context, I’m sure they could be sexy af. But that’s where the typical acting teachers’ logic is so twisted. One of the sexiest performances in 2018 by a woman was Rachel Weisz shooting pigeons in The Favorite. I can’t tell you the numbers of tweets I saw that declaimed this moment as “my sexuality.” Sexiness is not hair flipping and playing seductresses and go go dancers no matter how much the old creepy dudes who teach acting think it is.

Why on earth are people still assigning scenes from this play to young actors? Maybe in the early 70s there was something exciting and interesting about treating a go go dancer as a human being with problems and relationships but in 2019, we need more. I won’t dwell on the awfulness of this play (except to say that compelling a bunch of young actors to casually say the N-word for no good reason in the middle of it is just insult to injury) because this play is not the only guilty party in the constant objectification of actresses in training. I never had to work on this particular play myself but I certainly encountered dozens of others like it. It’s no wonder that the casting sites are full of women who list pole dancing as their special skill. If almost every woman in acting training encounters her own Boom Boom Room, it is no wonder our strength and power are much diminished by the time we reach an age wherein we could seize it.

And I know, I know, #NotAllActingClasses or at least I hope it’s not all acting classes these days but it’s clearly still #ManyActingClasses. Do a video search of In the Boom Boom Room and you will see acting showcase after acting showcase of young women in short skirts talking to each other about the hardships of the go go dancing life.

So, the vast majority of female identifying actors in this country are dealing with trying to play this sort of scene, if not this scene itself. I think that’s a problem and has an effect that reaches far beyond each individual class.

“Why?” you may ask. “Why is it a problem?”
Well – run this thought experiment. Gender switch this scene. Instead of two young women, it’s two fresh faced young men. Let’s say it’s Timothee Chalamet and Lucas Hedges before they got famous. Is this a good use of their time? Is teaching Chalamet how to flip his hair and pop his ass, to perform an exaggerated sexuality an effective way to teach acting? It is not. It’s a colossal waste of his time. And if he takes it to heart and continues to only perform in this way, it will ruin his talent entirely.

Once upon a time, there weren’t that many parts for women. We had to take what we could get. What were acting teachers to do if they had classes full of women, as they tended to have? You’ve got In the Boom Boom Room, Crimes of the Heart and The Children’s Hour, in case you felt like going classic.

But it is 2019. If In the Boom Boom Room is still in your repertoire, it’s time to let it and all the other scenes like it go. I know it’s easier to just work with the scenes you worked on when you were a student – but when you are training young actors, you aren’t just teaching them acting, you’re introducing them to the possibilities, to plays they might want to see or be a part of in the future.

I also understand that some scenes really allow you to teach certain things in a clearer fashion – there are scenes that allow you to teach objectives and obstacles and business and all sorts of stuff. So…tell me, what do you need, acting teachers? I know a lot of playwrights. I’m a playwright myself. What can we write for you to help you break out of the boom boom rut? We could start a whole thread of non boom boom two women scenes over on New Play Exchange.

Yes, too, as I’m sure many non boom boom teachers will point out, there are MANY MANY plays that have been written in the last 45 years that do a better job than In the Boom Boom Room. List them here, if you want. I don’t want to see another new actor trying to reconcile how to play these parts. It is time for them to disappear out of the repertoire and out of our lives.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

The digital distribution is expiring at the end of the month, so I’m also raising funds to keep them up. If you’d like to contribute, feel free to donate anywhere but I’m tracking them on Kofi – here: ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis

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The Default Character and Why Elizabeth Acevedo Made Me Cry

Elizabeth Acevedo’s presentation at the Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators made tears fall down my face in a way that I usually try to avoid in public. Acevedo is an extraordinary performer, writer, speaker and it’s no surprise that she took hold of the room full of writers and illustrators and moved us. But why was I crying?

At first, I thought, “Well, I’m old enough and she’s young enough that she could have been one of my students when I was doing workshops and residencies all over New York.” And while I probably didn’t teach her specifically, I certainly taught a lot of kids who could have grown up to be poets or performers. I thought maybe I was having a teacher’s kvell moment, feeling proud of my former students by watching her work. But I think it was something more.

