Songs for the Struggling Artist


In Which I Read That Dragon Book

August 30th 2022

In a wave of curiosity, I put myself on the waiting list for my library’s digital copy of When Women Were Dragons, the novel that came out this year in which a dragoning is a featured event. (I wrote about this funny “coincidence” not so long ago.) The wait was going to be months long so I figured I didn’t have to read it – but it would be on my list should I want to. When it suddenly became available, I didn’t WANT to read it but I also couldn’t help myself. What is this book’s deal?

I started it last night and I already have so many thoughts. It seemed like it would be better to wait until I’d finished the book to write about it – but it’s clear it’s going to be a real journey for me so I figured I’d take you with me on it. This post may take a while to write as I don’t think I’m going to be able to read this book quickly. In fact, I think it’s going to be multiple posts. There will be spoilers. This will be me reading the book, with you alongside me.

First, this book is dedicated to Christine Blasey Ford and makes it clear that the Kavanaugh hearings were the inspiration for it. I almost stopped right there. Because, as you’ll know if you’ve read previous blogs on this topic, or listened to interviews with me about The Dragoning podcast, those hearings were what provoked my dragon blog and then the podcast. So…the kick-off was exactly the same, which just created some super complicated feelings before the book even started.

But I kept reading. I was in a space where I could deal with some complicated feelings. I read all the introductory material and I read Chapter One and then I had to stop. I hated it. Not because it wasn’t good or well written. I think it is but I can’t tell because I was blind with frustration. Here’s what I know already. This book is too nice. It is academic (or faux academic) and it is going to make a lot of women suffer. (Well, fictional women anyway.) Already, it is clear that this author and I are coming from very different starting points. In her novel, it is mothers and wives who are missing. It is children who are suffering the loss of their mothers. Women turn into dragons, yes – but then they fly away. I created a world where it is men who go missing – because the women ate them or set them on fire. And while women have to wrestle with a new reality, you will not see a woman victimized in my dragoning.

Now – this book may turn around from here. It may turn out that all the missing mothers and wives have flown off to start their own dragon society or something – but from this point in the narrative, I am not enjoying this reality. And I’m sure you know how much I like women turning into dragons. After an hour or so away from it, I was able to read another chapter and it didn’t make me quite as mad. The main thrust of the story seems to be a child trying to understand what’s wrong with her mother after a two month absence. Of course we assume her mother was a dragon for a couple of months. Either that or she was in a sanitarium from being abused by the father. Anyway – this is where we’re starting.

Will we get some empowering lady dragons at some point? I expect and hope so – but I’m not counting on it.

August 31

In talking about this experience of having a famous author write a thing like my thing, my friend advised me to discuss it with the Dramatists Guild, since I am a member and questions of creative legality are their special purview. I’m not sure I’d have a case, as this book, thus far, only shares a point of inspiration, a concept and a made-up word. I don’t think there’s any evidence of substantial copyright violation – but I’ll have to keep reading of find out.

Anyway – I read another couple of chapters as well as the Handmaid’s Tale-style academic inserts. I still hate it. But it’s becoming clear that the story is a conflict between the patriarchy-fighting aunt and the patriarchy-handmaiden mother. It would appear that it is the trouser-wearing mechanic who is going to turn dragon. Everyone’s already afraid of her and her eyes turn funny at times.

I don’t know. Thus far it’s all a little conventional for me. I don’t think this author stole my work because if she did, she missed the whole gist of it and she stole the most banal part. I guess it makes me appreciate the world I created more but it also makes me angrier that my podcast continues to languish in obscurity while this novelist gets write-ups in places like the New York Times.

But I have to keep reading to see if I have something to discuss with the Dramatist’s Guild Legal Department.

September 1

I read a chapter and more of the “Academic paper” and a “Washington Post article.” I’m using quotes because neither of these things would pass for the things they are supposed to be. I mean, that’s fine – academic papers aren’t generally very readable and newspaper articles can be dry and go on a bit. And now I know more about where this is going. There’s a lot of talk of the “Mass Dragoning Event” which I find funny for some reason. Maybe because it’s so clunky?

And the part that I find irritating is the fact that now we’ve learned that the dragons are exclusively wives and mothers. It is repeated twice – “Wives and mothers, all.” And I suppose I find this irritating because I am neither a wife nor a mother and I suppose I’m not crazy about the idea that it is essentially the relationship to a man that would give a woman the super power of dragonhood.

Maybe the author is going for an idea that being married and giving birth introduces you to a new kind of patriarchy-fighting rage? But still…

Ultimately, you get your dragonhood because you get married to a man or a man got you pregnant. (I assume she means women who marry men when she says wives, as it takes place in the mid 50s.)

And hey – maybe she means that only women who are compelled to be this close to men will get mad enough to turn dragon but I find it vaguely insulting to unmarried and childfree women. We can get plenty mad, believe me.

Listen, I think mothers are magical. I know a lot of extraordinary women (cis and trans) who are mothers. I have an extraordinary mother. I would never diminish the work and sparkle they put into the world – but this “wives and mothers, all” business makes me real twitchy.

September 2

Thus far the pattern in this book has been a chapter bookended by supplemental material. That pattern changed in my reading last night wherein I read two or three chapters in a row.

What’s becoming clear is that there’s some kind of connection between the head of the dragon and the uterus, which aesthetically, I understand. There is a sort of pleasant echoing of shape. I don’t love connecting dragon transformation to biology, however – and I particularly don’t love it in this moment when there’s a lot of transphobic nonsense around the biology of women. I can’t claim any special inclusiveness around trans issues in my dragoning. I’ve just said any woman can become a dragon and I just assume that may include trans women. I’m leaving that door open – maybe have a trans writer write something that speaks to them in that world, at some point. My own work is not particularly inclusive in this way (yet) but it’s not exclusive either. Which I somehow think is important.

This question makes me think of Y: The Last Man, a TV series I watched that is based on a comic book, wherein everyone with a Y chromosome suddenly dies one day (except one guy and his male monkey). The show explicitly dealt with the difficulty of trans men being the only men remaining and getting one’s hands on testosterone in that transformed world becomes a plot point. It also acknowledges that there are women with Y chromosomes as well.  

It feels like if you’re explicitly talking about biological issues, you’re obligated to deal with the complications of biology. We’ll see if this book goes there.

The other thing that’s becoming clear is that the dragons are a mother’s fantasy. They are the dreams of overwhelmed women, ready to run away from it all. It reminds me of The Lost Daughter but in a fantasy world. I’m sympathetic to it but I don’t know what it might have to do with what we saw in the Kavanaugh hearings. It’s just sort of generic patriarchy at the moment. I guess that’s why she set in the 50s – so it could be generic patriarchy.

