Songs for the Struggling Artist


I’m Done Watching Nashville And It’s Probably Not Why You Think
April 17, 2017, 12:20 am
Filed under: feminism, music, TV | Tags: , , , ,

No one was more surprised than me when I became a fan of Nashville, the TV show about country music stars. It happened after I read an interview with Callie Khouri, the show’s creator, in which she explained how much her feminism was informing the show. In 2012, there weren’t many folks in show business talking about their feminist work, so I sought the show out immediately. And I loved it.

The show did so many things I’d not seen before on TV: multiple women at the center, women grappling with power, grappling with sexism in the music business. It seemed to have a female gaze, even when directed by men. There was a scene in the first season that was one of the sexiest I’d seen on broadcast TV. It was bold. And it didn’t let us forget that the nice man we all liked so much was once a violent alcoholic. It dealt with domestic violence in a harrowing and sensitive way. The show wasn’t perfect. It was soapy as hell and it lost its few characters of color pretty early on. But it was always an empowering blend of music, ambition and relationships. This year, after being dropped by CBS, it was picked up and given a 5th season by Country Music TV, a very logical choice. I was excited to see it return after such a long hiatus.

But from the beginning of this new season, I felt a strange lack of ease around watching it. The cast was still in place, the characters aligned with their histories, the music still at the center. But I noticed after a few episodes that I just didn’t feel like watching it anymore. Something was missing.

What I realize now was that Callie Khouri was missing. In her showrunner chair are now two men. (It takes two men to replace one bad ass feminist women apparently.) The show had earned my feminist trust so things that would normally be red flags for me didn’t flag at first.

At first, I was so glad to have some people of color back on the show, and for them to be acknowledging the existence of racial tension, however awkwardly.  I was so busy applauding the inclusion of a trans character, I missed what was happening to the other characters. But the show started to irrevocably turn for me when Scarlett, who has always been the emotional center of the show, was bullied and sexually exploited by a film director. Because the show had some feminist cred in the bank, I thought that might be handled deftly at some point, like the domestic violence plot in a previous season. I thought that Rayna (the woman at the center of the story and a woman with tremendous authority) was going to step in and realize that this video was degrading and horrible and that Scarlett was being gaslit and abused. But no – a young silicon valley dude bullied Rayna out of intervening.

And then. SOMEHOW…this film director bully convinces Scarlett that he’s shown her something amazing and true about herself by forcing her to wear a low cut dress and crawl like a cat on a dining room table and so in the last episode that I will ever watch of this show, she decides she has feelings for him and sleeps with him in his hotel.

I hate this plot so hard. And I tried to twist it. I tried to think the best of the show (due to aforementioned feminist cred.) I thought, “Oh, maybe it’s a long game. Maybe they’re going to have Scarlett work out that she’s been gaslit later in the season. Maybe they’re sending her on some path of a feminist awaking by pairing her with a gaslighting bully.”

But I don’t think so. I think that the new showrunners maybe think they’re giving her a sexual awakening brought on by a wise video director who knows what’s best for her. (They are, after all, such fellows themselves.) I think they think this video director seeing Scarlett as a man-eating dynamo prowling through a crowd is somehow empowering. It ain’t.

I was thinking, before I realized how much had changed in Nashville’s world, that this would eventually get sorted. Then I read a review, which exposed me to reviews of the subsequent episodes and discovered that…(SPOILER ALERT TIMES A LOT. IF YOU’RE GOING TO WATCH NASHVILLE AND DON’T WANT IT ENTIRELY SPOILED SKIP THE NEXT BIT… Spoiler: They’ve killed off Rayna James. Now, I understand that Connie Britton, who plays her, has bigger fish to fry and wanted to leave the show. So, I’m not so much mad that they’ve killed Rayna so much as sure there will be no extracting themselves from the sexist mess they’ve gotten themselves into now. The thing is – Rayna is the only woman with any real authority in the show. She is the only character who can right the wrongs when things go lopsided. She is not just the moral center, she is the only advocate for the younger women in the business. Without her, and without any peers like her, the show doesn’t stand a chance of reclaiming its feminist glory. SPOILERS COMPLETE.)

When this show started, it sparked articles like “Is Nashville the Most Feminist show on TV?” and “As an Urban Feminist, I was Surprised to Fall in Love with Nashville.

It’s clear to me that that period is over. Nashville has lost its feminist showrunner and so has lost its feminist sensibility. I’m not saying men can’t be feminists. They absolutely can be. But these particular men are doing a very bad job at feminist TV making. And this feminist can’t bear to watch it any more.

