Tag Archives: feminism

How Theatre, Film, and TV Can End Sexual Harassment

During Thanksgiving, I was having a conversation with a very liberal family member. He was adamant that he supported and believed women. Then he immediately went on to tell me that women are exaggerating about sexual harassment. We had had this conversation before. I had sent him links with hard data and links with personal stories. “Did you read the links I sent you?” I asked him. “Yes. I still don’t believe it’s as pervasive as women say.” This man says he believes women, then in the next breath says that he knows better than women do what our lives are like.

A very few, very powerful men have been openly accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. A handful have lost their jobs, all of whom were already so fabulously wealthy that they were working for the pleasure of working. After generations of women* having to endure “but is she lying? She’s probably lying” as the men who assaulted them received fabulous power and wealth, we’re just at the very beginning of believing women. 

Yet we’re already seeing the inevitable backlash– men (and a few women) whining about “witch hunts,” the irony of which is jaw-dropping.

We’re already seeing articles worrying about men being fired without “due process,” which, like the first amendment, limits governmental power, not the ability of a company to fire someone. Conservatives have worked hard enough to make every state an “at will” and/or “right to work” state, so they of all people should know that a private company can fire anyone for any reason in most places.

We’re already seeing men hysterically screeching about being “afraid to talk to women at all,” as if you could accidentally grab a woman’s breasts, shove her up against a wall, and stick your tongue down her throat, as if you could accidentally take your penis out in your office.

And we’re already seeing thousands upon thousands of men who, like my relative at Thanksgiving, believe women only in the abstract, but who actually still believe that they know better than women what women’s lives are like, who believe that their opinions about which women’s stories are “real” and which are “exaggerated” should be given more weight than the millions of women saying “this is the truth of our lives.”

How do we make sure this cultural moment doesn’t backslide into the same age-old sexism we’ve endured for centuries?

Like racism, sexism is systemic, and the response must be systemic. We are all complicit in a system that creates and maintains an environment of harassment, and we must all examine both our complicity and the way male privilege works in our lives.

The men in our culture who are not sexually aggressive had to learn that the culture was lying to them, had to learn that the sexual aggression and conquest mentality they saw glorified in every corner of our culture was harmful. They had to learn how to navigate a culture that expected it of them, and that shamed them for not participating.

Those of us who create the various forms of media that have a powerful hand in shaping our culture are uniquely positioned to change that.

In addition to our own individual work examining our own complicity with fearlessness and examining with equal fearlessness the way male privilege works in our lives, we must look at the work we create and the messages we’re sending into the world. 

In no small part, we, as content creators in theatre, film, television, books, advertising, and video games created this.

We produced Oleanna and pretended it was a “balanced view” instead of a sexist takedown. We looked the other way and hired men we knew were harassers, telling women, “Just don’t be alone with him backstage.” We gave those men positions of power and awards. We regularly produced work that showed women as collectible sex objects. We glorified work that shows men pressuring women to have sex, and then shows those women finally giving in and enjoying it, as if caving to relentless pressure is an expression of normal and healthy female sexuality. We used sexual aggression as a joke. We showed women being raped and in the end, enjoying it.

There are countless films, TV shows, plays, and ads that laugh at attempted rape– or actual rape. That show women enjoying rape. Look at old episodes of MASH, where random men literally chasing weeping, frightened women are given laugh tracks, as if it’s hilarious when a woman is fighting off a rapist. Look at Pepé le Pew. Look at Madeleine Kahn’s character in Young Frankenstein. Look at 80s comedy films. And of course it’s not just a thing of the past. Look at this, this, and this.

Look at the much-lauded Stranger Things. Of course the Duffer brothers rewarded Steve’s sexual aggression by depicting Nancy caving and loving it. In these tropes, it’s common for the girl to be shamed if she refuses (“prude”) and shamed if she caves (“slut”). The Duffer Brothers were heralded for “subverting the trope” simply by delaying Steve’s inevitable shaming of Nancy. Of course, Nancy forgives Steve for her public shaming, just as she forgives Jonathan– with a smile– for stalking her. These (now) 33-year-old male writers have a clear message for 16-year-old girls, and it’s “Male sexual aggression should always be rewarded. You secretly like it anyway, so your discomfort isn’t important.” Later, they pressured an underage actress into an unscripted kiss during shooting, then laughed publicly about her discomfort. And we are still rewarding them.

Our culture has relentlessly shown that sexual aggression is rewarded, and that women who complain about it are just humorless killjoys who should relax and enjoy it.

If we want to change the culture, we must stop trivializing sexual assault and rape in the material we create. Of course we can’t do anything about old MASH episodes or Stranger Things. No one is advocating for banning existing properties, although the male hysteria on this topic would make you believe otherwise.

We can effect change by flooding the culture with new work that doesn’t make light of sexual assault, that doesn’t use rape as a way to advance a male narrative, that doesn’t reward men for sexual aggression. We can flood the culture with work that depicts women as human beings with our own stories and motivations, whether we’re the main character or not.

Imagine a romcom that doesn’t frame stalking as romantic. Imagine a horror film that doesn’t objectify women or punish female sexuality. Imagine material that does not require women to always consider male sexual pleasure, even in the midst of a crisis, that does not require women to laugh along when our assault is the butt of the joke, that does not depict sexual aggression as “natural,” “boys being boys,” or what “real men” do.

We must think critically and fearlessly about the work we write and produce. We must refuse to continue supporting work that rewards and valorizes sexual aggression. How many times have you seen two or three young women with no lines, reduced to breasts and asses, draped across a man simply as a marker of his power? How often have you seen a man depicted as exceptionally virtuous and good simply because he didn’t immediately assault a woman he was alone with? How often have you seen rape used to advance a male plotline (NOW HE MUST GET REVENGE), or to transform an “unlikeable” character into a “good” character (HER TRAUMA HAS FOREVER CHANGED HER)? How often have you seen science fiction where all the aliens are visibly male? (And before you say, “But they’re aliens! Those could be females!” they’re all cast with male actors and discussed using male pronouns.) How often have you seen projects where women are shown only as functions of the male characters (as collectibles, prizes, sex objects, impediments)?

Part of the issue is that women directors and writers in TV and film are rare. In theatre, while the numbers are slowly improving, women writers are rarely produced in larger theatres, and women artistic directors in LORTs and producers on Broadway are exceedingly rare. (That’s so well documented, I’m not even bothering to link it.) We have sexist media in large part because you don’t let us in the room, and when you do, we’re shouted down, ignored, and minimized. (And while this particular post focuses on women, these issues are intersectional, and everything I’ve said here is even more egregious for women of color, women with disabilities, women of size, and gender nonconforming people.)