I do love the gold eyes of the dragons, though – and that somehow the mother can prevent herself and others turning into dragons by tying complex knots?

September 3

The most dominant experience of the novel seems to be the intentional forgetting of the fact of the dragoning. It’s not the dragons themselves – they just take off and live on mountains and stuff. The novel is unpacking the gaslighting done by the protagonist’s mother, the cultural gaslighting of pretending nothing happened and the oblique references to changes and transformation. I suppose this is connected to the Kavanaugh hearings in that so many people were able to pretend the assault he committed in his youth (allegedly! Ha!) didn’t happen and then later pretend that we didn’t all see what a shitbag he was.

I don’t think Barnhill is wrong about this cultural impulse to try and forget terrible events. I feel like we’re watching that happen now as people pretend that everything’s fine and we didn’t just let over a million people die of COVID.

So far, this cultural forgetting thing seems like the most true thing in the book. Can’t say I’m particularly enjoying it though.

End of Part One

That was nearly two thousand words on the first chunk of the book. So this is going to happen in chunks because no one needs a book length review of another book. We’ll just have multiple blog posts instead!

There wasn’t an image of the book under the Creative Commons umbrella so I just went for a nice licensed colorful dragon via the British Library.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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I Also Know Victoria’s Secret
September 6, 2022, 11:58 pm
Filed under: feminism | Tags: , , , , , , ,

There’s a song by a young woman, that has emerged via Tik Tok, that is extremely popular, called “Victoria’s Secret.” In it, she (she goes by Jax) reveals that the secret of Victoria is that she was made up by a dude. It’s a fun pop tune about body empowerment, with Victoria’s Secret at the center. Here are some of the lyrics:

God, I wish somebody would’ve told me
When I was younger that all bodies aren’t the same
Photoshop, itty bitty models on magazine covers
Told me I was overweight

I stopped eating, what a bummer
Can’t have carbs in a hot girl summer
If I could go back and tell myself
When I was younger, I’d say, psst

I know Victoria’s secret
And girl, you wouldn’t believe
She’s an old man who lives in Ohio
Making money off of girls like me
Cashing in on body issues
Selling skin and bones with big boobs
I know Victoria’s secret
She was made up by a dude

*

It’s a super catchy song and I recommend the video on her Tik Tok which is a flash mob video in front of a Victoria’s Secret.

I’ve had the song in my head pretty much since I heard it.

And every time it comes around again, I think, we should have stopped this a long time ago. What a terrible power this dumb store has had on the psyches of girls. I don’t think I realized before because Victoria’s Secret is just another store to me. I remember when it showed up at the mall. We mostly just made fun of it. We bought our bras and underwear at places like Kmart and department stores. Victoria’s Secret was flimsy and fit badly and had cheesy angel marketing, like Playboy but with wings instead of bunny ears. I maybe went in there once? We thought it was mostly men who went in there to buy cheesy lingerie for their wives and girlfriends. And I feel like there was some evidence that that was true in those early days. I think it may have even been the impetus of the founding of the store. But something happened as time went by. I really don’t know what it was that happened because I was not paying attention.

Victoria’s Secret somehow turned from being a cheesy underwear store at the mall to a foundational place for girls. If I’m reading the song right, children are growing up trying to model themselves on the marketing of Victoria’s Secret. It’s become some sort of twisted guide-star for girls looking toward womanhood. And I thought it was just a dumb store.

I have always known Victoria’s Secret was made up by a dude. It is not news to me but it seems to be powerful news to the young girls of the moment.

But I get it, I suppose. We don’t like to think about the objectification and sexualization that girls are drawn to, interested in and exploited by. We like to think of girls as innocent creatures who have no interest in sex or its trappings, who will remain untouched by the culture until they are old enough. But it’s not true. If it’s not the culture teaching them how to pose and present themselves, it’s their own interest and curiosity that will lead them to places like Victoria’s Secret long before we’d like for them to notice such things.

I didn’t grow up with the spectre of Victoria’s Secret’s unattainable ideals but when I was little, I found some copies of Playboy magazine and spent some quiet mornings examining them, trying to understand the sexy grown-up world. I was discovered, so my exposure was pretty limited but I did see enough to build a belief system that this is what being a grown-up sexy woman should be. Luckily, I didn’t buy into it too much – but things like Playboy at least had the advantage of being somewhat hidden. It wasn’t at the mall and it wasn’t a part of my every day exposure.

There has been an extreme objectification movement in the culture since around about the time Victoria’s Secret first opened in the mall. It feels like it gets worse and worse every year – what with the Instagram filters and the Tik Tok beauty trends and now everyone has to look camera ready all the time. Things like nudie magazines seem quite quaint in comparison.

All this to say, I’m sorry I didn’t catch what damage Victoria’s Secret was doing when it first came out. I would have gone to the mall and held our Take Back the Night rallies there instead. We could have made a lot of noise, twirled sports bras around our heads or something. Instead, it’s this next generation, after decades of Victoria’s Secret marinating in the culture, that finally begins to shift things. Apparently, the Victoria’s Secret corporate office has reached out to Jax to have her help them make the brand more inclusive; Jax has told them where they can stick it and asked her fans if they have anything to say to the corporate office, since they’re listening. Girls and young women are speaking their truth to power. That seems like progress somehow. Pointless to talk to those powers now, perhaps, now that so much damage has been done but still, maybe the needle is moving.


I thought Victoria’s Secret was just a crappy store where I couldn’t get a bra that fits (I send away to Poland for my bras, btw, that’s how bad the American lingerie system is) but I think we just never really know what is taking up so much space in the brains of the generations that follow us. I’m sorry Gen Z. I wish I’d known where this was going. I’d have fought harder for you earlier

I tried to find you a photo of this place from the 80s at the mall and I failed. Just imagine a much trashier place with angel wings and you’ll be close.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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Is This a Dragon Zeitgeist?
July 5, 2022, 10:49 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process, feminism, Gen X, Imagination, podcasting, writing | Tags:

As many of my readers will be aware, back in 2018, provoked by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, I wrote a piece called “I Am a Dragon Now. The Fear of Men Is My Food.” A few months after that piece went around, elements of it poured themselves into a piece that became The Dragoning, an audio drama podcast. The podcast came out in the spring of 2020 and Season Two just launched.

I’m taking you through this timeline because here, in 2022, an award winning author has published a novel called When Women Were Dragons, in which there is an event known as The Dragoning. A friend sent me a review of this novel because it sounds an awful lot like my piece. Not identical, of course, but close enough to be uncomfortable.

