Songs for the Struggling Artist

Sexy Jobs

What jobs are the sexiest? Like, if you want a character to be appealing and captivating and sexy, what job do you give them? Let’s say you want them to be at the center of a story – what job do they have? If you want to signal to an audience, “This character is sexy,” what do they do?

Apparently, in Spain, if your main character is a woman, the answer is “modista” – a modista is a seamstress, but not just a seamstress or dress maker, she’s also a designer. I am on my second Spanish period drama which features a modista at the center and it made me start to wonder what the sexy jobs are in our culture. Like – some of them are the same. The actor who plays the modista’s love interest in both shows plays a pilot in one and a war journalist in the other. Those are sexy jobs for men. They are just as popular here as I imagine they are in Spain.

But we don’t put seamstresses in our TV shows. I can’t think of a single American TV show that stars a seamstress. But in thinking about it, I realize that we also don’t make a lot of period dramas that place women at the center. I’m having trouble even thinking of one. If women have jobs at the center of a show in American TV, they’re mostly contemporary. They are nurses or lawyers or writers or doctors.

Certainly I don’t know all the shows there are. There are more and more all the time – but I am thinking of every workplace drama set in the past that I can remember and not one of them is American. (For the record, when thinking of women at work shows, I came up with Bletchley Circle, The Mill and Call the Midwife but these are all BBC shows.)

Anyway – I think I may have worked out a factor of why I am so obsessed with Spanish TV. Almost every show I’ve watched features women at work in the early 20th century. Some of those jobs are sexy (see modista, switchboard operator, chambermaid, novelist, hotel matriarch, amateur detective, secretary) and some are less so (housekeeper, innkeeper, the sexy modista’s stern modista mom). I don’t know that it’s the sexiness of the occupations of these women that interest me or just the fact that I get to watch groups of women at work together.

Because women have largely been left out of history books, I long for stories of women in the past. I found this Ms. magazine article about women’s history chilling. An English teacher tells a group of students, “Wouldn’t it be great if history books had as much information about women as men?” and hears her students say, “But women didn’t do anything.” I mean. They said that THIS Century! Something like twenty years IN to this century! This century – when they absolutely should have been exposed to more inclusive history or read things that haven’t actively excluded women’s contributions. So I find TV that highlights women at work in the past almost irresistible, particularly since the stories we’ve all absorbed from the culture have tried to convince us that women working is a new invention.

Watching women at work in the past scratches an itch for me I didn’t know I had. And yes, I know that period drama is not history but it does tend to expand one’s historical perspective. I know a whole heck of a lot more about Franco’s Spain and its relations with Europe and Morocco than I did before my dipping my toes, via Spanish TV, in those worlds. Outlander may feature time travel through fairy stones but I do know a bunch more about the Jacobite Rebellion and the Battle of Culloden in Scotland than I did before I watched it.

Anyway – if sexy jobs are what get us to tune in to stories about women and particularly about women in the past, I am really all for it. I don’t know what American early 20th Century jobs will be sexy enough for our people but I would like to watch one please. A Rosie the Riveter drama maybe? I mean, it’s a gimmee, right? Women in a factory working together? Does this exist and I just don’t know about it? (I know there’s a Canadian show about this. I would like to watch that, too. I’m gonna need a better International streaming platform, please.)

Meanwhile, I am still very curious about what the sexy jobs are. Male romantic leads tend to be architects and female romantic leads do things like run cupcake or pie shops. But are those sexy? I don’t know. Chime in. What are the sexy jobs? And can we have a TV show about them?

Sexy Dummy

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My Grandmother’s Genius

When I called my Grandmother on her 90th birthday, she told me a story about her work life that I’d never heard before. She was telling me about how much she loved her job, how she had to start at 7am, which was hard but she didn’t care because she loved to go to work.

