Songs for the Struggling Artist


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.

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

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It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

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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.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

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

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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.

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

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The Difference Between A and Z and Progressive Politics

My State Assembly member has been kind of amazing at her job. Let’s call her A because this is about her but not really about her. She is amazing, though. She’s super progressive and has gotten some really sticky legislation passed. She’s kind of heroic that way. Every time I’ve sent her emails through ResistBot or something, when I wasn’t QUITE clear who was supposed to handle the thing I was concerned about, she has responded to those emails immediately and almost every time, the response has been something like, “Thank you for your message. I sponsored a bill about this and am working to pass it now.” It’s happened more than once. She’s ahead of me every time. She’s remarkable. So – that’s A.

Z showed up a few months before the primary elections. We started to get flyers from him and see posters. I couldn’t figure out whose seat he was running for because he was pitching himself as a progressive change candidate and both of our state reps are some of the most progressive reps around. Like, who is he trying to unseat? Our progressive State Senator who kicked off the Cancel Rent movement? Or our state Assembly Member who has been helping the senator to get it passed and co-sponsored the police accountability bill? But it turned out it was A that Z was running against – our amazing State Assembly Member.

From the start, something about Z’s campaign rubbed me the wrong way and it made me feel very strange. I agreed with his positions, sure, but those positions were basically the same as our current rep. What case could he possibly have for replacing a seasoned, highly capable progressive woman?

Well – we found out soon enough that his narrative was that she had taken money from Real Estate after pledging not to. That was pretty much it. And, yes, that real estate business did give me pause. It seemed out of character for her to do such a thing but you know – she’s a politician, you can never be sure. But, most importantly to me, if she had taken money from real estate, it hadn’t impacted any of her legislative choices. She remained a fierce advocate for tenants and for canceling rent.

Z was saying stuff I believe in but A was doing stuff I believe in and has been for 9 years. So – after considering them both carefully. I filled out my absentee ballot enthusiastically for A.

And I cannot stop thinking about these two, especially now that preliminary election results are trickling in and he’s ahead of her by 600 votes. Because here’s the thing – there was no reason for him to run. Everything he wants to do, A is already working on and has the colleagues in Albany and the consensus in the community to do it. She’s good at her job – and he’s never done this before. Why is he running? It feels like he’s running because he can. Because he has friends in high places who want to help get him into politics and maybe he’s got a little bit of a hero complex.

Z is very charming. But for a guy who has a “Feminism for All” platform on his website, it feels a little out of alignment with his ideals to try and unseat a highly capable older woman who fought like hell to get where she is and continues to fight like hell for her constituents. She’s on the young side of Gen X. He’s on the young side of Millennial. This whole campaign has the flavor of the young man turning up and expecting to be hailed as a king for doing the thing the woman has already been doing for almost a decade. She’s a lifelong member of this community. He moved here a year and a half ago. There are things in our freezer that have lived here longer than him.

And there is another layer. We don’t have class here in America. (Boy, do we ever not have class!) But if we did have classes (and I’m kidding, of course we do, we just pretend not to) she would be from the working class and he would be from the ruling class. Her parents ran a deli. His parents are a renowned professor at an Ivy League college and an Academy Award nominated Hollywood film Director.

So – now we’re looking at a working class Gen X woman just beginning to experience the erasure that kicks in for women in their 40s being possibly pushed out by a ruling class interloper Millennial man.

And fundamentally, their positions are almost exactly the same. They disagree about almost nothing. In their on-line debate, he pretty much wanted the same stuff she did but felt it wasn’t done fast enough. A pointed out that until last year they’d been blocked by a Republican senate and were playing catch up a bit. It’s as if Z had no awareness of what had come before. As if he had never heard of the IDC (faux democrats who blocked progressive legislation) that A had to fight so hard to change. But he’s been out, chalking the streets, blanketing the neighborhood with his expertly branded flyers – repeating all the slogans of the moment. In this debate, he proclaimed that we must defund the police and I could almost hear the hashtag. A agreed that yes, we do need to reallocate funds from the police to our schools and such. She’s been working on it.

This whole campaign feels like a big picture version of a woman sharing her idea at a meeting and then a man says exactly the same thing a few minutes later and everyone ooohs and ahhhhs. Except in this case, not only has the woman just said her idea, she’s also already done all of the work for it. And then the man swoops in and gets the applause. The more I think about it, the more enraged I get.