One of the stories she shared was about her graduate training in poetry that led to her writing an ode to rats. (I’d tell you the story in more detail but SCBWI’s blogging policy forbids me from disclosing the contents of a presentation. Though if you watched the beginning of this video, which is freely available on the internet, you’d be pretty much up to speed.) At the heart of the story is a kind of mental gentrification of an artist in the midst of learning a craft. It’s a story about the way that a person in power, coddled in privilege (white, male, economically secure, always part of the dominant paradigm) can thoughtlessly dismiss a culture, a humanity, can fail to see what treasures are right in front of them.

I thought, perhaps, after hearing this story, particularly the part where all of Acevedo’s Spanish words are circled in red, that I was crying for the loss of all the books I haven’t read, all the stories I haven’t heard from the people whose art was cut off at the knees by this kind of colonialist mind set, the kind that can’t look up words he doesn’t know, the kind that can’t see an experience outside of his own. There are so many books we won’t get to read, so many poems we won’t hear, so many films and plays we missed. I mean, I’m crying for that loss again right now as I write this. It is our culture’s great loss. There is no question.

But this felt more personal. It felt like she was talking to me – like it was my story she was telling in addition to her own. I’m not Dominican. Not Latina. Not a woman of color. I cannot claim to have had my work edited to fit a whiter paradigm. My work is probably right in the white zone, probably with its own unconscious colonialist impulses. I have seen the cultural knee-capping happen to students in my orbit but that particular injustice has not been one I’ve had to face. So what is it? Why does this feel so personal? I’d love to believe I was just moved by a cultural loss but I don’t think my tears are that selfless.

I suspect the feeling is familiar even if the facts are different. I suspect I felt all the ways I have been dismissed, edited or questioned for being too feminine, too disorderly or too much trouble. I suddenly found myself looking for a word that expressed a kind of colonization of gender. I want to be able to note the action while it’s happening. I want to be able to say to someone something like “Stop patriarching me!” (but better) or to find the equivalent of calling someone a colonizer. It’s not the same, I know. I know it’s not the same. But there are many ways that women’s bodies have been claimed by others instead of the people to whom they belong.

Of course we have words for the many ways that that claiming happens – many of which have only recently become common parlance. We can acknowledge that someone has committed domestic abuse or sexual assault or sexual harassment or reproductive tyranny or gaslighting or rape or objectification, etc, etc – even something as tiny as mansplaining – but so many of these things stem from a basic entitlement to women’s bodies and space. I need a word for the whole basket. I need a word bigger than sexism. I need a word for when someone is editing the femininity (or feminism) out of my work. I want to be able to shout something better than “You’re being sexist!” That phrase is too passive. It’s something the person is being, not doing. I want something like, “You’re doing sexism!” – both so I can identify it myself and to make it clear to other people. I need a word that can help highlight the subtle ways this happens. Sexism, like colonization, is ACTIVE. It’s not just in the water. It’s something people do to each other all day long and repeat and repeat, generation after generation. Colonizers try to make people assimilate to the dominant culture. Sexism-ers (sorry, still need a word and until I find one, I’m going to keep making them up) make people assimilate into the biased binary.

I have no idea what I would have been able to create if I hadn’t already spent a lifetime in the Patriarching Machine. I hope I’ve been able to resist most of the assimilation to the sexist structures – but I know there is a colonizer and patriarchist in my own mind, who does at least as much damage to me as any sexist colonizer outside me. I’d like to believe that if someone told me my idea wasn’t good enough that I would have gone ahead and written it anyway, the way Acevedo did, but I don’t know if I would have. Or did.

At this same conference, I learned about the Default Character – this is the “Neutral” character, the one that you don’t need to specify anything about. Unless we’re told otherwise, we assume the character is male, white, upper middle class, able bodied and Christian. Any character outside this norm, tends to need to be specified.

In order to be welcomed into the mainstream, we try to make ourselves closer to the default, to the neutral. We might edit out our femaleness and/or our cultural identity. (When Boots Riley won a Spirit Award for my favorite 2018 film, he pointed out how class struggle has been pretty much invisible in film due – in part – to self-editing.)

