Songs for the Struggling Artist


They Locked Up the Toothpaste

While she attempted to scrape the anti-theft sticker off my shampoo, the cashier at my pharmacy told me that there’d been a big shampoo heist. She figured they were selling the expensive stuff for double the price out on the street. Got to watch out for that hot shampoo! But I get it – the expensive stuff is very expensive and worth it, unfortunately. I asked her if they’d also had a toothpaste heist because I’d noticed that they’d locked up all the toothpastes. “Oh yeah,” she said, “They hit it hard.”

I can’t stop thinking about this. Because toothpaste is expensive, sure – at least more expensive than it should be – but it’s not so expensive as to have a black-market value. Toothpaste is the kind of expensive you don’t notice at all if you have money; You just throw it in your basket and forget about it. But if you’re struggling, toothpaste is the kind of expensive where you kind of can’t believe it. You think about all the other things you could get for that $6 – like, lunch, for example. If people are stealing toothpaste, the most likely explanation is that they’re poor and they want to keep their teeth clean. It is a sign of people trying to retain some dignity in a difficult situation. A toothpaste heist strikes me as being a sign of a deteriorating economic state.

I’d be curious to know if toothpaste was a kind of economic indicator, like they talk about on the Planet Money podcast – a small thing that reveals a truth about the bigger picture. It feels like an indicator to me. Because I’ve worked with a fair number of economically disadvantaged people and there are some things folks end up scrimping on that you wouldn’t think of if it weren’t your struggle. I had a student who got teased all the time by his fellow middle school students about smelling bad. When his classroom teacher investigated, she discovered that his folks were trying to save money on laundry detergent. Laundry detergent might also be an indicator, come to think of it. But that kid’s teeth were brushed!

Having the toothpaste locked up feels almost apocalyptic, especially now, here at the other side of the first (metaphorical) pandemic earthquake. Like, we got through the last year and now we’re getting vaxxed and things are opening back up – but it’s still so bad for folks that they have to steal toothpaste. They’ve stolen so much toothpaste that the pharmacy has started treating it like expensive shampoo, but even worse than the shampoo because it’s behind glass, not just slapped with an alarm triggering sticker.

I don’t run a retail business, so clearly I don’t know but it seems like – if I ran a place and the people were stealing toothpaste, I might just accept that as the kind of loss that benefits the people of the neighborhood I have my store in and not worry too much about it. But, these folks decided to lock it up. Which strikes me as kind of dumb. I have bought toothpaste at this pharmacy before but now that it’s locked up: rather than go through the trouble of finding someone to get a key and open it for me, I’ll just grab some from one of the many other places nearby that don’t put their toothpaste behind glass. It’s just easier. AND, maybe even more importantly, I feel better about those places and their attitude toward the poor of our neighborhood. I feel the same about the stores that have racist practices like this. There are businesses that lock up their hair products for Black people and not their equally expensive products for white people. I don’t go to those businesses – because they make their racism plain, on their shelves. And this feels like a similar kind of vibe. We don’t really have a word for prejudice or discriminating against poor people – but it might be useful if we did. Maybe it’s just raging capitalist? Corporate tool? Cruel economic essentialist? I don’t know – but whatever the word is, my pharmacy has just revealed itself to be that by locking up the toothpaste. Hey capitalists! Don’t lock up the toothpaste! Honestly, I’d rather pay more for toothpaste to help get some for those who are struggling. It’s for the common good.

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Theatre, Celebrities, Hope and What We’re Doing Now

Part of the reason I just went ahead and went full steam ahead with this podcast idea of mine a few months ago is that I thought, well, with all the theatres shut down, theatre journalists will have absolutely nothing to talk about – so maybe a little indie theatre company making work in the middle of this storm will suddenly be of interest. Maybe, I thought, this is our opening. We are, after all, still making theatre of a kind – even if it’s in solely audio form. Theatre lovers will want to hear it, I naively thought.

Turns out what theatre lovers want is celebrities. Turns out theatre lovers would rather watch cast reunion zoom meetings. They would rather gaze at Kristin Chenowith’s bookshelves than engage with some off-off Broadway something or other. Big companies would rather air the stuff in their vaults than point the way to smaller companies who may have already been working in the digital space. Theatre lovers would rather listen to a podcast of people talking about famous theatre than actually listen to theatre via podcast.

With all of theatre sitting on the sidelines, it has become incredibly clear who has been driving this bus the whole time and it isn’t the non-profit world or the fringe.

A collection of interviews about the future of theatre made the social media rounds among my theatre friends recently. And a lot of them found a great deal of hope and comfort in it. I can see why – there are a lot of people reading idealistic, formative texts like The Empty Space and thinking about how to boil theatre down to its essence. They are dreaming of a new and better theatre and I really hope that can be true – but I am incredibly skeptical. It’s not because I don’t believe it’s possible to do things differently; I 100% believe it is possible. The reason I’m skeptical is because it’s already not what’s happening. The funds and resources and attention are, for the most part, going to Broadway and celebrities and theatre celebrities. The National Theatre in England is asking for donations in sharing its work and getting them. Meanwhile, that is a publicly funded organization. So, we have a major, tax payer funded organization sharing its work internationally and raising money. Not to say that I’m not enjoying getting to see shows I couldn’t get across the ocean to see but an organization like that has a built-in audience, thousands ready to click on it and has already invested buckets of money in high quality filming of their work.