The gender dynamics are one thing and the class dynamics are another. Z’s campaign is sponsored by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). And theoretically, the DSA should have some awareness of class. Theoretically, the DSA, as a left leaning organization, should have some affinity with the working class – but rather than offering their support to the current working class woman Assembly Member, they threw their weight behind a ruling class man. The DSA has had some real struggles with how their gender politics are perceived throughout the Bernie Sanders campaign. They’re really not doing themselves any favors in that department here. Anyway – A had the endorsement of almost every union – that is, the support of labor. Z had the endorsement of celebrity members of the DSA. And why on earth is the DSA not aligned with labor? Isn’t that the whole point of socialism? To support the working class? Oh man. This whole thing gets me so worked up.

Because here’s the thing. A has been one of the most fierce advocates for women in our state. She got major sexual harassment legislation passed and she co-sponsored the Reproductive Health Act. I just noticed in her latest email newsletter that she’s pointed her constituents to where they can get free period products – addressing period poverty – a thing I’ve heard almost no one talk about in this country. She’s not out here bragging about it because frankly, she’s not that great at self promotion. She’s a classic Gen X woman, just getting the job done. If we lose her, we will lose one of the best feminist lawmakers I’ve seen.

This should be a highly local race – but Z’s donors include many celebrities who not only don’t live in the neighborhood, they don’t even live in the borough. A’s donors are mostly local. And yes, she did take some money from the police union but they’re a labor union too, so it’s complicated – and she gave it back. As for those hotly contested donations that Z accused A of receiving from the Real Estate Developers – they discussed them during the debate. Let me remind you before I tell you this story, that these donations have literally been the centerpiece of Z’s campaign, they are what all his volunteers have been primed to speak about and the issue that has been on all his materials. Just remember that.

Now – they’re on this Facebook live debate and Z names these two donors and proclaims them to be the most egregious real estate people in the area. Let’s call them George Smith and Carol Jones. When A is given the opportunity to respond, she lets Z know that what he doesn’t know is that here in the Greek community, lots of people have the same name. So George Smith is not George Smith the Real Estate developer but his cousin, George Smith. Z is stunned and asks her about the other one, Carol Jones. Turns out, Carol Jones owns not one piece of property and works as a paraprofessional – in other words, about as far away from a real estate developer as you could get.

The central issue of Z’s campaign against A is not real. It’s a giant mistake and it’s a mistake that reflects a lack of knowledge about a very large swath of our historically Greek community. It was a hell of a moment. Now – did Z apologize? No, no, he did not. It was as if it had never happened. And even though he learned this days before the election, all of his volunteers were still declaring that the reason to vote for him was because his opponent said she wouldn’t take real estate money and then she did. But that’s a lie. It was a mistake before. Then it became a lie. And it burns me up. Especially because it seemed to have worked, for at least 600 more people than I would have liked.

The thing is, though, this is a super local race. So local. You don’t know A and you don’t know Z (though you probably know his mom since she’s a super famous director). Whatever the results, it will likely have no major impact on anyone outside of New York State. But the pattern, folks, the pattern. This pattern keeps repeating itself and repeating itself. And now it’s repeating itself between two ideologically similar candidates.

We fall for the charming ruling class young man who swoops in to “save the day” while the working class women who’ve done all the hard work are erased and I am so done with this.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with this particular election. Two thirds of the votes were absentee and haven’t been counted yet and I know at least two of them are for A but I’m mostly just mad at the DSA for running Z here. Take that condescending ruling class meme-itude somewhere that needs a progressive candidate. We have one. She’s great. She may be unpolished (and boy, I know she’s unpolished – A, blunt lawmaker that she is, when asked what she’d do first in the legislature brought up the reclassification of rape. In the process, she probably said the words “anal rape” four times. No political advisor in the world would have advised that.) but she is amazing. I enjoy the lack of polish quite a bit, actually. It is very refreshing.

Why on earth did the DSA, if they wanted a candidate in this neighborhood so badly not just ask her if they could endorse her? If there was something they wanted to get done that she wasn’t doing, why didn’t they just lay that out to see if it’s something she could work on? I really do not understand at all why an organization that is supposedly for the working people would try to displace a lefty working class woman to install a ruling class elite man.

As A said about the DSA in a local article, “I don’t disagree with any of the issues that they’ve put forward, from criminal justice reforms, to decarceration, to making sure that we expand healthcare, to making sure that we protect our environment — I don’t know how you can run from the left of me. There is no room.”

It’s definitely not the first time a man has pressed his way into a woman’s space when there was no room for him there.

Coincidentally, there is another as yet undecided election in our area with oddly similar demographics. In the congressional race, another handsome South Asian Millennial man is running to defeat the older white woman incumbent. But, in that case, there was ample room on the left. The incumbent there has voted with Republicans on several things and is closely tied to New York Real Estate interests. I was very happy to vote for the progressive man challenging her. He would replace a woman who’s done some racist things, some anti-vax things and I would be very happy to see the back of her. In this case, the younger man is actually more progressive. So I’m not saying no young man should ever replace an older woman. Some should absolutely be replaced.