The Nashville Cast and Showrunner at Paley Fest 2013. This photo would have a lot more dudes in it this year.

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If My Pen is Rockin,’ Don’t Come A-Knockin’

The bulk of my writing practice is dedicated to getting myself primed to write with the most focus I can manage. The practice is dedicated to finding a kind of flow. In an ideal session of writing, I will not stop the pen. I just go. And go. I’m sure that I look busy when I’m writing. I’m 100% sure I don’t look like I want to talk with anyone. And yet. And YET.

Several times in the last few months, I have had white men, both young and old, attempt to talk with me while I was writing. One said, after watching my pen moving rapidly across the page for a while, “Can I ask you a question?” I did not stop moving my pen and said “Not right now.” But even though I kept writing, of course, it very much interrupted my flow. It took me a while to pick my thought back up.

Another one, sitting next to me on a café bench at an adjacent table where I had been sitting and writing for 40 minutes, says, almost right into my ear, “Are you journaling?” And fury passed through me as I paused to turn and tell him “No” and attempted to resume.

Why on earth does someone think a woman busy on her own, clearly engaged with a task, wants to be interrupted? Never once has a woman interrupted me to ask an invasive question or start up a conversation. Nor has any man of color. Everyone but white dudes seems to respect my personal space and engagement.

The good news is that there is literally no activity that I am more protective of than writing. I guard my time to do it. I protect it with ferocity – so if some dude happens to intrude, I don’t fall into my usual patterns of being nice or compliant. If you interrupt me, I will not be polite.

This is also the gift of aging. I do not give any fucks about making men feel alright for being assholes. Not anymore.

But it continues to astonish me that even in personal space NYC, where we all more or less leave each other alone, dudes can take me being busy doing something as an invitation.

I suppose it is the activity equivalent of wearing headphones – and lord knows, despite sending a million signals that a woman doesn’t want to be bothered, she gets bothered anyway. I’m thinking of that article about how to talk to girls with headphones on. And the answer of course is – you shouldn’t. Unless you want to talk with a really pissed off woman.

Understanding that not all space is your space is a hard one for the white boys who are used to feeling welcome everywhere. But it is essential for not getting a pen through the eye one day when I’m really in flow and pissed off that you’ve disrupted it. To avoid a pen in the eye…no talking, dude. If you absolutely must talk to me, you can pass me a note. But I’d rather you didn’t.

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My First Troll

You guys. I’ve been on the internet making and doing things, writing and posting and sharing for years. I’d assumed the trolls would be coming for me at any moment because I have heard all these stories about what it’s like to be a woman on the internet. But the trolls mostly left me alone. (My guess is that this is due to my only real viral posts being theatre related – and there aren’t a lot of theatre trolls, luckily.) Then when I retweeted John Patrick Shanley talking about artists and added my own…a troll emerged. A troll, a troll! My very own real troll!

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First, I was stunned it wasn’t a rape threat and then shocked that it’s basically a knock on artists. I mean, I know trolling feminists is a thing but they’re trolling artists now?

Anyway – the good news is that it didn’t break me. During all these years of posting blogs and what not, I was afraid that too much of a public profile would lead to this type of experience – one which this conflict-averse artist would generally like to avoid. But it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. And it feels worth the risk at the moment.

I mean, it’s a risk to be a woman in public in any way. It is a risk to walk down the street in most places. And the internet is just another version of the street. I go out into the world, despite the possibilities of harassment, rape or general sexism. I don’t let it keep me in the house.

Nor will I let a troll keep me off the internet, I find. I thought I would cave. I thought I would get a tweet like this and run. But I will not run. I’m celebrating that I have raised my public profile enough that an asshole wants to troll me. If I’m making enough noise to activate a troll, I’m on the right track, I figure.

I recognize that this could all change. If I started to receive the treatment of Lindy West or Anita Sarkeesian or Leslie Jones,  I have no idea how I’d get through that. But here, with my very first troll, I can at least recognize that it will take a lot more to silence me than I previously thought. I’m stronger than I thought. More willing to fight. Tougher. Fiercer. More unafraid.

So I celebrate this rite of passage and honor you, my mean little troll. In the same way that most women will always remember their first street harasser, I will always remember you. But I’ll also never hear from you again, either, cause you’re muted, troll.

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The Guys
January 31, 2017, 12:54 am
Filed under: art, comedy, feminism, podcasting | Tags: , , , ,

In addition to making my own, I listen to a lot of podcasts. In my feed consistently for the last 7 or 8 years has been Marc Maron’s WTF, wherein he talks with people – mostly from the entertainment biz. I’ve learned a lot- but one major thing that I don’t think I would have known without this medium, is the way male entertainers talk to each other.

