Songs for the Struggling Artist

Overlooking Shit Ladies Say

In Caitlin Moran’s most recent book of essays, she proposes a five year moratorium on having opinions about women. It’s a proposition for embracing everyone’s imperfect feminism – forgiving ladies’ dumb lapses of feminist judgment. …and just celebrating their kick assery. She suggests maybe not worrying about Beyonce’s weird choice of naming her world tour the Mrs. Carter Tour and just getting in formation, ladies.

I’m super down with this idea. I mean, just because I find the idea of putting a ring on “it” problematic and objectifying doesn’t mean I can’t rock the dance floor when “Single Ladies” comes on.

I started to think more about this proposal because I found that in the midst of this post-election terror, I need Michelle Shocked’s music again. I have a strong palpable need for her brand of feminist folk punk and nothing else will do. I know she said some incredibly stupid things a few years ago and very possibly fell off the deep end into crazy town. I’ve decided I’m going to enjoy her music anyway. I need 1988 Michelle Shocked. 2013 Michelle Shocked can be as crazy as she wants. And I don’t know what 2016 Michelle Shocked is doing. Hopefully getting her shit together. But meanwhile – I need her. I need Ani Difranco. Who, yes, did that dumb retreat a few years ago that was a pretty bonehead move. But I need her. So I’m letting it go.

If Janelle Monáe, who I also need really badly right now, were to go off the rails, I would forgive her, too – because she’s necessary. Luckily, she’s about as careful and measured as a human can be and being a freakin’ monster of inspiration. If she fell – it’d be a hard hard fall. I don’t think she’s gonna, she’s so careful. But – if she did…I’d forgive her.

And here’s the thing…women are usually pilloried for pretty minor shit, all things considered. It’s not like we’re overlooking ladies committing child rape – for example – the way millions of people were able to do while electing our misogynist in chief. It’s also not like we’re overlooking violence incitement, spousal rape or sexual assault. If people can overlook all that shit and still vote for a dude for president, I feel like I can overlook some dumb shit that some marginalized women said one time. I mean – let’s adjust our public shaming scale, shall we?

It doesn’t make any of the dumb shit my ladies said alright. It’s still dumb shit. But the sheer amount of intolerable behavior we’ve tolerated from our male artists is boggling. Roman Polanski’s raping a child? Fine. What a great filmmaker! Woody Allen sexually assaulting his children? Big deal! What a genius! Give that guy a TV show! Bertolucci ordered a real rape on screen, for Art! Big deal! And on and on.

Obviously, this “not having an opinion on women” thing wouldn’t be total. I propose that, in an emergency, we might write about something that women are doing; if a prominent female politician turned into some manner of malign she-werewolf and sold her children to Nazis, say, we could legitimately opinionize on that. But on nearly every other matter concerning a newsworthy woman…

It’s time to start an overlooking campaign for ladies. No more opinions about ladies’ opinions. For five years at least or at least until we iron this shit out.


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Ladies Man
February 16, 2016, 10:30 pm
Filed under: feminism | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I saw an adorable baby toddling through a cafe wearing a t-shirt that said, “Ladies Man.” The baby was cute and his t-shirt was amusing because he’s just a baby. But then I got uncomfortable. With a little consideration, this kid’s t-shirt felt like such a bald reinforcement of patriarchal ideals.

There is something complimentary about being a ladies’ man. It implies a man who seduces a lot of women, which is why it’s funny on a baby. But there is no reverse of this idea. You can’t be a man’s woman – or a gentleman’s lady – you label yourself like that, you start to look like a prostitute. A man who seduces a lot of women is admired – a woman who seduces a lot of men is just a slut. The closest equivalent for a girl that I could think of that MIGHT have a positive sheen if you looked at it in the right light would be Temptress. And can you imagine how horrible a baby t-shirt with “Temptress” on it would be?

It makes me think about something Caitlin Moran talked about in an interview with herself at the Free Library of Philadelphia. One of her motivations for writing her book How to Build a Girl was to find a way to celebrate female sexual exploration and she found that she couldn’t find a way to make “slut” or “slag” sound positive – so she invented two new ideas, “Lady Sex Pirate” and “Swashfuckler.”

But I would not want these on a baby’s t-shirt either.

I guess in the absence of equal opportunities for joke baby t-shirts – it might be best not to reinforce gender norms at all at that age.

I mean, I know that kid can’t read his own t-shirt and to him, it doesn’t matter at all – but I know I looked at him and tried to see behaviors that might explain his t-shirt. Was he a particularly flirtatious baby, for example? Did he toddle more toward women than men?

And there’s a way that, even as a joke, the people around a kid in a ladies’ man t-shirt begin to give that kid an idea of himself with just that conception.

One of the ways we learn and decide who we are is by the way people interact with us. Put a kid in a ladies’ man t-shirt, you may end up with a ladies’ man, for better or worse.

