Songs for the Struggling Artist


My Respect Was Yours to Lose, or, Why Radiolab Broke My Heart a Little

When I first heard Radiolab, almost a decade ago, I was entranced. I’d never heard anything like it before and it was thrilling radio. Whenever it came through my podcast feed, it was the first thing I’d listen to, before any of my other programs. The episodes on Time and Music were as powerful for me as a good production of theatre. Their live show with Pilobolus WAS good theatre. It was a better show than most theatre I see. I loved Radiolab so much, I wished more people listened to it so I could describe one of my theatre practices using it as a reference.

I tell you all this fangirl stuff so that you know where my love for these guys began. And where it is now. In recent years, Radiolab episodes often languish in my podcast feed – partly because other podcasts have replaced it in my affections but also because it has changed. Listening to it was once like listening to art – a blend of sound, music and story – a series of factual short stories in an art wrapper. Lately, it’s become  like every other well-produced podcast in my feed – journalistic, professional – with up to the minute and historical stories. It’s still well crafted and well-considered – but I don’t NEED to listen to it the way I used to.

I don’t begrudge the guys who do Radiolab their new developments. I fully respect that artists change and follow their own interests. A good artistic practice demands that willingness to change. Artists are lucky if our audiences come with us on these journeys.

If this were just about that shift, about this particular audience member losing interest, I probably wouldn’t be writing this – but I’ve now had an experience with Radiolab that puts this all in a new light for me.

My friend and I went to a live taping of a show/debate about the First Amendment for the More Perfect show, which is their spin-off about the Supreme Court. To explain what happened, I’ll just include the message I sent to them about it.

Dear Radiolab –

I’m a long time fan of the show and a fan of the new spin off, too. I was at the debate last night and had some thoughts.

When Jad declared the winner of the first debate based on audience response, my friend leaned in and whispered, “They didn’t win. They’re just louder.” I nodded vehemently. A group of guys came in loud and they finished loud and the whole conversation last night struck me as highly gendered.

Since this is a show you’re still working on, I just wanted to raise this issue in the hopes that you might be able to consider the gender dynamics of the questions. When the show began, we were encouraged to be loud, to make noise, to boo and hiss and so on and some of the crowd, the mostly white male 1st Amendment enthusiasts were happy to oblige.

This felt like the beginning of a gender bias tilt in the evening. Some context: Women have been socialized to not do any of these things in public space so even if we have been given permission, we are still hyper-alert as to whether we are in a safe space to do so. From the beginning of the evening, it was clear that we were not in such a safe space. To even risk applauding in the face of the very deep voiced enthusiasm for being able to say whatever you want was too much for many of the women around me.

And here’s the thing – I’m pretty agnostic in this conversation. I’m still working out what I think – but I found myself trying to make noise on the other side of the 1st Amendment cheerleaders just to try and find some balance.

It’s pretty easy for a white man to be in full support of the 1st Amendment. White men tend not to be victims of abuse or vulnerable to hate speech. (At least not until they start to speak out for those that are.) After last night’s debate, I wondered if all hardline 1st Amendment people were white men. I know that can’t possibly be the case – but there was such a bro atmosphere on the topic, even with a woman debating their side, that I became concerned that any support of unfettered free speech must suggest extreme white male privilege.

I’d love to hear another perspective on your show when you air it. If you listen to W. Kamau Bell’s conversation with Lee Rowland (from the ACLU) on Politically Reactive, for example, you’ll hear a far more nuanced and sensitive perspective on free speech. Can you get her for your show? Or talk to Malkia Cyril at the Center for Media Justice?

I understand the appeal of the boxing match/debate experience (it probably feels entertaining to some) but it wasn’t a fair fight. For those of us who feel particularly vulnerable to attack, for whom the threat of on-line abuse often keeps us out of those spaces, the debate felt like yet another public space that women weren’t really welcome or comfortable to participate in.

As a long time listener of the show, I know you all to be thoughtful and considerate interviewers, investigators and curiosity seekers – so the tenor of this experience was surprising to me. This is why I think it’s worth letting you know about the experience of some of the unheard voices in your audience.

Thank you so much for your work. It means a lot to all of us. I’m just hoping you might be able to make this show, um, more perfect, as it were.

Respectfully,

Emily

Finding contact information was more difficult than I would have expected. On the first platform where I could find contact information, I received no reply. I sent it again through another channel – no reply. Not even an auto-response, like, a “Thank you for your message.” Nothing.

I really expected better of them that’s why I bothered to write them a letter. (This is not something I’ve done before, really.) I expected better of the show and I expected a better response to my hopes for a more inclusive conversation. But my letter was ignored. And so, I assume, were my concerns. And now that I find myself dismissed, I’ve started to re-examine some assumptions I made about the show in general. I assumed they’d WANT to create a more inclusive atmosphere because I wanted that to be true but now I’m not so sure.