We make culture. We can change it. Let us in the room. Listen to what we have to say. Examine the work you make fearlessly. Don’t cave to nonsense; hold the line against “it’s just a joke,” “she needs to be sexier,” or “she needs to be more likable– soften her character/shorten her skirt/make her younger/give her lines to a man/make her less angry.” Refuse the conventional wisdom that women can’t be more than 2 out of the 5 main characters without losing mainstream appeal and becoming “for women.” Refuse to make sexual assault a cheap plot device or a joke. Refuse to produce work that glorifies or rewards sexual aggression.

As content creators, when we refuse to support the expectation and glorification of sexual aggression, when we create work that shows women as people who are naturally part of the world, not provisionally part of the world as functions of men, we will be changing the messaging of our entire culture. The majority of our cultural messaging is disseminated through the media– through OUR WORK. Change the media, change the culture.

 

*I am using “women” to mean “female-identified people,” not “cisgender women.”

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What About Franken?

Senator Al Franken is the latest in an enormous string of celebrities and politicians accused of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault. I’m not going to list them all here, as that list will surely be outdated the moment I hit “publish.”

Franken himself is accused of an overly aggressive unwanted kiss, a “funny” picture where he pretends to grab the breasts of a fellow USO performer as she sleeps, and grabbing a woman’s butt as he takes a picture with her at a County Fair. There have been numerous calls for him to step down, most notably from the Republican politicians who would benefit from the loss of Franken, while those same Republicans ignore the dozens of women who have accused Donald Trump of much worse.

I don’t think Franken should step down. In fact, I think Franken stepping down is counter productive.

Men– and women– who commit sexual assault should be prosecuted. Rapists should be behind bars. Women should be believed. It’s great that we’re finally being believed (when the perpetrator is a Democrat only). It’s great that rapists like Harvey Weinstein are being exposed.

But Franken is not accused of rape. Franken is accused of the low-level sexual aggression which every woman experiences routinely. Franken is accused of the kinds of things almost every man in the country has done. Our culture not only winkingly allows sexual aggression in men; it rewards it. We teach men to be sexually aggressive by valorizing it in films, TV shows, plays, books, music– you name it. We punish men who openly treat women with respect. The problem isn’t Franken. The problem is systemic.

As is the case with all systemic issues, the problem can only be addressed by a culture shift. We all must examine our complicity. We all must examine the ways male privilege works in our lives. We all must examine the ways we have perpetrated or supported sexual aggression.

Putting Franken on the altar as a sacrifice does nothing for women.  All it does is provide a scapegoat. It enables men to continue pretending this is about a few bad actors who need to be punished. Once a few “bad guys” have been ruined and shamed, men can shake hands and call the job “done,” promise on social media to do better in the future, and nothing changes.

The vast majority of the men doing the same kinds of things Franken has done are not famous. Your wife, your daughter, your sister, are all still slogging through this kind of male behavior every day, and not telling you, because you’ll throw a fit and make her life miserable, or because she brushes it off as the basic cost of being publicly female, or because she feels shamed by it and hides it. I have never reported every single instance of sexual harassment to the men in my life. Why would I?

That silence is part of my complicity in this. My complicity extends in many directions. I didn’t fire a man who forced an aggressive kiss on a woman at a cast party. She and I both were like, “SO CREEPY” and never thought to hold him accountable. Why would we? We expected this kind of thing from men. It was my home, and my theatre company, and I did nothing. 

Franken himself has called for an ethics investigation, and of course I support that. I also support him staying in the Senate unless we apply these consequences in politics evenly. If Franken is forced to resign without the GOP putting similar pressure on Trump, then they’re just using our pain for their own political gain, and should burn in hell for that. (They’re already burning in hell for supporting Roy Moore, whom I do not include in this article, as he is a sexually aggressive pedophile, which is entirely different. He should be fired into the sun.)

But if we demand Franken step down without also seriously examining the systemic sexism that supports this kind of low-level, constant sexual aggression– without every single adult human examining their own complicity in systemic sexism– nothing will change.

You want to be a good ally to women? Start by examining your own behavior. Start by calling out the men in your life when you see their sexual aggression instead of high-fiving them. Start by examining the media you make and the media you consume, and demanding better. The issue is not Al Franken, or any one man. The issue is systemic sexism.

UPDATE 12/6/17: When I wrote this piece, the number of women accusing Franken were two. Now, the number is eight. While I am still waiting for Republican men to be held to the same standards we hold Democrats (the number of women who have spoken publicly about being sexually assaulted by Donald Trump is now 20), I want to repeat that sexual harassment is never OK, and that ALL who harass and assault should be held accountable while we simultaneously respond to sexism in our culture as a systemic issue. Holding men accountable is step one, and Franken, Trump, and every other man who sexually assaults others should, without question, be held accountable.

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Stop Telling Me to Watch Stranger Things

This post is full of spoilers, so be forewarned.
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I know I’m late to this party, but the ongoing cult status of the Netflix Original series Stranger Things  (written and directed by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer) inspires men to tell me, a D&D playing, scifi loving nerd, that I would LOVE IT OMG WHY HAVEN’T YOU WATCHED IT all the time. So I did. I watched the whole thing. I wanted to love it. I hoped I would love it. That hope ran aground on Stranger Things‘ predictable sexism.
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The male characters are lovingly crafted and fully detailed. The main hero is a paunchy small town cop whose life is a mess, and not a glamorous mess in the way this trope usually goes. He does save that particular day, but he’s morally suspect and almost certainly colluding with The Bad Guys in some way. His younger narrative counterpart, the teen hero, is an outcast with few social skills and a tendency to stalk pretty girls, yet is still framed as one of the most courageous people in the series. The meganerdy science teacher is one of the best-drawn characters in the whole thing, framed as bighearted, brilliant, and charmingly clueless.  The three main boys are all D&D nerds. One of the actors, Gaten Matarazzo, has a disability, and his character, Dustin, of course has the same disability. This is a massive step forward in casting and something that should be openly lauded, as the disability isn’t presented as “inspirational” disability porn but as just one aspect of his character. The male characters are all interesting and specific.
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Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin.

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The women, however, are generic sexist tropes yet they are continually held up as “strong women,” even “trope-busters.”
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The main female characters are the Distraught Mother (Joyce), the Pretty Young Girl (Nancy), the PYG’s Less Pretty Sidekick (Barb), and the Extraordinary Woman– in this case, an eleven-year-old girl with telekinetic powers, named, irritatingly, Eleven. Without describing anything else about them, and without having seen the series, you can predict how these characters are portrayed and what happens to all of them. The character that pushed me over the edge, however, was the Extraordinary Woman, a type I can no longer stomach.
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Young Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in Stranger Things. She did a fantastic job portraying this character, making her one of the most interesting characters in the series.

