My Book Is Out!

AudRevBooks

This image is shamelessly heisted from the TCG website. Link below.

And by “my book is out,” I mean Caridad Svich‘s book is out. The ever-brilliant (srsly) Svich has released a collection of essays for TCG entitled Audience (R)Evolution: Dispatches from the Field. In addition to one by yours truly called “The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement,” it contains essays by Larissa Fasthorse, Richard Montoya, Itamar MosesJules Odendahl-James, Sylvan Oswald, Bill Rauch, Lisa D’Amour, Roberto G. Varea, Callie Kimball, Carlton Turner, and Svich herself, among many others.

Order your copy here!

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The Sexism in our Non-Sexist Industry

The theatre community prides itself on its left-leaning culture, openness to diversity, and acceptance of difference. Yet we have constant problems with gender parity. Women are underrepresented in every area of our industry apart from the indie scene, often dramatically. There are so many studies and think pieces about this, I’m not going to bother choosing any one to link to– we’ve all read them.

Although we consider ourselves “not sexist,” we’re still unwittingly *saying and doing things that are sexist*. Sexism (and racism, and ableism, and etc) are actions and words as well as thoughts and attitudes. In 2016, we’re not seeing “No woman can direct a man with proper authority” and the like, but we’re all still dealing with the sexism pervasive in our culture, and it impacts our actions through unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is why people who are committed feminists are still sometimes making decisions motivated by sexism (and racism, and transphobia, etc).

And while this applies without question to women who have internalized the sexism inherent in our culture and its many systems and structures, often what we, as women, are struggling with in this industry are the unconscious biases of men.

“She’s perfect for the role!” When I cast something with straight male input, I often find myself struggling to make him understand that the woman with whom he is most taken is not actually the best actor or right for the role. Because our culture has rigid, oppressive strictures about what constitutes “attractive,” most often that woman is young, European-American, thin, able-bodied, and traditionally “pretty.” I often find myself struggling to make him understand that a woman less physically attractive to him is much more skilled, or closer to the center of the role. Here’s what I hear men say about the woman they’re attracted to: “She has a certain quality that just pulls the eye”; “She has the right look”; “She has so much presence”; “She has something; I just can’t put my finger on it, but it’s there”; “I think her acting drawbacks would actually be strengths in this role.” Here’s what I hear men say about the woman they’re less attracted to: “I just can’t see her in the role”; “She’s just not as interesting to watch”; “She lacks presence”; “I don’t believe her”; “I don’t think the audience will accept her as a romantic lead.” Or he’ll suddenly decide that the *crucial qualities* he insisted the woman to whom he’s attracted would bring to the role are *massive, problematic drawbacks* when embodied in a woman less attractive to him. Or he “just can’t see” the traditionally “pretty” woman’s massive comic skills.

To be clear, this isn’t universal. I shouldn’t even have to say it by this point, but #notallmen. However, if a director’s every lead looks the same (for example, thin, European-American, and blonde), that director should probably have a seat and take a think on it. Remember that acting on an unexamined sexist bias in casting doesn’t make you a terrible person, or even “a sexist.” We’re all struggling with finding and eliminating our unconscious biases. We could all benefit from looking carefully at our attitudes and casting habits and interrogating our decisions fearlessly, and not just about women, but about gender nonconforming people, race, ability, size, etc.

“I don’t understand this play. It’s not for me.” Straight European-American men make up less than a third of the US population– a definite minority. Yet the stories of straight European-American men are considered “neutral”– stories for everyone, universal. A play starring a straight European-American man, written by a straight European-American man, is never considered to be coming from a particular, unique point of view– it’s never about being straight and European-American. It’s about, for example, overcoming loss, or reconciling with family, or forgiveness and healing. The social positionality of the work fades into the background as irrelevant– “universal.” However, work by and featuring women, people of color, disabled people, gender nonconforming people, is marked by its distance from the straight European-American male “universal.” It’s a “Black play” or a “woman’s play.”

Because we posit the straight European-American male experience as “universal,” we never expect straight European-American men to translate– to find ways to see the work of people unlike them as relevant to them– because we define that work by its distance from them. Yet they expect without question for everyone to automatically translate work from a European-American male perspective, both seeing and relating to the “universal” message inside. When you’re sitting in a season planning meeting or a development meeting, and the European-American men around you claim they “don’t understand” a play or that a play is “not for them,” but they fully expect you as a woman and/or person of color to relate to stories from a European-American male perspective because they’re “universal,” you’re seeing unconscious bias in action.

There’s an easy way to tell if the play is actually incomprehensible or if men on the team are just refusing to translate, and that’s to see whether opinions of the play are divided by gender. Repeat as necessary for race, ability, sexuality, etc. Part of privilege is that the world pretends the privileged experience is universal. Part of fighting systemic injustice is actively working to learn how to translate.

When you’re ready to toss aside a play as “not for everyone,” “not universally appealing,” or “for women,”  take a second and think: “Am I just refusing to translate?”

“I’m all for diversity. . . I have a Black female intern!” If you’re a European-American man who is proposing that diversity be a key consideration for every position but your own, I see you. Let’s focus on hiring actors, directors, designers, techs, and/or playwrights who are women or people of color, you say, and we all rightfully applaud. Except the European-American men in positions of power and gatekeeping at those theatres retain every scrap of their power, and the fact that theatres over a certain size in this county are almost exclusively run by European-American men does not change. Too often “diversity” means “we hired some Black people” or “one director is a woman.” We have diversity without equity, because the decision makers and gatekeepers preserve that power for the privileged.

Theatres, almost every single time you’re looking for a new Artistic Director, you hire a man. It’s so pervasive I’m finding myself involuntarily assuming that every decision is rooted in sexism, assuming the man was hired because he was a man. I find that thought popping into my head even when I know better, even when I personally know and respect the man and would hire him myself. I wonder which women they refused to seriously consider. I look at so many young women with so much promise, and it breaks my heart thinking they’ll have to watch man after man they hired and trained be promoted over them.

There’s a lock on the boys’ club of artistic leadership, and current artistic leadership, including boards, holds the key. A few festivals of plays by women, or giving a Black woman an internship, is not bringing meaningful change. Put women and people of color on your boards. Hire women and people of color for positions of power. Remember that Black female intern when a position of artistic leadership becomes available. Until then, you’re making me wonder if you’re not just trying to quell dissent to shore up your own cultural and professional power by committing to diversity without committing to equity.

“I would love to hire more women. I just can’t find any.” The indie scene is dominated by women and people of color. What I don’t understand is why those women and people of color seem to fade to invisibility when larger theatres dip into the indie community to look for new talent, bringing up European-American men with far more frequency, and at far earlier stages of their careers, than women and people of color. I’ve run an indie theatre for 20 years, and I’ve seen it happen over and over and over. What makes you look at a young European-American man with very little experience and see “promise” but look at a young woman of color with more experience and see “she’s not ready”? Keep your eyes on the local scene, wherever you are, and make an effort to seek out women and people of color. Wherever you are on the budget spectrum, there’s someone working at the level “below” you that you can bring up, and every time you bring someone up, you’re putting them into the pipeline that ends at LORT and Broadway jobs. Be conscious of whom you’re putting into that pipeline– think about to whom you’re giving opportunities. Are you hiring with gender parity? Are you hiring people of color? Or are you hiring 84% European-American men?