But this situation is not that other situation. In the case of A and Z, when their views are essentially the same, it mostly just feels like an intense example of sexism, as well as classism and ageism. It reminds me of that classic cartoon of a group of people at a meeting and the man at the head of the conference table says, “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” It feels like the electorate is saying, “Nice ideas, A, is there a man available who could make them?” And lo and behold, one arrived and here we are, possibly about to lose one of the most feminist lawmakers we have.

“Yeah, guys, this one prop piece of paper is gonna do the trick, along with these empty file folders. We’ll just put on these outfits and the votes will fall at our feet. It’s just a woman we’re running against. Nothing to worry about.”

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Posse. Team. Community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean – “I have to work.” You know?

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

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

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

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They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

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

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In Praise of Violence (On Stage)

While writing my last fundraising email for my company’s feminist Measure for Measure, I found myself going on a bit of a rant about the response to the violence in our show. I realized advocating for violence was probably not a particularly wise way to ask for money, so I stopped myself before I went too far. And going too far is what I was talking about.

Many don’t experience Measure for Measure the way I do – they don’t feel the multitude of injustices stacking up against the women in this play as anything to get too upset about. It’s a comedy, after all! I mean, sure Angelo’s a hypocrite, but he just wants to sleep with an aspiring nun, is that so wrong? Sure, the Duke sits by and watches people’s lives torn apart, actively participating and lying to make their experience more dramatic and painful and setting up sadistic scenario after sadistic scenario – but it all works out in the end, right? And he marries Isabella! (Apologies if you don’t know what I’m talking about and you’re not familiar with Measure for Measure, stick around, there’s more non-Shakespeare violence to come.)

I understand the prevailing feeling that these men are not so bad and therefore don’t deserve to be murdered in a blood bath at the end of the play, for example. (Yes, that was our ending. Spoiler alert!) Certainly, yes, there are worse men. Lavinia’s rapists, Imogen’s almost rapists, Kate’s rapist husband…oh wait, you probably mean murderers.

Violence is used against women over and over throughout Shakespeare’s plays and also the entirety of Western literature and entertainment. And over and over again, in text after text, image after image, women just have to sit there and take it. Men avenge women’s deaths and rapes but the women themselves are just dead or damaged. Or made dead due to their “damage.” (I’m looking at you, sweet Lavinia.) Never never do the women get to avenge themselves. Never do they get to grab a sword and make everyone pay for their agony. And you know what? That’s what I need.

Catharsis has been for men for as long as there has been drama and it’s about goddamn time women got some of that sweet sweet catharsis ourselves. When I started this Measure for Measure experiment, I was clear that catharsis is what I was seeking and clear that only violence could do the job.

Not everyone agreed with me. Despite being a cast of women, there were many among them who did not feel that blood needed be drawn. Many felt that the sins committed by the men in power in the play were not so bad. The blood bath I had in mind did not seem commensurate with the crime. That’s probably true. Probably there are many men in Shakespeare who deserve to get murdered by angry women more than Angelo and the Duke do. I’ll leave those deaths for someone else to stage – but for me, to experience a genuine catharsis at the end of a show was worth every possible injustice in it.

I have seen so many women assaulted, raped and murdered on stage and on screen. I could not begin to count the victims I’ve seen in my theatre going, TV watching, film viewing lifetime. For ages, a woman’s presence in a work of drama was for the sole purpose of getting the hero justifiably angry so he could have his catharsis at the end. Women have mostly been cast to be the victims. That’s what an ingénue is for.

I have a theatre friend who moved to LA to work in film and TV and has had a fair amount of success. She has played almost exclusively victims. Her reel is just, like, a parade of violence and abuse against her. Did she deserve any of that? Did all the women who have been abused, assaulted, raped and murdered onstage and onscreen deserve all those things?

But it was all for men’s catharsis.

I need some damn catharsis now.

You think Shakespeare wasn’t interested in violence? I mean, crack open a copy of Titus Andronicus! It wasn’t enough for Lavinia to be raped by her stepbrothers – no, they had to cut out her tongue and cut off her hands as well. Then her father kills her out of “mercy.” Did Lavinia deserve that?

I killed Angelo and the Duke (and Lucio, just for fun) onstage not just for the women in the play, for Isabella and Mariana and Mistress Overdone, but also for Lavinia. And you know what? It’s also for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford – because we can’t drag her assailant out of the Supreme Court without causing a whole heap of trouble. So we kick The Duke in the balls. If we kick The Duke in the balls, maybe just maybe no actual balls will need to get kicked.

