Songs for the Struggling Artist


Sticky Benevolent Sexism

It happened weeks ago, after the Women’s March. Since then there have been many more marches and many more protests but I can’t stop thinking about this experience I had right after participating in that first one.

I was at a conference. We were wrapping it up with a reflection session – talking about what had been successful and possibilities for the future. Towards the end, a man stood up to say he’d been to the Women’s March and that he’d been inspired and now wanted to recognize all the women in the room. He asked us all to stand and receive applause and appreciation from the men. We stood, as requested and received the applause. And don’t get me wrong, I love applause. But this felt so so bad.

Why? I wondered. Why was I upset by this nice man wanting to honor the ladies in the room? He was just being nice. Why did it make my skin crawl? For weeks, I’ve tried to unpack this moment. And then on International Women’s Day, I felt the same feelings upon reading multiple posts and tweets and tributes.

And still, I struggled to understand. So I talked about it with my partner. I told him about the request to stand and be recognized and he seemed to instantly know what I was reacting to. “It’s like Secretary’s Day,” he said. And I said, “Yes! Exactly! Exactly that! But what is that?”

And it comes down to power, folks. We have a secretary’s day because bosses have power and they express that benevolently (if also patronizingly) via things like Secretaries Day. A man who steps forward and asks for everyone to recognize the women in the room is asserting a similar kind of power. It is claiming an authority over women. He takes on a boss role and thanks the helpers. The fact that it is outwardly benevolent is what makes it confusing. This is called benevolent sexism and it is a bear, y’all.

Benevolent sexism is super confusing for a lot of dudes. It’s why the Orange Man in Chief thinks he’s great for women. Women are also confused by it. It’s men being nice, right? But so many studies show us how not nice it can be. It can be very dark and very dangerous.

My moment of benevolent sexism was confusing for me because I like to be appreciated and recognized. But I would like to have all of those things happen due to my accomplishments and artistry. Being applauded for just being a woman suggests being applauded for my service to the real art, the men’s art. I’m getting accolades for being a good helpmeet, not being an artist, or an achiever – because that’s what we ladies do, right? We help! We make the coffee and mop the men’s brows from doing the real work. Golly, we need a day to thank those ladies!

When that guy asked us to stand, I stood. And I cried. I thought, briefly, that I cried because I was moved, because I was touched by the gesture. I know now that I cried because I felt utterly undermined and defeated. After a day of women asserting our voices and our power, we were suddenly reduced to secretaries, to helpful wives – rather than the peers and colleagues we are. Now, I think I was crying due to how quickly that feeling of empowerment can be ripped away. BUT. But…

The good news is that now I’m wise. And I won’t fall for this trick again. Next time, I will not stand. Maybe I’ll even ask the men to stand and let them see how it feels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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



Where In the World?
March 4, 2017, 2:10 am
Filed under: art, theatre, Gender politics | Tags: , , , ,

For years, I have been dreaming about emigrating to Europe, where so many of my favorite theatre companies are based. I fell in love with Cheek by Jowel when I saw their (all male) As You Like It. I idolized Improbable and their three man Artistic Directorship. I drooled over Complicite – and the one man genius at the center of it. Oh, how I wanted to move to England so I could make work like my heroes!

I heard stories about the extraordinary work coming out of Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden. I saw some of it, too. I was wowed by all those men making extraordinary work. I wanted to go there and join them. Perhaps you’ve noticed already what it took me a while to put together. But almost everyone of note in my theatre hero club was a man. I’ve finally put together that nearly all of the places I’ve idolized for their more forward thinking art and/or politics, are actually as sexist as the country I live in. Some a little more. Some a little less. But nobody’s got equity.

My first clues were the stats on my blog about sexism in the theatre. I’ve got views from around the world on that thing. There are international waves of people when someone shares it in their native land. My next clue was my experience of international theatre conferences, where I saw so many all male casts, I just assumed I’d be looking at mostly men whenever I saw a show. When I went to panels of artistic directors from abroad, they were 90% male.

Sexism isn’t just an American problem. It’s a world problem. And in some countries, the sexism is worse in the theatre than it is in the country as a whole. Around the world, as far as I know, there is no theatre community where the odds are not stacked against me, as a woman. So, while I admire the work I’ve seen from Australia tremendously, it would make no sense to move there, as only 30% of produced plays are written or directed by women. Similarly, England. Similarly, Ireland. Where in the world could I go where my gender won’t be a liability in my making work? I really want to know – because I want to at least go visit and see what it would feel like to work in a place that doesn’t dismiss me from the moment I come in. I want to know what it feels like to create without the entire deck stacked against me. Where in the world can a woman go to make theatre with equity?

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