The digital space is being dominated by the winners in just the same way that our live space was. The winner take all philosophy has been ruling our theatre world for ages and given the way things are going digitally, it does not look likely to change. I’m glad people can be hopeful about it and that they’re re-reading Towards a Poor Theatre – but I can tell you, as someone who has been making theatre without many resources for the last two decades, resources are what make the difference.

It feels to me like folks are interested in a Poor Theatre Empty Space sort of world as long as they can have Patti LuPone in it. They want to make “poor theatre” but with all the usual rich ones. (Not that I wouldn’t get a kick out of seeing LuPone in some freaking experimental basement empty space production. I would.)

And, of course, I started writing this piece before American theatre really started reckoning (or, in many cases, pretending to reckon) with its racism and watching that continue to unfold might give me a kind of hope, except I have yet to see any particularly profound shifts. Everyone is saying, “We’ll do better when we get back.” But I don’t see a lot of people doing better now.

Look, I know there is no theatre right now. But a lot of places still have budgets and are still paying their (mostly white male) artistic directors while their artists are unemployed. There are things to be done. Instead of writing up toothless diversity statements, maybe they could commission some BIPOC writers to create some new work or hire some BIPOC directors and designers to begin pre-production work on a socially distanced show of some kind. I know there’s no theatre. But I’m a tiny theatre company with a four figure budget; If I can figure out how to make something, I know that the million dollar organizations can, too.

I have yet to see a leader in American theatre do anything even remotely close to what the guy from Reddit did and actually give up some of their own power. It’s all well and good to write a diversity statement but it’s meaningless without action – and action is actually still possible even though theatre as we’ve known it is still on lockdown. What we do now is a clear reflection of our values and interests. If all we’re promoting are celebrities on Zoom, then that is what will we have upon our return to the stage. What we nurture will grow and it’s become clear to me that celebrity, even just theatre celebrity, is what drives the clicks so it is what is driving our theatre. I get it. I like clicks, too.

So – I have a solution. We just gotta lean in to it. If celebrities want to help and “take responsibility” like they said in that video, then let’s do that. Let’s give every major theatre a celebrity sponsor. And that celebrity sponsor lends their name and their platform to the show and pays for it. They pay for the BIPOC writer and director and cast and they get to say, “Julia Roberts presents” over the title but that’s it. The theatre gets the celebrity boost, the clicks and the cash to make sure they actually keep their freaking promise to produce more work by BIPOC artists.

Or – and this will be a lot easier to get going – we go ahead and start promoting the BIPOC artists and work that’s already being done right now.

Or – and this is the one that I know that nobody’s going to do – all the white folks who’ve been leading our major institutions all these years and drawing six figure salaries and above, can quit those jobs and name BIPOC successors, preferably artists, who can run those institutions in their place. And it’d be okay with me if we just broke those big institutions up and just funded a bunch of artists instead. The buildings aren’t doing anyone any good at the moment.

But that’s me dreaming. I know how unlikely it is that change that dramatic could shift what’s happening. It’s never been more clear how the theatre business has actually worked thus far and it is rather dramatically a winner take all world.

The way things are now, theatres that survive this will be the ones who can suck up the most resources. The ones who can survive long enough to grab all the funding that might be left in a year will be the winners. And maybe those of us who are used to making things with a cardboard box and a piece of string will survive, too.

Cardboard and string have gotten us this far without resources – maybe there’s hope for us, too. I don’t know, though. I would love a more meaningful theatre climate but based on what’s happening right now, I think we’re looking at a future of Google, The Musical and Amazon! The Story of Jeff Bezos! And it is unlikely to move a single one of us.

The Theatre Development Fund is raising money, not to develop theatre, but to keep itself afloat. There are currently no grants for making things, just grants to cover rents and administrators for our big buildings. Those who are innovating in new venues are unfunded. What we do now is what we will do in the future. If we want a more accessible, open theatre when we return, we can’t just hope for it. We have to be working toward it now. We’re in the middle of a good conversation, where artists and freelancers are finally feeling free to tell some of the truths about working at these big institutions but until there is actual action, with actual resources, until someone with power hands some of it over to someone without it, we’re just doing things the same old way. We can’t just hope that when we come back things will be different. We have to make it different. It’s already started. It’s already happening. We have to make it different now.

I keep thinking about this passage from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark:

“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”

Now is the moment to give ourselves to the future.

One of the most inspiring theatre things I’ve seen during this time is the Virtual Toy Theatre Festival by Great Small Works. Someone give those folks a pot of money please! (This is a toy theatre from the olden days.)

 

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist.

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

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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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You’re Late. I’m Late. Let’s Get to Work.

Warning: This post has got a lot of swears in it. And it’s kind of a mess. But aren’t we all?

I don’t know what to say right now. We’re in a revolution which was long overdue and I feel invigorated and glad that changes are already being made in some way in some places. I also feel terrified and alarmed by the power of the police state which is acting out in the worst possible of fascist ways all over the country and particularly in my city.

The NYPD used terrorist tactics and ran their SUVS right into a crowd of protestors and our motherfucking useless-ass pseudo-progressive mayor, who ran on a platform of stopping this horror-show policing, defended them. In Charlottesville, town of my birth, a few short years ago, a white supremacist terrorist murdered a woman and injured many more doing this same thing. That guy was convicted and sentenced for the murder he committed.

Here in this police state of New York City, we got a curfew instead of arrests of those SUV cops. This curfew allows the police to arrest anyone at their pleasure as soon as the sun starts going down. Last night in the Bronx, they penned in a group of protestors twenty minutes before curfew and then proceeded to pepper spray and beat them before arresting them. They took them in hot crowded transport to a whole different borough in the middle of this pandemic. And all of this is just the tip of the fucking iceberg.