In most of these conversations, at some point Maron will ask his guest “Who were your guys?” He’s asking who inspired his guest…who they idolized, who they looked up to. And there is a mutual understanding about this long line of guys – which guy inspired the current guy in the guest chair. I have never once heard a woman come up on one of these guys’ list of guys. No male comedian will credit Carol Burnett or Lucille Ball with forming his comedic sensibility. No male musician will credit Bonnie Raitt or Billie Holiday.

We live in a “My Guys and Your Guys” world. It’s not just comedy. It’s music. It’s movies. It’s the whole culture. Guys and guys and guys. Guys talking about guys.
I’m starting to think that one of the most radical things a male artist could do would be to credit a woman as one of his guys.

And this is reinforced everywhere. American Theatre Wing made a video about clowns in their Working in the Theatre series and every single clown was a white guy. I guess to work in the American Theatre as a clown, the first thing you have to do is be born a white dude. I don’t blame the clowns. They’re just The Guys and they probably asked the guys who their guys were and so we ended up with this long line of clown guys. But surely American Theatre Wing could have found ONE female clown. Or a clown of color. I know at least ten personally that I would have been happy to recommend. But they didn’t ask me. Because I’m not one of the guys. And the guys sent the team from one set of guys to the next set of guys. It’s a legacy of guyness, passed from one generation to the next.

It’s not just the institutional sexism that perpetuates the current structures, it’s all the guys idolizing the guys before them and hoping to inspire the guys after them and there are the girls who try to be one of the guys in order to be on the list of guys that will be remembered for all time.

But there is no real solid legacy of Ladies. And we definitely need such a legacy. Of course, what might be better are less monolithic lists of “guys” – for men to be as inspired by women and trans artists as they are by their fellow men – and vice versa. Meanwhile, I’m cultivating a legacy of ladies for myself so I can be prepared in case anyone asks me about my guys.

And, as is happening so often in this current moment, the world has shifted rather dramatically since I first wrote this piece. I’m writing this now a few hours after Sally Yates was fired from the Trump administration for refusing to violate the constitution. In the last couple of days, there have been several judges who have similarly been incredibly inspiring in their standing up for what is right. So, as Kamala Harris said over on Twitter, “It is clear that the resistance to Trump’s radical agenda will be led by courageous women fighting for our future.”

My new hope is that these women will inspire more women and in future podcasts, they will be named on everyone’s list of “guys.” I know that throughout our country’s history, women have been at the forefront for social change. I’m reading Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies right now, about how women drove the abolitionist movement, drove the labor movement and much more. Many of those historical women are lost to the common conversation but I hope the new ones will help us create ever stronger lists of “guys” who are also women.

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The Sherlock Fridging
January 10, 2017, 1:36 am
Filed under: feminism, TV | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I should have been crying. The music was telling me that’s what I ought to be doing. And I cry at commercials so it is not usually hard to push the tears button in an emotional moment on a TV show. But I was not crying. I was flailing my arms in fury. My boyfriend looked at me and asked, “What?”
I explained that I needed a minute to deal with my rage. It didn’t take him long to work out what had made me so mad. It was (WARNING: SPOILERS for Sherlock Season 4 Episode 1 ahead) not just that they’d killed off one of the only complex female characters in the show to forward the story of the two male leads (a trope that happens so often that it has a name. It’s apparently known as fridging.) It was that in her dying moments she said to her husband, John Watson, “You were my whole world. Being Mary Watson was the only life worth living.”

Which is gross enough in its sentiment but was magnified by a million by the fact that the character was a super bad-ass spy type genius. It’d be like if James Bond jumped in front of a bullet and then while he was dying proclaimed that all his years as 007 were meaningless and only the previous year when he became a house husband and a father were important. No one who gave a shit about James Bond would stand for that but because Mary took John Watson’s name and had his baby, suddenly anything she ever did before was meaningless. And most people probably watched this show and cried as the charming lady died, the one who was a mother, too, oh no….but really the most important thing is , what are those two boys going to do! That lady’s death has caused a rift between them!

Now – surely I’ve seen this sort of story before. And maybe I’ve even cried if they played the right music and made me care about the character enough – but THIS TIME… this time, I was done.

I mean, really, I’ve had actual women say similar things to me…things like, “Pursue your ambitions all you like but in the end, the most important thing you can do in life is to have children with a nice husband.” And sure, I get that having kids and a husband is really profound and meaningful to a lot of women. I’m glad that it is so fulfilling for so many. But when this is our only story, when we learn again and again that a woman’s only value is a) her looks and b) her reproduction, I get furious. Diminishing Mary’s ambition to just being Mrs. Watson is insulting to us all.