If we don’t find outlets for our fury in the safety of our stages, if we don’t get catharsis in some way or another, I can’t promise the rage that has been building, lo, these five thousand years won’t burst forth into a real live bloody revolution. If the woman on man violence makes you uncomfortable to watch, that’s appropriate. That’s what it’s been like for women watching women be victimized all these years.

I’m kind of imagining some restorative dramatic justice. For every rape or sexual assault or domestic violence plot, I’m going to need two kicks in the balls and at least two violent murders. And we’ve got a lot of catching up to do, theatre and cinema-wise, so we might have to kick and kill in some grey areas for a while. Maybe what Louis CK did wasn’t so bad on the shitty scale, not as bad as rape, certainly, but in anything he’s in next, he’s going to need to be brutally attacked or he’s never going to work again. So sayeth the scales of theatrical justice.

Photo from our workshop performance of Measure for Measure, featuring Connie Rotunda, Katherine Lee, Brooke Turner and Sonia Villani, with fight direction by Dan Renkin

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

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Owning Our Expertise: One Way Zephyr Teachout Is Inspiring Me

There are dozens of reasons I want Zephyr Teachout to be the next Attorney General of New York (see her endorsements in the New York Times or New York Daily News for some of those reasons.) I have admired her for years and am thrilled to be able to vote for her for a job she is so right for. I’ve never been very interested in political mechanics but I canvased for the first time ever to help get her elected. She could be running against all the great fictional lawyers of all time combined into one person and I’d still be zealously in support of Teachout’s campaign. (Vote on Thursday if you live in New York state!)

But aside from things like refusing to take corporate donations and campaigning while pregnant, one thing I keep being impressed by, every time I hear her speak, is how she talks about her expertise. She specializes in corruption law. She wrote a book about corruption in America. She teaches the subject at a law school. She is legitimately an expert in the field. And she does not hesitate to claim it. I can’t tell you what a thrill it is for me to hear a woman say “I am an expert in…” without the slightest hint of apology or hesitation. To hear a woman, who is about my age, declare her proficiency and prowess inspires me tremendously. Every time I hear her say, “This is my area of expertise –“ I get a little shock. I am also impressed by how often she says it and I get that little shock every time.

I recognize that there are those in the world who will get that shock in a less pleasurable way than I do. I imagine that there are many who hear a woman unapologetically declare she is an expert and take an instant visceral dislike to such a person. I suspect that such people exist because of all the misogyny that’s wriggled its way to the surface these last few years. I also know such people exist because this sort of language from a woman is so unusual. I know many women who are, in fact, experts in many things but would never dare to say so. Many of us have learned to downplay our accomplishments, to soft pedal our expertise or diminish our achievements. Women who don’t soften their proficiency are often vilified. So to hear Teachout own her own skill and expertise in such a powerful way has been one of the great thrills of election season for me.

I’m going to try to claim my own expertise more and I hope to hear other women follow Zephyr Teachout’s lead in declaring theirs.

CODA:
Please, please, please, if you’re in New York, please vote in the Democratic Primary on Thursday, September 13th. I would love to see Zephyr Teachout in office, as well as Cynthia Nixon and Jumaane Williams. All of them are running their campaigns without any corporate money and they need all the support they can get – especially when real estate companies are pouring money into their opponents’ campaigns.

But whomever you vote for – the more people vote, the more voice we’ll all have in New York’s democracy. The state has been rife with corruption. (The way real estate interests have played a role in our state politics probably has a lot to do with how we ended up with Donny Twimp on a national level.) Participation is key for making changes. And here in New York – most of the real decisions happen at the primary level. This is also where turnout is the smallest. Doing my small bit of canvassing, I saw just how small the primary voter numbers can be. So if you want to make the most difference – turn up on Thursday. Help us get more expert women (and those who support expert women) into office. Please and thank you.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes.

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

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

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Want to help me own my own expertise?

Become my patron on Patreon.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 



“She’s a female, so that’s interesting.”
August 30, 2018, 4:45 pm
Filed under: feminism | Tags: , , , , , ,

National Geographic has a TV series called Genius and I read an interview with Ron Howard, who produced it. He was asked why their next subject was going to be Mary Shelley and he said, “She’s a female, so that’s interesting.”
And damned if I didn’t have a little hurricane of a reaction to this sentiment.

Let me begin by saying that unfortunately he’s right about the rareness of women who are recognized as geniuses. Genius tends to mean “man” to most. Genius is rarely attributed to women so, yes, it is “interesting” to focus on a woman in a series about genius. I think, more accurately though, it is a nice change of pace, rather than interesting. It is not her being female that is interesting. Mary Shelley’s femaleness is not actually unique. Over 50% of the population shares that particular trait with her. What is actually interesting is that somehow the world has been convinced that genius is a thing for men so that it has become unique to see a woman on a show about genius. That’s the interesting part. That and the fact that it has taken this long to bring a woman into a story about a genius.