Am I stirred up about it? You bet. We need these cops off the streets immediately. Like, now. Their unfettered violence needs to end. There are so many activists who have been working on this stuff for ages and sure, we should have been helping them before and we’re late but we can still pitch in.

I keep thinking about how whenever I’ve been late to a rehearsal, say, and everyone’s super pissed that I’m late and I feel bad that I’m late but at a certain point, we just have to let it go and get to work. I don’t decide to give up and go home just because everyone’s mad I’m late. And we can’t waste any more time talking about how late we are.

I feel like right now I’m seeing a lot of my white friends wringing their hands and self-flagellating and you know, sure, you’re late. You didn’t get it before. You didn’t understand what Black Lives Matter was actually trying to tell you. So -you’re late and some people are pissed at you for being late. I’m late, too. Or maybe I was on time (I retweeted some of the first BLM tweets, that makes me on time, right? Didn’t I show up on time? My god, it’s so embarrassing how much I want to have been on time.) but I failed to learn my lines or bring my props. (I didn’t put my body on the line or call my reps.) In any case, we’re all fucking late and people have a right to be pissed off about it. But now it’s just time to go to work.

Interestingly, I’m noticing that my friends and family in Charlottesville aren’t doing quite as much handwringing as the rest of the country and protests there have gone smoothly, without incident. It feels to me, from 500 miles away at least, that Charlottesville having gone through the reckoning of 2017, has learned that it just needs to get down to work. And that statue of Robert E Lee that was the beacon that summoned all those white supremacists will likely finally come down. The bad guys there gave up their dumb campaign. The governor ordered a similar statue removed in the capital. There’s hope in there. There’s hope in a lot of things. And some of it is complicated as hell.

For example, here in NYC, we have these things on the streets that Google paid to have installed. We call them Propaganda Sticks because they broadcast messages and images 24-7 and are also surveillance devices. Before I stopped being able to touch my face, when I passed one, I touched my nose in the classic gesture of “I know what you’re up to.” If I was going to be caught up in a surveillance net, I wanted them to see me seeing them do it.

I would not be surprised to have confirmed that all the cute little trivia and art that shows up on them is just there to make people look at it, so they can get better facial recognition data. As you can see, I am not a fan of the propaganda sticks. I’m concerned about all the ways they could be used for ill. I don’t trust Google not to be evil just because they once had a catchphrase reminding them not to do it and I don’t trust New York to protect anyone’s privacy.

This week, the propaganda sticks are slowly just flashing the names of people who have been murdered by police around the country. It’s a black screen with each person’s name in white. And even though I hate those propaganda sticks, it’s actually very moving and we thought the sticks had maybe been hacked by an activist group, which would have been cool. They have been hacked in many interesting ways before. But, no, it’s an official LinkNYC thing. But even so, it’s moving. I about lost it in the street when Tamir Rice’s name went by. And then Eric Garner’s name came up. And on one hand, it is amazing that the city is broadcasting an acknowledgement of these murdered people and on the other hand, this is the same city that allowed Eric Garner to be murdered by police in the first place and then did absolutely nothing about it for five years. You don’t get to have your death agents murder a man for selling cigarettes and then flash his name in protest like you had nothing to do with it. Is Eric Garner’s name flashing on the propaganda stick next to the police assembling their riot shields and teargas? It could be. And is that good? Does it remind them to do the right thing? Or does it just incite their violence further? Given what we’ve seen so far, I’d guess the latter. 

Everything is just intersecting right now and I’m not going to lie, I’m a little freaked out. The police state, the surveillance state, the capitalist state, the digital dominance.

A few years ago, I was in a café when everyone’s phones starting making alarming sounds all at once. It was an alert that a snowstorm was coming and I found myself disturbed by the reach of this alert. I worried this might be used for ill in the future. I could imagine a future when our proto-fascist “president” turned full fledged fascist and would broadcast his cruel messages to all our devices at once. Then this week, we got alerts that New Yorkers were under curfew and we had to be in by 11pm. The next day, there was another alert, declaring all New Yorkers needed to be in our homes by 8pm and it would last all week. Meanwhile, most of us have been stuck in our homes for two and a half months due to the virus. And that’s when I figured out how to turn off my alerts. (So if there’s a genuine emergency and not just our local government acting like dictators, please call me to let me know, as I have now opted out of state sponsored communication.) While protestors are able to track police using things like the Citizen app, the police are also able to track protestors through their phones.

Anyway – there’s another place to get to work – because wouldn’t you know, Black activists are vulnerable to being labeled “Black identity extremists” which is a thing the FBI made up to track Black activists and they are certainly using all the digital means at their disposal to surveil the people who have been doing such important work. There are layers and layers of awfulness and it can be overwhelming looking at a list of places you should donate to and when you don’t have many donation dollars, you might just throw up your hands and go home. I’m tempted to throw bricks at the propaganda sticks like this guy but I know that’s not productive and would, in fact, be destructive to the cause and also I’m late, I’m late, I’m late, so late.

So I’m gonna go donate to the Center for Media Justice to help them defend Black activists and end surveillance because I guess that’s something I can do about this digital concern I just discovered I am especially worried about as I write this. And then, just, you know, I’ll get to work on more stuff, too, one thing at a time. Even if I’m late and everyone’s mad. I’m late. You’re late. A lot of people are late. Let’s get to work.