And listen, if the writers wanted to have her deliver a sweet goodbye to her husband that made him feel super special, great…it could have gone something like, “I did a lot of pretty kick-ass things in my life and had a lot of amazing adventures. This one, with you, has been the best so far. I’m sorry to miss our future adventures. It would have been exciting and fun solving more mysteries with you. Also our daughter is pretty great. I love you both. I’m off to the Great Spy Story in the Sky!”

Instead we get a Mrs. Watson whose sole ambition is being Mrs. Watson. And every young woman watching internalizes the idea that nothing matters but getting married and having babies.

The best part of the episode for women and an actually progressive moment, was when the whole Watson family, including the baby, went on a clue hunt with the bloodhound. For a moment, we had a mother pursuing her own interest and passion, with her husband and baby. It was a great “Take Your Daughter to Work” moment and not something we get to see very often. I’d love to watch a show wherein a woman finds a great way to balance her life with her kid. But of course, rather than continuing to show us a sharp working mother, they had to kill her and undercut everything she ever did before.

It felt like a slap in the face – particularly in a world where women have recently had so many losses. If we lived in a world where we saw more of another narrative for women – more Good Girls Revolt and more Hidden Figures and we got some of those genius movies people like so much but with a woman instead – like a female Beautiful Mind or a Lady Good Will Hunting or a Woman Theory of Everything – well, then I might be able to tolerate this sort of story as a nice change of pace. However, due to the fact that is 100% status quo and getting more quo-y all the time, I would like to politely suggest that the Sherlock writers go fridge themselves.

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My Hagification has Begun
January 5, 2017, 1:18 am
Filed under: feminism, resistance | Tags: , , , , , , ,

The patriarchy won big time on November 8th, 2016. Enough voters and enough Russian hackers wanted the patriarchy to win. Enough people were like – “Yeah, the primal expression of the patriarchy is for us!” and voted for it. It’s pretty fucking awful but the patriarchy won. And I hate it. It made me cry big sloppy tears. And I was paralyzed and horrified and ready to hide in a basement for as long as was necessary.

But then a switch got flipped. And I realized that just by existing, I am a middle finger to the patriarchy. The guy who won the contest is the straight up Id of the patriarchy and he has a lot of opinions about how women should look. As does the culture, in general. I do not fit most of his criteria and am therefore, like his opponent in the election, nasty. And like many of my sisters in the fight, I am embracing my nastiness. Because when the Patriarch Elect called Clinton a nasty woman we all knew what he meant. And we all knew that for him, nasty woman was redundant because “woman” means nasty to him, just by itself. We know he means women are gross, with body fat and hair and blood coming out of our where-evers. He’s offended by any woman who isn’t aesthetically pleasing to him. He is on record on this point going back decades.

All my life, I’ve struggled with the feeling that my body wasn’t culturally acceptable – that I was not pleasing to look at in one way or another and therefore failing at being a woman. That’s what the patriarchy wanted me to feel. That feeling is, in fact, what entire industries are devoted to invoking. The patriarchy wants me to spend all my time shaping my body –with Spanx, with diets, with razors, with creams, with make-up – in order to make it the most palatable for the patriarchs. It wants me to spend all my money on clothes, on weight-loss products, on cosmetics. It wants me in heels. It wants me in hair and make-up for a couple of hours every day.

So now my body becomes a signal. My body, my body hair, my clothes, are all a signal that I do not comply. Now more than ever. I’m thinking of going full-on hag to really magnify the effect. I want to develop 12 warts and some super gnarled fingers. Maybe I’ll start wearing a pointy black hat. I will no longer be aesthetically pleasing for the patriarchy. I am interested in full-on hag-i-fication.

All my life, some part of me was still struggling to please the patriarchy. Will the patriarchy still like me with this haircut? Am I shaving my legs correctly for the Man? Is this the right dress for the patriarchy?

(Side bar: I am going to start adding “for the patriarchy” to my fortune cookies – replacing the standard “in bed” – so I’ll see such fortunes as “You will soon go on a great journey. For the Patriarchy.” You can play, too! It’ll be fun!)