Also – the use of “female” in this context uniformly makes me crazy. I didn’t know why people calling women “females” was so infuriating for so long until I read some articles about it (like this one from Jezebel) and now I can tolerate it even less than I could before. So there’s that, too.

I mean – I do not deny that having a woman on a show about geniuses is much more interesting to me than any previous subjects they explored but ultimately the whole structure of the sentence made me real mad at Ron Howard. I got so mad I found myself saying, “Take a flying leap, Richie Cunningham!”
“Take your ‘interesting female’ ideas and shove ‘em, Opie!”
Which is not very nice to Ron Howard and I’m sorry. (Please hire all my friends who make films, Ron Howard. Make all their movies immediately. Pretend I didn’t say anything.)

But – let’s imagine this sentence reversed. We’re reading an interview with Ron Howard about his subject, Picasso.

INTERVIEWER: Your next Genius is Picasso. Why him?

HOWARD: He’s a male, so that’s interesting.

Mmmm. Is it though?

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In Which Someone I Used to Idolize Harasses Me and I Learn a Few Things About the Music Business

Part 1

When I first heard who it was on my voicemail, I got excited. Really? Is this for real? One of my heroes from my youth was calling me? On my phone? The woman whose songs helped me through my teens and helped me again in the political upheaval of the last year? The woman whose unvarnished *REDACTED* album was the touchstone for me feeling like I could share some unvarnished music myself this year? The woman whose songs inspired me to keep going when I felt I couldn’t? Was that really her? And it was.

But, within seconds, the news went from amazing to terrible. Her message said something to the effect of “If you’re sensing hostility in my voice it’s because it’s there” and “I’m in New York, too, and I intend to raise a ruckus.” (I may be paraphrasing slightly here, as I could not bear to listen to the message again.)

So. My hero from my teens was calling me. (Yay!) But she’s calling to tell me she’s furious with me. (Yikes.) *REDACTED* knows who I am! (Yay!) But she wants to go to war with me. (Yikes.) It was a bone-shaking message to get.

See, over the last year, I’ve recorded over 40 cover songs in my living room. Three of those songs were hers. And when I decided to make them available to the public, I knew I needed to go through some hoops. This process is all new to me but I did a bunch of research and it seemed like the best way to assure that the songwriters received due credit and compensation was to use this licensing company called Loudr. I paid the licensing fee and preliminary royalties for each writer. It wasn’t cheap. And a lot of folks don’t bother. But how I engage with my fellow artists is important to me and I wanted to make sure I did right by everyone I owed an artistic debt to, both metaphorically and literally. Loudr calculates the preliminary royalties and so Elvis Costello got $9.10. ani difranco got $9.10. And *REDACTED* – because I recorded three of her songs – got $9.10 times three. Plus, I’m assuming, at least a portion of the license fee.

So *REDACTED* called me and declared that I was using her composition without permission. And she was pissed. She called seven times, several times a day for three days. She trolled me on Twitter. She doxxed me. She targeted my theatre company (which has zero to do with my music.) She clicked around in all the places I have digital media presence. And because usually those places are quiet and unvisited, that made a lot of noise.

It is a really heartbreaking experience to be trolled by someone you once admired so fiercely. I cried on and off for 24 hours. I didn’t do much sleeping either.

At first, I tried to figure out what she wanted. She didn’t say. Was it the profits from the songs? Because there aren’t any. Is she after a portion of my album sale? Because that’s a dollar. I mean – I’m a month into the first release of two albums and the only money I’ve made is the $10 I got when my dad downloaded it (which he really could have gotten for free.) That $10 is about a 1% recoup of my cost and her song was one dollar of that.

But I don’t think it’s about money – after all, she’s just made money on my recordings. I think she’s pissed that I recorded her songs at all. I think she’s pissed that copyright laws are such that I am well within my rights to do so. And I understand that, too. When I submitted to Loudr, I thought one of the things I was getting was permission from the songwriters to record their stuff. I thought that was why REDACTED’s songs took longer to process than the others. I thought they were waiting on her permission. Turns out – no – that’s not how it works at all. Copyright law gives anyone the right to record anyone’s song, as long as they pay for a license. It has been this way for decades. I have no idea if that law is fair or just or not. But I understand that it’s weird that anyone can just sing your song that you made up out of your head. I have felt weird when people tell me that they’ve been playing my songs without me. I get that. It is weird.

