Songs for the Struggling Artist


How to Value a Voice
February 5, 2017, 10:26 pm
Filed under: Gender politics | Tags: , , , , , ,

At the Women’s March on the 21st, I saw a sign that said, “Girls should be told that their voices are valuable.” And it stuck a chord so deep in me that it took me days to unpack it.

I don’t disagree. Girls should, of course, be told that their voices are valuable. But it’s not enough. Not even close. Being told your voice is valuable means zero if you’ve never been shown that your voice is valuable. Telling is useless.

It’s like when a customer service automated phone services says, “Your call is important to us” while you sit on hold for an hour. It’s disingenuous. It’s lip service. I have been in so many rooms where I have been told my voice is valuable but was then talked over, interrupted, ignored or dismissed when I tried to use it. I have worked in many organizations that claimed to value my voice but then made it impossible for me to express anything.

Telling someone that their voice is valuable ain’t shit without actual support for that voice. On top of that, whenever someone tells me my voice is valuable, it is almost always extremely patronizing. In fact, one sure signal to me that my voice is not actually valuable is to be told that it is.

My friends don’t need to tell me my voice is valuable to them because I know that they care what I think. My colleagues don’t have to tell me my voice is valuable because they listen to it and ask for my thoughts regularly. My family doesn’t need to tell me because they respond to what I tell them. I have even had employers who didn’t need to tell me my voice was valuable – because it was apparent from every angle.

I was at an event where I heard again and again how important it was to get the voices of the young people involved. I heard how the organization valued the voices of the young. But I never heard those voices. There was no space in the event to actually hear those “important” voices – which makes it clear how important they actually are. That is, not at all. And I heard from those young people how unheard they felt, how unwelcome, despite the constant verbal welcoming.

But what, you may be wondering, am I supposed to do if I’m leading a group of people who I want to encourage, who I want to support and/or mentor? How do I convince them to talk, for example, if they don’t?

It’s actually fairly simple. If you want to know what someone thinks, if you want to hear them talk, you’ll need to ask them what they think about something. If you want people to feel as though they’re welcome to speak in a space, you have to make space for them to speak. If you are in a position of authority, that is up to you.

One of the challenges you’d be up against is that people who have had their voices dismissed for an extended period of time – girls, for example – may be less likely to leap into empty space. Many women have learned helplessness in these situations. Women’s speech is constantly policed. Vocal fry, qualifiers, upspeak are all sins that women get bashed for regularly. Women might speak more quickly than men, hurrying trying not to be interrupted. We have less practice in speaking in groups because we have been socialized to understand that the space isn’t ours. It is entirely likely that this having an impact on your group conversation.

The same holds true for any marginalized group – anyone you’re not hearing from isn’t not talking because they don’t know how to talk – they’re not talking because while they may have been TOLD their voice is valuable, they have not been SHOWN. And you show value by welcoming, by invitation, by direct question, by listening, by affirming, by reflecting and acting on what you hear.

You value a voice by actually valuing a voice. Don’t tell. Show. It’s that simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Feminist Blindspot
August 14, 2016, 11:20 pm
Filed under: Gender politics | Tags: , , , ,

You guys. You know I cannot even look at a single-panel cartoon without seeing it through a feminist lens. It’s built into my eyes. I cannot not see it. But I realized recently that I’d been staring at a sexist situation for months, maybe even years, without really seeing it. It was in my blind spot. And that blind spot was the thing right in front of me. For me, it was my workplace.

The situation is that there are two “senior” employees who make a good deal more money than the rest of us and the two senior employees are the two men and the rest of us are all women. The owners of the business are all men and also make more money, of course. It’s a pretty clear cut case of gender imbalance but I totally missed it. Why? Because it is close to me. And I know all the “legitimate” reasons that it is so. I understand the personalities at play. I understand the seniority as well as the layers of dysfunction that factor in. It all just seemed like “the way it is” And “the way it is” is usually the blind spot. We cannot see how structures fall into the usual sexist models because they each have their own logic, their own, “Of course it happens that way,” their own legitimacy.

I was absolutely floored to realize how long this structure had been in place without my noticing. It took other women in the organization to point it out to me. And I may not be a professional feminist but I am pretty close…and I missed it.

What else is in my blind spot?
What else is hiding in plain sight?
We all have our blind spots and usually they are the things we see the “perfectly reasonable” explanation of – but then you pull back to look at it in wider context – poof! not so reasonable anymore.

This is why it’s important to talk about Institutional Sexism (and Racism and ableism and so on) rather than just focusing on the individual situations. One can explain away individual stories almost every time, especially when they’re sitting in our blind spots, which is almost always what’s right in front of us.