You want to look at that, right? Look, they put nice art on it. It says it’s Art to the People! You like that sort of thing. Just look another second…there! They got your face. But, ha! We’re all wearing masks now, so ha ha ha! Foiled the surveillance machine!

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

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Normally, in this space here,

I write some related line to suggest you become my patron on Patreon. 

But I’m skipping it today. Instead of asking for a tip, I’d love to suggest you donate to the Center for Media Justice or a Bail Fund or Nourish NYC which is getting food and supplies to protestors. 



Terry Gilliam in the Toaster Oven

“Mum! Dad! It’s evil! Don’t touch it!”
This is the final line of one of my all time favorite movies, Time Bandits. I loved Time Bandits as a child and in the many subsequent viewings of it, as an adult, it has not diminished in my estimation. It is a delightful film made by one of my favorite filmmakers.

And I didn’t just love Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, no. I also admired his Brazil, The Fisher King, and even his relatively unknown and under-appreciated, Tideland. Tideland is a deep cut in the Gilliam oeuvre and I was a big fan.

After reading his interview in The Independent, to say that I’m disappointed in him is a massive understatement. I’d heard he’d said some pigheaded garbage before but this was sustained pigheaded garbage. This was relentless pigheaded garbage.

As a feminist, I found it pigheaded enough to never want to hear from or see him again. I’d honestly prefer to have read his obituary than to have read his opinions on #MeToo. If it had been his obituary, I’d have cried and mourned the loss of his brilliant mind. As it stands, I guess I have to re-evaluate everything he ever made. Why, Terry Gilliam, why?!

Listen, he’s never been a particularly woman-friendly artist – but he hasn’t been actively terrible either. Sure, there are only a few women in Time Bandits but the main ones are Shelley Duvall and Katherine Helmond and they are remarkable. I didn’t mind that Time Bandits was a boy’s story. I really didn’t. It was perfect. The battle between Good and Evil, a test of the system, as it were, featuring an adorable kid and six hilarious thieves. But now that it’s clear that Gilliam has no idea that women are human, I’m going to have to sit in some discomfort. I don’t think I will love Time Bandits any less but I have to love it knowing the man who made it thinks that MeToo is a witch hunt, that Weinstein’s rape victims chose to be assaulted and that white men are the real victims here. The man who made some of my favorite films is basically an MRA. (Men’s Rights Activists are not actually activists for men. They’re the folks who bring us many violent acts against women and some incredibly toxic thinking.) Gilliam’s become like the chunk of pure burning coal sitting in the toaster oven at the end of Time Bandits. Poisonous and Vile. I’m finding it particularly difficult to reconcile.

It’s not as if I haven’t had to reconcile this sort of thing before. I could probably still recite whole Bill Cosby routines from his albums. I was a fan of Louis CK. I have appreciated some Roman Polanksi films. And, unlike those guys, we have no actual terrible deeds from Sir Terry. We just have his terrible thoughts. And his terrible thoughts suggest that he thinks my entire worldview is ridiculous. His terrible thoughts suggest that he has never thought of women as anything more than sex objects or archetypes. His terrible thoughts suggest that he thinks the systemic oppression of women and people of color are a joke. It breaks my Time Bandit loving heart.

It also strikes me as impossibly stupid. Because I am his fan base. I am his audience. And he just lost me. Who will go see his movie now? All of 4Chan? The darkest reaches of Reddit? The incel chat boards? Is that who he wants for his audience? I’m sure as hell not going to see his movie now and I’m sure I’m not alone in being suddenly very disinterested in what he’s made.

It matters what he says and thinks. If I’m going to go sit in a movie theatre and spend a couple of hours in the world someone created, I want to trust the mind of the person who made it. I wouldn’t go see a Brett Ratner or Bryan Singer movie. I no longer want to sit through the work of Woody Allen. The writer/director’s thoughts are intimately connected to the work they make. I know because I do those things onstage. If you don’t like how I think, you won’t like my creative work. How I think is intrinsic to how I make things. That’s true for most artists.

The upsetting thing about this Gilliam situation is not that Gilliam said some dumb shit and may now be canceled, it’s that he’s revealed himself to be the opposite of what I imagined him to be. Instead of a hero of creativity and bold imagination, he’s a stinky old dinosaur reinforcing the patriarchy. And he must have been all along, in such subtle ways, even I, who am very vigilant about these things, failed to sniff him out.

I have found myself re-evaluating much of his work through this newly revealed lens of his. I’m looking for the dark threads of misogyny and racism that must have been there all along before he laid them bare. I’m also working hard to somehow explain what feels inexplicable. I think, “Oh, he’s just trying to be funny. He’s enjoying being provocative. He’s purposefully sounding like an asshole because he enjoys making mischief. He is doing that classic buffoon style of clowning or something.” This is how I’ve explained away countless other asshole clowns but I don’t think it’s an in-the-past explanation that can fly anymore. I mean – it may explain the why but the why doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter why, in Time Bandits, Kevin’s parents reach in to the toaster oven after they are warned by their son not to. It doesn’t matter if they ignore his pleas to not touch the evil because they are contrary or because they always ignore him or because they think it’s funny. They reach in and touch the evil and the consequences are predictable.

Gilliam has surely been warned not to touch the evil in the toaster oven (he’s said some dumb things before) but in the end, he just couldn’t resist. To predictable and sad results.

