Songs for the Struggling Artist

Sexism Can Still Surprise Me
April 21, 2017, 11:43 pm
Filed under: feminism | Tags: , , , , ,

I can’t stop thinking about that story about the employees who switched email signatures and how it revealed incredible sexism. (If you haven’t read it, start here to read the woman’s account and click through to the man’s Twitter thread.) I’ve seen a lot of responses to this story that can most easily be summed up as  “No, duh.”  A lot of people (of all genders) have said, “Not surprising.” But I will confess to being surprised. Not that there’s sexism, I suppose, but that it could be so plainly revealed. And in email, too!

But, it also feels more like the fish in water not knowing its wet situation. Like, sexism is the water I swim and I feel like I understand a lot of it. I understand when I’m being denied opportunity or being dismissed or ignored or talked over or patronized or harassed or any number of things. But the specifics of this sexism floored me. You mean, men get shit done in half the time simply because they’re not being questioned and challenged at every turn?

There were aspects that were not surprising (the getting asked out, the harassment) but the TIME! The TIME! Double the time! This shocked me. And it makes me wonder what other behaviors are hiding in my experience in plain sight.

I’ve been noticing sexism ever since I was a baby feminist and I suppose I thought at some point I would know about all the sexisms. I suppose I thought I’d know the whole ocean of sexist behaviors or conditions. But I see now that’s impossible. Each new sexist surprise teaches me something new. For example – at my local bodega, a man got a little too close to me while examining the chocolate in front of the registers. He apologized and backed away. Then he returned and reached for the chocolate bars in front of me, inches from my crotch, as if it were no big deal. I was so shocked, I couldn’t react. And once I was home, thought of all the things I should have done. (Possibilities: scream. Grab his hand and move it away. Pin his hand in place with my knee. Elbow to the head. A loud, “What do you think you’re doing?” or “How about you get the fuck out of my personal space?”)  I’m prepared for the next time some dude unconsciously invades my space. But with so many surprises to anticipate, I can never be prepared for every instance of sexism.

Now, again, as in the email sexism, for a lot of people, this is a “No, duh” situation. For women who’ve had their personal space violated on multiple occasions, this dude’s hand would not be surprising – but I was surprised. This was a part of the sexist ocean I was unfamiliar with. I’ve had creeps invade my personal space before – but those previous invasions were always obvious. It’s the old man groping on the overly crowded bus scenario. But there, too, the first time that happened, I was so shocked, I did not know what to do.

Every first encounter with a new flavor of sexism is going to be surprising and those will be not surprising to the people who have endured them again and again. If you’ve been groped on a bus a dozen times, you might deliver a “No duh” to someone who reports their first grope or their friend’s first grope.

If you’ve seen explicit email sexism in action – if you, say, work in customer service and watch it unfold every day, this email story may well be a “No, duh” situation – but for the rest of us…it still has the power to surprise. And reveal something in action that I wouldn’t have even included in a list of possible sexist behaviors.

Every little bit of the sexism ocean that we light up and reveal helps the other fish swimming through it and gives us tools to fight it, too. Things I’ve learned to try from these two surprising sexisms. 1) If I’m experiencing a time wasting push back via email, I can write back from my (imaginary) associate, Jack, and see if he can’t get it done faster. 2) If anyone reaches into my personal space, I will pick up the hand the way I’d pick up a disgusting piece of garbage and say, “To whom does this inappropriate hand belong?”

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What I Learned from an Old Train

Riding on the Holiday Nostalgia train (which runs every December) is an opportunity to step into the past a bit, to ride on an old train, read old subway ads, feel the breezes of open subway windows and the whir of the open blades of the fans in the ceiling. It is full of train aficionados and retro wardrobes. The inside of the train is a delightful confluence of diverse geekery.

My favorite part happens outside the train, however. I sit by the windows so I can watch the faces of the people on the platform as the train comes into the station. Almost no one expects this magical retro train to appear. I love to see people surprised by this mysterious arrival. What astounds me, however, are the vast variety of responses.

To me, the appearance of this train is a little miracle. I imagine that if I were on the platform and this train from the past just appeared out of nowhere, I’d be so delighted. I’d probably clap my hands with glee. To me, the proper response to this train is something in that territory. But very few people actually respond that way. More common is suspicion and confusion. I’ve seen people scowl at it or give the train the evil eye. The train is unexpected and many people are seemingly troubled by its arrival.

This tells me something about how people respond to art, too. I strive to create work that has the potential to be as delightful and unexpected as a nostalgia train and occasionally, I’ve gotten reactions that I haven’t understood. I have taken some of those reactions personally in the past. But the train shows me that that variety of responses is normal when exploring the world outside of the very day.

When I see something that is unexpected and delightful, I’m often surprised to find that everyone does not experience it that way. I think, as a theatre maker, I have, at times, really believed that an audience could have a uniform response to something. The nostalgia train shows me that they do not. Something that makes some people slack jawed with wonder will make others pulse with fury.

I have always thought that all people crave the wondrous, the unexpected, the extra-daily but the train has taught me that some people find it very disconcerting. I take this to heart and it helps me make the things I want to make, to not be dependent on the reaction of the audience but to just create the wonder I want to see, even if it makes people uncomfortable.


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