Fighting for social justice means fighting your unconscious bias all day, every day. It means continually examining your opinions and motivations. There’s no finish line where the crowd screams in envious joy as Rebecca Solnit and Michelle Obama pour gatorade on your head and hand you a NOT SEXIST trophy. This takes work. It’s OK to fail at it and keep trying. Just please keep trying.

 

 

 

 

 

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I Don’t Mind Voting for a Man, Just Not THAT Man

Listen, I’m not sexist. I would totally vote for a man. I would vote for that one guy who’s not running (don’t you just LOVE him?) in a heartbeat. The mayor of our town is a man, and I voted for him. Or, I mean, I would have; I was really busy that day. I would, personally, LOVE to vote for a man. Just not THAT man.

First of all, his personality is just abrasive. Who wants to listen to that screech, screech, screech? Ugh, it’s like a nagging tirade every time he opens his mouth. Seriously, his aides should get him a secret shock collar to zap him whenever his voice starts to get screechy. It’s like he’s always yelling at us. His opponent’s passionate speeches are so much better. When she gets going, whew! She gets fiery, amirite? It’s hard to resist that kind of sincere, intense passion. You can just tell she cares by how passionate she is.

And his look, let’s face it, is just frumpy. Did you hear how much he paid for that pantsuit? He’s always wearing those ugly pantsuits. His hair is a catastrophe. Is he trying to look older or younger or what? It’s just embarrassing. He says he cares about the people, but he can’t even handle his own look. Ugh, care about the fact that we have to look at you. Imagine having to watch that for the next eight years, just getting older and frumpier.

Remember that thing he said 30 years ago? Right?! Listen, I know his opponent agreed with him at the time, but she had good reason, and then she evolved on the issue and really fought hard for it ten years later. He only came out for it and fought for it when it was politically expedient for him, like a freaking DECADE later. And we’re expected to trust him?!

I don’t trust him. There’s not an honest bone in his body. I know I was using factchecking sites like snopes and politifact to support my points for the last eight years, but now they’re clearly in his pocket because their hard research and facts don’t support my belief that he’s untrustworthy, which, come on, we ALL know is true. Have you seen that homemade youtube video??? It really shakes my faith in Pulitzer prize-winning factchecking sites. Who can you believe, right? What is he hiding, right? He’s never been indicted, but he *will* be. He could be. He should be. For something. I just feel it in my bones. He’s untrustworthy. Look at him! Listen to his screechy voice. It’s just something about him. No man gets to that level of power without some kind of cheating. I just know it.

Speaking of cheating, his wife. LOL5000! He wouldn’t be where he is without his wife’s fame, power, and influence. And she is shady af. Look at all this shit she said and did! Her behavior clearly indicates he can’t be trusted. Why did he stick by her all these years? Because he needed her for his schemes and plots to grab political power, that’s why. All his success comes from her. Would we even be talking about him if he wasn’t her husband?

He’s just so . . . aggressive, you know? Too aggressive and pushy. Always pushing his point of view. Like, UGH, it’s not all about you. You can just tell he’s power-hungry. And don’t you think it’s kind of, well, unmanly to be so aggressive all the time? So emotional. Do we really want a man like that running the country? He just seems so unsympathetic. It’s not about him being a man; it’s about him being unsympathetic, overemotional, and untrustworthy.

The only reason people vote for him is because he’s a man. What has he actually achieved? No, not the stuff about men’s rights, ugh, that doesn’t count. Of course he does stuff for men. And not the stuff about children’s health; I mean real stuff. No, those doesn’t count, either, because he didn’t support those positions from birth, and why would you trust someone who listens to his constituents and changes his point of view? No, those also don’t count, because they were compromises, not exactly what I wanted, and why would I support a politician who compromises?! Why can’t his supporters find anything good to say about him? I’m listening; I’m waiting. But they can’t. They only support him because he’s a man and they’re voting with their penises.

Listen, like I said, I would vote for a man in a heartbeat, just not THAT man. I would happily support a man if there ever was one who was flawless, pure, and perfect in every deed, word, and thought. Until that day comes– and I welcome it!!!– we’ll just have to stick to the flawed women candidates we have.

 

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Whiteness Is a Disease

I’ve been sitting on this essay for months, because I’m a coward. I’ve been through so many attacks this year for writing about race and for writing about the Democratic primary that I was afraid to post this, despite how deeply I believe in it. And then the events of the past few days– the extrajudicial executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile– happened and I could no longer live with my cowardice. Our Black brothers and sisters are taking their lives in their hands every time they leave their houses, and I’m afraid to post *an article* because I’ll be sent more attacks and threats. I was ashamed by my desire to protect myself with privilege and silence. So here is my essay.

 

Whiteness.Jessica.Rath

“Whiteness” by Jessica Rath

We use the phrases “white people,” “white America,” and the like all the time. I say that I’m “white.” I experience “white” privilege routinely. But how do we define “white”? What is “whiteness”?

While the usage of the term “white” has been used for millennia as a physical descriptor (along with “black” and similar descriptors) often attached to various cultures or groups, the term “white” was first applied as a cross-ethnic racial category in the late 17th century, created specifically around the racialization of slavery. (I hate to use wikipedia as a source, but this isn’t a bad summary.) “White” was created to mean “not Black, therefore, culturally superior and not subject to slavery or racial discrimination.” This meaning has never substantially changed.

Jews, the Irish, and southern Italians were not widely considered “white” when the first large waves of immigrants came here in the late 19th century. They slowly became “white” over the 20th century, through a process of assimilation that, in some cases, involved assimilating “white” America’s anti-Black racism. It’s important to note there’s no consensus about that process. There’s a great deal of academic discussion about who was considered “white,” when it happened, and what regional differences there may have been. But just the fact that there’s room for argument, the fact that there are differences of opinion even amongst experts, proves that there is no essential “whiteness.” “Whiteness” is a constructed social category that means nothing but “accorded cultural superiority.”

Irish American. Swedish American. French American. English American. Ashkenazi Jewish American. Scottish American. Greek American. Polish American. These are legitimate ethnic identities tied to proud cultures, traditions, heritages. These are identities and heritages of which one can (and should) be proud. Being “white,” however, has no intrinsic meaning. It means nothing but “accorded cultural superiority over people of color, especially Black people,” and, as such, the only heritage, culture, and traditions of “whiteness” are slavery, lynching, racism, oppression. “Whiteness” was conceptualized as a weapon to use against Black people, and as such, it’s spawned an extraordinary amount of social ills. When you raise children to understand their proud Greek, French, or even American heritage, that means something specific about your family, its past, and its connections to a long and storied culture and history. When you raise children to understand they are “white,” that means literally nothing but which position they occupy within a deliberately created system of racial hierarchy. “Whiteness” is a disease from which an enormous amount of our social ills have sprung. It’s time to dismantle the concept of whiteness.