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The Extraordinary Woman is a character type who breaks rules and has some kind of extraordinary qualities or extraordinary power. When an Extraordinary Woman is introduced, the Narrative Sexism Clock beings its countdown to her destruction. She is either subsumed within a more ordinary role (she loses her powers, forgetting everything; her narrative is detoured into a romance; she regrets having powers because all she ever wanted was a baby) or she is removed from the narrative entirely, dying or disappearing. Very often, she sacrifices her powers to marry an ordinary man, or she sacrifices her life so that the ordinary male character(s) can live.
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I have watched and read precisely infinity narratives featuring the Extraordinary Woman. From Charlotte’s Web when I was 8 to Stranger Things a few months ago, I have been watching my culture tell me over and over that the best happy ending I can ever hope for is propping up a mediocre white man, and if I reach for extraordinary, I’ll be sacrificed. The most tedious response to this is “Eleven might still be alive.” It reminds me of a class I was in when Thelma and Louise first came out in 1991, wherein I made the very same critique I’m making here. A male classmate responded to me, “You don’t know what happened to them. The car could have gone up.”
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Eleven, kidnapped as a baby and raised in a lab, is the subject of torturous experiments, and is relentlessly pursued by a shadowy government agency when she escapes, yet after her disappearance, no one in the town seems interested in her well-being or current whereabouts, despite the fact that she has living family.

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Eleven sacrificed herself to save the boys whether the men who wrote her decide to bring her back to make more money killing her again or not. Everyone got a happy ending but Eleven. Even if she’s alive, where is she? How is she surviving? She’s a little girl with telekinetic powers, the use of which weaken her considerably (of course), not Bear Grylls. She’s treated like a stray dog. The cop leaves food for her out in the woods at the end as a narrative device to imply that she might yet be alive although we watched her sacrifice herself a few scenes earlier. If the cop thinks she might be alive out in the woods, why isn’t he launching an all-out search for her like they did for the lost little boy?
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Eleven exists solely as a plot device. She is almost entirely mute (because of course she is). She has no needs or desires that anyone cares about. Her safety is ignored at all times. When she disappears in her final burst of power, the entire town shrugs its shoulders. Oh well! Is she dead? Is she in the Upside Down? Who knows! We’ll leave some frozen waffles in a box in the woods just in case. A little boy goes missing and the entire area goes on a massive search for him, but Eleven (and Barb, for that matter) are treated as if their disappearances are about as serious as losing an earring.
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Barb is engagingly played by Shannon Purser, whose performance has inspired a cult following for a character that only appeared in a few scenes.

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Every woman in Stranger Things conforms to a specific sexist trope. Barb is the less pretty friend, so she dies simply to raise the stakes, her death treated as otherwise unimportant. Even her supposed best friend, Nancy, rarely mentions her after a certain point. Nancy herself is a box standard Pretty Girl Gets Tough in Dire Circumstances, immediately recuperated into her relationship with the douchey popular boy at the end. I will hand it to the writers for not pairing her with the antisocial stalker boy, although she forgives him with a smile for taking stalkery pictures of her because the writers are men. But the douchey popular boy is no better. Did it ever occur to the writers that she would be better off without either of these jerks? That she might be remembering Barb in her final onscreen moments? Probably not, because without that recuperation back into a relationship with a man, reflecting the only happy ending possible for women written by mediocre men, Nancy veers dangerously close to an Extraordinary Woman. For Pretty Girl Gets Tough in Dire Circumstances, she can either be shunted back into a “normal” female role (mother, wife, girlfriend, daughter) or die for becoming too extraordinary.
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The mother, who insists her missing son is still alive, is called “crazy” and portrayed as unrelentingly hysterical. When she’s finally proven right, it’s glancingly acknowledged while she’s immediately pushed into the narrative background. She’s literally behind the man when they go into the Upside Down to save her son. We’re at one of the most important climaxes of the series– a moment that vindicates everything the mother has been saying– and she is almost entirely ignored as the scene focuses on the cop’s experience, the cop’s memories, the cop’s heroism. The mother is terrified and nearly panicking, barely holding it together, instead of marching in there, buoyed by her vindication and determined to get her child. Instead she cowers behind a man while we see his memories of characters we’ve never met. It’s weak writing, but it apparently never occurred to the male writers that the emotional center of the scene should be the woman.
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Joyce, played by Winona Ryder, should have been the Big Damn Hero.

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There wasn’t a single plot point I couldn’t see coming from a mile away. That’s not always a bad thing, but in this case, the series was structured as if every plot point was a huge SURPRISING REVEAL and spent far too much time building and building and building to a PLOT TWIST that was already obvious. I was dreading the death of Eleven from the moment she was introduced. I KNEW. How could I not? This is always what mediocre men imagine for extraordinary women.
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I’m not mad that you like Stranger Things, even though we both know the women in the series deserve much better than the writers gave them. Many of you forgive Stranger Things its sexism and obviousness due to the nostalgia factor. And that’s truly fine. But I do not want to watch yet another show where women die to raise the stakes, where a box standard Pretty Girl Gets Tough is considered an achievement, where a woman who is right is called “crazy” and then when proven right, acknowledged with a few quick lines as she’s forced back in the narrative behind the man. I never want to watch another show where the extraordinary woman sacrifices herself at the end to save ordinary men. Never.

 

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The “Outrage Machine” and Calls for “Calm”

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Connie Lim (aka MILCK) photographed by Rachael Lee Stroud.  Source: milckmusic.com

A few days ago, I read an excellent article in Very Smart Brothas by editor-in-chief Damon Young entitled “Polite White People Are Useless.” Being a polite white person myself, my first reaction at seeing the title was that slight rise of defensiveness in the pit of my stomach– you know what I’m talking about, white people. That feeling of “BUT BUT BUT.” “But I don’t do this” “But I don’t mean it like that” “But I’m not racist” “But #notallwhitepeople” The feeling that immediately informs me: HERE LIES YOUR COMPLICITY IN WHITE SUPREMACY. Pursue this. Sit in your discomfort. Listen and learn.

Sometimes that feeling means it’s something I’m doing myself. Sometimes it means it’s something I’m letting pass unchallenged. So I used my discomfort as intuition and clicked on the article. In the article, Damon Young defines “polite white people” as “white people who call for decorum instead of disruption when attempting to battle and defeat bias and hate.” I let that slide at least half the time I see it on social media. “It’s just Facebook” is something I personally disagree with vehemently. Ideas put into the world do not wait for a particular venue to have their impact. Yet here I was, using “it’s just Facebook” as an excuse to avoid uncomfortable conversations. Ugh. Here lies your complicity in white supremacy.

While I was processing this, I encountered the inevitable calls for “calm” and calls against “constant outrage” in my various feeds, all from cishet white people with Christian heritage. I began to think deeply about this in the context of the VSB article. What do these people actually mean when they ask us to tone down the “outrage machine” or when they tell us an issue is “just a distraction?”