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Theatre Was a Tool of the Patriarchy
February 16, 2016, 11:33 pm
Filed under: Gender politics, theatre | Tags: , , , , , ,

Visiting Greece inspired me profoundly. I was struck by the landscape, the stories, the history of the theatre. In a previous blog, I wrote about my sudden understanding of how intertwined Democracy and Theatre were. I was deeply moved to think of how important theatre was to the Ancients. I was also struck by the fact that women were included in the Ancient theatre audiences – even if they weren’t on stage. Apparently, they were expected to attend. It was all very exciting to imagine.

 

The same evening I learned about the history of theatre and democracy, I got to see a production of Orestes in the Theatre at Epidaurus. It was an interesting production that I was glad I saw. AND I couldn’t help but notice how chock full of misogyny it was. This made me remember how full of misogyny almost ALL the Greek plays were which made me think that maybe, just maybe, that’s what all those plays were for.

 

In a way, it feels like the ancient plays exist to tell women to shut up and not worry their pretty little heads about the choices men make. I was particularly struck by a passage from Orestes in which he was pleading for his life and argued that if the crowd listened to Menelaus they were all going to be forced to listen to their wives from now on and did they want THAT? Oh no.

 

I mean, Greek democracy has been the model for many a civilization. It emphasized everyone participating in civic questions – rich, poor and in between. It was, by all accounts, a vibrant, lively, civic experience. For men. Because women were not a part of this democracy and all kinds of decisions about war and whether or not their sons and lovers and families were going were made without their voices.

 

The production I saw at Epidaurus featured translated modern English surtitles. The titles used the word “bitch” with startling regularity and the effect served to really bring out how often women are disparaged in the play. The fact that there ARE women in these ancient plays is interesting (especially since they were played by men) but in so many ways it feels like they are there to be put under control. Every single woman in Orestes is threatened with death and/or rape and even the woman who is already dead at the top of the play is posthumously denigrated. I’m sure there are translations of various plays that feel less threatening. But I wonder if our modern translations soften the misogyny a bit to make them more palatable for us.

 

I am deeply inspired by the past. I think there are a great many things worth returning to our roots for: the democracy of the first theatres for example. But I think Western Theatre may have some misogyny built right in to our history. It’s Baked In. Like an ingredient in a pie, it is so ingrained we don’t see it and it has traveled through so many generations – the theatre just naturally reinforces the patriarchy. This would explain why theatre has been so far behind in achieving gender equality. Perhaps it began for the opposite reason.

 

But. I am a Theatre Maker. And if theatre began as a tool for the patriarchy, I still think we could use it to end it. If once theatre aimed to control women – now, perhaps, we can use it to liberate us. But with our eyes open.

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The Dude Who Faked His Way to the Top

One of my favorite authors got journalistic opportunities and started to become the successful writer he is when he lied about all the editors he had (not) written for. One of my directing teacher’s favorite stories was about how he got his big directing break by putting entirely fictional credits on his resume. I read a piece in the Hollywood Reporter about a movie exec who, as a young journalist, swiped his editor’s identity in order to get into big movie events and start making the connections he needed.

I have heard this narrative a lot. It is the Man Who Bluffed His Way in the Door, the Dude Who Faked His Way to the Top. Usually the story features a subject very proud of this clever fakery that paid off for him early in his life. Usually he chuckles about it in nostalgic tones.

The story I’ve Never Heard is the one where a woman managed the same sly tricks. I’m curious about this.

And I have some theories about it.

1) There aren’t that many super successful women at the top to get these stories from.
2) The schemes that involve stealing someone else’s identity are almost impossible due to #1. Whose identity do you steal? Do you mask both your identity and your gender?
3) Girls tend to succeed by following the rules. They do very well in school this way. But success outside of school would seem to be about Breaking the rules – so as Good Girls (which I’ve written about previously) girls have a harder time forging a path.
4) The girls who do transgress, who do break the rules are often punished more aggressively than boys. Boys will be boys but girls are taught lessons. Girls punish each other for transgressing and boys punish girls for transgressing. See also Slut Shaming, Body Shaming and a world of other behaviors that we’re meant to be policing women for all the time.

I’m sure there are more theories about this roadblock to women’s success. I notice in myself that I don’t find this particular narrative (about the Boy Who Broke the Rules to Get to the Top) charming anymore. I don’t think lying and cheating are cute. And I’m tired of all the origin stories that would seem to suggest that they are. Getting away with that stuff is a privilege.

