Our Role in This as Artists

Like pretty much every blogger, the plan I had for my next post got chucked out the window after the violence at UCSB. I’ve been closely following #YesAllWomen on twitter, the news stories, the many, many blog posts, the many discussions on facebook. Like we all have been. Like so many women, I’ve been repeating the truth: This isn’t at all surprising. This is just the extreme example of what women experience all the time.

The reaction to that, honestly, has surprised me far more than the attack itself. I expected some blowback, but I didn’t expect the AMOUNT and TYPE of blowback I got. Things like, “We need to wait for more information because I didn’t believe a word of that manifesto,” “You need to have more compassion for men. We’re sick of this vitriol,” “You’re just making men angry and scared,” “A lifetime of being nice to women down the drain because of one asshole,” and “Man hating is just as destructive as misogyny.”

I was shocked, and it’s embarrassing to admit that I still have that much potential for naiveté. I have a husband and two teenage sons, as well as a host of friends I count as male allies in this fight. I’m well aware of “not all men.” I never expected that simply pointing out that cultural misogyny exists, that women experience this kind of violent misogyny regularly, and that the events at UCSB are only exceptional by degree, would cause so many men (and even a few women) to flip so directly out in so many bizarre directions.

feminist-cartoon

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that. The responses fall into two categories: You’re making men feel bad, and you don’t know what you’re talking about. When a woman is saying “I have, like all women, experienced harassment, abuse and/or violence at the hands of men, so this recent misogynistic violence is no surprise in that context” what makes a man respond with some version of “MY FEELINGS COME FIRST” or “SHUT UP, YOU’RE WRONG”? And of course “NOT ALL MEN,” a combination of both. What makes that small handful of women respond with “STOP MAKING MEN FEEL BAD”?

I’ve read a lot of the excellent blog posts about this issue (examples are here and here), and they all say more or less the same thing: Americans are force-fed a master narrative from birth that describes a man’s place in the world: You deserve access to a woman’s body because you are “nice.” You should be rewarded with a woman (or women) for performing certain tasks and/or succeeding in certain areas. If a woman you want rejects you, just keep trying until you wear her down because you know better than she does what she “wants” or what’s “good for her.” The corollary, of course, is that women who reject a “nice” guy or complain about male harassment, abuse, or violence are committing an act of gross wrongdoing against men as a group.

Image

Enough people have completely bought into these fantasies to make them a pervasively destructive part of our culture. Both men and women have internalized them, perpetuate them, and, when challenged, angrily defend them. They frame anything that might prevent a man from achieving the master narrative as massively unjust. The many Elliot Rodger fan pages on facebook alone attest to that. The conservative backlash that’s working overtime to equate “man-hating” with cultural misogyny is another example. It would actually be funny if it weren’t such a dangerous idea– it’s like equating calling a straight person a “breeder” with a fatal gay bashing.

Where does this destructive master narrative come from? Where is this disseminated in our culture? Film, TV, theatre, books– narrative art. WE MADE THIS. Not alone, but we did, indeed, make this, and we need to start thinking about that. Hard.

Sure, parts of the narrative are thousands of years old. But there are plenty of old ideas we no longer choose to disseminate. We have the choice whether or not we continue to tell this narrative. We have the choice whether or not we continue to reinscribe this into our culture.

I’ve long had the desire to fire every romantic comedy into the sun. I despise romcoms, and I never spent time figuring out why. Now that the answer is in my face, it’s undeniable: they’re one way we disseminate all of the worst ideas about relationships we have as a culture, including (especially) the male master narrative. What was once just an annoyance to me now looks like the worst kind of reprehensible irresponsibility. And that’s just one tiny corner of the art we produce.

It’s easy to say, Oh, it’s just a play; it’s just a movie, etc. But there is no “just.” The narrative art form is POWERFUL. The human brain can experience narrative as if it’s happening in real life. The brain of a person telling a story and a person listening to that story experience neural coupling. Art is where we discuss who we are as a culture; our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our past, our imagined future. It’s the most important aspect of how our culture is created and how it is changed. Stories are the building blocks of culture, and we’re the ones who create and tell those stories.

My feelings about romcoms.

My feelings about romcoms.

