Songs for the Struggling Artist


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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There Was So Much Less Sexism Then
October 20, 2017, 9:52 pm
Filed under: art, education, feminism | Tags: , , , , ,

Whenever I reconnect with my college experience – either by going to a reunion or reconnecting with people from that era of my life – I am reminded of a time when I felt unstoppable. It feels like I reconnect with the aspect of myself that felt I could do anything.

I have often chalked this feeling up to youth, to just winning and winning and not really knowing what it meant to fail. And that was absolutely a part of it. But after seeing a couple of my teachers recently, I realized, too, that one of the other factors was that I went to college in a place relatively free of sexism. It was the kind of place where students sometimes complained of “reverse sexism” – like, when the theatre department didn’t want them to do True West with its cast full of men. (The students did it anyway, on their own, with an all female creative team and a gender reversed agent character.) Now, of course, we all understand that reverse sexism isn’t really a thing in the same way that we know that reverse racism isn’t a thing. But at the time, we were in an environment so positive for women that it felt skewed.

What I realized recently is that this college experience was the last time that this was true for me. When I was miserable in grad school, I called up my undergrad’s career counseling services (available for life, bless them) and tried to work out if I should drop out or keep going. My counselor said something like, “Everyone hates grad school. Pretty much everywhere is a let down after this place.” At the time, I thought, yeah, nowhere is as small or thoughtful or as dedicated to its students. It made sense. I realize now that the other factor I was missing was that it was also so much less sexist there. Which is not to say it was a paradise. (I heard tales of assault and harassment there too.) But now I see that it was the last time I felt really seen – the last time I felt taken seriously – the last time my potential felt visible to a critical mass of people.

I never considered an all women’s college. I was too keen on boys to make that leap. But my college was 75% women and that imbalance was enough to give me the experience of a life that was relatively friction-free sexism-wise for a few years. I see now that that was a beautiful headstart into my adult life. I only wish the world of work could have been as smooth.

It is an incredibly potent reminder to touch back in with the people who saw me in my full personhood, who imagined I could do great things, who invested in my potential. In the past, I thought they must be so disappointed in me that I never “made it.” Now I think: no, the disappointment is not in me but in the world that failed to see what they saw.

I imagine that’s what my teachers think because it is what I think when a student of mine has the same experience. The failure, if there is one, is not in the student but in the world that does not see their full personhood, either due to their gender, their race or their disability. As teachers, we put our hope in our students, hoping they will transcend the boundaries we ourselves were unable to overcome. I am still the vessel for that hope for the people who believed in me and I put my hope in those who follow me in the same way. And luckily for me, I once knew what it was like to be an artist in a world not dominated by sexism. It was beautiful, y’all. It was beautiful. And it is worth fighting for. It could be everywhere.

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Social Media and Discussion
June 29, 2017, 5:25 pm
Filed under: Social Media | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

One of the weird things about sharing my writing on Facebook (which is where I collect the bulk of my views on the blog) is that, when it’s shared by others, I can sometimes see how people respond to my work without responding to me directly. On my own page, my friends are generally respectful and look at my work in the context of the person that wrote it, since they (most of them) know me. On other people’s posts of my work, I have seen some rather startling assumptions pop up. The most vivid example of this was a response to my Single Gender on a Train post. While most of my post was about being a woman in public, there was a bit about the distinction between that experience in NYC and in smaller places. The comment about the blog on my friend’s page seemed to be mostly in response to a single line in the piece, the one my friend pulled as a headline – a line about HRC and the urban/rural divide. A thing, by the way, that there have been endless think pieces about.

What was interesting about this response was how much of it depended on an assumption about my identity. The commenter seemed to think I was exhibiting signs of “urban paternalism.” She painted me as a sort of elitist liberal city snob with no idea what it was like out in the country. Her comment seemed to suggest I was one of those city slickers always being judgmental about those country folk.

If you know me and my history, you might already be finding this as hilarious as I did. Because, while I do currently live in NYC, I grew up in the hills of Virginia. My childhood home featured no telephone and no running water. I grew up with an outhouse. One of my chores was to fetch water from the creek. I had to walk half a mile on a dirt road to get to my nearest neighbor’s house to play. I think my rural credentials are pretty rock solid.