Has, bestselling author, Kelly Barnhill STOLEN my idea? I doubt it. I suspect dragons were in the air and we both reached for them. I think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea about ideas. She unpacks this notion in Big Magic. This is her theory that ideas just sort of float through the air and they visit whomever they think will realize them. The ideas visit lots of artists at once, just to be sure they are born. My guess is that The Dragoning was in the air and it chose both me and Kelly Barnhill. I got the idea out faster but Barnhill will spread it wider.

It is slightly uncomfortable, of course, to find that something that came from my brain also appeared in another person’s brain – and a woman who is exactly my age, no less. It’s like the idea was flying around in 2018 and was like – “I need a 44 year old woman to take this and run with it” and maybe it wasn’t even just me and Kelly Barnhill. Maybe there are a dozen more 48 year old women who were visited by the dragoning fairy four years ago.

Is it possible that Barnhill consciously or unconsciously lifted this idea from me? Like maybe she read the blog, which did go pretty viral, especially among Gen X women and thought, “I can imagine a world based on this!” And off she went. It is possible. Same thing happened to me! But, do I think she STOLE this idea from me as every novice writer is always convinced will happen to them? I do not. I’ve read Barnhill’s work. She has no shortage of imagination. She’s not out here trying to steal anything. She doesn’t need to. Her brain makes up lots of neat stuff on its own. She does not need to steal. I’m incredibly confident in her ability to make up her own magic.

But I do find myself in this incredibly awkward position of finding my own work slightly less google-able because someone else, with a much larger platform than me, has written a work with my title in it. They got Naomi Alderman, who wrote one of the most exciting books of the last few years – The Power, to write a review of it in the New York Times. Naomi Alderman is ALSO 48 years old. It feels like all the girls in my class are writing magical feminist speculative fiction and they all joined a club so they’re getting together and hanging out and I’m all by myself over here, quietly declaring I was here with this first.

The other thing that sucks about this is that the only way to find out if Barnhill’s work is somehow derivative of mine is to read it and I don’t feel I should, even though I know I’d enjoy her writing. I loved her novels for young people but I don’t want to mix up the waters. I don’t have any plans to write a third season of The Dragoning but I’d like to have the option and I don’t want to unconsciously take on a different writer’s dragons. So I guess I just have to wonder about it – or wait for my friends to read Barnhill’s book.

I feel like I want Barnhill’s book to be a success because maybe a rising dragon tide could lift all dragon boats. But I’m also not looking forward to being overshadowed by an established writer, who has an agent and an editor and all the trappings that come along with success. I’m proud of my work and it would be very painful if the spotlight shining on that award winning author just cast me further into the shadows. That’s why this is complicated. I am reasonably sure we’re all just part of a zeitgeist in a world where women long for the power of dragonhood, while we watch our rights and hope disappear. But the zeitgeist doesn’t feel great. Maybe just because I’m not in the club.

I’m obsessed with this Paolo Uccello painting from 1470. I love that this woman has the dragon on a leash, like she’s walking it and the knight looks like he’s giving the dragon a COVID test.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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Men Most Macho in the Theatre

When I saw Ray Liotta had died, I was shocked and saddened. I was a fan of his work and he seemed like a good human. In his honor, I listened to an interview he did with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast a few years ago and enjoyed learning more about him and his journey. It did make me think, though. And it did make me wish for change in the way we do show biz. Apparently, Liotta had no real interest in acting when the opportunity to do it presented itself to him. He got talked into auditioning for a show because of a cute girl and stuck around because a teacher encouraged him. Nothing too crazy there. I’ve definitely heard this sort of story before.

But it’s the reason that Liotta theorized that his teacher encouraged him that got me thinking. Liotta had always been a jock and, it sounds like, a fairly macho guy. His teacher responded to him because they didn’t get a lot of guy’s guys there in the college theatre department. He saw a kindred male spirit and a kind of rare bird that they needed on the stage. Liotta really wasn’t that keen on acting in the beginning but he got to play some very juicy roles at his university and it’s not just because he was good. I’m guessing Liotta’s college decided to do A Streetcar Named Desire because they had a guy who could play Stanley Kowalski. They did Taming of the Shrew probably because they had a guy who could do a macho Petruchio. Liotta got to learn how to act by doing some of the best roles in the canon and the college got to do some shows on its list. All very reasonable. Many a school will choose their season based on who they have in casting pool. I get it on all levels.

But it also troubles me – because while I’m glad we had Liotta’s talents to enjoy on the screen – the way the path was smoothed for him (when he gave not two figs for it at the start) and the way it is not smoothed for so many others, just doesn’t feel FAIR to me. The way the American Theatre (and Cinema) fetishizes macho men is disturbing, really. There are endless roles for them, despite the fact that the theatre is largely populated by women and gay men. “Fellas, is it gay to be into theatre?” Maybe a little bit! Yet in spite of the inherent queerness in the form, or maybe because of it, the macho man is embraced, encouraged and given pride of place over and over again.

The American Theatre is dominated by macho plays and macho actors. How many revivals of American Buffalo do we need? A lot, apparently. I loved True West the first time I saw it. And even the second and third time. Then there was that time I assistant directed a production of it at a college of 75% women. Enough’s enough. Anyway, Liotta wasn’t in the theatre for long – because this pipeline between the theatre and film was built for men like him. Macho men from the theatre get snapped up into film, which also has a high demand for men who could be mobsters and so someone who had no interest in acting at first could be swept up into one of the most prestigious careers around. And I’m glad that it happened to Ray Liotta because I’m happy we had him while he was here but I can’t help feeling sad for all the people who LOVED the theatre, who ate, slept and drank it, who would have done anything to have a shot and no one ever took them under their wing and helped them to a wide range of opportunities. No one ever chose a season based on their presence in the casting pool. No one saw them in a play and put them in a soap opera. No one ever saw them in a soap opera and put them in a prestige film. I hate looking at a class full of actors and knowing that the person most likely to find success will be the man most macho, no matter how much more talented or dedicated or passionate his peers might be.  Sorry, ladies, non-binaries and gays, the theatre is dependent on there being thousands like you but it will always choose the macho fella who doesn’t care about it first. The theatre loves a cool disinterested man who can help it grapple with masculinity, I guess. Anyway – RIP Ray Liotta, even if I am a little mad about how your success came to you. One day I’d love to hear a story about a woman who just didn’t care that much about theatre but some teacher just had to have her in the show anyway and she became a big big star.

