Monthly Archives: October 2016

“Artistic Freedom”: The Lie We Use To Defend The Indefensible

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“Leap into the Void,” Yves Klein (photographed by Harry Shunk), 1960

When I write about diversity in representational media (theatre, film, TV, video games), often the white anger (and there is always white anger) uses “artistic freedom” as its battle cry. “Artists should create whatever they want, without restrictions,” or “Total artistic freedom is sacred. Telling artists they must include diversity is wrong.”

The secret is: Every professional knows there’s no such thing as “total artistic freedom.” We always must work within certain parameters. At least half of the artistic process is finding artistic solutions to technical problems. 

The space you’re working in has physical constraints. The budget has limits. The contracts you’ve signed with the company, the playwright, the actors, the techs, all limit what you can add (or subtract) from the text, how long you can rehearse, even what can and cannot be done on stage. Props don’t work the way you imagined. An actor can’t perform the blocking you’ve set in the costume you approved. You discover three weeks before opening that the set you approved is over budget and needs trimming. The incredibly important piece of specially-designed tech hardware is stuck on a truck with a broken axle four states away and the earliest it will be in house is now Sunday afternoon. Maybe. When it shows up Monday at 10pm, it doesn’t work. Your lead actor’s visa wasn’t approved and she’s still in London. The suits show up to a late rehearsal or a shoot and demand a change. The studio has paid for product placement, and now you must work SmartWater into three scenes.

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Subtle. 

This? This is the tip of the iceberg. It’s a magical day when everything goes according to plan and no changes need to be made.

The idea behind “artistic freedom” is one of the best ideas ever: Artists should be able to engage with the world around them without constraints such as censorship. Artists with artistic freedom create better, usually more impactful and important, art under those conditions. But those conditions always exist within a given framework. Some constraints are practical (time, space, and budget), some are legal (the law, your contracts), some are ethical (best practices), some are artistic (imposed on the artists by the director or producer, or just by the basic parameters of the project), and some are social (updating outdated topical humor, avoiding lines, characters, or narrative tropes that would be considered racist, etc). Although not every artist recognizes or follows every constraint every time– sexual harassment is a huge problem in all these industries– artists as a whole work within these constraints without questioning them.

The social constraints we work within are never questioned, and usually framed in terms of audience response– a joke your audience won’t find funny, public controversy that could impact sales, or a scene that evokes a hostile audience response, which is entirely dependent on your social context. I’ve staged plays in Berkeley without an iota of controversy that later were picketed elsewhere in the country. Conversely, I’ve been sent plays whose entire plots centered around the Horrible! Revelation! that Someone! Had a Same Sex Affair! In College! My Berkeley audience would laugh out loud at the idea that anyone cared about your same sex college fling; such a play is unstageable here no matter how well-written because the premise is nonsense within our particular social context.

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Land that I love. (Source: berkeley.edu)

So when we talk about the need for increased diversity (or the need to examine how various types of people are portrayed) in the theatre, film, and games we make, why is that seen as a massive, impossible imposition on an artist?  We’re already working within a number of constraints and considerations, and, frankly, removing race as a primary consideration, instead using just type, talent, and skill set, doesn’t seem much of a constraint at all to me. All it takes is stating in calls (or instructing your casting people) that you’re open to actors of all races and ethnicities, and suddenly your hiring pool is expanded, not constrained.

That said, if you believe your work demands an all-white cast, no one is restricting– or can restrict– your right to use an all-white cast. No one can stop you from casting every lead with a white actor for the entirety of your career. So what, exactly, upsets people so much about calls for more diversity? Why is there so much angry backlash to discussing diversity in art? What people are upset about is that now consumers and critics are complaining about it. They don’t just want the freedom to use all-white casts, crew, and/or writing staff–they already have that. They want the freedom to do so without criticism.

This, by the way, is what they mean by “taking America back”– back to the days when shutting out people of color was completely uncontroversial.

Due to this desire to create all-white art without criticism, there has been an immense backlash, especially from the alt-right, about the very concept of using social criteria like diversity or the portrayal of women to evaluate art. They claim that this is a new development brought on by “political correctness” run amok, and that in the golden past, before feminism or Black people with twitter accounts, art was solely evaluated as art, and critical discussions of its social messaging were nowhere to be found.

This is, of course, bunk.

For centuries, art has been evaluated, formally and informally, using social messaging as part of the critique. In 472 BCE, Aeschylus was publicly criticized by Aristotle, who claimed Aeschylus’ play The Persians, about the Persian defeat at the hands of the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, was too sympathetic to the Persians. Playwrights in Renaissance England went to great lengths to hide their critiques of the  church or the government in metaphors that would get past the censors. When Paul Robeson played Othello in 1930, reviewers criticized the choice to cast a Black man instead of a white actor in blackface. One wrote: “There is no more reason to choose a negro to play Othello than to requisition a fat man for Falstaff.” There are literally thousands of similar examples from the past.