But that’s the thing, this rural/urban thing is such a knee jerk response. Folks read one sentence about the existence of a difference between these two places and suddenly we’re in a flame war. And I suspect that if this particular commenter had actually read the piece rather than the pull quote, she might have found we had more in common than she thought.

The divides we perceive are not as extreme as they seem on social media. Social media comments are not discussion; we get into trouble when we start to think they are. People post articles they haven’t read, videos they haven’t watched and other people comment based on those headlines and comments. And outrage ensues, with no one fully aware of the thing they are outraged about. This isn’t conversation. This isn’t discussion. I heard a comedian describe “discussion” on the internet as being a lot like shouting into traffic. It’s loud, it’s noisy and everyone’s busy trying to get somewhere else.

This makes me think about academic seminars wherein we read controversial material. For example, we read Freud in my Freshman Studies psychology class in college. One student was very upset that we were being asked to read the father of psychoanalysis, due to some of the sexist thinking he brought to the table. She couldn’t believe we’d been assigned to read this “monster.”

But, as my teacher pointed out, we have to read him to respond to him. We can’t ignore his ideas or get furious about the things he was wrong about without actually reading what he said. This was an important lesson for all of us – that we have to actually grapple with the content of something before we can argue with it and before we could argue with each other. We couldn’t just dismiss something out of hand. The most significant factor of those seminars was that we were all present for them. If someone said something controversial, we were in a position to investigate it, to explore it or to walk our own statements back, if we needed to. Behind every statement, behind every question was a person, a full human being.

I think it would behoove us to remember that this is also true about every article we read on line, and every video, and every comment. It is easy to forget the complexity of our humanity when we are looking at statements, or content or words that trigger us. I am as guilty of this as anyone. I have had intense emotional responses to seeing headlines or articles I haven’t read. I have felt their impact hours after seeing only their titles go by in my Facebook feed. It is natural to have reactions to information, especially when it is disconnected from the people who created it or shared it…but even so, it does feel like my responsibility now to fully read anything I feel inclined to respond to, either in the public forum of social media or in my own private space. I have had to discipline myself to only comment after reading, to only share after viewing, to remember that each and every person that posts, that writes, that comments is a human being and try to imagine what it would be like to be in a college seminar with them, human to human, idea to idea.

 

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The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

There’s a really interesting conversation happening in the media these days about the value of a college education. From the Freakonmics show “Is College Really Worth It?” to The Economist article, “Is College Worth It” the worth of higher education is clearly on the table. The Federal Government is thinking about it, too. There’s a plan in the works to assess university education on affordability and value. Many people are trying to quantify what an education should be worth and judge institutions by whether they fulfill that promise. The stakes are high as Federal Funding hangs in the balance.

My alma mater has gotten in on the conversation early. As mentioned in a story on  Marketplace, the college is worried about the proposed measures of financial success of its alumni as a measure of value. It’s fighting for the place of Liberal Arts in the culture.

I find myself with mixed feelings about all this. I have great affection for my small elite liberal arts college. I believe in the values they’re discussing in the media and I am grateful for the role the college and those values have played in my life. What the college claims to do is exactly what it did for me and I value those skills. But I’m broke. And I wonder about the role Liberal Arts education has played in my broke-ness.

My small elite liberal arts education was expensive. At the time, it was the most expensive in the country. I was only able to go because of some extremely generous financial aid. When I was there, one half of the students basically paid for the other half.

It was a beautiful, rarefied place to learn. The atmosphere of the place encouraged deep thinking and analysis. It encouraged independence and challenging the status quo. We all left with a degree in Liberal Arts.  We all left with a lot of conversations about Truth and Beauty and literature and philosophy and history behind us.

What we didn’t leave with were jobs. Or desirable job skills. Which was fine at the time. We’d learned about something more important than money. Our values were marinated in philosophy and Art. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

My college prided itself on its uniqueness (slogan: We’re different, so are you.”) It attracted (and still attracts) people with an interest in independent thinking, people who are different, people who cluster at the margins of things. Studying there helped us develop our uniqueness. It trained us in individuality and independent thinking. As a rule, if there is a box, my fellow alumni and I are particularly skilled at thinking outside of it.