But music – particularly folk and pop music – has this interesting quality of becoming part of the public imagination once it’s released into the world. I mean, with folk music, that’s kind of the point. Folk doesn’t just mean a conversational voice over a pleasant acoustic guitar. Folk music is so called because it is for the folk. It is Woody Guthrie playing for Okie migrant camps. It is Pete Seeger sailing a boat down the Hudson River, singing, to convince Congress to clean up the polluted river. It is Odetta singing at the March on Washington after being introduced by Martin Luther King, Jr. The song “We Shall Overcome” was the soundtrack of the civil rights movement and has continued to bubble up whenever there is need, like a couple of weeks ago when, heartbreakingly, the Virginia Senate voted down the ERA. Folk music is meant to travel. It is meant to move from person to person to form a collective voice.

I mean, I love a finger-picked acoustic sound as much as the next person (probably more) but the real power of folk is its place in a collective. That’s how pop music can slide into folk sometimes. The crowd singing “Don’t Look Back in Anger” after the Manchester bombings transformed Oasis’ pop hit into folk music. And it is tremendously moving to see/hear. Are the guys from Oasis models of indie folk generosity? Hardly. But I thought REDACTED was. I mean, her music functions as folk music for me. But I’m sure for her, it feels more personal. Like, those are her friends she’s singing about, her life. It must be weird to have other people sing them. Granted. I’m pretty sure, though, that trolling someone who loves your songs is not the way to address that weirdness. It is a pretty good way to lose a fan, though.

I’ve always been a folkie. I come from folkie folks. I come from a place where people getting together to play music is a regular event. I grew up in a world where people traveled with instruments and might pull them out at any moment. I sang around a lot of campfires and in living rooms and porches. For me, that’s where music really thrives.

Where I live now, though, we don’t really have the space for that. There are no porches to gather on and few public spaces where a group of people might pull out a guitar or a concertina and shake the night. With so much privatization of public space happening these days, it gets harder and harder to gather. If I want to sing in public, I have to book a gig. And unless I can guarantee that 30 people will turn up for that gig, I probably won’t be able to do that. I can’t guarantee more than a handful of people so I play by myself in the living room for the new public commons, the Internet. It has felt like this is where the folk are and so in solidarity, I’ve been singing songs that are my folk music.

But the Internet is not a boxcar or a union meeting. It is not a rally or a protest. I know.

Even before this dispiriting phone call from REDACTED, I was thinking about how the digital landscape just flattens everything out, how music is mostly just aural wallpaper for cafes and supermarkets or background for videos now, how it makes me feel acutely, even though I intend for these songs to help rally the resistance, it is all just background noise, that despite all this social media, we are less engaged with each other, less able to share our art, less connected.

And I can understand the frustration an artist like REDACTED might feel – with the means of distribution all flattened out like this – anyone with a computer and a microphone can have their music next to someone who’s spent their entire life in the music industry. I mean – how is anyone going to know that “REDACTED” is her song, not mine?

I’ve got liner notes that make such things clear but in the digital music landscape, authorship is completely inconsequential. There is no way to indicate what is original and what is cover. In the old days, an album’s notes would contextualize something like what I’ve just released. But while I made album covers with liner notes – there is nowhere to put those notes in any of the digital distribution channels. There is nowhere to put any of that information.

And while that may be all fine and good for actual folk music – for folks at a campfire or at the rally – authorship and artistry are important and need to be recognized. Musicians, writers, producers, everyone disappears into a digital file. Everyone disappears into the background. Everyone becomes wallpaper.

PART 2

The thing of it is, REDACTED is pissed at the music industry. With good reason. The music industry is imploding and horrible for women. (More on that in a minute.) But I am not the music industry. I’m an indie artist who makes art. I make lots of different stuff but this last year, among other things, it was music. And after all these years of people asking when they’d hear me sing again, I figured I’d just go ahead and share the stuff I was singing at home.

I think Jaron Lanier was right about musicians being the canaries in the coal mine of the future. He said to watch closely what happened to musicians and journalists as they would show us what the rest of the middle class would be in for. In the big data transformation that our culture has been seized with, “content” gets disconnected from its creators and things that travel through digital space, even when they become viral, don’t necessarily credit or remunerate the creators. Musicians are the canaries in the coal mine of a nameless faceless data mine – and REDACTED may be a great example of what happens to those canaries.

I wouldn’t presume to know what happened to her during her time in the arms of the music industry. But I know that the industry generally chews women up and spits them out. Since the 80s, most women singer-songwriters, if they have a hit, it’s one and then they’re done. Maybe you get a second one, if you’re lucky but mostly, women in this genre get embraced for a minute and then chucked out the door. And I have to wonder if the toxic atmosphere of multi-national conglomerates trying to control your creativity (and probably your body as well) made for a particularly toxic coal mine that led to REDACTED’s very public psychotic break a few years ago.