I’m not calling for the dismantling of the concept of “Blackness” because Blackness is completely different. Blackness is an ethnicity, a culture with many subcultures. Black culture developed in this country because we ripped people from an enormous variety of different cultures (research shows that most Black slaves came from one of 46 different ethnic groups), threw them all together, often isolating them from anyone who spoke their native language, told them they were now “Black” instead of Ibo or Temne, told them they were now Christian instead of Muslim or adherents to their traditional tribal faiths, and tortured them the second it looked like one might be considering disobedience. Faced with an unimaginably traumatic disconnection from their cultures of origin, Black people in America together created a vibrant, strong, detailed culture with multiple subcultures, and with multiple linguistic and artistic traditions, influenced by their cultures of origin but crafted into something unique that would have (and continues to have) an enormously disproportionate impact on American culture as a whole. Black people make up just 13% of this nation. Yet how much of American music, language, and art comes from Black culture? This culture, with all its subcultures, miraculously created like a fucking phoenix from the ashes of one of the worst human rights atrocities in human history, is so powerful, so rich, so potent, it has, despite being the culture of just 13% of our people, invented just about everything you love about America. A Black woman invented rock and roll, Black people invented every piece of slang you use (I’m not even going to link that because we all know), Black people invented nearly every form of music we label “American” (jazz, blues, hip hop, gospel). Black inventors have revolutionized multiple industries. A Black man invented the home video game console. Black culture is so rich and influential, it makes America American, and spreads far beyond the borders of America to influence cultures all over the world.

When all is said and done, and America has joined the ranks of Great Dead Societies, Black American culture will have been as globally influential as Greece or Rome. To say that an American is “Black” is to tie them to a very specific, robust culture that is intrinsically tied to race because “white” Americans forcibly grouped them as such. It means something culturally specific in the way that “white” does not. (BTW, this is why I capitalize “Black” but do not capitalize “white.”) I’m sure Black people would have loved to have had the luxury of coming here (or not) by choice, and identifying as Nalu American or Ewe American, or, as many modern immigrants do, Nigerian American, Ethiopian American. That choice was denied to them, and they created a unique, robust culture of their own.

“White” Americans, on the other hand, nearly all came here by choice– even the indentured servants— and had the luxury to preserve their culture, or not, as they chose. I don’t mean to denigrate the enormous pressure for late 19th/early 20th century immigrants to assimilate, or the racism some (including my own ancestors) faced. But they came here by choice, and, despite those pressures were able to retain much of their cultures of origin.

“White” people didn’t put together a “white” culture with “white” traditions that became an entirely new ethnic identity. People from varying ethnic traditions identified as “white” for the sole purpose of oppressing Black Americans, then navigated back to their specific ethnic, regional, or religious identities at will.

Each and every one of the people who fall under the category “white American” have a more potent, more meaningful, more, let’s face it, real culture than the constructed racist identity of “whiteness.”

If your family has been here so long it’s lost all connection to its culture or cultures of origin, you have multiple options to move past your “whiteness.” You can reclaim a heritage identity; you can identify as “American,” you can identify with your region or religion. You have numerous options, many of which, I would wager, you already use. There’s no reason to cling to a label that was created specifically to be deployed as a weapon of  oppression.

If we can step away from the concept of “whiteness,” we can step towards equity. I’m not naive enough to believe that people will magically lose their racism when they start identifying as “Finnish American” instead of “white.” But I do believe that language shapes thinking, and that what we call something– or someone– shapes how we think of them. If you call yourself, and people who look like you, “white,” that will have an impact on how you think about yourself and others. Restructuring how we understand “white” people into various ethnic categories that are not definitionally hierarchical is a step, one step, in the right direction towards eliminating the many structures and systems of racism that exist in American culture, American minds, American hearts. Eliminating the concept of “whiteness”– seeing ourselves and each other in terms that are not specifically defined by who is accorded cultural superiority– is a step toward eliminating that cultural superiority and building equity.

I’m not naive enough to think that whiteness is something I can unilaterally renounce for myself, and step out of the white privilege that exists as a prominent part of my intersectional identity. But I do think that all of us living as “white” people together taking responsibility for the impact of “whiteness” on people of color, renouncing that label and hierarchical concept, and claiming identities not based in deliberate cultural hierarchy as a tool for oppression, is one first necessary step towards dismantling white privilege. White privilege will always exist as long as we reinforce the racist concept of “whiteness.” This will take generations, so we better get cracking.

Refuse your whiteness. It’s a disease that feeds on Black lives. Claim identities that speak to your truth, not to a history of oppression.

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How We Stop Abuse in Theatre

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The initial response to the devastating exposé of the abuse at celebrated Chicago theatre Profiles Theatre was swift and decisive: we were all appalled. Nearly everyone in the industry decried the abuse in no uncertain terms. We were appalled that a theatre would continue to allow such actions, even from a founding member and a widely respected (and lauded) artist like Darrell Cox. “How could this happen?” we asked ourselves. “Not in our house,” we repeated, echoing the Chicago group bravely attempting to stem abuse in Chicago theatre.

And then, because we were not the ones accused, we went about our business, which includes hiring abusers and making excuses for them.

When I posted the story on social media in June, I wrote that I would stand by anyone in the Bay Area who needed someone to stand with them. A number of people contacted me privately to share their stories. Not one was willing to come forward publicly for fear of retaliation and public scorn. A few refused to name their abusers, instead providing me with leading clues like, “won X award X year” or “directed a lot of [playwright] during [years].” One mentioned that she initially wanted to file a report to AEA, but was cautioned against it by other women– fear the consequences, she was told. For good reason– our culture is unkind, to say the least, to women who publicly speak out about their abuse, especially at the hands of powerful men. Our first impulse is to call her a liar, out for personal gain. As if anything could be gained that way but scorn, trauma, pain.

I thought long and hard about what to do with these stories. I won’t make public accusations because these aren’t my stories to tell, and I will not violate the consent of these people who bravely shared their stories with me. But I will take this knowledge and create a primer for fellow Artistic Directors and others in positions of power– including board members– at theatres to give them a clear picture of where we have failed our people over the years and how we can do better in the future. I will not name names. But I can point to where we went wrong.