It’s a gentrification of the mind, of art. Where has my own artistic sensibility been edited and proclaimed not noble enough for the taste-makers, educators and gatekeepers? What poems haven’t I written because I was told my experiences were not sufficient? What plays or books or songs did I set aside because they weren’t nice enough for a “nice” girl like me? Acevedo heard criticism of her rat idea and she did not fold, she did not nod and say, “Oh, okay, how about an antelope?”

She went ahead and wrote that ode to rats. And she performs it on stages and in videos and there are likely people who have heard her rat ode that have heard no other odes in their lives and so she sets a new standard, a new possibility. We can praise what had once been held in contempt. We can change the definition of nobility. We can all be noble humans and there will be no more default characters.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

The digital distribution is expiring at the end of March, so I’m also raising funds to keep them up. If you’d like to contribute, feel free to donate anywhere but I’m tracking them on Kofi – here: ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis

If you have a particular album you’d like to keep there, let me know!

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The Cafe Wall of Fame

On the wall at Café La Habana in Mexico City is a plaque that proclaims the previous presence of Octavio Paz, Ché Guevara, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and more. The rumor is that the Cuban Revolution was planned there. It is an inspiring place. The conversations of these public intellectuals soaked into the very walls.

Also, not a single woman is listed in its storied history.

It was founded in 1952. That means Frida Kahlo could have gone there in the last two years of her life. Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington could have gone there. I know they didn’t live nearby but still, they could have. Laura Esquivel was two years old when the place was founded but I imagine she’s been there at some point in her life.

I mean – did no women come and plan there? Or they just haven’t done it yet? What if we planned the feminist revolution there? The Cuban one worked out reasonably well for the guys who started it.

I have a lot of questions about this particular place because it feels like a kind of magic to write in so potent a place. But I wonder if that magic has only ever applied to men. Did women not go there? Were they somehow unwelcome to the public intellectual’s realm? Or was it unsafe for women? Or were they there and then forgotten about? Or did they just have their coffee, conversations and revolutions at home?

As a woman who has spent time in coffee shops in many countries, I can confirm that public spaces like cafes are more male space than female. In some places I’ve been, I’ve been the only woman. On holidays I am almost always the only woman in the last open café.

It does feel as though despite our many advancements, public space like coffee shops still belongs to men. Soraya Chemaly gave one of my favorite TED talks on the subject of public spaces. The gist of it is, almost all public space is male space, in that it was designed by and for men. I can’t stop thinking about this. I’m fascinated by the architectural projects that are JUST beginning to address it. There is a movement coming, I think. But without the history, it’s very difficult. Show me the café that brags of all the women who frequented the place. (Seriously please show me – I’ll go there.) Show me the city that was planned with women in mind. (Vienna comes closest in that they made adjustments based on a survey of women’s needs back in the 90s.) All space is men’s space that others find our way through. All cafes are for men, for men’s ideas, men’s revolutions. The women’s revolution is in the house, I guess? Which maybe explains why we haven’t really had a revolution.

If women have no public space in which to gather, if we aren’t seen in public together (except for once a year at our march) then we have no public power. We try and claim space when we march. We chant. Whose streets? Our streets.
Now maybe it’s time for:
Whose café? Our café.

I’m not here to call out Café La Habana. Honestly, I can’t think of a single café in the USA that honors literary greats or revolutionaries of any gender on its walls. Café la Habana is way ahead of us in honoring writers, artists and intellectuals and I respect and admire them for it. I’m a fan.

One day in the future, I hope to make it back to that cafe, where I’ll drink another delicious lechera and on their updated plaque I hope to see many women’s names. Or maybe one of you will start a café with women in mind and we’ll all turn up to hang out and plan our revolution and someone will hang a plaque up decades later. I’d like to be on that wall with the rest of you.

Photo by Donna Shaunesey

 

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If you’d like to listen to me read a previous one on Anchor, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

The digital distribution is expiring at the end of February for the second album, so I’m also raising funds to keep them up. If you’d like to contribute, feel free to donate anywhere but I’m tracking them on Kofi – here: ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis

If you have a particular album you’d like to keep there, let me know!