What are these issues about which we should be “calm”?

We’re battling literal Nazis. (“But they’re such a small group.”)

The Department of Homeland Security released a report in 2009 demonstrating that white supremacists were infiltrating law enforcement as a deliberate strategy and nothing was done about it due to conservative backlash. (“That doesn’t sound right.”)

And now several metropolitan police forces are quietly dismissing hundreds of thousands of cases (900,000 in New York alone), and paying out millions in settlement dollars due to police officers planting evidence (repeatedly in Baltimore) and arresting innocent people of color to meet quotas (“But they were caught, so, good, right?”)

The Trump Administration attempts to block police reform and coddles white supremacists. (“You can’t fight every little thing.”)

One of the worst natural disasters of our lifetimes has devastated Texas, causing an urgent humanitarian crisis. Thirty-one people have died and tens of thousands have lost everything and are living in packed shelters, yet now is the time Evangelical Christians (who make up a full quarter of our nation’s population) saw fit to release a document condemning all LGBTQ people and all Christians who support the human rights of LGBTQ people. By current estimates, there are about a million LGBTQ Texans, and LGBTQ people of color make up 55% of that. (“Evangelicals always hate LGBTQ people, so what does it matter?”)

I am barely scratching the surface.

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On July 19, these young women participated in Jolt’s “Quinceañera at the Capitol,” a protest against Texas’ anti-immigration bill SB4 that celebrated Latinx culture while protesting racism. Jolt is a Latinx-run nonprofit focusing on issues of importance to the Latinx community in Texas. More at jolttx.org. Photo: @blurandgrain on Instagram

 

Calls for “calm” and posts denouncing the “outrage machine” are difficult to hear when it’s your family on the line. White Christians overwhelmingly voted for a man who ran on hate and support him as he governs from a place of hate. Hate of journalists; hate of women; hate of Mexicans; hate of Black people; hate of the disabled; hate of Muslims. He has a long history of racism and of courting white supremacists. While bigotry and racism are not new in this nation by a long shot, what we are seeing is a cultural moment where it’s become fashionable among a certain group of people to express these views openly. Now racism is an open badge of honor for some, a winking disingenuous pretense for even more. From the right it’s “I’m not racist; I just think the Confederate flag and Confederate statues are our heritage”; from the left it’s “Identity politics are holding us back; economic justice will solve racism, so we don’t need to work on it directly unless it’s obvious racism. And of course by that I mean racism that is obvious to me as a white man.”

This upswing in white willingness to be either openly and actively racist or to cast an abdication of responsibility for white supremacy as a greater good has already resulted in violence. Violent racists are emboldened by everything from outright encouragement to a lack of resistance. This new willingness to either openly express active bigotry or support it winkingly while pretending to oppose it extends to sexism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, ableism, transphobia, homophobia– everything people mean when they decry “identity politics.”

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Pennsylvania nurse Ieshia Evans embodies grace and power as she faces riot police in Baton Rouge at a July 2016 protest against the police murder of Alton Sterling. Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

With all that in mind, what does it mean when people with privilege call for “calm” or an end to “constant outrage”? What does it mean when people with privilege scold others for responding to “distractions”— a label used almost exclusively for issues of concern to marginalized populations? What does it mean when people with privilege tell others to stop reacting to bigotry? Specifically what are they asking for?

What could they be asking for but silence? Less vocal insistence that the human rights of targeted populations be achieved and protected? A respite from open resistance?

When you ask targeted populations “aren’t you tired of the constant outrage?” it’s like asking someone getting beaten in an alley if they’re tired of getting hit. OF COURSE we’re tired of constant outrage. But what choice do we have? And if you have the cultural privilege that gives you a choice, it means something specific when you choose “stop reacting to distractions” or “I’m sick of the outrage machine.”

Decrying “distractions” and “the outrage machine” is just another aspect of privilege fragility. “I cannot take the discomfort that comes with your struggle for human rights, and I want to be the gatekeeper who decides what’s important enough to fight and what we should let pass.” When people with privilege set themselves up as the gatekeepers who decide what merits outrage and what does not, we are actively preserving that privilege. Gatekeeping is a major function of cultural privilege.

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Image by Cheshire Isaacs created from the iconic Getty photo of Reno, CA resident Peter Cvjetanovic, among others, at the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, VA in August. For more, see cheshiredave.com

Now more than ever we need to take breaks for self-care during the chaotic Trumpian news cycle. We each cannot personally react to every new horror that occurs, especially as tribalism has replaced patriotism, frustratingly making the usual tactic of raising awareness through education far less effective. On the right, tribalism takes the form of continuing to support a president who defends people marching under Nazi, KKK, and white supremacist banners as “very fine people” who just happened to show up to a march advertised with images of Confederate flags, Nazi eagles, and the names of several of the nation’s most prominent white supremacists. On the left, it takes the form of supporting people who claim that “identity politics” are destroying us, as if issues of concern to the liberal base– women and people of color– are a detour from “real” issues (i.e., the issues important to white men). This constant barrage of nonsense is exhausting. But taking a break for your own self-care is a world apart from telling others they should shut up (“stop reacting to distractions”; “stop feeding the outrage machine”).

When someone is reacting to bigotry, especially if it’s bigotry you do not personally experience, especially if that reaction makes you uncomfortable, stop and listen. Think: why is this important to this person? What experiences have they had to make this issue crucial to them? What do they need to see from me as a person with privilege? Is my voice even needed in this discussion?

Nothing positive is contributed to the discussion– or to the world–by calling for “calm” in the face of bigotry, by scoffing at the “outrage machine” when people speak out against hate, by calling bigotry “a distraction,” or by denouncing “identity politics” when people are fighting for their basic human rights. I’ve been in conversations where people have been called out for this and responded so beautifully it moved me to tears. And I’ve been in conversations where the exact opposite happened.

Discomfort sucks. Believe me, I know. But the discomfort that comes from confronting your own privilege and your complicity in systems of oppression is nothing compared to experiencing that oppression. Most of us have an intersectional identity that encompasses some of both, so let’s use that to draw on when we see others speaking out about issues important to them rather than tell them their issues are “a distraction” or “just part of the outrage machine.”

 

 

 

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“Why Do You Have to Make Everything Political?”

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Quote from the artist Ai Weiwei (source: @aiweiwei_art)

“Why do you have to make everything political?” This is a common question my fellow white people like to ask when someone offers a cultural critique of a popular musical, film, video game, or TV show. “It’s not political! It’s just a cute story about a boy and his dog (or whatever)!”

All theatre is political theatre. All films are political films. All games are political games. All TV shows are political TV shows. Let’s break this down.