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1. Make sure that everyone working in your theatre understands that you have a zero tolerance policy for abuse. I never did this, trusting to our “culture of respect,” and I count it as one of my worst failures as an Artistic Director. Openly state your zero tolerance policy while clearly defining “abuse” and clearly stating consequences. Not in Our House (linked above) is developing a Code of Conduct for non-AEA theatres that they are allowing others to access online, but not to adopt unless they are a designated pilot theatre. They hope to release adoption in 2017. Until that time, it’s a great document to use as a model to create your own basic set of rules. While we cannot yet adopt their code, I feel strongly that we in the indie theatre community cannot continue to run with *zero* code of conduct. If you’re an AEA theatre, do not assume that everyone on your team knows and understands AEA rules of conduct. Make sure everyone knows what you expect, and what you will not tolerate. THEN ENFORCE IT.

2. When people come to you with stories of abuse, complaints that someone is making them uncomfortable, complaints that someone is not respecting their boundaries, LISTEN TO THEM and BELIEVE THEM. Quietly take other members of the team aside and talk to them to get a clearer picture about what’s happening if necessary, but believe me, very few take the risk to come forward without good reason. Then enforce your zero tolerance policy with its clearly stated consequences. Do not protect abusers, minimize abuse, or sweep it under the rug.

3. Pay close attention to the behavior of the people you have on staff. People will not always be brave enough to come forward about bad behavior. Sometimes people gaslight victims by claiming that the abuse is “just the way he is,” “not a big deal,” or “just because he’s a genius and passionate about his work.” Victims begin to second-guess themselves and worry about the consequences of coming forward when others are minimizing or excusing bad behavior. There could easily be problems, even abuse, in your house without anyone coming forward to tell you about them directly. We must be proactive. Think: Has any director in your theatre ever berated an actress in rehearsal until she cried? Has any director in your theatre insisted they could block a fight themselves, despite their lack of training and/or certification, putting your actors at risk? Has anyone in your company publicly derided the work of others on the project as “stupid,” “worthless,” or “idiotic”? Has a choreographer ever told an actor in rehearsal they were “talentless” or “useless”? Has anyone on your team made a racist, antisemitic, sexist, transphobic, ableist, or otherwise bigoted joke? Has a production photographer joked publicly that he was only planning to take pictures of the scantily-clad young actresses in your show? Does someone in a position of power at your company proposition young actors, start affairs with them while they’re under contract, single them out and flirt with them during rehearsal? Has someone in your company threatened to dock someone’s pay for refusing to do something that’s outside the scope of their contract? Has anyone in your company violated any contract (for example, used someone else’s writing or fight choreography without permission) and insisted that others maintain secrecy? Pay attention and nip that behavior in the bud.

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4. Stop hiring “geniuses.” As I say above, “he’s a genius and just passionate about his work” has long been used to excuse abusive behavior. We’ve created a mythology around the “auteur” whose passion is so great that he “can’t help” flying into rages, berating people who “aren’t on his level” or who don’t give him exactly what he wants (as it changes from day to day or he fails to be clear about it). Sometimes his affairs with young actors in the show are part of his “passionate” persona. He just can’t help himself! He makes unreasonable demands and insists others work around the clock to satisfy them. When his work is racist or sexist, lavish excuses are made for it. It’s “brave,” “daring,” or “honest.” Asshole “auteurs” are not cute. They are assholes. And more often than not in this collaborative art form, the work suffers for it. No one is doing their best work when their goal is to keep someone from screaming at them. Make “respectful” a more important quality in an artist than “mad genius.” And while I’m using the male pronoun here because the “auteur” mythology is largely white and male, these people come in all types. Stop hiring “geniuses.”

5. Stop perpetuating the mythology that anything should be tolerated because “the show must go on.” This is, in part, a corollary to #4 because it’s trotted out as an excuse for the behavior of the asshole “auteur.” “We just need to get the show up” is a fact, but you don’t “just need to get the show up” at the expense of the health and safety of the people working on it. Your “auteur” does not actually need to behave like a jackass, and only does so because it’s tolerated. You don’t actually need to hold people after the stated end of rehearsal. You don’t actually need to brush off the very real concerns of your actors about working without a fight director. You don’t actually need to brush off the concerns of your actresses about an actor creeping on them backstage. There is always a choice.

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I understand these conversations are difficult to have. I understand your “genius” has been a member of your company, or its AD, for years, and contributed wonderful things to it. Perhaps your “genius” is even a founding member, like Darrell Cox, or a personal friend. I understand that your “genius” makes your theatre money and wins it awards, again, like Darrell Cox. I understand that you believe the ends justify the means, because the livelihoods of others are dependent upon the success of your theatre, and that’s a real, palpable burden. I understand that your “genius” likely believes his behavior is totally justified, and will be resentful and angry if called out. I understand– believe me I understand– that even people who aren’t protected by a “genius” status are protected by the fact that you believe you will be screwed without the work they’re doing for your company.

But you do not need to tolerate this behavior. It may be as simple as laying down the law with someone and being clear about what you will not tolerate. It may be that this person refuses to address their behavior, and they need to be let go before they demolish your mission, your reputation, and your company.

You do not need to keep hiring these people. For every “genius” you hire repeatedly despite known bad behavior or even known abuse there are five overlooked artists who are wonderful to work with.There’s no reason to tolerate this behavior.

I have made errors in my career because I believed I “had no choice,” but I did. There is always a choice. And I will carry the shame of those decisions until my dying day. I remember the names of every person I failed to protect, either because I believed wrongly that I had no choice, or because I was ignorant of what was happening in my own house (which is just as much my fault, because if someone wasn’t coming to me, or if I failed to see something, that’s on me). It’s a weight I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

As long as we continue to protect, excuse, and ignore bad behavior, it will continue to happen. As long as we continue to reward bad behavior and even abuse with future employment, prestigious awards, and coveted positions, we’re plainly stating to our community that our people are worthless to us; that people (especially white men) in powerful positions are untouchable; that speaking out will be ignored or punished; that there’s nothing that can stop the abuse.

But there is. WE CAN STOP IT by refusing to continue tolerating this behavior. By refusing to continue protecting and rewarding abusers. By refusing to continue pretending that the bad behavior of “geniuses” isn’t abuse but “passion.”

WE CAN STOP IT. It’s our choice.