I mean, I get it. I’d cast this guy too – even if he wasn’t Ray Liotta yet.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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Should I Try to Work with Egotistical Douchebags?
April 8, 2022, 10:50 pm
Filed under: art, feminism, Shakespeare, theatre, writing | Tags: , , , , ,

* Note – I’m going to use the word douchebag a lot in this post. Get ready. But also – for context – I used to be really wary about the word douchebag. I thought the word might be connected to some thinly veiled misogyny that I didn’t want to be leaning into. Then I read this blog post and now I am a convert. If you have any hesitation at all about this word, I highly recommend the journey this guy will take you on. Go. Read it. Then come back here and enjoy me talking about d-bags a lot.

And now – the actual post:

The minute I met the artistic director of that Shakespeare company, I thought “Oh he’s an egotistical douchebag.” Then I saw his show. I did not want to like it but it wasn’t terrible. I mean, the thing with doing Shakespeare is, the text is always interesting so as long as you don’t get in the way too much, it’s possible to put on a decent show, even if you’re an egotistical douchebag.

And the theatre business is oversaturated with egotistical douchebags, especially in positions of power. When I was really trying to make acting work as a career, I discovered that the vast majority of employers in this arena were, in fact, egotistical douchebags. I think it was realizing that kissing up to this type was going to be the bulk of this job that made me start my own company. It seemed the only way to ensure that I wouldn’t have to suck up to an egotistical douchebag on the regular.

Anyway, at first meeting, this Artistic Director struck me as someone I would not even like to talk to at a party but the Shakespeare world is smaller than you’d think so I told myself he was nervous – talking to all those Shakespeare teachers and maybe not the egotistical douchebag he seemed to be. Maybe he’s fine. I didn’t think so but I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. I was still pretty sure, though. I have a highly tuned douche-meter.

When an opportunity to submit plays to his theatre came up, I thought, “Why not? I may not be crazy about that guy but their work isn’t bad and I just can’t produce my own work the way I used to. It’s time to expand my circle. Sometimes it takes an egotistical douchebag to bring plays to the world.” I submitted. The play was rejected. No big deal. And when I mentioned it, a much respected colleague let me know, in passing, that I probably would not have enjoyed my time there had I been accepted. My colleague had some experience with this guy and reported him to be… an egotistical douchebag. They recounted many nail biting stories of douchebaggery in the trenches with this fellow in days of yore.

It’s very nice to have my first impressions confirmed. That’s the good news here. I know an egotistical douchebag when I see one! But it has made me think; Isn’t practically every dude who runs a theatre company an egotistical douchebag? If I want to see my work get made (by someone besides me) do I have to learn how to suck up to egotistical douchebags? I don’t want to work with douchebags, period. But there are so many of them and they work all over the place and there are only the smallest cracks getting made in the walls that keep them there in the seats of power. Twenty plus years ago, I just thought, “No problem, I’ll just do it myself!” But I didn’t factor in all the ways the system is designed to support egotistical douchebags, young and old, and leave the others in the dark. The light shines on the egotistical douchebags and the more light shines on them, the brighter they get and the rest of us can never really make it out of the shadows. Sometimes the only way to catch a little light is to stand next to an egotistical douchebag.

This particular company run by this particular egotistical douchebag was founded ONE year before mine. Technically, this guy is my peer, along with numerous other guys who started their companies at the same time as I did and somehow found the light to thrive. I don’t know another woman who started a company around then that is still going. I guess the egotistical douchebag lane is the only one available? I mean, I hope not.

Running a theatre company is not an easy job. There’s very little money in it. It’s a whole lot of work for very little reward. It’s possible an inflated ego is the only thing that will keep you afloat in this world. Maybe you need to be a little douchey to get things done. I genuinely don’t know. I would very much like to see my work produced by someone that isn’t me. Would I like it to be produced by a douchebag? No. Do I have a choice about that? I’m not sure. That’s what I’m trying to work out.

You know who that light is shining on? You guessed it.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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Context Is Everything: A Gen X Look at The Lost Daughter

There’s a little bit of a conversation happening in feminist circles around the movie The Lost Daughter, written and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I felt it was my duty, as a feminist on the internet, to watch it. I didn’t really think I’d have anything to SAY about it necessarily but I like to be informed and it turns out I do have something to say. Funnily enough my thoughts are probably more Gen X related than feminist related, though. I suppose at its heart it’s Gen X feminism that’s gotten under my skin.

The movie takes place in the more or less contemporary moment (though not precisely, as it is a covid-less world) and Olivia Coleman plays a 48 year old woman. When the movie flashes back to her twenty something self, it is to about twenty years ago, though it has a vague sense of being in the 90s. The character wears foam earphones, like back in the day. The song she tells us she loves is the Gen X anthem of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” The context of the film says, “This is a Gen X woman.” But very little of this makes sense. Like, I guess a Gen X English woman could go crazy for “Livin’ on a Prayer” but it’s odd. It would mean something in real life. I don’t know what it would mean exactly but whatever it means doesn’t add up to the person in the movie.

Look, I, like the character, am also 48 so I may be overly tuned in to the specifics of this woman who is meant to be my age – but I would be awfully surprised to meet a woman my age who grew up in Leeds, became a passionate and respected academic translator of English poetry into Italian AND her favorite song was “Livin’ on a Prayer.” I’d need a whole movie to explain how that could be. Honestly.

Also – one of the central events of the movie  is just so weird and out of generational character that it would need another movie’s worth of explanation to make it make sense. In the movie we learn that Coleman’s character has two daughters in their mid to late 20s – which means she had them in her early 20s. This would be extremely unusual for a highly educated ambitious Gen X woman. Certainly there are Gen X women who had their kids young, no doubt. But it is incredibly rare in a character like this one. Most Gen X academic nerds would wait years to have their kids. And to have TWO kids so young? Again, as an ambitious academic? One, I can buy. That’s a mistake, probably. Two, seems crazy. Like, I need an explanation for it, or I’m going to spend the whole movie confused. Which I did.

Anyway – (and this is a spoiler so skip ahead to the * towards the end if you want to be surprised)

SPOILER FOLLOWS:

 

– when her kids are five and seven she leaves them, whole cloth, never to be seen again until three years later. The movie tries to make this understandable but it’s just – weird.

As my Gen X friend, with whom I discussed this, said, “There WAS child care in the 90s.”

Like – leaving their kids is just not something I’ve ever heard of anyone doing.  Tempted? Sure. Kids’ll make you crazy, I’m given to understand – But to just leave? When divorce, joint custody, childcare and blended families are all options that are on the table? She leaves her family for a rewarding sexy professional life. Seems like a nice life she’s leaving them for but the choice is super weird. Gen X moms know how to work it out. We grew up with working moms. The work/life question really isn’t this giant a conflict for Gen X moms. It still sucks. Don’t get me wrong. But it’s not so extreme that leaving for years at a time makes any sense. Our conflicts in this arena are much more subtle, more nuanced. We didn’t have to flee the people we love to have a life of the mind.