I’m thinking it might have gone like this: right, here’s the coal (that’s the recording industry) and here’s the canary (REDACTED, watching the industry erode, implode, become data driven and more corporate) and in the coal mine, the canary starts going crazy – because, toxic fumes, man, and everyone goes, “Hey! That canary’s going nuts! Probably there’s something wrong with the canary! Let’s get rid of it and get another one in here.” But it’s the fumes, man, the data driven fumes. The sexist fumes. Or maybe this particular canary just happens to be particularly crazy.

But I digress. Because I’m not even IN the coal mine, folks. I’m just a canary singing in a tree because it makes me feel better and I had hopes that it might make a few other people feel better too. And I sure feel bad for my sisters inside – but also a tiny bit envious because they’re the “important” ones, the ones with awards and recognitions and record sales.

The thing that’s breaking my heart about this is that REDACTED is likely attacking me because so many of her avenues have been closed. Since she seems surprised by this Loudr thing, it would seem that no one else has requested licenses from her before. That means a struggling artist in Queens is the only one that wants to play her songs. Or at least the only one who paid for the rights to do so.

She’s punching down because she’s gotten nowhere in punching up. She’s been flying around the coal mine, going crazy and the miners swat her away – so she goes after the first free canary that comes into view.

Aside from my parents, a handful of friends and some guys in Sweden (Spotify stats are so wild) no one cares about the music I just put out. Like – really. No one really cares. And that is a pretty normal experience for me. Pretty much those same people come to my shows or read my work. It’s normal for me to fly around the margins and have only a handful of people notice. Ironically, the person most interested in me was the person harassing me. I’ve never been tweeted at so much.

Would I like more recognition? Of course I would. For just about any of the many things I do. But I have, for decades, operated at the invisible edges of things and I have made peace with that. I do it even though no one is asking for it.

What’s harder for me to reconcile than the world’s general indifference to me is how no one cares what REDACTED is doing either. Like – someone with her history and experience and recognition should not be calling me herself. She should have people for that. If Paul Simon didn’t like me recording his stuff (yes, he got $27.30 in preliminary royalties, just like REDACTED) he for sure would have his lawyer call. Or his agent. Or anyone. Paul Simon would not call me up to tell me he was about to raise hell. Probably, if he didn’t like it, he’d talk to his lawyer about it and when he heard it was all perfectly legal, he’d forget about it and go back to relaxing in his chair made of money.

So it’s bracing to realize that someone I once admired has been sent to the same margins I’ve occupied all this time. How is it possible that I have more Twitter followers than her? (Probably the bots. Also – activism.) But also – how is it possible that someone with name recognition making a stink has no real impact? When I initially told my friend about this call, he joked that his inner PR person was thrilled. “What could be better for your album than a famous person making a ruckus about it?”

But, despite REDACTED retweeting my blog and Patreon links and lord knows what else (I don’t know, I muted her,) it has had no impact whatsoever. No one has clicked her links. No one retweeted her. She’s shouting into the void, just like me.

And if it were just her and just me, I might not have all this to say now. But it isn’t. Everyone is shouting into the Internet and only a few are heard. I have been stunned to see tweets from national organizations, with millions of members, with no likes on their tweets. To be heard, either with music, or activism, or art of any kind, you need a giant algorithm behind you. You need millions of people to like your tiny donkey videos, you need the data driven winds to blow your way.

You need 30 people to play a gig in New York City and you need a million people to follow you to make a living in music. Luckily, I’m not really trying to have a full-on music career. (I have other arts to struggle mightily against in this way.) But I am incredibly sad that there is no middle space for music anymore, that a brilliant artist can disappear, or go crazy, or slip away into the void.

One of my principle skills as an artist is an adaptability to inhospitable arts climates. If a door closes, I slide over to the window. When the window closes, I’ll go out the cracks. If I can’t get a gig, I’ll play in my living room. I don’t give up. I get discouraged, of course. But I just try another way when things get crazy. And last year things got really crazy, did they not? So I decided I’d record it all because I really wasn’t sure what else to do for me or my people.

I listened to funk and blues and I played folk. For the folk.

PART 3

The funny thing about all this is how entirely resistant to the idea of recording I used to be. My former bandmates could tell you how hard it was to convince me to record our album back in 2001. I had a theatre-maker’s preference for art that burst into being for a moment and then disappeared like a firework. I also felt that if the recording wasn’t perfect, I didn’t want it out in the world, haunting me. But somehow, now that recordings no longer need to live on a physical object like a CD or a tape – they are a bit more ephemeral. A recording can both live forever and disappear into the vastness of the internet. A recording can be both permanent and impermanent all at once. I somehow flipped some switch in my mind that allows me to imagine that digital recordings can have the evanescence of theatre. Or maybe in my later years, I just value authenticity and immediacy more than perfection. Each record is really just a document of the moment I recorded it in.