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Dear Senator Sanders: Please Save America

Senator Sanders:
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I have been talking and writing about income inequality (and its impact on both our country and my industry) for years. I was thrilled to see that issue move from “un-American communism” to smack in the middle of the national conversation, and for that, I have Bernie Sanders to thank. I wrote in April that you had already accomplished all you were going to accomplish this election cycle, but what you had accomplished was breathtaking. That this movement MUST continue, MUST succeed, for the good of the nation. I sit here as a Jewish woman stunned by three things I never believed would happen– a serious Jewish candidate, a woman as the presumptive Democratic nominee, and one of the most important issues facing our country suddenly on the table.
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This is a massively historic moment.
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Senator Sanders, I sincerely thank you. And I sincerely hope you don’t let your personal political aspirations destroy a movement that literal lives are depending on. Now that you have the nation’s ear, you can do so much more about economic injustice from your Senate seat than you can as POTUS. POTUS has a zillion issues to contend with, but economic justice can be your legacy. Return to the Senate. Build coalitions– work with people, compromise, win people over– push legislation that makes sense, that will actually pass. Make incremental progress every moment until you can no longer fight. THAT’S where we need you– not in the seat that signs or vetoes, but in the seat that WRITES.
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Stop refusing to stump for downticket races unless they have endorsed your presidential bid first– those people on the ground will be your left and right hands in this movement going forward. You need them. We ALL need them. Change begins at the grassroots level.
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Please, please do not sacrifice this movement– one of the most important political movements of our lifetimes– on the altar of your political ambition. WE NEED YOU WRITING BILLS IN THE SENATE and then using the political clout you’ve gained over the past year to get them passed and signed. You’re focusing on continuing to push forward in a lost primary in order to gain power to influence a platform that’s essentially just a wishlist when you could be focusing instead on the actual legislation that will make those wishes a reality.
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The issue of economic injustice and the way it has prevented our nation from achieving anything like the equality and hope we say we stand for is the point upon which turns an America that means something and an America that happily disenfranchises women, people of color, the disabled, LGBTQ people, and many more. Either we approach this issue intersectionally, tirelessly, and immediately, or we become a third world nation. That’s what’s at stake, and Senator Sanders, you are our best hope. We desperately need you in the Senate, writing bills and using your newfound clout to pass them. America has given you an immense gift– more power than 99.999999% of the people in this nation. Use it where we need you most.
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Senator Sanders, you could permanently change the nation for the better if you use your power and fame wisely. Or you could throw everything you worked for away and leave the American people who need you in the Senate– who need you drafting legislation and getting it passed– hanging because you want the big chair despite losing the election.
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I know it’s hard to lose. But we’re counting on you. You currently occupy one of the most elite, powerful seats in the nation. Go sit in it and make things happen. Change America for the better. You already have this power. Please use it for the good of the country. The primaries are all but over, but your Senate seat is empty. That’s where we need you.
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Senator Sanders, please return to the Senate and start the hard work of leading a movement to save this nation. You already have so much power. You don’t need more to get this work done.
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Sanders, Trump, and their Angry White Men

This is the Election Cycle of the Angry White Person, Mostly Men. This particular kind of Angry White Person supports either Trump or Sanders, and is defined both by their privilege and by saying they’d rather stay home than vote for anyone else. A surprising number of Sanders supporters have said they will vote for Trump if it’s HRC/Trump. This phenomenon bears examining.

This is a certain type of Angry White Person, not all angry white people everywhere, just in case you’re feeling fragile and need a #notallwhitepeople or #notallmen. Or even a #notallSanderssupporters, because it most definitely is a subset, and a minor one at that, but so vocal, so active, so, well, LOUD, they’re impacting the election cycle as a whole. I may yet vote for Sanders myself, not that it matters, as I’m in California and our primary is like five minutes before the election.

This subset of Angry White People I’m talking about are attracted to either Trump or Sanders, period. Their personal politics will push them in one direction or the other, but the basic exchange between voter and candidacy is exactly the same.

Right now, white people are starting to lose their privilege (or, more accurately, fear they might lose it) as we strive as a culture for equilibrium. White people are being asked to examine their complicity in a system that’s racist, sexist, ableist, transphobic, etc. Many white people, especially men, are upset and angry that they, who believe they are good people– who ARE good people– who believe they are “not racist” and “not sexist,” are still associated with systemic oppression, still asked to examine their privilege. Unjustly accused, they believe, of being “the bad guy.”

Along come two angry white men, both of whom say “America’s problems are not your fault. YOU’RE the victim of an unjust system. You have every right to be angry! The system is rigged against you, so get angry and fight back!”

This is music to the ears of a certain type of white person. Trump lays it at the door of “political correctness” unjustly oppressing white men, and Sanders lays it at the door of an unjust economic system. I agree that economic injustice is a massive problem in the US, but that’s immaterial to the point I’m trying to make.

Many Sanders supporters are baffled when their fellow Sanders supporters say they would stay home and allow Trump to win or even vote for him themselves should the general election be Trump v HRC. Liberal and progressive politics center around championing the vulnerable, and in general, those voters recognize the danger that Trump– and the GOP in general– present to the vulnerable in the US. They understand that the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good when actual lives are at stake. They know that the luxury to pretend that Clinton is the same as Trump only comes with the kind of privilege that insulates one from the consequences of the election. They understand what Sanders’ support of feminism and anti-racism initiatives means.

But, as we’ve seen, not every Sanders supporter actually listens to Sanders, and many are so caught up in the message that they, as white people, are victims of an unjust economic system that they refuse to consider how the consequences of this election might impact people more vulnerable than they, making them “Bernie or Bust.” And while there are indeed “Bernie or Bust” people of color, the vast majority of them are white– the vast majority of Sanders’ supporters in general are white. It’s been a problem dogging the Sanders campaign from the beginning and the reason he’s not likely to win the nomination.

This particular type of Angry White Sanders Supporters are defined by their response when it’s suggested that they should “vote blue, no matter who” in the general election to protect the vulnerable against the real dangers of a Trump presidency. They reject, with angry indignation, the idea that the actual lives of the vulnerable should take precedence over what they’re mistakenly calling their “conscience,” but what is really “my anger is more important than the lives of the vulnerable.” They say, “If I’m Bernie or Bust, don’t blame me, blame Hillary Clinton,” which means exactly same thing: my feelings matter more than, to name just one example, protecting Muslims from the policies of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. They’re more than willing to sacrifice the safety of vulnerable Americans if they don’t get precisely what they want. They see compromise as a line impossible to cross, no matter the cost– especially when the cost is one they themselves will not have to pay.

This kind of Angry White Person is excited to finally be in a place where they’re back in the center, where they’re The Victim, where they’re no longer associated with The Bad Guy, The Man, The White Male Monolith, The Patriarchy. They finally have a place that tells them that they’re the true victims of injustice.

Of course they aren’t going to vote for HRC; of course they’re going to believe whatever debunked propaganda they can find about her, of course they’re going to disparage her in sexist terms; of course they’re going to demonize her. There’s a certain kind of person who needs to believe the propaganda about her, because he’s enraptured by a world wherein white people, especially men, are the victims of an unjust system, not the architects and enforcers of one. He can’t– or he won’t– entertain the notion that white people can be both simultaneously. “Bernie or bust” = “my worldview at ALL costs.”

(And here it is again, in case you tend to confuse “people who do this” with “all you people do this”: #notallSanderssupporters #notallwhitepeople #notallmen.)

While White Anger is pretty much the alpha and omega of the Trump campaign, it’s only part of the Sanders campaign. Yet it’s such a vocal part that it’s become one of the most persistent negative aspects dogging it, doing Sanders much more harm than good.