The thing that seems important to recognize is that this film is based on a book by Elena Ferrante – who writes about the specifics of Neapolitan women in earlier eras with razor sharp analysis. I haven’t read The Lost Daughter – but I’ve read her Neapolitan quadrilogy, with which it would seem to have a lot in common. I’d imagine they are set in similar time periods. I assume, from the structure of this film, that the book takes places decades ago. I know from the articles about it that it is concerned with both the mom character’s Neapolitan background and the bits of that she shares with her fellow tourists in the group. I assume that the main character, Leda, is of an entirely different generation. I can probably even guess which one. Based on the choices she makes and the desperation she feels and how limited her scope is – I’d say she’s a contemporary of Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton. These are women so backed into corners they feel they have no other choice but to stick their heads in the oven or permanently walk out the door.

These choices are perfectly readable in a time of extreme oppression. And I’m delighted to realize that the 90s were not a time of extreme oppression. Gen X women did actually have choices in the 90s. If we wanted to study Italian poetry, we did it. It’s not that extreme, actually. So this character just seems like she has a need for some medication and a good therapist, at the very least. This story, as told in the film, makes no sense. But – if I just sort of overlay the events on to say, the 1950s or early 1960s– with a bunch of Neapolitan roughs – it all falls into place. Context is everything.

Let’s do some math. Let’s assume this film is set in this current moment. So – this character is my age, right? Which means she probably graduated from college in 1995. Her eldest child is 25 – so she had her two years after she finished undergrad so that’s 1997. The character is a serious academic so she must have gone on to get a masters, probably a PhD. Did she get pregnant while she was in grad school? Probably. Unless she’s supposed to be in grad school at the point when we first meet her? And that old guy is her advisor? I don’t think so – because a well regarded scholar wouldn’t be citing the work of a grad student. She’s published somewhere. She had her two kids somewhere in the middle of getting a PhD and getting published. I’m not saying that’s not possible – but it is pretty unlikely in the late 90s. At the point when we meet this character, her kids are 5 and 7 which means it’s around 2002.

This Gen X mom abandoned her kids in 2002. It’s not 1957. It’s 2002. There WAS childcare in 2002. Again, not great childcare- but childcare. Also, there were cell phones. I got one in 2002 and I was very late to the party. AND – as my friend pointed out there was feminism. There was serious feminism. I’m sorry but you couldn’t be a serious scholar in this era without some encounter with feminism. It’s a whole field of scholarship and no Comparative Literature scholar could get through academia without a serious grounding in it. I’m not saying every academic in this era was a feminist but to not have any relationship to those issues at all in this era? Sorry. No way. You’re either in the game or you’re Camille Paglia and no one’s going around just translating a bunch of male poets in 2002 with no awareness of what feminist scholarship would have to say about it.

But set in the right context – in, say, an era that had problems “that had no name,” like what Betty Friedan was talking about, and when second wave feminism was really just strapping on its boots, sure – it all would make total sense. We would, in fact, root for a character to get out in that context. This character would be a singular person up against the tide of her culture and her time and we would have her back.

I mean – the thing is, both feminism and childcare had been around for decades by the time this character leaves her kids. A lot of Gen X kids were raised on both of those things. Many of our mothers were feminists. Many of them were working mothers who sent us to daycare. Our parents got divorces when things didn’t work out. And it was fine. Not a big deal. But this film somehow lives in a world where there are neither Gen X feminists nor Baby Boomer feminists or Millennial or Zoomer feminists for that matter. This is probably because it’s based on a book that takes place so long before.

Do Gen X moms fantasize about leaving their families and disappearing for awhile? I’m sure they do but fantasizing is very different than doing – and the choice to chuck it all, just generationally, doesn’t make sense. I feel like a lot of Gen X moms waited to have kids so we wouldn’t feel the need to abandon them.

 

*SPOILERS COMPLETE

Is the film well done? It is actually. The performances are excellent; Coleman is always amazing and Gyllenhaal has done extraordinary work. I loved how the eroticism of the character’s work was palpable and exciting. There’s an artful quality to it all – but it’s just weird. And not in a good way.

As Nylah Burton said, in Bitch Magazine,

“We need more messy female characters, but “messy female character” does not have to mean illegible female characters. Sometimes the two are mixed up. Confusing the audience about who a character is at their core doesn’t endear us to them or make them feminist heroes;”

Making Coleman’s character specifically Gen X makes things that would have been legible, absolutely opaque. The good news is that this movie makes me see some incredible progress that has been made over the years – that Gen X women are actually more together than I’d have thought.  

I feel like you could MAKE it make sense – with another few hours of story and context and explanation. Just the way I’d need another movie to figure out how a working class Gen X academic woman from Leeds ended up a big fan of Bon Jovi, I need another movie to make this movie make sense. It might be an interesting story but it would take a long time to explain.

I mean, this is a pretty Gen X look. I can’t argue on that point.

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The Women’s Lane

Rebecca Solnit recently posted this essay that Mary Beard wrote back in 2014. It’s about women speaking in public and the ways classical culture was built around telling women to shut up. Also about how that trend has continued.

It’s brilliant for all the reasons Mary Beard is often brilliant but the thing that feels like new information for me is the bit about women generally only being allowed to have a voice on matters that pertain to women. The one exception to the impulse to silence women is when they speak of things that are in their lane. Women are (sometimes) permitted to talk about women’s rights but not about the war.

This makes me think about Phyllis Schlafly. Or at least the Schlafly that was depicted in the (somewhat problematic) TV series, Mrs. America. Schlafly was very interested in foreign policy. One might even call her an expert in it. While I certainly wouldn’t have agreed with her about it, she did seem to know an awful lot about these things. She ran for Congress twice. And lost. But then she gained fame by campaigning against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). That is, when she started focusing on women’s issues, then folks took notice. (Much to the detriment of American women.)

I’m trying to figure out how this concept of a women’s lane applies to my own writing practice. I haven’t seen a lot of success on any subject, really – but I have seen a relative spike in recognition on subjects related to women, usually some wrong that’s been done to me or to women in general. In other words, I get listened to the most when I’ve been the victim to someone or something. I’ve always assumed that I’m just at my best when I’m fired up about feminist issues but now I’m not so sure. Is my furious writing on women noticeably better than my fired-up writing about artist’s issues or, say, PDFs? I’m not sure it is, frankly.