What does it mean for something to be “political?” Let’s start with the obvious: the dictionary definition is useless for navigating complex social issues. Dictionaries are written by people, not by Lexica, Infallible Goddess of Language, and are updated all the time as usage changes. Dictionaries are vital and have important uses, none of which include wielding a dictionary definition as a sword to demarcate the limits of a complex social issue. I love you, dictionaries, but for this, I need to set you aside and dig deeper. I need to look at context.

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Lexica has better things to do than write your dictionaries, mortals (photo: ela-e-ele.com)

When people say “Why do you have to make everything political?’ they’re using “political” to refer to the social messaging that’s inherent in any work about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, size, class, religious minorities, etc. Let’s cut to the chase: They mean, “I do not wish to examine the ways in which this work depicts and/or impacts marginalized people in our culture.”

All plays, films, games, and TV shows are political because they are about people in relationship to each other and to their social context, and because they are created within a social context, not in a vacuum where symbols and metaphors are wiped clean of all meaning. All works contain messages about privilege, about marginalized people, about who is important and who is not, about who we should take seriously and who we should laugh at, about which issues facing our culture are serious and which are easily dismissable or even comical. Social messaging is inescapable in the narrative-based work of theatre, film, video games, and television, whether you choose to examine it or ignore it.

In order to ignore the social messaging in a work, you have to be able to ignore it and willing to ignore it.

A film that people consider “universal” and “apolitical” is a film that neatly and seamlessly reinforces dominant culture and privilege. People with privilege see depictions of that privilege as “normal,” “wholesome,” and “apolitical” in ways that it’s impossible for people without that privilege to do. There is no “apolitical” work; there is only work that reflects the world view of cultural privilege back to those with cultural privilege, who see that as “normal” and unmarked by any particular political point of view. Those without that privilege hear the political messaging loud and clear.

Is the Harry Potter series “apolitical”? Why was the character Lavender Brown cast with a Black actor in every film, then recast with a white actor when the character became Ron Weasley’s girlfriend? People make all sorts of excuses for that (“They had to recast when the part had lines and they just happened to cast a white actor”), but I have 20+ years experience in casting, and I know that excuse is nonsense. More importantly, the casting of a tiny character might seem like a minor detail for white people, but you aren’t the young Black girl in the audience picking out the few Black faces in a film series that you love, only to see her replaced by a white girl when she finally becomes part of the main story.

Why do people claim that Disney films have recently “become political,” decrying the supposed “liberal messaging” in films like Zootopia, Frozen, and Mulan, but are just fine with the sexist messaging of older princess films (“Your happy ending is to marry some dude; no other plans or ambitions you have matter enough to mention”). Little Mermaid is considered “apolitical” but contains an uber-sexist narrative where a young woman must remain silent in order to “win her man,” and the “happy ending” is leaving her home, family, culture, and entire lower half of her body behind to be some douchebag’s wife. That is obvious political messaging, but messaging that supports the male cultural privilege we consider “normal,” so we don’t read it as such.

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Daisy Ridley and Carrie Fisher at Star Wars Celebration in 2015. (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Was Star Wars truly apolitical before The Force Awakens‘ Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) and Rogue One‘s Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) sparked male outrage about “feminism taking over Star Wars“? Because I seem to recall mainstream filmmaking’s first self-rescuing princess (played by the late great glorious giver of no fucks, Carrie Fisher) grabbing the blaster out of Luke’s hand, flatly stating “Somebody has to save our skins,” and ordering Han Solo “into the garbage chute, flyboy,” then killing Jabba her damn self with the chain he used to enslave her as a bikini-wearing sex doll. Yet the original trilogy centered around a straight white male, Luke, so the films still read as “normal” and “apolitical” to white men, despite many young women reading that message loud and clear. But it was the 70s and early 80s, so, despite the obvious feminism baked into the character of Leia, her strength could be read as just another part of her allure to men as she was detoured into a romance with Han Solo and stuffed into an objectifying gold bikini. (“Keep fighting against that slave outfit,” Carrie Fisher told Daisy Ridley.) Rey and Jyn are standing on the ground that Leia broke. Neither one is detoured into a romance or forced into a bikini (so far, at least), so there’s no way to silo them into the archetype “Hero’s Girl,” making the internet’s various fuckboys very angry while most men were, evidently, thrilled by both films.

“Why do you have to make everything political?” comes in various specific flavors, one of the more popular being “Why do you have to make everything about race?” The same principles hold; race is an aspect of every social encounter and every work of art is created within a specific cultural context– films are created by specific people, not found on the forest floor during JJ Abrams’ morning constitutional.

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“Holy shit, dude! Is that Episode 8?!” (source: nonabrooklyn.com)

If you are white in the US, chances are watching an all-white film does not register to you as “political,” but people of color will notice they have been completely left out. White people react with anger upon the release of a single Black-centric superhero film yet see no problem with the dozens of superhero films that leave out people of color or relegate them to minor roles. Those nearly all-white films did not register as anything but a realistic depiction of the “normal” world to those white people, yet the Black world of Black Panther– the fictional African nation of Wakanda– is “too Black” and therefore “too militant.” The trailer is typical superhero film fare, just with Black actors as the heroes. See for yourself:

It’s impossible to imagine what is “militant” about that trailer unless you believe every other superhero film is “militant.” It’s impossible to say that a film with Black leads is “too Black” unless you see the world as normally white, unless you see heroes as normally and naturally white.

“Why do you have to make everything about race?” Because WE make everything about race by creating, spreading, and aggressively protecting the racist idea that “white” is the world’s normal, default setting, and that anything else is special, distinctive, and added to a white world by white benevolence. When a box standard superhero film that runs on the same kind of ass-kicking imagery every other action film runs on is scary and “militant” because the good guys are Black, you are making it about race. People of color think about race all the time because of the shitty, racist ways we treat them, not because they had some secret meeting one day in 1953 and decided to invent identity politics to vex us.

I’m not here to snottily insist that “your fave is problematic.” I am right there with you. My faves are problematic. But instead of getting defensive, we need to be realistic about the ways in which media carries narrative and shapes our culture. No one is proposing detonating every existing copy of the original Ghostbusters or melting every copy of GTA into a gigantic plastic statue of The Spirit of Feminism. What I am proposing is that we be realistic about the impact that the works we consume and create have on marginalized people, that we listen to marginalized people when they talk about this rather than get defensive and argue, that we commit to getting better at this the way all artists are already committed to getting better at our art in every other way.

Tl;dr: “Why do you have to make everything political?” “Why do you have to make everything about race?” It already is. We’re just pointing it out. Don’t blame the person pointing at the pothole for the pothole’s existence. Instead, let’s work together on building better roads.

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Fire-Breathing Dragon

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This is on several wallpaper sites. I’d love to credit the original artist if anyone knows who it is.