Ever since I went to the Grammys, I have been thinking about a line in ani difranco’s song “Fuel.” It goes, “People used to make records as in a record of an event, the event of people making music in a room.”

Now no one even makes records, we make digital downloads. Just like your PDF from work or the photo from the party. Everything is flat. Everything is a digital download.

So my attempt to share the music I recorded at home one day is sitting in the same basket as the multi-billion dollar corporation’s property. That is, one of the three major label’s artists. (Yes, we’re down to three. And only one of them was the big winner at the Grammys.) And there are mechanisms in place to push the big guy’s “properties” forward and silence others.

I’m not trying to be seen by the big guns. I don’t think I have it in me to sell my soul to the corporate engine. Would I like to make a living wage from my art? Like ANY part of it? Like music or theatre or fiction or any of it? Of course I would and if there’s a way to recoup the cost of sharing all of it, I would like to. But I don’t think I’m suited to having a corporate boss. So ultimately, I just wanted to share a little bit of indie folk punk raucous spirit with anyone who needed a dose of it the way I did.

It is heartbreaking that THE inspiration for sharing it is also the person trolling me for it. I would have thought she would have understood. I would have thought that she could have taught me something about channeling righteous anger into folk pop anthems. And she did teach me – about thirty years ago when I first heard her music. She taught me that music could be by a campfire and out in in public. She taught me that women’s anger could sound great over a guitar. She taught me that you could sing about social issues and still be cool. That you could be folky and tough.

Part 4

Since I got that voicemail, I have been wrestling with how to reconcile all I got from her, all I learned, all I’m grateful for, with the person who would harass an artist like me. Some people advise killing your heroes (metaphorically, of course) and at times I have found it useful to think about. In this case, though, it’s a matter of my hero wanting to kill me. Not literally, of course. (Though doxxing does make me vulnerable to the nazis on Twitter.) It does rather feel like Superman went bad and is now going after Jimmy Olsen. And Jimmy Olsen has to be his own hero now. I have to be my own hero.

This seems to be a lesson that I keep having to learn. Every time I encounter an artist I looked up to, I find they are not who I imagined. Every time I meet that one lone artist who seems to do things in an original way, they disappoint me. And each time, I have to learn again that the time to look up is over and it has become time to be my own hero.

What I discovered this time around however, was that I am no longer alone in this. I discovered what a tremendous well of good will I have to draw from. My friends and family lovingly gathered around me when I felt under attack and I felt seen in a way I hadn’t before. I realized that a lot of people really do understand what I’m about and what I’m trying to do. A lot more people support that vision than I realized. It would appear that, though I often feel invisible, my values and intentions have been visible to my friends and family for some time.

And visibility is a major part of this story. In part, I have, historically, kept a fairly low profile in the flattened digital sphere out of fear of being attacked. The blog doesn’t have my name on it, for example. As a woman on the internet, I expect to be harassed, doxxed or dragged. I assumed the digital Nazis were going to come for me at some point or another. They’ve come for every other feminist I admire. But instead of Nazis, the call came from inside the house. It came from an indie feminist folk icon which somehow made it worse. But it also made me braver once I was through the worst of it.

*So why have I redacted this post? Why have I obscured the artist and her work at the center of it?
1) Because I don’t want my own visibility to be at the hands of another artist’s bad behavior. I’d really rather not have my name associated with hers in this way.
2) Because I think this artist is genuinely battling a mental illness. Googling her leads directly to many public accounts of concerning behaviors. Howard Stern thought she’d be a great guest in the middle of her public melt down. (Piers Morgan got her instead.) I just can’t get on board with adding to that exploitation of madness no matter how upset she made me.
3) If my folk are enjoying her songs on my albums, I don’t want to taint them. I, for sure, will never want to sing them again – so I’d rather leave those songs untouched by her behavior in the minds of my listeners.                                                                                           4) I may be braver now but I’m also not too keen on the harassment picking back up any time soon. I don’t want a stray google alert to mean the recommencement of the whole unpleasantness. She may read this. She may not. Probably not this far down though. So – better safe than fielding multiple mean voicemails a day. Just because I’m braver doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly lost my baseline conflict aversion.*

 

I made all this messy folk music for the people know me, who understand what I am trying to do, who have my back and will send me all the hugs and cute animal images I need when I don’t feel able to withstand the cruelties of the world. I’d rather have all those people in my life than my old heroes. My people are the folk and I will sing for any one of them whenever I am called upon. And as my therapist said, “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.”

You can help this canary keep singing for folk

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here.

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

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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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