As a woman who struggles to be heard, to be noticed, to be recognized, I am always alert to what factors might be supporting my visibility and what factors obscure me further. I have often felt that my tendency to write plays about women, with a bald-faced feminist slant, is what has kept me shut out of the pipeline. My sense has been that theatres don’t tend to want to produce overtly feminist work. But this doesn’t square with what I’m learning about this women’s lane. Or does it? I guess, in the theatre, it’s the women’s plays that are explicit about their woman-ness that cross over into the mainstream: The Vagina Monologues, ‘Night Mother, Crimes of the Heart, Uncommon Women.

Now that I think about it, this does help me to understand something that has often felt mysterious to me. How did a play like The Vagina Monologues break through when so much of American Theatre is so hostile to women and women’s work? How was it that theatres put on seasons of almost exclusively men, and also The Vagina Monologues? It’s very logical, I realize now. You cannot get more in the women’s lane than The Vagina Monologues. It’s a kind of apotropaic magic, a spell against feminist criticism. You put on The Vagina Monologues – which is cheap to produce and markets itself and no one can excuse you of sexism for at least a few years. It is the perfect balance for your Mamet season. Most theater companies would rather produce The Vagina Monologues many times over than to produce a woman’s play about something not particularly womany.

Maybe I just need to write a play called The Woman Woman. I mean, The Women is a fabulous (and very successful) play from the 30s. Maybe it’s really just a matter of laying out the category in the title? It’s something to consider. Look forward to my upcoming trilogy: The Woman Woman, Girls and Women and Girls and Ladies in Ladyland. It can’t be so simple, can it? Honestly if this worked, I’d change so many titles in a flash.

My play about Medusa could be called Girls Getting Stoned or I could just rename any old play Women’s Bodies. Or Boobs. My next play is now called Boobs.  

This is an illustration from Oscar Wilde’s Salome. If he was a woman, he’d just have to call it Boobs.

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Inclusive Gatekeeping

The application form asked my age, so I answered the question and submitted my application. But after I did, I started to worry. Should I have skipped that question? Should I have submitted it to Honor Roll, the group of women playwrights over 40 that works to combat ageism and sexism in American theatre? Had I just set myself up for being rejected by revealing that I am 48? The form asked. I answered. I’m not yet used to being vigilant on this topic. I tried to be attentive to ageism before it was relevant to me but I wasn’t prepared for it to come for me so soon – or at least before I had anything impressive under my belt.

It was one of the first things I’ve submitted to in a long while and the whole exercise sent me into a bit of a funk. In the year and a half that theatre was been shut down, I’ve aged into ageism and now all the doors that have been closed to me are extra closed. I read a book on creativity that suggested that the science says we are most creative in our first few years with our art and after that it’s just a steady downward trajectory.

What is that ageist science nonsense? It’s possible I was more creative in my youth. I’d say my songs were full of some naïve innovations – but I am a much better writer now than I was in my 20s. And also, the American theatre is not very keen on innovation – so it may be an asset if I have, indeed, lost creativity over the years.

Anyway – this whole spiral was brought to you by the series of questions on the application that tend to happen around demographics and attempts to be more inclusive. I suspect this questionnaire asked my age, not so they could be ageist at me, but so they could make sure to include some young playwrights. However – one does privilege the other. You want to get more young writers, you’re discriminating against the old. You want to combat ageism and pull in the older writers, you’re discriminating against the young.

When we apply for things, we have no idea whether we are helping the organization discriminate against us, or give us an extra boost. Somehow arts organizations think that they can solve their racist, sexist, ableist biases with tools like this.

As my friend put it, “Right now across the nation, arts administrators are sitting around tables trying to figure out how to do more inclusive gatekeeping.” I have not been able to stop thinking about this phrase since he said it.

Because that’s the thing. American Arts institutions are built on gatekeeping. They are spaces designed to keep people out. The velvet rope was invented in NYC by someone in the hospitality business but Arts institutions are the ones who’ve really taken the idea and run with it. Sometimes with literal velvet ropes and sometimes internal ones. Having people in or out is the whole deal. The people who have salaries in the arts are not the artists but the gatekeepers.

As a culture, we clearly value keeping people out more than the actual art. But the gatekeepers have been challenged to shift the demographics of who they let get past the door of their clubs. Most of the clubs have been chock full of white guys with a handful of white women and some token people of color. But ultimately, after all these years of hanging out in those clubs, those clubs are really white guy clubs. And mostly they’re clubs full of white guys who went to Yale and occasionally some other people who also went to Yale. They’ve congregated there for so long and they want to keep hanging out there and they want to keep doing things the way they’ve always done them; They just don’t want to be accused of racism or sexism. So they ask the bouncer to let in enough “others” to not get in trouble about it anymore. So the bouncer tries this new inclusive gatekeeping. He’s trying to keep the club the same as it always was but include enough of the RIGHT new faces to keep this club out of the news.

Actually, they think they just need to approach this problem at the ground floor and make sure to send more diverse people to Yale, so they can make their gatekeeping more inclusive because you get in the club immediately that way. So – they rename Yale Drama School after David Geffen so he’ll give a bunch of money to Yale so they can make it tuition free in the hopes of making it more inclusive and voila! Problem solved, right? Must be!

I can’t wait for all these super inclusive shows that will tell us all about what it’s like to have studied at Yale. Oh, the fresh perspective we’re going to get! Oh, the extraordinary inclusivity that awaits us from all the different people who might have gotten in to Yale.

The thing is we’re sort of in this mess because the gatekeepers get their power from choosing, from who they select – which is, significantly also about their power to say no, to refuse people entry to the club. To have an actual equitable club, there would be no bouncer and our gatekeepers would have no power. We might get to stop guessing whether our demographics will hinder us or help us and just, say, hope for a good lottery number. Honestly, could we do worse?

I mean, I don’t want to be cranky about it, but I haven’t seen a really innovative piece of work in maybe a decade. Choosing the same sort of people all the time, whether it’s their race or gender or grad program, does not innovative art make. Maybe we could give up trying to do inclusive gatekeeping and try to just do away with gatekeeping altogether. What if we tried that?

We might have locked you out but we LOVE you! Look at that! It’s a heart on the lock we locked you out with! Isn’t that so sweet and inclusive?

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

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“Trying to Help Women is Exhausting”
July 15, 2021, 12:24 am
Filed under: feminism, TV | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Look – I know I’m the kind of person that the guys who make Mythic Quest like to piss off. They’re out here making things, hoping they’ll do something to make me angry. I don’t know if they’ve ever said this out loud but it feels like their ethos is, “If I’m not making feminists mad, I’m not doing my job.” I know the type. I can tell when I’m being baited. So good job, dudes. You did it. Bait taken.