I thought a lot about why there are people with relative privilege who can read (for example, this is in no way meant to be comprehensive) “men harass, stalk, rape, and kill women,” “cis people oppress trans* people,” or “white people marginalize people of color” and see the truth in those statements without freaking out, while a whole wagonload of men (and a handful of women) have recently demonstrated they can’t see “men harass, stalk, rape, and kill women” without having a butthurt rodeo and calling it “vitriol” and “betrayal.” Here’s the answer: Some people with privilege are actively committed to social justice, and have been working their asses off. They already know they’re part of the problem and that they contribute to misogyny, transphobia, and racism unwittingly all the time. They’re working hard to root out all the little hidden places where those exist in their psyches. They listen to women, trans* people, and people of color. They’ve committed to the process of figuring it out. They’re not consciously misogynistic, transphobic, or racist, but they’re aware the culture has drilled into them a million little bigotries they’ll always be in the process of locating and squashing.

The people who cannot handle hearing that they, or others of their group, are responsible for systemic cultural injustice or violence are people who are either so protected by their privilege they are truly ignorant of that, and/or who are so invested in their privilege they can’t abide anything that might potentially challenge it. In this case, male privilege is connected to the internalized male master narrative. Women all over the internet have been talking about their experiences with male violence, and the pervasive fear women face every day. The man who responds “NOT ALL MEN” is someone who is far more concerned with how he is being perceived, and his feelings about that, than about her actual experience of violence because from birth he’s been exposed to a culture that has TOLD HIM that anything that impedes his access to her is an injustice TO HIM, including her fear; that he is a better judge of her experience than she is, and that his experience is more important than hers in all cases, even when the match up is rape vs hurt feelings. That’s something we need to change, and because that is, I truly believe, a minority of men now, this change is achievable. I have an idea where to start.

wecandoit

We have to own our part of cultural bigotry if we’re going to be productive adults fighting for social justice, and it’s useless to say “not all men/white/cis people.” Because A. Truckload of duh, everyone already knows that; B. It’s derailing someone else’s story of oppression with your story of butthurt; C. It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference that it’s not all men/white people/cis people because it’s CLEARLY still FAR TOO MANY; and D. Uh, yeah it is. It really is all men, all white people, all cis people, even if you’re trying. Even if you’re trying hard. All you can do is KEEP TRYING. There is no bigotry master cleanse you can go on that will allow you to excrete all the bigotry the culture put into you. All you can do is keep trying. And listen.

We, as artists, however, are uniquely positioned as creators of culture to effect real change. We need to start thinking about all the many ways we create the culture that instills misogyny (and all bigotries against difference) into people.

As artists who create culture, we can take the first step by pinky swearing to each other that we will STOP disseminating that male master narrative. Stalking a girl, hitting her boyfriend in the face, or tricking her into having sex will not “win” someone a woman in real life. A woman who rejects a man is not in a “pre-yes” phase of the real-life narrative. (“Just give him/me a chance” is a line that should automatically cause your computer to crash as you type it.) Being the “nice guy” will not automatically “win” someone a woman in real life. (As many have said before me, women are not machines into which you put “nice” coins and sex comes out.)  Winning a contest, landing a great job, or overcoming some kind of adversity will not automatically “win” someone a woman. Women are not prizes granted for achievements. The male master narrative is a destructive lie, and we need to stop using our platforms to tell that lie. Writers and producers: I am looking at you. WE CAN DO BETTER.

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I’m not saying we need to stop creating male-centered work, or stop showing sexy-looking women in our work, or whatever it is you’re imagining if you’re having the OUTRAGE feels and getting ready to make some tiresome comment about CENSORSHIP or (ughbarfshutup) POLITICAL CORRECTNESS. Make your boob-centered posters. Make your love stories. Make art about men. There’s no need to obliterate every straight male thing. There are straight men in the world, and their stories have as much value as anyone else’s. What I’m saying is: Let’s stop telling straight-up lies about a man’s rights to a woman’s body. Let’s think twice about putting time and money into work that approvingly shows a man “winning” a reluctant woman because he was “nice” or won a ski-off or punched a guy. Let’s think twice about putting time and money into work that positions a woman’s “no” or resistance as meaning “try harder,” and that stalking a woman is romantic rather than terrifying. Let’s think about what we’re putting into the world with our art.

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22 thoughts on “Our Role in This as Artists

  1. Amen – heartbreaking and true: “This isn’t at all surprising. This is just the extreme example of what women experience all the time.”

    >

  2. Lora Vatalaro says:

    Amazing post. Thank you for your articulate and passionate intelligence.