There are two kinds of anger dominating Sanders followers: The first is the righteous anger over decades of economic injustice bolstered by every aspect of the oligarchy we foolishly made of the republic we were given. It’s an anger that recognizes that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, Islamophobia, and every kind of injustice and bigotry are serious problems in and of themselves in addition to, not in opposition to, economic injustice, that recognizes the importance of intersectionality. These are people fighting for the vulnerable, whether their own intersectional identities fall into any of those categories or not. I believe these are the (somewhat silent) majority of Sanders supporters. I hope they are. I would count myself among them, no matter who I vote for in the primary. In the general, I will proudly cast my vote for either Democratic candidate, because these issues– these people– matter to me.

This brings me to the particular kind of White Anger I’m discussing– the second kind of anger dominating Sanders followers. It’s an anger that rejects any consideration of other issues, that rejects any consideration of others, period. The White Anger that revels in its own importance and cannot, even for a moment, entertain the notion of having to return to a place where their white privilege or their male privilege– their association with, and potential complicity with, systems of oppression– becomes important, instead refusing to leave the circle where they can claim that they are the ones against whom the gravest injustice has been committed, everyone else be damned. The people who would throw the vulnerable under the bus to preserve the illusion that they are the ones suffering the gravest injustice, deserving of the most urgent attention, and entitled not just to the front of the line, but to the entire line.

 

 

 

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“I’ll Never Vote for Hillary!” Yeah, OK.

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The latest installment of “The Internet Explodes with Hatred for Hillary Clinton” happened earlier this week, when HRC (whose own record on AIDS research and funding is better than any other candidate) mistakenly said that Nancy Reagan was a lowkey supporter of AIDS research, when Reagan was, in reality, a massive asshole about AIDS in every possible way. Clinton immediately apologized, then apologized again, at length. Yet we’re still seeing a wagonload of “I’ll never vote for her” from progressives, as if her words about Reagan trump (and I’m using that verb deliberately) her actual record on AIDS research and funding. Why?
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Clinton’s stellar record on AIDS is ignored while people indignantly attack her for making an inaccurate statement. I like Bernie. I really do feel the Bern. But I see Democrats brush aside things he and other male politicians have done while raining fire on Hillary for the exact same thing– or something much less. This happens all the time. Hillary is flamed for being a “career politician” and an “insider” when Sanders has been in political office for much longer than she has. (Hillary was first elected to political office in 2000; Sanders was elected to his first office in 1981 and his first national office in 1991.) People flame Hillary for speaking in favor of the omnibus crime bill in the 90s when she was First Lady– a position with no political power– but Bernie, as a member of Congress, actually had the power to enact it into law, voting in favor of it despite the fact that many of his colleagues did not.
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I’m not here to argue Hillary vs Bernie. I genuinely like them both. I’m here to say that I’m sick of seeing her reviled for the same things people forgive easily when they’re done by men, and that the stakes are too high this election cycle to indulge that or leave it unexamined. If you’re reviling Hillary for saying something racist and stupid in 1994 in favor of a crime bill that turned out to be a very bad idea, but you’re not reviling Sanders for actually using his political power to make that very bad crime bill law, I want you to take a long, long think about why that is. If you’re reviling Hillary for campaign contributions made by banks, but did not revile Obama for the same thing, I want you to take a long, long think about why that is.
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Those of us who are old enough to remember what it was like to live under Reagan and the Bushes remember how bad it was. How much better almost everything– including the economy and job growth— got under Clinton and Obama. I lived through it, and I would support half a Snapple as the Democratic nominee rather than go back to the policies of Reagan or (any) Bush.I see people swear up and down their hatred of Hillary isn’t because she’s a woman, or doesn’t stem directly from decades of vicious, lying conservative propaganda— they will swear it!– and then immediately turn around and eviscerate her for something Bernie did (or is) himself, or call her a “crook,” or say nonsense like, “She doesn’t have an honest bone in her body.” Conservative copywriters, whoever you are, I applaud you for your success in taking a complete and total fabrication and successfully integrating it so far into the American consciousness that there are people who agree with nearly every policy position HRC has today, yet will still claim she’s “dishonest.” That’s some impressive chicanery, and I mean that.
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We should be closely examining all candidates for office, and balanced, honest criticism of a candidate’s record and policies is crucial. Respectful debate about the candidates is necessary and healthy. But supporting Sanders should not be the same as hating Hillary. Too many people are not debating the candidates and their various records or platforms logically, instead viciously reviling Clinton– often in misogynistic terms– for things they routinely excuse in male politicians. And I have to say, the level of unfocused, irrational vitriol feels an awful lot like what conservatives have been doing to Obama for years.

There’s not a thing wrong with choosing Bernie over Hillary, or disliking Hillary’s current policy proposals. However, the out-and-out hatred we’re seeing from some Sanders supporters (and about which I am hardly the first person to write), bears some serious scrutiny. While the Sanders campaign has made real efforts to deal with the worst of it– the “Bernie Bros” acting as a misogynistic mob, attacking Clinton and her supporters Gamergate style; the “Bern the Witch” controversy– there’s still far too much active hatred, and far too much of it is misogynistic or coded misogyny. Far too much of it stems from willing belief in conservative propaganda about HRC that has been debunked over and over.

I think we all expected it, but I did not expect it from our side.

It’s one thing to prefer one candidate over another. That’s healthy. That’s admirable. It’s another to actively HATE a candidate for doing EXACTLY the same things as the last three men you voted for, despite her liberal record.
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Let’s think practically about the election in November.
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If Trump gets elected, how many vulnerable people will be hurt, how many programs cut, how bad will the the economy get under conservative policies? How much damage will be done if Trump, an open racist and misogynist, is empowered to command our military, veto bills, and nominate people to the Supreme Court, impacting life in the US for decades to come? Trump exhorts his followers to attack Black protestors at his rallies (“The next time we see him, we might have to kill him,” a follower said  after punching a Black protestor at a rally earlier this week), excuses his followers who attack Mexicans on the street, claims Mexican immigrants are rapists, refused to distance himself from the KKK, supports banning Muslims from even entering the US, advocates killing the families of terrorists, and is openly sexist. Trump is the worst America has to offer.
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How privileged do you need to be to imagine that it’s a good idea to risk the actual lives of vulnerable Americans because you “hate” Hillary so much you vow to stay home if Sanders doesn’t get the nomination? How protected from the consequences of a Trump presidency do you need to be to think your hatred of Hillary constitutes, as I saw someone say earlier this week, an “inviolable principle,” meaning, more important than the actual lives of vulnerable Americans? That all applies equally to anyone saying the same about Sanders. (We have yet to see the full weight of American antisemitism aimed at Sanders, and if he wins the nomination, we most certainly will.)
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Vote for whoever you like in the primary. But let’s step away from vicious attacks and hatred. Let’s step away from buying into debunked conservative propaganda about Clinton’s trustworthiness. Let’s look at the candidates’ actual proposals and weigh those proposals’ actual strengths and weaknesses. Let’s respect each other’s choices in the primaries.

And whoever becomes the Democratic nominee, the stakes are far, far too high for us to selfishly stay home because we didn’t get our first choice. I will happily, proudly vote for either Clinton or Sanders, and I hope you will do the right thing and join me.