I started watching Mythic Quest after I read several heartfelt reviews of it and I realized that my complimentary subscription to Apple TV was about to expire. I figured I’d see what all the fuss was about, having been assured that one needn’t be a hard core gamer to enjoy it. Season One was a delight. The quarantine episode was touching. The stand alone episode about an entirely different game than the one the series about was innovative and like a short story in the middle of a wacky TV novel. They got me to like these people in Season 1 and then they started throwing punches.

There were some little digs at first and then the big punch was when the lead woman was asked to give a speech at a Women in Gaming conference. She did not want to do it but the men she worked for insisted and so she shows up in fancy hair and make-up (dictated by her male boss) and gives a mess of a speech about how she’s such a mess and not a good boss and always fucks up and the audience gives her a standing ovation. Then the joke of the episode is revealed – this speech that appears to have been her impromptu experience of falling apart on stage (“Oh, I can’t see the teleprompter. Ooops I farted.” Etc) was entirely scripted by her boss. He’s written her whole experience. Her success is really his. It’s pitched as her success because she manipulated him into writing it – but really – it’s clear, the writer is so good, he knew her so well and knows what women want so much, he would be an even better woman than a woman is. When I watched this episode, Season One had given me such good will, I decided that these guys made this choice because of the joke. It makes for a big pay-off comedy-wise to reveal that the boss is the author of the speech. It is funny. So, while what it implies is that women are not even capable of speaking for themselves on the subject of women, you can sort of forget the message, because of the joke. I mean, I couldn’t. I was pissed. But I think the average person could.

But then there was the episode where another woman – the “shrill” feminist character – drives the boss somewhere. She’s going on and on about her relationship with her partner and the boss explains to her that she’s missing her chance to get him to help her with her career. He tells her this is her moment to give her elevator pitch. He asks her what she wants.

She cannot answer. She doesn’t know what she wants. She doesn’t even know what an elevator pitch is! The boss is frustrated! He says something like, “Trying to help women is so exhausting!” This scene infuriated me. It’s still infuriating me. Because it seems to simply that all us ladies out here complaining, nay, whining, about wanting a seat at the table wouldn’t know what to do with it if we were given one! We don’t even know what an elevator pitch is! How is a white guy boss supposed to help these people who don’t even know what they WANT?!

I realize I’m meant to be the butt of the joke here – as one of those women advocating for social change but I don’t think that’s why I don’t find it funny. I can love a good joke at my own expense. I enjoy the women’s studies major in the Legally Blonde movie petitioning for an ovester, for example. But this joke on Mythic Quest just feels mean spirited – especially on TV (a place where 80% of shows have more male characters than female ones) representing an industry (gaming) that not only has trouble with their small numbers of women (women who, once they are there, are confronted with an incredibly toxic culture) but also an industry that has been the center of some of the most heinous harassment there is. (I’m talking about GamerGate and the harassment of Anita Sarkeesian here.)

Some say that GamerGate was the beginning of the irredeemably toxic direction of social media that may have led to the intense polarization of our populace and political mess we’ve had to deal with ever since. When Anita Sarkeesian started working on a video about Women in Videogames, she became the target of an unholy amount of horrific death threats and much much worse.

So – in THAT environment, to minimize one of the few women characters like this is just cruel. This character HAS a job in videogames, has already endured sexism, only some of which we’ve seen – and now when she’s given an opportunity, she balks because girls don’t even know what they want?

I’m not saying this couldn’t happen. I’m sure it does. Probably many a woman has choked when confronted with an opportunity a man feels he’s so generously doling out. But in this moment, when women’s work across ALL fields has been struck such a blow that it may take decades to recover, does THIS seem like a good time to laugh about a woman not knowing how to seize an opportunity or not knowing what she wants? When many women have lost the jobs they worked so hard to secure or had to give up their life’s work because there was no other option for childcare, does THIS seem like a good time to laugh at a woman who advocates for other women? Read the room, guys.

If women not knowing what they want was really a thing that happens, I have a suspicion about why. If this character in this episode was ambitious, she’d be less likely to be hired. Ambition is not (sociologically speaking) a desirable trait in women. Men who are like the boss in this show don’t tend to hire ambitious women. They hire women who will help them forward their own genius. The only reason this boss is hanging around with this “shrill” woman is because he wants someone to fight with, for his creative juices.

A woman who is overtly ambitious for herself would never make it past the front door.

But sure. Yes. Trying to help women is so exhausting.

And yet I DID notice that this episode was written by a woman (apparently the creator’s/lead’s sister) and that she also wrote the best episode last season – so..I don’t know what’s going on there, except that even smart talented ladies can throw out some anti-feminist garbage on occasion.

I ALSO noticed that this second season is missing comic genius Aparna Nancherla, both in the writer’s room and the cast, and I have to wonder if this downward slide into misogyny is partly due to her absence. I’m not trying to start a conspiracy theory here but this show does not get a mention on her Wikipedia page and I have to wonder if maybe fighting for women in such a world might have gotten a little bit too much to bear at a certain point. I know I wouldn’t want to do it.

The show does better at inclusivity than might be expected. There are five women in significant roles and four of them are BIPOC. So, that’s something. It’s just…such a drag to watch them pushed into such bummers of stories.

When I started writing this, the season wasn’t over yet and I had a small hope that this show would find a way to redeem itself but I gotta say, it didn’t quite. Sure, some of the women got some big wins but almost every one of them was more or less gifted to them, by a man. And while that’s not a terrible idea for men in power to start to take on (you know, being more generous to women in doling out opportunities is a good idea) it’s just kind of a drag for ambitious women to watch. (“Ok, so if I just find a nice powerful man to give me something, THAT will help me achieve my goals.”) If I were a woman in gaming, I might just try to use my own ambition to start something rather than try to get anything done with these bozos.

And if this show results in a glut of women-created games in response, then it will have been a good thing but I don’t know, man, I don’t know. Then are plenty of things in the world that make me mad, I’m not sure I need a silly show about a video game to be one of them.

This woman character just doesn’t know what she wants, ok? She’s just not clear! She just doesn’t know!

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

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Tricksy Feminists

In college, we made a show called Roar! The Women’s Thing! Live Girls On Stage! which I started thinking about after reading Fleishman Is in Trouble.

I was just going to write a quick little review of Fleishman Is in Trouble for Goodreads but then I started thinking of that show and what we were trying to do with it, which was going to need some explaining, and then I started thinking more about the novel, which began to make me mad and voila! – blog post.