Now that I’ve seen the show that I saw and gotten no response to my letter, I start to listen to the show in a different way. I used to hear two charming intellectuals bantering about ideas. Now I hear two white dudes needlessly scrabbling. I used to hear a kind of playful playground of curiosity. Now that I recognize that I’m not welcome on that playground – those games look a lot less fun. I listen differently now. Now I’m looking for how I misread the scene. I’m looking for sexism that I missed (I don’t tend to miss much. I’ve got a well-honed sexism radar.) I search for where I misread the signals of inclusivity, how I could have thought this space might have made space for me.

My experience with this show is a little like having accidentally walked into a frat party and seen your professor and your TA getting drunk and hitting on the grad students. It’s, like, technically fine, I guess – since everyone’s adults but – just, gross, man, it’s just gross. And now you won’t be able to think of anything but that frat house whenever your professor and TA are lecturing.

Anyway – that show about the First Amendment has come out now and I just can’t make myself listen to it. Not listening to it allows me to believe that maybe they took my thoughts on board, even if they didn’t let me know. But I really doubt they did. Given what I saw and felt that night, I really doubt it.

Here’s another thing that happened that night, a moment that made me feel like I had to write that letter initially and that I had to say something now that I’ve been ignored. That is, in the final round, the host, Jad, phrased the debate question in such an incredibly biased way that no one could assent to it, making it seem as though that side had lost in a landslide. Every woman around me sort of shook her head, like, uh…no. And I shouted. I don’t shout. But I shouted to the host, something like, “Could you rephrase that?” I pushed past my own discomfort with the power dynamics and the way the room felt to insist on a modicum of respect for the people who held that view.

Afterwards, quite a few women thanked me for speaking up. And I understood that I had to speak up then and that I had to speak up afterwards. I guess I’m a person who shouts now. Now I say something. Even when it’s a seemingly small detail.

And while I’m sad that a show I once loved disappointed me, being disappointed like this is not a unique experience for me. A lot of us women will give men we admire the benefit of the doubt. We will stretch ourselves to make them right, because we admire them. In this case, the Radiolab men had a lot of admiration to buffer them but once the shine comes off, once the scales fall from our eyes, well… we will give you a chance. But then that’s it. The stretching to accommodate your genius is over. And we will shout if we have to. We’re shouters now. We will shout. .

 

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Single Gender on a Train

On the Politically Reactive podcast, the guest, Michael Skolnik, described being on the train coming home from the Women’s March in DC. He said he’d never been on a train “where there’s such a disproportionate amount of one gender.” And I said, out loud, in response, “I’m sure that’s not true.” That is, I’m sure he’s been on the train with a single gender before, it just wasn’t women and so he didn’t notice.

Why do I feel so sure he’s been on a train or in public somewhere with only men? Because most public space is male space. Because I have been the only woman on a train more times than I can even begin to count. Any woman who spends time in public has had this experience – and when it happens to us – we get very alert, very quickly. Being the only woman on a train full of men is normal – especially after a game or late at night and most of us will do a fairly quick complex assessment of the danger levels of being in a car full of men. We know we’re surrounded in just the same way Skolnik felt very attuned to being surrounded by women. The thing is – that happens very rarely. And there are a lot of good (and by good, I mean legitimate and clear, not good) reasons for that.

First, it’s historical. There have been any number of diatribes against women ever showing their faces in public. In some places, if you were “public women” you were prostitutes. That is, any woman in public is suspect.

As soon as women start gathering, the wheels of patriarchy start really grinding. It’s how we get witch trials and hysteria epidemics and such. Oppressive movements almost always rely on the idea of women staying out of the public eye, being at home, where she “belongs.” From Rousseau to Phyllis Schlafly, the retiring, natural home-maker is encouraged to remain by the hearth, to never gather with other women in public places, to never venture forth without her husband or father. Soraya Chemaly’s talk on space illuminates the sense that the world is designed by and for men, even women’s restrooms.

And there is another factor, there’s the safety factor – that women in public face harassment, or worse, when they venture forth. Danielle Muscato recently asked women what they’d do if men had a 9 o’clock curfew and the answers revealed how unsafe many women feel in public and how much the world would change if men were safely home in bed by 9. It’s an interesting thought experiment.

For myself, my life wouldn’t change too dramatically if men had a curfew. A lot of the things woman said they’d do I do already. But – I live in a city and cities have always provided a safer haven for women, especially in public. (see Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies) I notice, when I travel, that I am a lot more unusual as a woman traveling on my own. In smaller cities and towns, when I go to coffee shops, I often find myself the only woman. That almost never happens in New York. I wonder if one of the major divides between urban and rural is actually how much space women can occupy in public. I wonder if some of the hatred of Hillary Clinton was related to folks coming from places where women are more rarely seen in public. For me, I feel a very stark contrast when I travel from cities, where I am completely inconspicuous as a woman in public, to places where I am suddenly required to have a heightened sense of my femininity. There are endless public spaces that are de facto male only.

So, yes, it is powerful to see only a single gender on a train – but it is a very different experience for a man to be on a train car full of women than it would be for a woman to be on a train in a car full of men. Part of the power of things like the Women’s March is that it brings women into public space and it makes it possible for the world to be re-imagined as a place where women really can do anything, like ride on a train without any fear at all.

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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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