NOTE: The comments for the post are now closed. Thanks for reading Bitter Gertrude!
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White People: Shut Up About Beyoncé

After the release of her game-changing, brilliant video, Formation, and the stir her Superbowl halftime show caused with dancers dressed like Black Panthers, Beyoncé is blowing up everyone’s feeds everywhere. And one thing I am shocked/notshocked to see is white outrage about both.

Let me begin by saying that I’m not a Beyoncé fan. I’m not a fan of any of the pop divas. I don’t have anything against them; it’s just not music that interests me. So Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Madonna, Mariah, Adele, I apologize, but I’m sure you and your massive success could not possibly care less that I would rather be listening to punk or classical. The only reason I’m pointing this out is to make sure you know I’m not a Beyoncé fan. This is not about defending a beloved star.

Let me tell you what it IS about.

The vast majority of Black people in the US are descended from people who were dragged here against their will and forced to live in a culture that shut them out completely from mainstream artistic production for 400 years. For 400 years, Black people were living in a culture where their pain, their culture, and their art were appropriated and sanitized for white consumption, or, more often, shut out of the narrative entirely, replaced by racist caricatures or rendered invisible. For 400 years, the stories of Black people on this continent were untold, belittled, or made the tools of white narrative and white profit.

Now we’re in a cultural moment where there are powerful, mainstream Black artists telling Black stories that may or may not include white people, may tell uncomfortable truths about white people in Black lives, or may use white people as metaphors. For 400 years Black people were used as metaphors in white art, so my sympathy for “not all white people” and “that’s not fair” is somewhere at the bottom of a pile of Magical Negroes, Gone with the Wind, and token Black friends.

In this cultural moment where powerful, mainstream Black artists like Beyoncé are telling their stories on their own terms, the white people who controlled the narrative– including how and when Black stories have been told– for the past 400 years need to sit back, shut up, and listen, listen, listen. You don’t like how white people are being portrayed? Spend some time thinking about why Black artists are portraying white people that way instead of demanding they adjust their stories to conform to your self-image as “the good guy.” We are not the heroes in these stories. We are not the intended audience. We are irrelevant, and there’s nothing people in power hate more than to be made irrelevant, but the fact remains that these are Black stories, by, for, and about Black people. You don’t like it? Don’t watch. But I recommend that you do, and give it some real thought. This is their truth. You do not get to dictate how Black artists see or portray their own lives.

And if the image of the tiny child dancing in front of a line of police officers, who then surrender to him, does not move you after little Tamir Rice (and so many others), you have no soul.

Formation-surrender

The line of riot police surrendering to the power of a beautiful dancing child is not “anti-white” or “anti-police.” It is pro-hope, pro-life, pro-art, and pro-Black. If you don’t like the metaphor of the line of white police officers here, I suggest you spend some time thinking about why Beyoncé chose it.

The Formation video and the Superbowl show are examples of a powerful Black woman at the top of her game brilliantly telling Black stories for Black people, brilliantly seizing the narrative and asserting the beauty, power, and truth of a people who have been stringently and deliberately silenced for centuries in this country.

The call for Black women to get in formation, get information, and celebrate their power gave me chills. You hear a lot about “Black excellence,” and Formation is a potent reminder that Black excellence isn’t something created by white people congratulating themselves for bending down to hand out opportunities. Too many of us define “white ally” as “someone who is desperately needed by Black people to help them, and therefore deserves all the cookies.” Black excellence is already there, has always been there. It doesn’t need white validation, and the lack of fucks Beyoncé has for white validation from the center of her Black power is giving some white people fits.

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Beyoncé, I hope you’re bathing in a marble tub full of white tears this morning.

My fellow white people: Listen. Listen. Listen. This is a Black moment, rarer than rare in this culture. If you don’t like the way Black artists portray white people, work on changing the impact of white people in Black lives, not on telling Black people they’re wrong about their own lives.

SIGNAL BOOST: “We Slay, Part I” by New South Negress is an excellent analysis of Formation.

IN ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTIONS:

  1. No, the title is not meant literally.
  2. No, I am not an angry Black lady, but thank you for the compliment.
  3. No, capitalizing “Black” does not reveal a secret plot for racial superiority. Capitalizing the word “Black” in reference to people is a linguistic thing. “White people” has a squidgy definition and refers to a hodgepodge of people from varied ethnic groups, all of which are capitalized, such as “Celtic people” or “Swedish people.” “Black” as shorthand for “The people of the African Diaspora living in the United States” is rightly capitalized as “Black people” in the same way we say “French people.” “African American” is linguistically and historically troubled because “Africa” is a continent with thousands of disparate cultures, and the people we label as such were forcibly separated from most aspects of their cultures of origin when they got to the US, creating an entirely new, coherent culture best described as “Black.” Of course, the word as an ethnic descriptor has other applications (“Black people in Germany,” for example), but this is the one I’m using in the article. Not all linguists agree, but that’s my position.

 

 

 

 

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The Oscars: As Silly and Useless as Ever, and Yet Crucially Important

The Oscars are nonsense. They’re Hollywood’s Homecoming Queen elections, as insular, as clique-ish, and as disconnected from any actual merit as any Homecoming election in any rich white high school. Rich white people congratulating each other for the kinds of achievements attainable only by people sitting atop an obscene amount of money– their own or someone else’s. They ask you to believe that the actual best acting, best directing, best editing, and best design of the year just always happen to be located in the one narrow strip of filmmaking that (entirely coincidentally!) has the most funding.

So the Oscars are more or less the Tonys of the filmworld– limited to a very narrow strip of exceptionally well-funded work while we all pretend the awards somehow represent the best of the nation’s work as a whole.

Most of the artists who receive Oscars or Tonys did a fine, in many cases excellent, job. I begrudge them nothing and honestly wish them nothing but the best. But it’s important to remember that we don’t give awards for the “best” work in theatre or film because we don’t even consider most work, and, most importantly, there’s no objective way to measure whose artistry is “the best” once you’ve eliminated some of the obvious worst– and, let’s face it, when it comes to Oscars for acting, even that’s seldom done.

We give these kinds of awards based on how an artist makes us feel; generally, how an artist makes us feel about ourselves. There’s an old saying: “When the audience cries, it’s not about you; it’s about them.” The people who vote for these awards are no different.

Despite the fact that these awards are meaningless as measures of artistic merit, they contain an immense cultural value. A great deal of that stems from the narrative of artistic supremacy created by Broadway and Hollywood. There are an entrenched group of extremely wealthy and powerful people whose fortunes depend on you continuing to believe that Broadway and/or Hollywood represent the pinnacle of American performative art. They’ve built and expertly marketed a superstructure of dreams and wishes that will make people who’ve never worked in either Broadway or Hollywood defend their artistic supremacy as if they’re defending their own children. I actually admire the way Broadway and Hollywood have controlled that narrative. There’s a terrible beauty to that level of cultural manipulation.