I’ll start with this show. I made it during a guest semester I took at a state university. I’d spent three semesters at Sarah Lawrence College and while my education was aces, I was longing for a social life, so I decided to take a break from my progressive elite education and go to some parties (as well as classes, sure) in Virginia for a semester. That transition was a kind of a feminist wake up call. I’d gotten used to a place where feminism was a default position and I was absolutely shocked by the retrograde patriarchy still in place at this state college. I joined a rebel feminist group and we decided to make the show, to give the place a real consciousness raising because whooo boy, did it need one! We put “Live Girls On Stage” in the title because we were worried about preaching to the choir and we hoped we’d bring in a few frat bros by suggesting we were a burlesque show rather than a feminist collective. We thought we were pretty clever. We put paper dolls of Barbie dolls on our posters. We thought that we’d change the world with or little feminist variety show. I’m both very proud and very embarrassed by this venture now. I’m bringing it up because of this little Live Girls trick. Did it work? Of course not. Though we did sell out, which was better than most of my subsequent feminist work. But I’m thinking about it because I feel like there’s something similar at work in Fleishman Is in Trouble.

I read this book because it was advertised to me on the Guilty Feminist podcast. It was billed as an hilarious feminist novel. That’s catnip for me. Of course I was going to read an hilarious feminist novel.

You may, at this point, not be surprised to learn that I found this book to be neither hilarious nor particularly feminist. They Live Girls Onstaged me and I fell for it. I don’t blame the Guilty Feminist podcast. They need advertising dollars as much as anyone and I can imagine how this happened. Someone on the marketing team thought this book was kinda feminist and googled all the places they might be able to place some feminist ads and the job was done. But, oh, oh, did I feel like a frat boy who thought he’d come for burlesque and got a bunch of show tunes and sketches instead. I’m going to give you some spoilers now – or really a spoiler. One might call it the twist of the book. If you want to skip these next seven paragraphs to avoid this reveal, please feel free. I think knowing what’s coming might actually improve the experience of reading it but…it’s up to you.

The book begins with the story of a man who is in the process of divorcing, dating and doctoring. It is a bit how I imagine a Philip Roth or John Updike novel. (I’ve never read either as I am not at all interested.) It’s the story of a wealthy man on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who often feels he is not wealthy enough. He describes himself as a hero of a dad and his ex-wife as a useless soul-less social climber, who disappears on him. It’s all narrated by his female friend, who used to work at a men’s magazine so she’s practiced at getting into the heads of men.

Then, about three quarters of the way through, the narrator of the book runs into the ex-wife and we get a sense of the time-line we just experienced from her perspective. Surprise! She’s not the monster her husband made her out to be! The book finishes with a kind of alliance between the women and a little rant about how bad marriage and middle age can be for women and then the narrator takes a taxi back to her husband, from NYC to the suburbs of NJ.

I THINK this is being marketed as a feminist novel because it tricks us into thinking it’s a man’s story at the top and then TRICKSY! It turns out to be a woman’s. And the guy who seemed like a sort of good guy is kind of a dirtbag. SURPRISE! You’re NOT seeing Live Girls Onstage like you thought! It’s a consciousness raising instead! It’s Tricksy Feminism, trying to convert the unconvertable. If those frat boys only knew what it was really like to be a woman, they might not be such sexist pigs!

If we get men to read a story about a man, they’ll keep reading to learn about a woman’s perspective of the same stuff!  We’ll sneak some women’s issues into that Phillip Roth novel! We’ll raise their consciousness without them even knowing! Tricksy!

But the thing is – none of those issues that the woman face are dealt with in a particularly feminist way. None of them ever rallies together with other women to make a change. They deal with sexual harassment and discrimination. They deal with sexist and dehumanizing medical treatment and generally struggle with some old school Simone de Beauvoir Second Sex shit. But no one seems to know that feminism exists. It’s a weird world without any real social movements. It’s a world where someone experiences overt sexism and no one will name it. Feminism isn’t just women having lady problems. It’s a social movement in which people work together to make our world more equitable. This book had nothing to do with that as far as I could see.

For me, the book was mostly largely about rich people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan having a lot of privileged problems. Was it compelling? Sure! It’s very well written so you couldn’t ask for better fiction about the ennui of a particular kind of privileged life. If you want to know about the inner lives of women who choose their pilates classes based on maintaining social ties, look no further. You’ve found your book. Even the women in this book, in the middle of realizing all the betrayals of sexism and such, never get beyond themselves to even consider attempting to make a change. They don’t have a feminist awakening. They don’t decide to organize. They don’t start to examine their own privilege – not their racial privilege, their economic privilege, not their abled privilege, none of it. If there’s any feminism in the book at all (and I’m not convinced there is) it is not intersectional.

I keep thinking of the end of the book when the narrator takes a taxi back to her house in New Jersey from NYC. I think it’s supposed to be a romantic gesture? But all I can think of is how expensive that taxi ride would be and yet it’s not even a whisper of a thought for this character.

Roar! The Women’s Thing! Live Girls On Stage was a sophomoric feminist show. I was literally a college sophomore when I made it. I’m fairly certain we didn’t change anyone’s mind and only expressed a bunch of things that were hard for us (mostly white) ladies. It was a little tricksy but mostly harmless and possibly a fun night out. I feel like Fleishman Is in Trouble is similar. A little tricksy, mostly harmless and a fun read. The trouble is in the marketing. There were live girls on stage but they really weren’t what I had in mind.

I’m about the same age as the characters in this book so I have a sense of the world they grew up in. I know there was feminism in that world, for example and it’s clear to me that characters that don’t have their feminist awakening until their 40s are characters who ignored or rejected feminism in their youth. If you’re not discovering sexism until your 40s, you’re late. You’ve very late. I mean, get to the party when you get to the party but you are very late.

But one thing I know about the party from our collective college years is that in some places, the party was already in full swing, had already evolved and was searching for ways to grow and the party at the other college was just getting into gear. It was in its sophomore stages and needing a jump start. When my friend and I would walk into our Sociology of Women class at that state college, our teacher would say, “Here come the radicals!” And let me just say, as much as I enjoyed that greeting, I was VERY FAR from being a radical then. (“Couldn’t we do it in a nice way? But I don’t want to upset anyone! I don’t want to take anything away from anyone! I just want a teeny tiny itsy bitsy bit of equality, please. If it’s not too much trouble.”) Anyway – what I’m saying is that it’s all relative. At Sarah Lawrence, I was a pretty run of the mill every day sort of feminist, at the state college, I was a radical. Maybe for the characters in Fleishman Is in Trouble, this sort of naming of women’s issues IS radical. It’s first stage feminism. It’s late to the party feminism but fine, I guess.

Yes. This is the poster. Yes I still have it.

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