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Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Paul Robeson as Othello in the 1930 Savoy Theatre production. 

There are, of course, nearly as many examples from the present as well. While the right (alt and otherwise) bitterly condemns using diversity and other social justice-based criteria in evaluations of art, they themselves do this all the time. The right’s response to Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance is an excellent example. Her performance came under fire solely for its pro-Black social messaging, which many on the right took to be “anti-white” and, somehow, “anti-police.” Ads for Old Navy and Cheerios featuring interracial families came under fire from right-wing racists for their social messaging alone. Evidently “interracial families eat breakfast and enjoy Old Navy 30% off sales” was a bridge too far for them. In 2012, the wildly popular, highly rated video game Mass Effect 3 included same sex relationship options (as they had throughout the series), but really came under fire for including a bedroom scene that many homophobic players complained bitterly about. (Of course, those of us who played through the game knew you had to click through many conversations with that gay character, continually taking the obviously marked “romance” option, to trigger that scene, or go out of your way to seek it out on youtube. But that’s none of my business.)

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Steve Cortez from Mass Effect 3, who lost his husband to a Collector attack.

While some people do not wish to be told that people would like to see more diversity, they clearly have no problem telling us that diversity is, in essence, wrong.

There’s only one conclusion to draw here, and it’s not about “artistic freedom.”

For those of us who work in representational media, and must work within constraints both out of our control, like physics and budget, and well within our control, like personal artistic goals and vision, “artistic freedom” can be a touchy subject. We want as much artistic freedom as we can get, in part because we know that in reality, our freedom is constrained in multiple ways. Those of us calling for increased diversity (and equity) in film, theatre, TV, and games are simply asking our fellow content creators to consider diversity an important artistic criteria that exists alongside  all the other self-imposed artistic criteria we all have.

Making a commitment to diversity is actually reducing your constraints, because it widens your hiring pool. Once you make the decision that a role can be cast with an actor of any race, or a show can be directed by a person of any race or gender, suddenly your hiring pool becomes much wider. Making a personal commitment to diversity increases your artistic freedom because it gives you far more to work with.

There is no true “artistic freedom,” including the many constraints artists put on themselves as they strive to meet (or exceed) their artistic goals. Encouraging others to make personal commitments to diversity– and holding them accountable when they do not– increases the artistic freedom both of the individual artists who would be widening their hiring pool considerably, and the artistic freedom of the industries as a whole, that would have a wider variety of artists working within it, which we all know is a massive strength.

So don’t believe anyone who tells you that calls for increased diversity or using diversity as a criteria for evaluation is limiting “artistic freedom.” We know better.

 

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The Response to “Pussygate” Oozes Hypocrisy

After every horrific thing Trump has said and done– insulting Mexicans, Muslims, the disabled, a Gold Star family, the poor, journalists, women– suddenly his 2005 off-camera boast, caught by a hot mic, that he’s able to sexually assault women (“grab them by the pussy,” and “get away with it” because he’s “a star”) has his supporters among the GOP fleeing like rats leaving a sinking ship.

After every horrible thing he’s said and done, why is this suddenly the line that loses him almost all his support? It’s not like he hasn’t insulted women in the past. He’s openly attacked individual women throughout the campaign– Megyn Kelly, Alicia Machado, Elizabeth Warren, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Katie Couric, Angela Merkel, Carly Fiorina, Heidi Cruz, Meghan McCain, Ana Navarro, Bette Midler, and Cher, just to name a few. He has publicly speculated about dating his own daughter. When it comes to women, he’s never made it a secret that he’s a monster.

His outrageous racism, sexism, xenophobia, narcissism, startling ignorance, childish bullying, petulant tantrums, open hatred of freedom of the press, and contempt for anyone who doesn’t lavishly praise him have slowly eroded his GOP support, but his boast about sexual assault was the nail in the coffin of his candidacy, losing him the support of the RNC itself and many prominent GOP politicians, many of whom are calling for Trump to step down. What that would mean for the GOP is unclear since voting has already begun– tens of thousands of mail-in ballots have been filed so far.