But what does it matter? Why not just enjoy the films I used to like and forget about the man that made them? Well, it’s actually important that I look at this and not just forget about either Gilliam himself or his work. I have to dig in to some reflection on it because his work was so formative for me. I can draw a direct line from Time Bandits, from Gilliam’s sense of humor, from his aesthetic, to my own work. I can see the threads of his influence in a lot of my plays and fiction. I may have unconsciously interwoven some of the threads of his misogyny or racism along with his aesthetic. Unfortunately, learning what he really thinks about things means I have to be extra vigilant about the foundations of my own work. He was important to me when I was a child and has continued to be important. I can’t just brush off this development. It is a great loss and it will be a great project of reorganization. Even though it’s evil, I still have to look at it. I will not touch it, though! I know better than that!

Mum! Dad! It’s Evil! Don’t touch it!

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

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

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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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In Which I Get Myself F-ing Mad About the Roma movie

Both swearing and spoilers ahead. I’ll warn you before the spoilers. Consider yourself already warned about the swearing.

I really wasn’t mad about Roma while I was watching it. It was a quiet arty experience and I appreciated the cinematography and getting to see the very specific world it created (and perhaps documented). But I didn’t find it moving. I expected to. I brought a pocketful of tissues and I did not use a single one. Not that my tears are required for a moving experience. But I was oddly unaffected and I was trying to understand why.

So I did some googling and saw this cascade of articles declaring Roma to be a feminist film. That’s when I started to get mad. Sure, there are mostly women in the film and that’s really nice and all but crowing about it as a banner feminist film? Sorry. No. Now I’m mad about it.

Just putting women in your movie does not make it feminist. Having your movie declare that men are trash also does not make it feminist. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Feminism holds that men are equal with women (and vice versa of course) and, in fact, men are quite capable of being great (in other words, not trash). Feminism has had a bad reputation for being a man-hating ideology but in truth, it holds men to higher standards than the trash men are often accused of being. Demonstrating that men can behave badly and sometimes leave women to fend for themselves in the world men created is not a particularly feminist demonstration. It’s just something that happens. Feminism doesn’t flatter men or give up on them. It says, “You could do better and you should.” Which is how I felt about Roma.

If (SPOILER ALERT) when Cleo’s character got pregnant she’d been able to get an abortion, that would have been fucking feminist. Assuming Mexican abortion laws were restrictive at the time, there would still be ways to make that a more feminist movie. For example, if her employer had taken her to get an abortion where surely all the rich ladies got their illegal abortions, (because people with money always have more access to abortions even when they’re illegal) that would have been fucking feminist. Even if neither of those things were possible, a feminist film would have at least discussed the possibilities for dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Instead this film acted like everyone needed to be super happy about a baby no one wanted. And when that baby was born dead – we could maybe not, as an audience, have been put in a position to think, “Well, that’s probably for the best.”

I resent a film that made me feel relieved about a dead baby. Really. Come on. That’s why abortion needs to be fucking legal. Because no one wants to feel relief about a baby born dead. No one. Come on.

And then – at the end, the big fucking reveal is that she never wanted that baby in the first place? What the fuck? Of course, she didn’t. From the moment her boyfriend ditched Cleo in the movie theatre, we all knew she did not want that baby.

In addition to all the personal reasons that the baby was a bad idea, she could have lost her job. It’s clear a different employer would have fired her immediately. That pregnancy was a catastrophe long before it had a gun aimed at it. Somehow the movie pretends it’s not and somehow thinks that women wouldn’t talk about that.

Cleo is a sort of domestic saint, who always does the right thing, is always put upon. The pregnancy somehow makes her more holy. I kept expecting her to get martyred and I’m glad she survives the movie but I guess her declaring that she didn’t want that baby is meant to be an acknowledgement that she is not an actual saint? I don’t know – but domestic sainthood doesn’t rank high in my feminist book.

END of major SPOILERS – some very minor ones ahead:

This sanctification of a boy’s nanny appears to be a thing. I don’t know why boys who grew up with nannies feel the need to make art about them but they do and they seem to be these saintly loving self-sacrificing figures who endlessly give of themselves to help form genius young men. I’m thinking, also, of Tony Kushner’s much lauded musical, Caroline, Or Change, which has similar issues of a woman of color raising white children. Both Roma and Caroline, Or Change have been fictionalized but both creators make it clear that their work was based on their youth. They also both drive me up a fucking tree with their magical negro/magical Native American tropes.

Anyway, speaking of how Roma was based on Cuarón’s nanny, I highly doubt that the big fulfillment in Cuarón’s actual nanny’s life – the end of her story – was to be told that her charges loved her. I’m sure hearing what she meant to her employer’s children was very gratifying but the odds that his family never once drove her crazy and never once made her want to cry out in frustration or kick a hole through one of those glass doors – those odds are very low.

I’m super glad that Cuarón has introduced us to Yalitza Aparicio, who is an extraordinary indigenous actor and that this film got her an Oscar nomination and all that – but we never learned anything about the character she plays or where she’s actually from. The barest minimum we learn is that her village looks a bit like the countryside where they spent New Year’s Eve. Her indigenousness was inconsequential in the end and that feels like a real missed opportunity – especially when it feels like the only real purpose of the film is to tell us that some men can be trash sometimes. Yeah, we know.

Now, can we get some reproductive freedom for everyone?

I’m not saying the film’s not brilliant – the sequence of the father trying to park that whale of a car in his garage is as poignant a look at masculinity as I’ve ever seen. But lionizing Roma as a feminist film just makes this feminist fucking mad. No. Not all men are trash and not all movies about women are feminist. Fade out on ranting feminist.

photo by ProtoplasmaKid via WikiCommons

 

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Be Quiet. You’re Disturbing the Movie.