  3. A wonderful call to action for writers, artists, story tellers and people who care about change.

  4. miltonpat says:

    People are very resistant to being called out and unwilling to look within. It’s seen as “playing the race/gender card.” Also, “Why are you so angry?” when it is actually quite obvious why.

    With the UCSB tragedy, there was an intersection of hot-button (emotionally charged) issues – guns, racism, misogyny, mental illness, bullying – and pp seemed to feel that a complex issue was being watered down when one facet was examined. This is probably exactly the wrong way to look at it: all these facets are important to examine, one by one.

    Thank you for an eloquent post. We as artists have a responsibility and can take action.

  5. Adam Versenyi says:

    Thanks, Melissa.

  6. The College Theatre Dork says:

    You have never written a bad post on any topic, I feel….but this one is perfect. Sharing it with everyone, everywhere.

  7. ewee says:

    Great post…one small quibble…that “Chinese proverb” is sometimes also attributed to George Bernard Shaw. Not sure that it’s true that he said it, but given the fact that we’re talking oppression theory/intersections here, seems like it might sit better than the esoteric ancient Chinese proverb shtick.

    • Yeah, hence my comment about exactly that on the picture.

      • Since I knew it most likely wasn’t Shaw, I spent a little time tracking down the original source of the quote. It looks to be Elbert Hubbard, anarchist and libertarian socialist. Source quote: “Some one has said that we are moving so fast that when plans are being made to perform some great feat, these plans are broken into by a youth who enters and says, ‘I have done it.'”– from “Heart to Heart Talks with Philistines from the Pastor of his Flock,: Philistine Magazine, 1913. Then this is revised and attributed to him in 1951 in “The Treasury of Humorous Quotations” by Evan Esar as “The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.” Since it excludes women, I don’t think I’ll post the 1951 version. Haha. I’ll find something else.

  8. chasbelov says:

    Time to reread my plays for possible edits.

  9. Kerry Reid says:

    One of the surest markers of privilege is when someone equates being made to feel “uncomfortable” with “being blamed.” I see this dynamic over and over and over again. “You are telling me things that reflect badly on people with whom I happen to share some demographic characteristics, therefore I am uncomfortable, therefore I have been incommoded and that is somehow wrong and bad and you now need to reshuffle your priorities to taking away this discomfort.”

    And if you should happen to remind them that there is no guarantee that one goes through life free of discomfort or blame, then the “why are you so angry?” argument comes out.

    And these are just the discussions I’ve had with putative male allies. Okay, sure guys — I get it. You don’t like being lumped in with rapists, child molesters, abusers, mass murderers. But A) if you need the “not all men” cookie handed to you, then you’re being a jerk. And B) You know what trumps your “discomfort?” Being raped, molested, beaten, harassed, denied promotions and pay and access to opportunities because of your race/gender/sexual-gender identity/ etc., etc., etc.

    My personal Defcon button was pushed this week when a guy who claimed “17 years” experience “writing about crime and mental health” (whatever that means — he did condescend to point out that he wasn’t a psychiatrist or psychologist) insisted that what I “need to understand” about Rodger is that it was about mental illness, not misogyny.

    Of course the two must be mutually exclusive, right? Misogyny can’t just be a larger societal manifestation of mental illness, right? Somehow, I think if Rodger had left anti-Semitic videos or anti-black-or-brown people videos, or anti-gay videos, it wouldn’t be quite so hard for some of my male putative allies to call him anti-Semitic or racist or homophobic. Not trying to play Oppression Olympics — just pointing out that a lot of men I know on the left react badly when the topic of misogyny comes up outside of legislative contexts — i.e., supporting Lily Ledbetter, contraception/abortion rights, etc. When it gets to daily behavior and perceptions, somehow they feel that using the “Well, I just don’t see it” line is exculpatory. Because clearly what women tell them can’t be trusted. They need their big ole empirical-evidence brains to judge for themselves because we hysterical wimmenfolk might just be exaggerating or making shit up about oppression.

    And when I called him on the mansplaining, he resorted to Sulky Male role. Again — this is a guy who thinks he is “a good guy.”

    Good lord, if he received some of the hate mail, death threats, and other things that women writers (especially those who dare to write about feminism) I know ROUTINELY get in their in-box, I think he might have a smidgen of an idea of why what he wrote was so offensive.

    Okay, sorry to thread-jack. But thank you again for putting this out there so eloquently.