Recently I took down a blog post due to some threatening messages I received that, in part, excoriated me for being an “SJW.” They were not the first threatening messages I had ever received in that vein– not the 100th. I am a woman who writes on the internet, after all, and men send us threatening messages every single day. But these were, for reasons I will not disclose, particularly disturbing. One post about Disney casting (of all things) was, I felt, not worth it. I took it down.
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Recently a local actor– a real life acquaintance– announced in a discussion of a racially-charged topic he was hosting on facebook that everyone should ignore my comments because I’m “one of those women who hates white men. If a white man cured cancer, she’d say it was oppressive to Black people.” And more foolishness. I skimmed it, rolled my eyes, and then blocked him, so I’m sure the quote is inexact.
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I am struggling with the fact that I blocked him. I am struggling with the fact that I took the post down.
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Ordinarily, I would delete and ignore random threats from lonely, angry men looking for someone to attack, someone to blame for their loneliness and anger. “Someone needs to rape some sense into you.” “You’re a stupid cunt who should keep her mouth shut.” “You will be crushed, like all SJWs will be crushed” something something glorious right-wing takeover goosestepping blah. If you are not ready for these, you are not ready to be a woman writing on the internet. These are the songs of the manbabies, sung into monitors lighting up otherwise dim rooms, dim minds, dim souls. They will sing songs of hate, anger, and loneliness until they die. Or until Mom comes downstairs and asks if they’ve done their Algebra II homework.
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And ordinarily, I would take “ignore her” as a gauntlet thrown down, a challenge to demolish foolery in a war of words that I would– perhaps too greatly– relish. My brother long ago described me as a “fire-breathing dragon” in debates, an accurate depiction. Debating is as close as I will ever come to dominating a sports field.
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Artist: Kekai Kotaki for Wizards of the Coast

Long ago I made a vow to engage with racism wherever I found it. That, I believe, is my duty as a white person, the basic entrance fee to “good person.” Yet twice in one week I walked away.
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To say– We, as white people, need to be better, need to listen more, need to work hard to dismantle the systems of oppression in our culture, about which we have literal mountains of data proving both their existence and their impact– to say this, according to far too many white people, is “hating white men.” I do not “hate white men.” I recognize the existence of systems of oppression in our culture and I want us all to do better. I very much include myself in that. Yet I did not respond with any of this. I walked away because I’m having a “stressful week.”
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I am a white woman and I can choose to recognize my privilege or ignore it as I go through my day. But I have seen the results of my privilege and the oppression of white supremacy and I can’t just walk away from that injustice. If the sacrifice I have to make is the good opinion of a handful of white people who refuse to look at this issue with sincerity and honesty, then so be it, because while we live under these systems of oppression, our brothers and sisters of color are being forced to sacrifice so much more.
And yet I walked away, twice in one week. I can’t decide whether to congratulate myself for my “excellent self-care” or kick my own ass for being a white feminist.
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I know that I can’t fight every white supremacist I come across. I know I must “exercise self-care” and “recharge my batteries” and “take time for myself” and whatever else you’ve seen plastered across a blurry image of a waterfall on your aunt’s facebook. I know these things. So why am I cringing at my own behavior?
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Fly, you fools

I’m not asking my readership to hand me cookies labeled “You Already Do So Much” and “Excellent White Person.” I am not excellent, at all, and I’m a writer, educator, and theatremaker, so I don’t know if “so much” describes what I do. I put words into the world and hope they find their way into someone’s brain. You can only fight with the weapons you’ve been given and these are mine. But I do not do enough. There is no such thing as “enough.”
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And I walked away. Twice.
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There is no answer you can give me. I did what I did, and it’s in the past. I have to live with my actions.
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But I will never take down another blog post as long as I live.
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The “Playwright’s Intent” and the Dangers of the “Purist”

It’s always exasperating to see people scolding directors for “desecrating” a canonical play or a canonical playwright’s “intent” because they cast actors of color, cast a disabled actor, or removed something racist (or sexist, antisemitic, ableist, etc) from the work. It’s exasperating because it’s the smallest and least artistically viable point of view to have about modern stagings of canonical work.*
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Our “canon” has deliberately shut out women and people of color for a great many generations. Until fairly recently in western history, it was very difficult for women and people of color to become playwrights (lack of access to education being a significant bar), and for those who were playwrights, it was very difficult to get produced outside of certain theatres. Even if produced, the work of women and people of color was rarely considered “important” or “universal” enough to be included in the kinds of awards, articles, books, and university courses that created what we consider to be the “canon.” Plays that were considered “universal” reflected specifically white and male points of view; plays that differed from that were considered specific to a cultural subgroup rather than “universal” in the vast majority of cases. Even today, most works in a traditional survey course are written by white men while “Black theatre” is its own category, often represented by a single play. In my undergrad education, that play was the short piece “Dutchman” by Amiri Baraka– we didn’t even read a full-length play. “Asian Theatre,” “Chicano Theatre,” and “Feminist Theatre” are still often brief mentions as classes move directly to more important, “mainstream” writers such as Sam Shepard and David Mamet, with Caryl Churchill the lone female voice in an otherwise very male reading list.

Scholars and theatremakers have begun the process of interrogating the formation of the canon, as well as reframing the works we consider “canonical” within their specific sociohistorical context rather than continuing to pretend these works are “universal.” This is vital work.

You only get answers to the questions you ask. Scholars and theatremakers are asking new questions about “canonical” works and the formation of the “canon.”

When we stage canonical work, we have two choices. The first is what is mistakenly referred to as the “purist” approach. This approach holds that works should be preserved untouched, performed precisely as they were first performed. There’s some educational value in performing work in historically accurate ways– at least as far as we can reconstruct that level of accuracy. Those who advocate for this approach believe they are defending the “playwright’s intent,” which means they somehow believe that their interpretation of the “playwright’s intent” is the only accurate one. These people are, in my experience, overwhelmingly white and male, and, as such, have been taught from birth that their experience of the world is universal, and their interpretation of the world and its processes and symbols is “correct,” so it’s not entirely surprising that they believe they are the only ones who understand the “playwright’s intent” and can therefore separate what is a reasonable interpretation of a work from page to stage from what is a “desecration.”

There are many problems with the purist approach. First of all, no one knows the playwright’s intent if the playwright, as is the case with most canonical plays, is dead. Even if the playwright wrote a 47-paragraph screed entitled “Here Is My Intent: Waver Not Lest Ye Be Tormented By My Restless Spirit,” no one knows what the playwright’s intent would be if he had knowledge of the cultural changes that occurred after he died. The audience for whom he wrote the play– the culture that understood the references, the jokes, the unspoken inferences; the culture that understood the underlying messages and themes; the culture to whom the playwright wished to speak– is gone, and modern audiences will interpret the play according to their own cultural context. Slang terms change meaning in months; using a 400-year old punchline that uses a slang term 90% of the audience has never heard seems closer to vandalizing the playwright’s intent than preserving it. Would Tennessee Williams or William Shakespeare, masters of dialogue, insist that a line using a racial slur now considered horrific still works the way he intended? Still builds the character the way he intended? It seems dubious at best, yet this is the purist’s logic. The playwright’s intent on the day the play was written, the logic goes, could not ever possibly change.