They were doing a screening of Roma in my neighborhood so I went. The theatre was dotted with audience members – so everyone sort of had a little bubble of space for themselves.

About two rows behind me sat two elderly Latino men. They were possibly the only Latinx people in the place. Once the movie began, they spoke to each other in Spanish. In a movie that is so much about atmosphere, their voices added to the experience. I was only sorry that my Spanish is not good enough to eavesdrop a little.

But some guy on the other side of their row was not happy about their conversation. He shouted at them to be quiet. His shouting was very jarring. And he did it again about ten minutes later. He was really mad about those old guys talking. The third time, he shouted “Be quiet. You’re disturbing the movie.” Which was ironic because to my mind, it was him who was disturbing the movie. (Also – it’s a movie. It doesn’t care what happens out in the audience. I think you mean the movie going experience.) I turned around to glare at him and of course he was a white guy. He was a white guy who was convinced he was being a white guy hero. However, I’m a white lady so I used my disapproving white lady glare to hopefully disabuse him of that position.

I don’t know if it worked or it didn’t work. He shut up after that. If it was my glare, I wish I’d used it sooner. And I don’t know if I ought to have said something to the shouter who was disturbing the movie by declaring the movie disturbed, I somehow didn’t feel like more white people shouting would help the situation.

But I did find it ironic that this white guy had decided to come to this movie about a working class Latina and did not want his experience disturbed by actual (I’m assuming) working class Latinos in the theatre. It felt a bit like all the folks who love tacos and nachos and celebrate Cinco de Mayo but are fine with separating Latinx children from their parents at the border.

It’s all of a piece, it feels to me. It is a control of the space, any space. This attempt to keep spaces like theatres and movie houses quiet and in control is an attempt to exclude, to state who is welcome and who is not. The attempt to dictate how we experience culture is generally classist if not explicitly racist. I’m thinking of that story I just heard on This American Life about a group of kids going to see a movie on a field trip and getting kicked out of the theatre because they had a visceral response to what they were seeing and no context for it. And the racism that they encountered on their way to their seats didn’t help either.

I’m particularly sensitive to this because of my previous work as an arts educator wherein it was my job to prepare students for whatever they were about to see in a theatre or on a screen. Performers loved our audiences because they were vocal and responsive. But if they were ever mixed in with a general audience, the general audience became a problem. It’s almost as if we ought to have been leading workshops for the adults in how to be less classist, racist or uptight before we let them watch a show with a bunch of kids. (Watching shows with bunches of kids is great. People should pay extra to do it.) The kids generally just need a little context and a heads up about stuff that’s going to be new for them. Adults usually need far reaching lessons in cultural imperialism.

In the end, back at Roma, I was more interested in what the two old guys thought of the movie than the movie itself (that’s another post, coming soon) and I definitely hoped to never have to see (or more importantly, hear) Mr. White Savior again – especially at the movies. He very definitely disturbed that movie for me.

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These Ads Aren’t Helping

The first one I saw just made me roll my eyes and say, “Of course,” in classic Gen X style. The ad features an illustration of a white haired woman with a bag of Whole Foods-like groceries next to a red haired woman carrying a plant with a small figure between them. I thought it was a baby the first time I saw the ad but it turns out it’s a little dog. (In a spacesuit?)

The tagline is “Whether you’re a boomer or a millennial, we’ve got a seat for you.”

Implied tagline?

And Gen X – You Can Go Fuck Yourself.

I mean. Classic Gen X erasure. I was going to Tweet it but someone already beat me to it. This is the most dominant Gen X media experience now – just noting when we get left out. It seems to have become our primary pop culture meme. Anyway – all I know about the company that made this ad is that they have no Gen Xers on staff.

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Then I noticed their OTHER ad on the subway. It features two white men in suits – one with a blue tie and one with a red. They are cheersing one another with coffee and the tagline reads: Whatever your politics, we’ve got a seat for you.

I’ll give you a second to think about this ad and to guess why it made me angrier than the Gen X erasure of the first one. Just take a second. It took me a second to really take it in.

I’ll give you a hint. It is ALSO about who is missing. I mean – look – I know that when I say “politician” you probably picture a white man in a suit. These two douchebags in the back of their Via car cheersing their coffees are exactly who most people picture – consciously or unconsciously when they picture the political landscape. To some people (including the people who made this ad) the whole political situation is just a jovial game – a friendly competition between white men who wear different color ties. Meanwhile, the rest of us are fighting for our lives and the lives of those more vulnerable than ourselves. And the absolute fiercest fighters right now are women.

The press fawns over the men in their ties while the women, laying out substantive policies and ideas are given significantly less coverage.

So these two illustrated douchebags who can agree on one thing – coffee and ride sharing – are not cute. They’re re-enforcing again – as has it been for so long – that politics is for the boys. And white boys specifically. And you know, right now is a really terrible moment to do that. It’s not great at any time but right now, Via? While we watch the white men in ties take the lead in polls over all the qualified, interesting, exciting women candidates? You wanna show me how it’s possible for two privileged white men to get chummy in your car service? Just – you know – why don’t you take the implied message you sent to Gen X in your other ad and go fuck yourself.

This company, by choosing to reinforce the historical, patriarchal norm, while they are claiming to be for everyone, is making the most conservative backwards choice they could make and also reveals that, in addition to not having any Gen Xers on staff, they probably don’t have any people of color or women in decision making positions either.

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One Woman’s Dystopia Is Another Man’s Utopia, I guess.