Does the training to see men as sexual conquerors and women as objects NEED to start with babies? I guess it does, actually. That’s how we GET gender norms. But, it does make my skin crawl a little bit to watch a cute kid toddle around in a joke that teaches him and teaches the people around him to see him as Don Juan. That’s the kind of joke that can stick.


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A Feminist Theatre Identity Crisis
January 18, 2015, 10:10 pm
Filed under: art, feminism, theatre | Tags: , ,

Opinion Poll: Should I use the word “feminist” to describe my work? Let it be known that I am a feminist and my theatre company’s work is made through a feminist lens.
It has always been thus and will always be thus. It was in the beginning and will be until the end. Until recently, however, I have not publicized this fact. It has been an unwritten, but deeply held value.

In the climate we began in, it felt appropriate to hold our feminism close to the chests. Our thought was that people would hear “feminist” and immediately think “political.” They’d think signs and speeches and our work is none of these things. The work is mythic and classical and narrative. We’re not a sign-waving company. We figured those who thought like us would see the feminist ley lines and those who didn’t might have their perspective shifted without even knowing it had happened. Not to mention that feminist and theatre artist seemed to be mutually exclusive labels in that climate.

There’s been a general coming out party for us feminists in recent years and it is heady and thrilling to be a part of that party. Caitlin Moran’s book How to Be a Woman, lit a fire under a lot of us with her fierce advocating of the word. I love her instructions for finding out if you’re a feminist:

But, of course, you might be asking yourself, ‘Am I a feminist? I might not be. I don’t know! I still don’t know what it is! I’m too knackered and confused to work it out. That curtain pole really still isn’t up! I don’t have time to work out if I am a women’s libber! There seems to be a lot to it. WHAT DOES IT MEAN?’
I understand.
So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your pants.

a) Do you have a vagina? and
b) Do you want to be in charge of it?

If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.

I have been experimenting with how I talk about my company’s work. It sometimes feels like declaring a company’s feminism draws exactly the right people to our orbit. Some people light right up and get excited when I say it. But you may be feeling the “but” waiting in the wings of this. . .

But – I met with someone who coaches women in business. In describing my company’s work, I mentioned our feminist lens and she made a face that was either extreme horror or extreme excitement. It wasn’t clear to me which one it was until she exclaimed, “That word! Do you realize how much stuff comes with that word?” (I do, actually.)

And she tells me about the difference between “feminist” and “feminine” and the way feminist sounds like militant, because it ends in “T.” (This is the same argument I hear as related to its ending in “ist” – people don’t like it because it’s like “racist” and “communist,” etc. I wonder why no one ever mentions the positive things that end in “ist” like Impressionist, Surrealist or even the benign, “tourist.”)

I know she’s picturing bra-burning and shouting (nothing can be further from the actual images of my work) and the more we talk, the more I tell her about my work, the more alternate phrases she offers, (“Woman-centered” or “empowers women” or “Expanding women’s roles”) And all those things are true but it reminds of the same thing Moran talks about, that the best word for this thing we’re talking about is still feminist.

…for all that people have tried to abuse it and disown it. “feminism” is still the word we need. No other word will do. And let’s face it, there has been no other word, save “Girl Power” — which makes you sound like you’re into some branch of Scientology owned by Geri Halliwell. That “Girl Power” has been the sole rival to the word “feminism” in the last 50 years is a cause for much sorrow on behalf of the women. After all, P. Diddy has had four different names, and he’s just one man.

It feels clear that feminist is the most accurate description of my theatre company’s point of view. But I acknowledge that this accurate word is loaded with a whole world of things for a whole lot of people that have nothing to do with my work. I want to share my work with those people, too.

When I described one of our shows to this women’s business consultant, she got very excited and pulled out a photo of her daughter and herself to show me. She’s an advocate for women. Her job is to help women succeed in a field that has been traditionally closed to us. Yet she cringes at “feminist” despite clearly being engaged in the task of expanding women’s possibilities. This woman and I have a lot to say to each other and this one word is the only thing blocking our understanding of each other. Where she pictures screaming and chanting, I’m performing gentility. I have a marketing problem.

Some people encourage leaning into this thing that makes my company unique while the business woman encourages avoiding the word that describes that thing. I gain some supporters by using the word and alienate others.

What I have been doing is an experiment. Sometimes when I explain our work, I say feminist and sometimes I don’t. So far, it’s not in our marketing or advertising but I’ve been thinking of shifting that. I’m just thoroughly on the fence about it. Tell me what you think. Should we advertise our feminism or hold it close?

I’d really value your thoughts. Maybe I’ll just tally the votes and go with the majority on this question. To publicize or not to publicize.
Let me know.

(If the poll below doesn’t appear clickable – just go to the link HERE.)

Should my theatre company advertise our feminist mission?
Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No
Please Specify:

Poll Maker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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