That job she loved was working as a cashier at Giant Supermarket. And the story she told me was that one day her manager came to her line and asked her to come to his office at the end of her shift. She was sure she was in trouble and was so nervous by the time she went to his office that she was crying. He apparently gave her a hug and told her she had nothing to cry about, he just wanted to ask her why all the customers wanted to go to her line. He wanted to know what she was doing right to bring the customers to her.

And the answer was that she knew everyone’s name and what was going on with them. If someone in the family was sick, she’d ask after them the next time she saw them. In short, my grandmother created relationships with everyone she met. She was curious about people and people responded. I’d be willing to bet that people went out of their way to get their groceries there so that they could check in with Darleen.

And her manager noticed. And the Giant Supermarket corporation noticed. I was at the retirement party that they threw for her and I remember lots of appreciation for her contributions to the store she worked in. I was a kid at the time so I don’t remember the details but I understood that a lot of strangers loved my grandmother almost as much as I did. Now I recognize how special that was and is. It is a kind of genius.

Now I understand that probably my grandmother is a bit of an anomaly. She is warm and friendly and quick to laugh and she made people feel at ease, even in the florescent lighting of an impersonal supermarket. The company did right to honor her.

But I also think the company missed an opportunity to grow. I mean, I read a LOT of social psychology and I have read so many stories about anomalous behavior that was then analyzed and developed to become a wildly successful large scale adaptation. I’ve heard so many stories about how one remarkable person’s behavior changed the whole culture of an organization.

From where I sit now, I think, as soon as the organization saw how successful my grandmother was, they should have started watching carefully. They should have asked her to teach her peers how to tap into their own social genius. They should have sent every cashier in the country through her line. I mean, can you imagine if every time you went to the supermarket the cashier, in addition to ringing up your groceries, also asked after your family, made you laugh, brightened your day somehow? You’d skip those automated cashier machines (“Item not recognized. Item not recognized.”) and go see your favorite cashier.

I feel like a lot of companies have understood the wrong part of what people like my grandmother brought to the table. They saw her smile so they think it’s about the smiling. She maybe told her customers to have a nice day so the suits think it’s about telling people to have a nice day. In my local supermarkets, I see the instructions to cashiers taped on their registers that say, “Smile at the customer. Tell them to have a nice day.” This categorically does not work. Anyone who is being compelled to smile is not likely to do it. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cashier smile when there was one of those notes taped to their register. But ask my grandmother why she loved a job that many people (including me!) would find tedious and she says it was because she was curious about people. She genuinely wanted to know the people who came through her line.

You can’t mandate curiosity. You can’t mandate warmth. You can’t mandate connection.

But, my years in arts education have taught me that you can teach it. You just have to value it enough to take the time to cultivate it. I’m not saying you’re going to be able to replicate my grandmother entirely – she does have a kind of social genius that is uniquely hers – but imagine a whole flock of people who had learned from her. How much more often would you go to the store?

In our digital world this kind of human interaction becomes rarer and rarer. We buy our groceries on machines. We get everything delivered. But I think a smart business would lean into the possibilities of personal connections, would investigate the masters of that skill and watch their business grow instead of recede.

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It’s my Harassment-versary!
September 23, 2013, 12:33 am
Filed under: art, business, feminism, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

One year ago, I posted this blog about my experience of sexism in American Theatre. The response it got was overwhelming and generated a whole host of other thoughts about my experience. (Here, here and here, for a start.) A year later, the initial post still gets a view or two a day but mostly the dust it stirred up has settled.
So I thought I might kick it up again because the past year has given me a great deal to think about. Because there’s so much, I’ll be celebrating my harassment-versary in installments.

Part One: The Job

Many people wanted to know what happened with the Job. The immediate effects are recounted here but what came after is trickier to sum up.

Short version: I haven’t worked there since.

Long version: After the initial phone calls from the managing director in which he expressed hopes that I would continue working there and in which he let me know what actions were being taken, after all the teaching artists suddenly received employee handbooks (including a sexual harassment policy) and after plans for a sit-down with the big bosses of the organization and the man I’d called out were made (for a future date, sometime before my next meeting there): nothing much happened. Due diligence by the organization, lawsuits averted, asses covered and then it was a matter of waiting.