This new regime is a Shit Show but its extreme patriarchal nonsense is such that it has finally liberated me from some of the last bits of the Patriarchal Pleaser in my subconscious. I don’t care if the patriarchy likes me. In fact, it’s better if it doesn’t. I would take it as a point of pride at this point to be dismissed by the patriarchy. I am done cultivating my image. I am done worrying if I’m pretty enough, if I’m fitting in, if I am aesthetically pleasing. I had decades of that and now…I am embracing my inner hag. And she is pissed. And NASTY.

And I am not alone in this feeling, I have recently discovered. After I wrote the first draft of this post, I read an article by Madeline Davies in Jezebel, essentially pointing to the same impulse. Women on the street, the sorts of whom have never given me a second look, are suddenly smiling at me and nodding. I think we recognize each other now – the dissidents – the patriarchal warriors. When I go out into the world now, I strap on my beat-up boots (Snaps Missing; 4, Fucks Given: 0) and feel like I’m gearing up for battle. This doesn’t mean that I’ll never wear lipstick again or that I’ll never wear that sexy black dress. But it does mean that I’m only putting that stuff on for me. The patriarchy can go fuck itself.

The good news is that I can fight the patriarchy just by existing, just by walking around in my body. And for every “fat bitch” that gets shouted at me, just for taking up space in the world, I am now receiving nods and solidarity from my fellow warriors in equal measure. It’s a fight out there, for sure – but I am hagged up, geared up and ready to go. The patriarchy may have won this round but the fight’s not over.

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The Discomfort of Being Different Part Two

Occasionally, right after I push PUBLISH on my blog, I get a flood of additional ideas on the topic. I start to think of ways I should edit it or concepts I want to add. Sometimes I’ll go back in and edit or add – other times I’ll just let it lie. And sometimes I need to continue the thought in an entirely new blog post. That’s what happened when I opened up the floodgates on sexism in theatre. Thoughts just kept rushing in and I had to write follow-up-post after follow up. Some of those were based on the feedback I was getting and some of it was the swirl of it all marinating in my brain.

This post is of the marination variety. In thinking about being different – from the social science around non-conformity to my own history, I realized there was an additional factor that I didn’t factor in to my initial thoughts on the subject. That factor, in my case, was gender.

Because, in theatre (as in almost everywhere else,) the best way to be the Same – to conform, is to be a middle class white man. The numbers mean that nine times out of ten when I’m in a theatre doing someone else’s show, I’m in the minority. I am already different, just by being born a woman. And because of that, there is an added pressure to fit in, to do things the way they’ve always been done. Working female directors (all 22% of them!) mostly make their names directing plays about men. Women playwrights get more productions if their plays are about men. In order to assimilate, one has to take on the dominant culture – and that culture is male and white. (This all applies to race, too, but I will save that post either for someone else or the moment after I push publish on this one.)

What this all adds up to for me is the sense that I’m already a foot behind in the FITTING IN GAME and it is tricky to be perceived as the Non Conformist I am, rather than the woman who doesn’t know the rules because she’s a woman. There is a presumption, right at the outset, that I don’t know what I’m doing, based on my gender. There are theatre companies who will baldly state that they don’t hire women. So if I’m DOING the job of directing, for example, I’m expected to be too feminine, to be doing things wrong. There’s a sense that I should be doubly aggressive to make up for my gender.

The fact that I refuse to do this has been a problem throughout my career. And I think it’s a problem throughout the culture, too. We lose so much potential by leaving out the female experience of leadership. Jill Soloway’s work on The Female Gaze is the FIRST TIME in my decades on the planet, that I have heard a woman in a position of prominence able to advocate for a female aesthetic and style of leadership. It is incredibly inspiring. And incredibly unusual. It requires a great deal of tolerance of that discomfort of doing things differently. Soloway asks her camera operators to feel with her subjects. She hires a crew that can cry. I can only begin to imagine how the established film crew guys react to that. What I don’t know is how she manages those confused and angry folks used to doing things the usual way. That is the trick I’d like to learn to master.

I think a lot of that finessing of the world around one comes with age. The older I get, the less I care what other people think – that is, the desire to fit in has begun to diminish dramatically. At the moment, I’m still straddling the line. I’m not yet able to wholly reject the dominant culture. Probably because I’m not really part of it.

Soloway, having already achieved traditional success in film and TV has the credentials to tell the patriarchy to go fuck itself. She can say something as radical as: men should just stop making movies and make space for women’s voices and while I’m sure that blowback is intense, she can perhaps, watch it roll by from the top of the heap. I’m still hoping to make a little mark and it is hard to do from the fringes. So – time, I hope will help me to tolerate more and more the feeling of my own differences. Every decade I live, I lose more of that people-pleasing shame that limits me now.

photo by Cassidy Kelley

 

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist




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