Various scenarios, each more dubious than the last, have been floated by desperate Republicans in the past 48 hours. Trump could vow to step aside before swearing in and let Pence become POTUS (because what American really needs is a man who thinks women should be legally required to pay for funerals for miscarriages and abortions— now that’s respect for women!). Trump could step aside now and be replaced on some, but not all, ballots if the Supreme Court allows it (unlikely, since the problem is just that the GOP chose an asshole, not that he’s been incapacitated by illness or killed in a plane crash, although I would not put assassination past the RNC at this point.) The election could proceed as planned and the electoral college could just choose to vote for someone else, violating the law in states where the electoral college is legally bound to honor the popular vote, with Republicans speculating they would somehow magically be able to protect these electors from the law through the sheer force of national hatred for Trump. (“No way would they be prosecuted,” they argue, because Republicans have always been so adept at predicting the future.) But that presupposes Clinton won’t have enough electoral votes to win, which is becoming increasingly unlikely.

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Whether or not Republicans sort out how to rid themselves of the eternally squawking bigoted albatross they fashioned out of stale circus peanuts and bile and hung around their own necks, my point is that Trump viciously attacked women for months in this campaign– entertainers, politicians, private citizens, even foreign leaders– and no one cared. But when he threatened women in the abstract, well, now, that’s a different story.

America has centered a massive amount of its cultural mythology around “protecting women,” especially white women. But we only care about women in the abstract.

We use the “protect our wives and daughters” excuse to get all kinds of laws passed that directly harm real women. We pass laws that are solely designed to restrict access to safe abortions, and to close clinics that provide OBGYN services to women, putting their health (and the health of their babies) at risk. We restrict transwomen from access to women’s restrooms. We have a long history of creating laws to “protect” women in the abstract that restrict and oppress real women.

When Trump finally made an egregious attack on women in the abstract by boasting about sexually assaulting “women” as an abstract concept, politicians and pundits immediately denounced him and distanced themselves from him. When he went after real, living women, the nation collectively shrugged. When he was accused of sexual assault of a minor by a real, living woman, the nation collectively shrugged. When he went after “women” as an abstract concept, we drew the line.

People who drew the line at Trump’s boast about getting away with sexual assault are the very same people– on both sides of the aisle– who  belittle, minimize, and otherwise cast doubt on the testimony of real women who have been sexually assaulted, especially when they have been sexually assaulted by wealthy and powerful celebrities using their wealth, power, and fame as a cover for their actions. Sexual assault victims who speak out are routinely disbelieved and even attacked as “liars.”

We worry about the “promising futures” of young rapists, and give them laughably light sentences, especially if they’re white and/or athletes. Campuses ignore reports of sexual assault, issue slaps on the wrist to violators, or even punish women who report sexual assault. We routinely blame women for their own assaults for wearing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, drinking the wrong thing, or being in the wrong place, despite all the evidence we have the shows without question that none of those things matter. We refuse to adequately support processing rape kits.

Yes, what Trump said about his ability to sexually assault women and “get away with it” is horrific– just as horrific as everything else he said when he was still getting the full-throated support of millions of Americans and the GOP establishment. I’m glad many more people are finally understanding– or pretending to understand as the national zeitgeist shifts– why Trump is an execrable human being whose soul is best represented by a grainy image of a pile of rat droppings in a broken cooler half-buried in a toxic waste dump.

Women are people, not symbols of male honor in either protection or conquest. When women speak out about sexual assault, we’re not going off-script in your honor narratives about us for our perverse pleasure. We’re just– and you may want to take a seat for this– telling the truth. The tiny percentage of false sexual assault reports do not change anything. The vast majority of us are telling the truth, yet when we speak out, we are automatically mistrusted, disbelieved, looked at with suspicion. Our stories are minimized and dismissed. Our culture despises sexual assault in the abstract, but we revile the real women who speak openly about being sexually assaulted in real life. They’re disrupting male honor narratives by accusing real men of real crimes. If she’s assaulted, either men failed to protect her or she’s ungratefully rejecting an honorable conquest. There’s no way for men to preserve their honor narratives when real women are sexually assaulted. While men openly despise sexual assault in the abstract, they also openly revile real women who speak out about real sexual abuse. Even in the face of incontrovertible proof, they will find ways to blame the victim. If she’s a woman of color, the blame is intensified sevenfold.

So excuse me if I roll my eyes at all the Republican men clutching their pearls this weekend about Trump’s statements.

Men, especially you Republican men suddenly jumping off the SS Trump Is Human Garbage as it burns and sinks into the briny deep: The next time a woman speaks out about sexual abuse, especially if the abuser is wealthy, powerful, and/or famous, remember how publicly outraged you were about Trump’s comments. And remember that we will spare no mercy in decrying your hypocrisy when your first response to a real victim is to doubt and mistrust her. Do not think we will forget that you’re only interested in protecting women in the abstract.

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VOTE.

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