The day that Frat Boy McRapeFace was confirmed to the Supreme Court, when my dining companion asked me what I wanted to eat, I said Senator Grassley’s heart. Not that I’m 100% sure Grassley has one, but assuming there’s at least a little dried up something there, I would like to take a big bite of it then spit it out on the Senate floor.

I’m a little bit upset, I guess you could say. Earlier in the day, I watched the police mobilize and prepare to arrest the women who were protesting on the steps of the capital on the Women’s March livestream. I watched the police line up. I watched them strategize. The troops were mostly men in uniform with their zip tie cuffs – the protestors were mostly women, fully prepared to put their bodies between a rapist and the supreme court seat.

It was a stark illustration of who has authority and who does not. All day and all evening I tried not to sink into despair about the continuing kleptocracy in our country. It feels better to rage than to despair – but despair is close the surface. Living with corruption in every corner of the federal government is taking a bigger toll than I ever imagined.

Anyway – it was already hard. Then that night, at 1 am, these guys somewhere outside who had been indiscriminately yelling for a while started chanting some racist stuff. They chanted: (“F— you, Obama. F— you, Obama. F— you, n—-s.”) I was shocked. And terrified. I mean – I was safe in my apartment, of course. They were out there and I was inside and they weren’t coming for me. But groups of men engaged in hate like that are terrifying for a lot of us – even from a distance.

I felt like I’d stumbled into some horrific dystopian novel that I absolutely did not choose. I mean, I moved to NYC in 1999 and I have never heard anything like that anywhere before. I have heard people shout all kinds of hateful things at each other but never like that. And it felt like the events of the day had unleashed this horrific behavior that had somehow lain dormant, even these last couple of years. It was the final release valve, I guess. I went from fierce dragon to terrified maiden in a minute – not because I thought this pack of douchebags would come for me – but because so many of them have just been empowered – with no obvious check on their behavior. I later learned that that same weekend, hateful anti-immigrant posters had gone up all over Sunnyside, Queens. Were the perpetrators celebrating their racist postering back in my neighborhood? Was that their victory party? Or was that an entirely different group of racist douchebags? Then, too, similar propaganda popped up at liberal arts colleges, where, like in Queens, they are decidedly unwelcome. It all feels of a piece. The final release valve of douchebaggery has been let go. They can take their misdeeds all the way to the Supreme Court apparently.

Roving packs of douchebags have always run rough shod over America but any sense of consequence on their behavior has just been removed. That is why I cried my face off when I heard them across the courtyard.

But if they have been released, they have also been revealed. We know where those racists live. The GOP can no longer pretend to care about women. They can no longer get away with their Benevolent Sexist Protectionist bullshit. They have revealed their cards and they have hands full of bluffs. It is clear that the America they dream of is one where we let the white men do all the shouting and governing, where they can rape and rob with impunity, where consequences only exist for the rest of us. They remain the kings. The rest of us are only here to serve.

As I watched this vision of the future dystopia emerge, I wondered if this is really what they want. Is this the Republican dream? Maybe it is. Maybe white supremacists shouting in the middle of the night is utopia for them. Maybe a depleted environment full of polluted rivers and flattened mountain tops is their fantasy. Maybe all the dystopian stories we read, they see as utopias. The Hunger Games? A story of a pain-in-the-ass girl who disrupts a perfectly balanced authoritarian state. The Handmaid’s Tale? A manual for how to create and maintain a religious autocracy – disrupted by a woman who just won’t obey.

Their dream of America is my nightmare. In their dream, women lose all bodily autonomy, immigrants lose their children and only old rich white men have power and resources. Prior to the last couple of years, I would have thought that the holocaust was a universally dystopian time. But even that horrific hellscape was and is utopian for some.

And very probably my utopian dream for America would be a nightmare to them. In mine, women finally gain equality and have total ownership of their own bodies. Women are believed and respected. There is wage equality, racial equality, economic justice. In my America, people come together from all over the world and are welcomed. Trans people and people with disabilities are especially honored and cherished. We delight in diversity and put our resources in things like the arts and education. In my utopian America, we care for each other. We look out for the most vulnerable. We prioritize caring for the natural world.I know it won’t be easy to get there – especially now – but it does feel important to hold on to a kinder vision of the world I want to live in.

Kavanagh’s confirmation may have signaled to everyone, white supremacists and douchebags included, that we’re headed to that dystopian future. But maybe just, just maybe we can pull it back – to hold tight to a sense of possibility even as the racists and sexists emerge from under their rocks with celebratory screaming.

The thing of it is, a week later, I have figured out what I ought to have done. Instead of trembling and not sleeping for hours, I could have sung into the night. I had gotten all caught up in trying to come up with a scary sound – a dragon roar, a wolf growl – but my voice can be just as loud as the douchebags – particularly when I am singing. I’m sure my neighbors hear me singing all the time (though I try to pretend they don’t) and I know that in the same way that I know there’s an opera singer in an apartment nearby. I know she can be louder than those racist douchebags. What I’m trying to work out now is what exactly to sing in these dystopian situations. It feels key to sing something, if not for myself, then for all the people in my neighborhood who are more vulnerable to attack.

My first thought was to make up a song – something to call to my fellow women outside, something they could join me in singing. I found myself inventing a little ditty called “Ladies, Don’t Fuck a Racist.” However, I realized as I walked past my neighbor’s door, that there were quite a few young children in the buildings near us and maybe this wouldn’t be the best way to support them, even if it might feel vaguely cathartic.