It’s important to continue to study these works unchanged. We must not forget or attempt to rehabilitate our past. But to claim that lines written decades or even centuries in the past can still work the way the playwright originally intended is absurd.

We have begun to understand that the “canon” and its almost exclusively white male point of view is not “universal,” but is a depiction of the cultural dominance of a certain type of person and a certain way of thought. We have begun to re-evaluate those works and the “canon” as a whole as part of a larger historical narrative. This is why it is of great artistic interest to stage “canonical” work in conversation with the current cultural context.

When staging, for example, The Glass Menagerie in 2017, one must consider the current moment, the current audience. We can choose to present the work precisely as it was presented in 1944 as a way to experience a bygone era, or we can present the work in conversation with its canonical status, in conversation with our own time, in conversation with the distance between its era and our own, in conversation with the distance between the playwright’s intent and the impossibility of achieving that intent with a modern audience, simply due to the fact that too much time has passed for the original symbols, context, and themes to work the same way they once did.

What does The Glass Menagerie— or any canonical work– mean to an audience in 2017? What can it mean? What secrets can be unlocked in the work by allowing it to be interpreted and viewed from diverse perspectives? What can we learn about the work? About the canon? About the writer? About ourselves?

The meaning of any piece of art is not static. Whether the piece of art is a sculpture created in 423 BCE or a play written yesterday, the meaning of any piece of art is created in the mind of the person beholding it in the moment of beholding. The meaning of each piece changes with each viewing, just as the meaning of what we say is created in large part by the person to whom we’re saying it, which is why we can say “Meet me by the thing where we went that time” to your best friend but need to say “Meet me at the statue across from the red building on the 800 block of Dunstan” to an acquaintance. To insist that there is one “correct” meaning– always as determined by a white male– is to deny the entire purpose and function of art. You cannot create a “purist” interpretation without the play’s original audience in attendance. The closest you can come is a historical staging a modern audience views as if through a window, wondering how historical audiences might have reacted, or marveling at the words and situations historical audiences found shocking– or did not. How many audiences in 2017 understand Taming of the Shrew as a parodic response to the popularity of shrew-taming pieces? Shakespeare’s audience is gone and the cultural moment to which he was responding is gone, so the possibility of a “purist” staging is also gone.

This is 2017. Our audiences live in 2017. It’s insulting to them to present a play written generations in the past as if nothing about our culture has changed since then, as if a work of genius gave up every secret it had to give with the original staging, as if art has nothing whatsoever to do with the audience viewing it. 

We know better. Art lives in our hearts and minds, whether those hearts and minds are white and male or not.

*Of course I am only referring to interpretations that have received permission from the writer or estate, or stagings of work in the public domain. This is not– at all– an argument in favor of running roughshod over someone else’s IP.
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Why Women Are So Angry with Sanders

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Heath Mello. Source: Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald. 

You’ve seen it; I’ve seen it; we’ve all seen it. It goes something like this: Woman posts something irritated about Sanders’ support of (supposedly formerly) aggressively anti-choice Heath Mello, whom Sanders called “part of the Democratic party of the future.” Woman is inundated with men huffily explaining to her why she should not worry her pretty head about Mello, for reasons, and also HILLARY CLINTON!11!! and hey, what more do you women even want? Mello SAID he would stop writing terrifying anti-choice legislation! Reproductive rights are just one pet issue. We can’t let one issue dictate support for candidates!

I’ve seen this in my various feeds maybe a dozen times now.

If you want to stop reading now, have this as my parting gift: The basic entrance fee to being a good person is to listen and believe people who lack a privilege you have.

For those of you still with me, let’s look under the hood of this issue for a moment.

Sanders has set himself up as the national face of progressivism, openly stating that his “movement” is the future of a party to which he does not belong, and withholding his endorsement from Democratic candidates he believes are not adequately progressive. Yet Sanders has, multiple times, endorsed anti-choice candidates because they otherwise support his agenda of economic justice.

Here’s why this is problematic:

Women cannot access economic justice without full reproductive rights. Economic justice is impossible for women without being able to decide when, or whether, to have children. Lack of access to reproductive health care can put women into poverty and keep them there. Someone claiming they are in favor of economic justice while actively voting against reproductive rights is saying that economic justice only matters for men

Reproductive rights are not a pet issue we can set aside if we are fighting for economic justice; they are central to accessing economic justice for the majority of the population.

Heath Mello himself is not the issue here; the issue is that the face of the “new progressive movement” seems content to confine “economic justice” to “economic justice for men.” It said something important when he endorsed anti-choice candidate Marcy Kaptur in 2016, it said something important when he endorsed anti-choice Tom Perriello for governor of Virginia earlier this year (Perriello has since apologized for his anti-choice votes in the House) and it says something important now as he endorses Heath Mello.

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Marcy Kaptur. Source: Mark Duncan/Associated Press

I am, of course, irritated at the DNC for supporting anti-choice candidates. But I am enraged at anyone who says they support economic justice as their primary goal, yet refuses to understand that reproductive rights are an essential component to economic justice. Anyone who supports economic justice for all must also support full reproductive rights. Otherwise, all you’re supporting is economic justice for men.

You cannot create economic justice for all without addressing systemic racism; you cannot create economic justice for all without addressing systemic discrimination against LGBTQ people; you cannot create economic justice for all without addressing systemic ableism. And you cannot create economic justice for all without addressing reproductive rights.

When Sanders repeatedly declared that “identity politics” were a problem, he exposed a dangerous weakness in progressive political thought that remains unaddressed. We live intersectional lives, and these issues must be addressed intersectionally. To separate class from gender, race, sexuality, and ability in fighting for economic justice is to create a fiction that economic injustice is only driven by one kind of social injustice– the kind that able-bodied cishet white men experience. It’s a dangerous fiction that at its heart reinforces patriarchal white supremacy, and it’s becoming all the more dangerous as we fight against an administration and its attendant political movement that wants nothing more than to roll back as many social justice gains as possible.

The current zeitgeist in the US is one of angry straight white people pushing back against social justice gains with open bigotry, reveling in causing others pain, and delighting in boorishness and even violence. The fact that opposition to “identity politics” became so popular, even on the left, is unsurprising. We need to step away from that deception and move forward, together, rather than telling women their concerns about reproductive rights just aren’t important enough to count.

You may also read this piece at the Huffington Post.

Thank you for reading Bitter Gertrude! Comments for this article are now closed.