But I also recognize that I am a biased Good Girl and that a part of me will always bristle at rule breaking, especially when the odds are already stacked so high. I can’t decide whether I need to access my own inner lying movie exec and start bluffing my way to the top or to Lean into the best Rule Following person I can be. Or maybe just let it all go and perhaps stop worrying about other people’s origin stories and get to work forging my own. In one or the other senses of the word “forge.”

If you want to see a lot of ladders, Google "Career Woman" and also enjoy this link: http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/11/feminism-according-to-stock-photography.html

If you want to see a lot of ladders, Google “Career Woman” and also enjoy this link: http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/11/feminism-according-to-stock-photography.html

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Return to the Land of Girlfriends

Not so long ago, I wrote a piece about a trip down the rabbit hole of casting. I was disturbed by how the vast majority of the women’s resumes I saw included pole-dancing and emphasized the various ways they might be objectified. Their reels were just as bad. The sense was that each woman was destined to play either the sexy girlfriend, the cute girlfriend or the pretty girlfriend and that’s pretty much all anyone was aiming for. I called it the Land of Girlfriends.

This landscape was awful when I was an actor looking for work and it is awful when I’m directing and looking for an actor. It does not cease to be awful.

It is not the fault of the women – the breakdowns for some of these things are horrifying but even the most benign jobs encourage this sort of thing. Casting notices value appearance over skill almost every time. I loved Kathryn Blume’s rant about a casting notice in her area. An excerpt is posted, below:

There are lots of juicy words used to describe Beatrice, including “frowzy, acid-tongued, alcoholic, intelligent.” Those are all incredibly useful to both actors and directors when thinking about characterization and/or whether or not a particular actor is right for the role.
But then for some reason, they also used the word “attractive.” Why is this necessary? It’s also vague. What kind of attractive and to whom? How is she both frowzy AND attractive? Attractive is subjective to the observer, and has absolutely no bearing on how an actor might play this role.
Then there are the descriptions of Beatrice’s daughters Ruth and Tillie. Ruth is described as “pretty, disturbed, high strung.” Tillie is described as “extremely shy and fascinated by science.”
Ok, for one, pretty according to whom? Also actors can’t play pretty. It’s not useful in the breakdown.
And why don’t we get a description, then of Tillie’s looks? Because shy girls interested in science can’t also be pretty? Again, who’s to say?
Mark posted about this on MAW’s page, and as he said,
“Listing “attractive” or “pretty” as a required attribute is, at best, unnecessary and almost meaningless, and at worst, cliche and sexist. Of course we want performers to be attractive in the sense of compelling. But if you’re talking about physical attractiveness, what does that mean, and what does it have to do with the role?
By regularly describing female characters this way, we are perpetuating the idea that they are there, at least on one level, as eye candy, and I think that does a disservice to both the playwright’s vision and women actors to put this arbitrary, generalized idea of attractiveness out there as a requirement. Actors *are* attractive in the sense of being compelling (at least the good ones) – it’s an inherent part of the craft. Why keep putting this additional requirement of physical attractiveness on female actors? What message does that send to women?”
This is all a heartfelt plea to be conscious of the messages we’re putting out there about the value of women, and the value of certain kinds of women, and the painful overemphasis on a very narrow cultural definition of women’s attractiveness – a definition which leads to mental and physical illness and a devaluation of a broad range of compelling and gifted artists who deserve to have their work seen.

That’s some heroic Facebook posting, there, from Kathryn and this Mark fellow. AND I discovered, while searching for the original casting notice, that the company responded immediately and edited it right away.

I was also heartened to see Cast and Loose call out this casting notice from TFANA (Who really should do better)

This was the character description:

THAISA: 20s She has to be dazzlingly beautiful (of course) but she ends the play as a woman of forty, after the ‘gap in time’ in the middle of the play.

“Of course” this character must be dazzling and OF COURSE the real tricky part will be that the character, GASP! – also has to “end up a woman of 40” – in other words – OLD. So you can’t just be a model, you also have to be able to play a crone. As a woman in my 40s, I should know. Why, none of my female peers are dazzling, no sir, just pack us all up and put us in intensive care, we’re old. We apparently can’t play Girlfriends anymore, so what good are we?

I am already so weary of so much sexist racist boring ass theatre. . things like this just make it harder to imagine seeing anything at all.

But this new trend of calling out those senselessly objectifying casting notices is heartening to me. It gives me the smallest sense of hope that we might one day get to see performers with SKILL and not just conventionally beautiful, attractive, dazzling people.

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I did a Google Image Search for “Woman” and this is what came up.

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