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Want to help get my name on a cafe wall?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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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 (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



The Tribal Boost

As a theatre maker, I think about group dynamics a lot. When making a show, I think about how to create a cohesive ensemble of actors and an inspiring team of designers who can all bring out the best in each other. When performing a piece, I think about how an audience behaves – what makes them decide to laugh together, to clap together or to stand together.

Humans are tribal people. We look to one another for cues about how to behave – sometimes to our detriment. I’m thinking of that experiment where the participant sees smoke but does nothing about it because the others in the room fail to acknowledge it. Tribes can be centuries old or as temporary as a room full of people and if the tribe decides there is no fire, everyone might just burn up.

Tribes of people – temporary or longstanding – have preferences, aspirations and group behaviors. They have personalities. Audiences are as individual as individuals – as any performer can tell you – and they have ways of welcoming or excluding others.

At a comedy club, for example, when a man like Louis CK turns up, the audience is usually eager to hear what he might have to say. Even now. Even after his fall. He got a standing ovation when he came out at some comedy club he turned up at recently. When a woman turns up to do some comedy, the tribe is a bit skeptical. They aren’t primed to hear her. They might even be actively hostile.

I started to think about this while reading Deborah Francis White’s book, The Guilty Feminist. She talked about how Louis CK thrives in an environment that was built for him and others like him. And she’s noticed that the tribal energy at tapings of her podcast is sometimes the opposite. Her audience is mostly female and feminist so when a man turns up onstage – the audience gets a little wary. The room gets an atmosphere of “All right…we’ll hear you out, white man.” And what is interesting is that some men respond to that skepticism – perhaps the first they have ever really encountered – by getting smaller, maybe even with some nervous sputtering. (Very like a woman on an all male panel, she says.)

There’s an exercise we theatre educators often use to illustrate status that involves the players holding a playing card to their forehead that they can’t see and then trying to work out where in the hierarchy they stand by how they are treated. Kings work out that they are Kings rather quickly.

In addition to teaching differences in behavior of a King and a Two, this exercise shows how the status of a person really comes from the behavior of the world looking at them. Treat a King like a King and he becomes a King. But a Two who tries to become like a King will always be put in their place by the tribe, no matter how hard they try.

The thing is, when it comes to leadership, the world has been saying to women, “It’s up to you! Lean in! Be more confident!” The world looks at women as Twos but yells at us to be like Kings. The change is in us, the world says. But really – the change needs to happen in the tribe. The group needs to treat women like Kings instead of Twos.

For so long, tribes have cleared the way for men, have treated so many as though they were potential kings. It feels as though when a man turns up to lead, the climate of a room tends to say, “Yes! He’s here! Let’s make sure he has a place to sit and a nice megaphone and good lighting. I can’t WAIT to hear what he has to say!”

When a woman turns up to lead, arms cross, eyes narrow and the climate of the room says, “Well, we’ll give her a chance, I suppose. We’ll see what she has to say. Maybe she’ll be able to find a place to sit. Maybe she’ll be able to be heard over this din.” And some women stride right in, make space for themselves and get themselves heard and seen without too much fuss.

As someone with an interest in leading, I have always had trouble with this. If I come into a room and feel that no one wants me there or wants to hear what I have to say, I’m much more inclined to turn around and find another room than to stay in that one to fight it out. I’m really only interested in leading when I have a room full of yes. I’ve never been too keen to try and convince a room that thinks I’m a Two that I am really a King, or even just, like, a Nine.

I’m seeing now what a fight it has always been to lead. To have to convince everyone of my right to be there before I even begin is more work than I am willing to do anymore. And what is making me furious now is to see how, for so many men, the mantle of authority is just given to them even if they don’t want it or deserve it.