    • YUP. I had someone actually say they were going to check with their facebook friends (a totally random sampling, there!) to see if coded certain misogynistic terms were really a thing since he just didn’t use those words that way.

      This person has at least one masters degree in books that I would decline to finish reading due to unnecessary areas of inquiry and ridiculous wording, so I’m pretty GD sure he knows how actual sociological case studies and language work. Apparently, he could only suspend his general disbelief that human beings general say things that are both important and true long enough to earn a few degrees, but just couldn’t hang on any longer to listen to one woman in particular…who was quoting a published written by a woman she didn’t even know, about behavior that she has seen people engage in repeatedly enough to want to write an article about it.
      Why do trolls swallow our friends??

  10. Kerry Reid says:

    Oh hey — while I’m venting: if you’re ever tempted (you, the imaginary strawman to whom I am now speaking!) to say to a woman who is talking about feminism “Well, you need to consider the bigger picture” or “what you really should work on is classism/environmentalism/whateverism” — Just. Fucking. Don’t. Because again A) despite being women, we can actually multitask B) feminism DOES engage with all those other issues all the time and C) women and feminist issues are not “special interests” or side dishes at the banquet of political priorities.

  11. Sam Tilles says:

    This is all really well put. I loved especially how you articulated the irresponsible position of #notallmen– either these unconscious individuals are too protected/ignorant by the privilege of the narrative or are so invested in it that they block out all of its challengers. Thank you for phrasing that so well, because it is imperative that our culture (finally) understands this.

    #notallmen represents everything that mutes progressive voices in our society. It reveals the architecture of the oppressive paradigm that has always plagued our world. It resembles other prejudiced scars of our culture that continue to hold back our society from moving forward. It needs to be put in its place!

    In any situation of injustice, whenever somebody speaks out, it is the organized bodies like #notallmen that appear benign, but totally impede proper retribution, and continue to suppress forward thinking.

    I think you’re right– the best way we can contribute to navigating through these snagged times is lighting the way with our art. Art reveals the collective consciousness, shows oppressed individuals that they are not alone, inspires bystanders to (hopefully) engage, and invites new, more enlightened social values to thread their way into our minds.

    #notallmen represents the unjust framework that has held the greater masses back for too long, let’s artistically pull the rug from under its feet!

  12. Sam Tilles says:

    PS – your images are astounding and awesome

  13. pmatcho says:

    This post is so inspiring. Thank you!

  14. Reminded of Mandela’s comment that “a saint is a sinner that keeps on trying.” And reminded of many ideas on oppression of women.

    Elaine Morgan, in The Descent of Woman, posits that human evolution to the missionary position pitted male instinct to breed against mammalian instinct to protect its abdominal organs. Females struggling against the new approach met the sex drive/power drive combination of homo sapiens sapiens. Rape was born. And its emotional rationalizations.

    Pioneering books by others preceded it, but Wolfgang Lederer’s Fear of Women (1968) hits some high notes, too.

  15. I predict I’m going to be quoting this article in the next week, especially the parts about “blame” vs “discomfort” and “feels” vs “violence”.

  16. Nancy says:

    There is nothing inherently misogynist about the rom-com genre – just lately it’s been taken over by misogynists, starting with the asshole who gave us “Love, Actually” and reaching its ultimate expression in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”

    http://tigerbeatdown.com/2009/04/26/forgetting-sarah-marshall-superemosogynisticexpialadocious-if-you-make-a-film-of-it-its-really-quite-atrocious/

    If you want to trash all rom-coms you have to explain how “His Girl Friday” is misogynist. I’m directing/producing my romantic comedy play this summer and I dare you to call it misogynist. Trashing an entire genre is just intellectual laziness.

  17. Nancy says:

    And BTW – guys don’t even have to be “nice” to get the girl in our culture’s narratives.

    The theater world considers this a beautiful romance: a guy who won’t take no for an answer writes to a woman every week for a year in spite of only receiving one response, stalks her, spies on her through work and family, humiliates her, mocks her family’s names and her community, and then when he has her alone in a boathouse and she asks him to leave, refuses – and then when she tries to leave herself, he physically restrains her from doing so. When she tries to call her brothers for help, he covers her mouth.

    And in spite of being such an asshole, gets the girl in the end.

    This is the plot of the 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning TALLEY’S FOLLY.

  18. Povonte says:

    This is a fantastic article! True and close to the bone.

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