The problem is that, at the moment, all the money seems to be IN the box. I sometimes wish I’d gone to a place that trained me to think more conventionally – just so I could make some conventional dollars.

I started to think about all this after an alumni Holiday party where I encountered one alumna after another who was struggling with money and in the middle of a career transition. We all loved our alma mater but were a little mad at it too. There was a sense of “Shouldn’t we be seeing some financial return on our elite education?” Like, shouldn’t we be part of the elite having gone to the most expensive college in the country?

At some elite colleges, there is a pipeline. When you leave those institutions, you have a club membership, you have an introduction to the halls of power. Your degree can open doors. You go to Harvard, for example, you can go work with other folks from Harvard, whether in law or in comedy.

There is no such pipeline for us and maybe it’s because my fellow alumni didn’t go on to become investment bankers or politicians. They’re poets, philosophers, teachers, film-makers, journalists, musicians, theatre artists, visual artists, etc, (basically all the middle class jobs that are vanishing in the information/digital economy.) I think we partly chose the place because we were interested in those creative/academic lives – which is why I can’t blame the institution, as much as I’d like to.

I mean, I chose to work in Theatre. As Lewis Black said about theatre work in a recent podcast interview, “Crack whores make more money.” Theatre is what I studied and what I chose to pursue. So it’s my own fault, really. But I can’t help noting that if I’d studied Theatre at Yale, I’d have some worldly access that I don’t have with my degree. Is it the institution’s job to care for its alumni once they’re gone? Probably not.

But I also note that one of the hopes of elite liberal arts education as a whole is to transcend class, to give people a leg up the ladder. And it seems like, in my college’s case, the students who came in Low Income have remained Low Income and those who came in Middle Class have remained Middle Class and so on. And maybe the same thing is true at Yale. Maybe it’s NOT the Yale connection that opens doors but the socio-economic class that accompanies the student to Yale.

If that’s the case, then a measure that gauges economic success is really just a way to measure where people with money tend to go to school. It’s not so simple.

Would I have changed my elite liberal arts education? Nope. Not at all. It’s exactly what I wanted and it did all of the things it now claims to teach. The discomforting thing is how little those things seem to be valued out in the world. In a way, a liberal arts education is education for an ideal world. It educates aspirationally, almost as if people really cared about art and literature and philosophy.

I’d like to live in a world in which everyone were trained in thinking analytically, expressing ideas effectively, bringing innovation to things and thinking independently but, we live in a culture that seems to only care about money, that wants to measure what you learned by how much money you make, that wants to value people and experiences this way. A liberal arts education hopes that there will be some other measure out there – some other way of doing things and sometimes this means a major crisis in its students when we discover that no one really cares about our ability to analyze literature – and when we discover that all the things we loved and trained in are things that the culture has continued to devalue – artists, teachers, academics, etc.

Adjunct teachers around the country (who make up around 70% of faculty) make so little money that many of them have multiple other jobs. Adjuncts make peanuts. I know because I’ve been one. The most famous example was a beloved French teacher with decades of years of teaching at a college who died at 83 without health care or any sort of safety net. And my elite Liberal Arts College isn’t paying adjuncts any better than anyone else. Adjunct faculty are teaching students for pocket change, while the students are paying crazy amounts of tuition to learn from them.

And yet we persist. Because we love poetry. Or philosophy. Or whatever it is. And the college persists, in hope, I’d guess, that one day the world will organize its values a little differently.

Maybe in the future, when we are all artists, as Seth Godin suggests in Linchpin, our independent learning will start to pay out. No one knows. Meanwhile, if I were a parent, (I’m not, I can’t afford to be) I’d have big questions about where to send my child. To an elite liberal arts college where they will learn how to learn? Or to a college that might help them make a decent living when they’re done?  (Although, no guarantees now – I heard that there are so few law firm positions open that lawyers are waiting tables now, just like actors.)

I don’t have an answer for any of it. I wish that it weren’t an either/or situation – that the skills and values of a liberal arts college were so valued in the culture that everyone would come out of school and get PAID. And then a measure of how students do financially after going to school somewhere would be an actually sensible measure.

So, good luck, Federal Government, on your quest to figure out how to place value on all the colleges out there. You’ve got a hell of a task ahead of you.

 

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