But what is the answer? How to drown out the voices of racist douchebags with the voices of women and their allies? How can we make the racists know we hear them and do not approve and empower our targeted neighbors? What song invites joining in to defeat the forces of hate? I feel like I want a plan in place, in case we really are in a dystopia and this keeps happening. I want a song ready to go so I can skip the maiden trembling and the visions of dystopia and go straight to raising my voice.

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“A True Artist – the Perfect Candidate”

Last year, I received an award that was given to another person as well. We were both selected by the committee to receive the residency in question. I’m a white woman in my 40s from NYC and he’s a black man in his 20s from the mid-west. The residency was for emerging artists (see also my post on Can We Find Another Word for Emerging?) and I was surprised and delighted to receive it, even though I was pretty sure I wasn’t what most people meant when they signed up to support this award.

Throughout our time in residence, I could feel comparison happening between us – sometimes in my favor but mostly not. I thought perhaps I was imagining this sort of outside judgment. And then I saw a post on a Facebook page about my fellow award winner and someone in the organization commented on it, saying, he was “the perfect candidate” and “a true {*Name of the award} artist.”

It probably goes without saying that I did not receive a similar comment. And it probably also goes without saying that by saying someone is the perfect candidate and the true artist, they are also saying that someone else is NOT the perfect candidate or the true artist. In addition to making it plain that he had a clear preference for my colleague, the commenter (who is a leader in the award-giving organization,) wouldn’t even look at me whenever we were all in the same space.

I found myself furious – and frustrated. Like, if you didn’t think I was appropriate for the award, a) you didn’t have to give it to me and b) don’t take your opinion about my worthiness out on me.

And for a moment I was jealous of my co-award winner. But then I realized that this is an incredibly old pattern in the history of our country. Take two marginalized groups of people and pit them against each other. Especially white women and black men. I mean – the fight for suffrage got really reprehensible once white ladies, fighting for their rights, started throwing black folks under the bus. It is a giant stain on the early suffragists – many of whom got their start in abolitionism.

So…in the face of realizing that I was about to do the same, starting to somehow feel competitive with my colleague – well, I reached out to him and asked him to let me know how I could support him. Not because he needs it (he’s doing very well) but because I needed to. I needed to make sure that the prevailing winds of dividing and separating didn’t win, even in my own psyche.

The whole experience has been an excellent exhibit of how complex things become when resources are scarce. I am not at all competitive generally. But I know when I’ve been placed a competitive environment. And I found myself stuck in a strange race I didn’t sign up for. I remember thinking “I would have chosen him, too!”

But…that’s not fair, really. There were two places and we were both chosen. We were selected together. There’s enough of whatever there is there to go around. I feel like this is important to remember in this moment, when we are all fighting for the rights we thought were ours to keep. There’s a way where we could splinter easily into my rights, your rights. I could only fight for the NEA or reproductive rights because those have an impact on me. But we will make a bigger difference by fighting for it all, by fighting for Black Lives, for immigrants, for Muslims, for the poor, for the environment, for everyone under attack.

It will always be easy to make us compete, if we are under attack, if our resources are few and we feel we don’t have enough. But I hope the resistance continues to make the more unifying choice of reaching out to those we are being set up against. My commitment to myself is to reach out as soon I notice a sense of competition this way. I’m telling you now so I don’t forget.

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Theatre’s Loss: Janelle Monaé

From the first time I heard “Tightrope,” I was a fan of Janelle Monaé. I was head over heels for her music and her aesthetic, as well. She was musically exciting and theatrical in her style. Seeing her in concert was an incredible ride. She took the audience on a journey, the likes of which I have rarely experienced at a concert. She is a consummate showwoman and a brilliant connector. I’ve heard her described her as a contemporary female James Brown.

This year, Monaé went from making exciting, surprising music to making exciting movies. I thought she was just trying something different, building on her music career with some film exploration – but in an interview, I discovered what was news to me. Monaé trained as an actor. She started in theatre. In acting, she is returning to her roots – not doing something new. I’d been thinking about this since I learned it. Then I saw a short biography of her on Pandora. It said she trained at AMDA, did some off-Broadway theatre but then moved to Atlanta when she realized that there weren’t roles for her in musical theatre. This blew my mind. It shouldn’t have. But it did.

I mean, of course, there weren’t roles for her. For a whole host of reasons I have surely written about before. BUT. What strikes me, now that I know this information, is how Theatre Lost. We Lost. One of the most brilliant artists of our lifetime and Theatre didn’t have a place for her. I mean, I can’t help but imagine a Cindi Mayweather Musical full of androids and tuxedoed dancers – a Black Lady Ziggy Stardust for the stage. I mourn for what we could have had – how Monaé could have invigorated the entire medium given half a chance. But she wasn’t given half a chance. Her creativity was too much for the American Theatre and there was no place in it for her. This does not speak well of our art.

Unlike Office Depot, which also famously had no place for Monaé, the American Theatre could really have benefited from her perspective, skill and artistry. But we failed her.

Now – I’m not entirely sorry that theatre failed her. If theatre failing her meant that she turned to music, then I’m grateful. I’d rather have “Electric Lady” than Monaé stuck in some production of Wicked forever. But…I think it is entirely Theatre’s Loss. We had this brilliant performer, writer and creator in our midst and no one saw it. No one made space for her to create. This is a problem. Because I know for a fact that Monaé isn’t the only artist that this has happened to. The Doing Things the Way We Have Always Done Them means true innovation is always happening elsewhere. In music, in film, in technology. We have to find a better way to nurture theatrical minds. We just have to. We lost Janelle Monaé. But maybe she’ll come back to us. I will definitely go to an Android Musical and I’m gonna drag you all there with me.

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