It starts so young, too. In schools, I’ve seen groups of riled up children get instantly calm when a man walks into their classroom. Triple that effect if he’s wearing a tie. And that effect magnifies over time. And I think it is how we’ve ended up with this horrible political situation – and the slowly awakening realization of this bias is what’s slowly shifting it. As a tribe, we have to examine who we clear space for and who we challenge, who we defer to and who we are skeptical of. Sure – internalized misogyny has been a factor but it is also a lifetime of patterns that our tribes repeat and repeat.

In her book, Deborah Frances White shares an anecdote about driving. She’d heard that London drivers were aggressive but when she drove her employer’s SUV for the first time, she experienced everyone getting out of her way. She thought, from this experience, that London drivers were extremely polite.

Then she drove a small VW Golf. She discovered that, previously, her way had been cleared because of the large vehicle she’d been driving. People had been getting out of her way due to her barreling through the roads in a big car not because they wanted to. As she puts it: “I thought everyone else was polite. Turns out, I’m an arsehole.” She makes the analogy that this is how privilege works – the “arseholes” don’t know they’re being “arseholes” – they think that others are just polite and they think they’re being polite too.

This is the thing – the SUV’s way is always clear and the little VW is always trying to squeeze in where it can. To create a sense of balance, we probably need to treat VWs like SUVs an occasion. We need to treat Twos like Kings. We need to shift the group dynamics to open up and welcome the people who have had to fight for their place.

The group endows the leader with their power or their lack of power. The group sets the tone of welcome someone with an enthusiastic yes or a skeptical no – or even just a qualified skeptical yes. Western ideology always credits the leader with changing the group but I think it’s rather the reverse. The group changes the leader. The leader becomes who they are and leads how they lead because of the group. There are a lot of interesting examples of this in the American political landscape at the moment. Donny Twimp just repeats the lines his audience likes. He explained that’s how “drain the swamp” became a thing. The people in front of him liked it so it caught on.

No way was cleared for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez before she started but she famously wore out her shoes clearing a way for herself. And now, she is challenged at every turn. But simultaneously, those who elected her and admire and support her, buoy her up with our enthusiastic yes. That helps her negotiate all the SUVS that Republicans keep trying to park in front of her.

But American politics aside, this is all happening on micro levels as well. There are rooms women are welcome in and those we are not and no one needs to say anything for us to feel the difference. In theatres, for example, women are welcome as ingénues and chorus girls but not as leaders. (Actual thing said by an Artistic Director to some writers I know: “Oh, we don’t hire women directors. They can’t hold the room.”)

If we want to make changes, we’re going to have to bring our enthusiastic welcomes to women, especially in rooms where they have previously been met with hostility. If you’re an airline – maybe roll out the red carpet for your lady pilots. Throw them parties. I don’t know. And actually more than special treatment, women (and other people who find themselves less welcome) just need the group to have faith and confidence in them, to uncross their arms and smile and expect to be dazzled.

Having my leadership questioned and challenged at every turn in my graduate program for directing made me question my skill and has made all subsequent leading fraught with self doubt. Having been, frankly, a little bit traumatized by the tribe, I have found it harder to feel any subsequent group’s welcome, harder to distinguish what is actually a challenge to my leadership and what is just the usual workings of a tribe trying to figure something out. This is still a factor in everything I do now and led to my, more or less, giving up directing. I’m guessing that we lose a lot of women (and trans and non-binary) leaders this way.

But the group could turn it around I think. The group is powerful. The group can say “yes” enthusiastically if it wants and carry its leaders ahead. The group can welcome new leaders together, new voices, new ideas. The group can lift up all the previously under supported, under appreciated, under heard people and make a more equitable world. And it can get everyone out of a burning building when someone smells smoke, too. If the people around you don’t believe you when you smell smoke, or they aren’t lifting each other up, maybe start looking for a new tribe or even just a new audience with which to watch a show. And help that tribe give a boost to someone who needs it. It could change everything.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous one on Anchor, click here.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

The digital distribution is expiring at the end of February for the second album, so I’m also raising funds to keep them up. If you’d like to contribute, feel free to donate anywhere but I’m tracking them on Kofi – here: ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis

If you have a particular album you’d like to keep there, let me know!

*

Want to be a part of the tribe that boosts me?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

*

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 (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) 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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