An immense part of that narrative of supremacy is rooted in the cultural supremacy that comes from cultural saturation, something only money can buy. A film like Fifty Shades of Grey–a film of questionable merit on many fronts— had the financial backing to play in theatres all across the country (and the world, but our cultural exports are a story for another blog), saturate the market with advertising, and command enormous press attention, garnering $166 million at the box office ($570.5 globally) and a basket of award nominations for The Weeknd for Best Original Song (Oscars and Golden Globes among them), while literally hundreds of much better films lacked the financial backing to receive such culturally potent– and lucrative– attention. Fifty Shades of Grey becomes, therefore, a permanent part of our culture, attaining a position of influence unrelated to merit, created by the wealth of its backers. People in the BDSM community were largely aghast at the misconceptions about themselves and their lives now lodged like a tick into the national consciousness. Now people who have never met anyone in the BDSM community “know” what “those people” are like, will make decisions about “those people” based on that. The power of cultural saturation coupled with the myth of artistic supremacy is immense. Everyone sees X + X comes from an “important” source = X is truth, even when X is demonstrable bullshit.

This is why, despite the fact that I will laugh in your face if you tell me the Oscars have artistic meaning, I think it’s crucial that we look closely at the messages we’re sending when we shut people of color out of those awards, because those messages have immense power in the real world.

First of all, do not bother to comment that a number of people of color were nominated for the Oscars this year, including Best Director and Best Original Song, mentioned above. I know many people who work behind the camera, and I am keenly aware that the current discourse is limited to the actor awards. It irritates me that tech people, directors, designers, and writers are so easily disregarded, and that the work of actors is regarded as so much more important in a medium where the work of the actor is actually of far less import than the underscoring, cinematography, and editing. The cultural primacy of the film actor exists, whether I like it or not. There’s a culturally important mythology around film actors that just doesn’t exist for most of us behind the camera. They are our mythological figures– our Achilles, our Ajax, our Helen, even our Artemis, Athena, Hermes, Apollo. We create unending mythology about them and their lives. The mythological Jennifer Lawrence is a combination of Artemis and Dionysus in our culture right now. Yet the real Jennifer Lawrence is just a young woman, no different than any other. We have raised her (more accurately, a mythologized version of her) to a mythological height that makes what she eats, what she wears, what she says, what she does, and who she sleeps with a matter of national interest, just as humans once created stories about what their gods ate, wore, said, did, and nailed. Film actors are seen, in essence, as metaphors for Human.

Because the Academy members are nearly uniformly white men over 60, the awards are almost always given to other white people– human metaphors that are emotionally potent for the person voting on the award. When an award is given to an actor of color, these older white men are still voting based on how the artist makes them feel about themselves– in this case, self-congratulatedly “not racist.” Then, satisfied that they got the Good White Person cookie, they go right back to nominating and awarding reflections of themselves.

So when we choose a thin, able-bodied, all-white pantheon to honor for film acting, it says that the people who are the best metaphors for Human are thin, white, and physically “perfect.” Our culture is filled to the brim with negative portrayals of people of color. When children grow up, they look to the culture at large to determine what’s expected of them. Are we really OK with a culture that tells children of color– on the cusp of becoming the largest population of children in this country— that they’re not as worthy as white children? For that matter, are we really OK with telling our girls that their worth is indelibly attached to their attractiveness to men? Because we do both, all the time, and they’ve resulted in a million different kinds of cultural and personal problems.

So I applaud the Academy’s response to the current controversy. I think increasing the amount of women and people of color on the panel is the best thing the Academy can do, since that diversity will result in more diverse choices. What needs to happen concurrently, of course, is better representation of women and people of color across the board in Hollywood, just as there should be on Broadway and across the professional theatre community as a whole.

But let me be clear here: (coughs, turns on mic) NOTHING CHANGES IF ALL THE GATEKEEPERS CONTINUE TO BE WHITE MEN.

The Academy is making the best possible decision. I hope it happens in time to make swift changes, not glacially slow ones, as is too often the case. And our own best possible decision is to increase the number of women and people of color who are in gatekeeping positions of power in the rest of the film industry and in theatre.

It’s a massive problem if the solution to a lack of diversity becomes asking white men to please hire more women and people of color, thank you. We need more women and people of color in these decision-making, content-creating positions of power or all we’re doing is preserving the cultural primacy and power of white men.

 

I’m not saying that we should fire all white men and give their jobs to women and people of color. I AM saying that when these jobs become available– when it’s time to hire artistic directors, producers, and the like– let’s consider hiring someone other than the white guy every single time. I’ve been watching this for a couple of decades now, and almost every time a position of power opens up, it’s filled by a man, usually white, always able-bodied, usually straight. Out of 70 LORT member theatres, 50 (71.4%) have white male Artistic Directors, 16 (22.8%) are led by white women, 4 (5.7%) by men of color, and zero by women of color. When you consider that white men are just 31% of the population, that’s significant favoritism at play.

It’s nonsense to say that there are just fewer women qualified to produce either theatre or film. The indie world is dominated by women. We just don’t promote them to the high-paid gigs as often as we do the straight white guys because our hiring practices are exactly the same as our awarding practices– the white guys in power are looking for reflections of themselves.

We’re asking the existing people in power who created the lack of diversity in the first place to create the diversity we want. And they will, to a point, if we push hard enough. But as soon as the cultural attention moves elsewhere, those people– straight white able-bodied male people in power– will go right back to making decisions that reflect their own experiences of the world– will go on making decisions that mythologize people like themselves– because they are human, and that’s what humans tend to do. And yes, there are many white men who are committed to diversity in their theatre or film companies, but they are, obviously, the exception or we wouldn’t be here, sitting in the middle of dismal diversity stats.

All I’m asking is that we, who work in these industries, make conscious decisions to include women and people of color when we’re hiring for these gatekeeping positions. We understand the immense cultural power of the actor, but we who work in these industries– most of us behind the scenes– also understand the even more potent gatekeeping power of the people who choose the actors– and everyone else on staff.

There’s nothing wrong with telling stories from a straight white male perspective. They are humans who deserve to have their stories told. But we need to make room for the other 69% of our population as well. The way to do that is to ensure that the people making the decisions about what stories get told, how they’re told, and who tells them are representative of the population as a whole.

In case you’re interested:

Over the course of its history, 66 Black actors have been nominated for an Oscar and 15 have won; 28 Latino actors have been nominated and 9 have won; 17 Asian actors have been nominated and 4 have won. This is the 88th Oscars, meaning 352 awards to actors have been given overall out of 1760 nominees.

Black actors nominated = 3.75% of total nominations; Black actors awarded = 4% of total awarded

Latino actors = 1.6% of total nominations; 2.5% of total awarded

Asian actors = 1% of total nominations; 1.1% of total awarded

For comparison, Black people are 13.2% of the US population; Latinos are 17%, and Asians are 5.6%.

 

 

 

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