Months went by before I was scheduled to come in for the next round of work and I realized that if I was going to have this promised meeting, I’d have to arrange it myself. And I found I did not want to work there enough to do that. So I skipped that first work commitment (this is the advantage of working At Will) and I had enough work elsewhere to turn down the next round of work, too. Given the choice between working at a place where I’d experienced sexual harassment and working at a place I hadn’t (yet. . it ‘s never too late!) I went with the place I felt welcome. And while all of this lacks the dramatic punch that many readers longed for (“Did you get a heartfelt apology?” “Did you sue?” “Did you quit in a blaze of glory?” “Did he get fired?”) I think it’s likely that this is how a lot sexual harassment stories go.

I’ve done a lot of reading and listening and thinking about women in the workplace in the last year. One thing I discovered was that women are a lot less likely to report sexual harassment than they think they are. That is, every 8 out of 10 women who read my blog and thought “I’d totally report that guy!” probably wouldn’t have in reality – for a lot of good reasons. (But my hat’s off to those who have!)

Why is this sort of culture so pernicious? There are dozens of reasons but one likely contribution is a psychological concept called Learned Helplessness. That is, people who encounter a failure enough times will simply become unable to do anything. (Watch the video at the end of this great article about the idea.)

This makes me think about the myriad ways women encounter sexual harassment throughout our lives and how we learned that it’s just a part of the culture so there’s not much we can do about it. Girls are fetishized as sexual objects before we are even aware of what sex is and the culture constantly reminds us that we are only as valuable as we are sexually desirable. After a lifetime of being unable to stop the wolf-whistles, cat-calls, unwanted touches, aggressive innuendo and inappropriate jokes, many of us have learned to feel helpless when someone crosses a line. Because someone crosses a line almost every day of our lives and if we spent all our time fighting it, when would we have time to do our hair? (Ha. Kidding. I mean, when would we have time to become brain surgeons!?)

But the Learned Helplessness effect isn’t just a factor in the initial response to harassment. In other words, it’s not just in whether or not you say something in the moment, it’s also in what you choose to do later. And it doesn’t have to happen to us personally for us to learn the consequences of speaking up. Women in my generation saw what happened to Anita Hill as we were growing up. And every day now you can see what happens to women who speak up about injustice. When Lindy West talked about rape jokes, she received a barrage of threats of both rape and death. Anita Sarkeesian became the target of an organized on-line hate campaign just because she decided to make videos about women in videogames. Silence becomes a much safer response to all of this in a culture of trolls.
Should I have stayed and fought? Maybe. If it were a job I really wanted, I would have. In my case, the frustration and disrespect that plague my profession as a whole are such that I’m doing everything I can to get out of it and get my own businesses off the ground (this and this.) I don’t have time to teach one guy and one organization how to handle me and my case better. I have better things to do. (Like my hair! Ha. No actually, seriously, we have a photo shoot for my show and the hair takes a wicked long time.)
My suspicion is that many many businesses lose their women this way. A work environment becomes hostile or just uncomfortable and rather than making a point of why they’re leaving, women will just go. More and more women are starting their own businesses, becoming entrepreneurs. That’s exciting on one hand and a wake-up call on the other. If I were a big business, I’d be concerned about a culture that encourages women to leave it.
Did I do the right thing? For me, I did, yes. Did they do the right thing? For the most part, yes. Could they have reached out to me again? Yes. Would I still be working there if they had? Maybe. Do I want to be? Not really, no. So it’s all fine. I mean, aside from the fact that the dude has what is probably a six figure job and I’ll be lucky if I clear $20,000 this year. But I’ll save the post on the economics of sexism for another day.

Next up: Part 2 of my Harassment-versary Special:
Progress report on Women in American Theatre

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