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Eleven Tropes I No Longer Have Time For

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photo by Tom Hilton

1. The adults keep brushing it off, but a group of boys (plus one underdeveloped female character who has 14 lines total) know better! It’s up to Our Young Heroes Who Are Mostly White to make the adults realize something’s really going on, and save the day while they’re at it! LOL, stupid adults.
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2. Because we’re SO NOT RACIST, the judge, the doctor, and the president are all Black men, but every other character is white, and those three guys have a combined total of 9 lines. But look! THE JUDGE IS BLACK. See? That’s good, right? Right?
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3. The only Black woman is Sassy Store Clerk With Two Lines who unknowingly imparts wisdom even though she is framed as uneducated and basically worthless compared to Our White Hero, yet because Our White Hero listens to her advice (despite its wacky Black vernacular! LOL!) we’re so not racist! She could be a maid, a prostitute, or maybe, if she’s lucky, an office underling! (Repeat as necessary for every other version of the Magical Person of Color, LGBTQ person, and Person With Disabilities.)
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4. Sure, she’s tough (and also sexy-deadly), but under that tough, sexy-deadly exterior is a REAL WOMAN just ACHING to mother a child. IT SECRETLY DRIVES HER. “She is human after all,” thinks Our Hero, as he watches her display the one emotion she will ever display in the entirety of the piece. “She may be a highly trained, sexy-deadly killing machine who dedicated her life to her career, but all she REALLY wants is a baby.”
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5. Black people yearn to be accepted by white people. IT IS THEIR EVERYTHING. Thanks to Our White Hero, it can happen!
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6. It’s a caper! The characters are Our Hero (white male), Crazypants (white male), The Handsome Scoundrel (white male), Toughest Guy (token Black dude), and Nerd Expert (white male). Introduced later in the film: The Girl, whose character is “boobs.” But we’re TOTALLY NOT SEXIST, because she has a skill! It’s MASTER OF DISGUISE! So she can put on revealing outfits and sneak the guys into the building by distracting the guards with boners!
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7. People with diseases are HUMAN PEOPLE who have love and maybe even sex, but die at the end so Our Hero can learn something about Life.
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8. “Just give him a chance!” This is the entire film until she relinquishes access to her vagina.
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9. He’s such a COOL DUDE that he has TWO WOMEN who are attached to his arms as decorative objects. He has SO MUCH PENIS it merits TWO saucy lady persons whose tragic brain injuries have resulted in a lack of all communication but giggling. Masculinity is measured by how many saucy lady persons attach themselves to you like jewelry for your strolls and party posing behaviors.
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10. The White Guys Plus One Black Dude are on a caper or Important Mission™! But one dude’s girlfriend keeps calling, wanting to know where he is and what’s going on! LOL! Stupid lady person! Better lie to her and say “Nothing, honey! Don’t you worry about it!” “But I hear gunfire in the back—” “EVERYTHING’S FINE!” Then his cool awesome guy friends throw that cellphone out the window! That’ll show her for not staying in her place!
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11. LOL! Fat people want love and sex! Haha, Our Hero has one ACTUALLY TALKING TO HIM right now! LOOK, SHE THINKS SHE’S PEOPLE!
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The Bechdel Test and White Feminism

I keep running across white women saying things like, “I’m never seeing any film or play that doesn’t pass the Bechdel test ever again!”

This statement epitomizes the problem with white feminism.

First, a quick definition of the Bechdel test, invented by amazing writer and comic artist Alison Bechdel, known for the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and her memoir Fun Home, which she turned into a Tony Award-winning musical. Just in case you weren’t already convinced she’s a genius (and I have been since the old DTWOF days), she was a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant.

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Alison Bechdel. Source: Out Magazine.

The “Bechdel test” is a metric she created in 1985 in a DTWOF strip to evaluate female representation in films. In order to pass the Bechdel test, a film must have two female characters who have at least one conversation that is not about men. It sounds surprisingly basic, yet the vast preponderance of films cannot pass the Bechdel test.

The Bechdel test becomes tricky when applied to theatre. For example, it immediately eliminates all solo performance and all male/male and male/female two-handers, regardless of content.

And this is exactly my issue with the Bechdel test being used as a basic metric of acceptability in theatre– it ignores both content and context. It ignores intersectionality.

Let’s take two examples. The first play, written by a middle-aged white man, is about four wealthy white women discussing their problems and lives while at various brunches in upscale New York eateries. The main topics of conversation are their wealth and whether the sacrifices they made to obtain that wealth were worth it. The central narrative is one character revealing she has lost most of her money and must now live outside Manhattan. This play neatly passes the Bechdel test.

The second play, written and performed by four young Black men, is about their experiences growing up in Oakland. The main topics of conversation are police violence and racism. The central narrative is the loss of their friend, murdered by police while unarmed, driving home from work at a local elementary school, the same school where all five friends met. This play does not pass the Bechdel test.

If the goal of metrics like the Bechdel test are to hold artists accountable for the work we create, insisting on work that resists cultural marginalization and works for inclusion, the Bechdel test is not enough. It is not enough to fight for the inclusion of women and ONLY the inclusion of women. Insisting that a play about privileged white women is so deeply, intrinsically superior to a play about Black men that we can issue a test to “prove” it is counterproductive to every diversity goal we have. We’re issuing a test that by design marginalizes men of color.

We need work that passes the Bechdel test, and we need it badly. But we cannot use that test as a metric for the acceptability of all work.

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Kamal Angelo Bolden as Chad Deity in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity in the Victory Gardens/Teatro Vista co-pro in Chicago, 2009. Photo: Chicago Theater Beat

We live in an intersectional world, and issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion must be addressed intersectionally. Yes,we must fight for the inclusion of women in our narratives, but we must also fight for the inclusion of other marginalized groups. When we refuse to do so– when we announce that all plays must pass the Bechdel test in order to be acceptable, as I have seen so many white women do– we fail. We become “white feminists,” content with centering ourselves while ignoring other marginalized groups.

To state that you will never see a play that does not pass the Bechdel test is to state that Crimes of the Heart, In the Boom Boom Room, and Five Women Wearing the Same Dress are intrinsically important and worthwhile, while Topdog/Underdog, The Mountaintop, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad DeityThe Year Zero, Mambo Mouth, and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 are not worth seeing.

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Mason Lee in the Off Broadway production of The Year Zero, 2010. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Bechdel test even fails at what it was purportedly designed to do. Many films steeped in misogyny pass. “Lesbian” pornography made for male consumption passes. Most Disney princess films pass. The Bechdel test, I have to believe, was never meant to be an iron-clad metric.

I don’t know Alison Bechdel, but I consider the Bechdel test excellent social commentary, not a call to action. It’s meant as criticism, to make a point about how few films have female characters with objectives of their own. It’s meant to point out how few films present women as human beings rather than as events in the lives of men.

We cannot use the Bechdel test as the sole metric for acceptability. The examination of our work and its resistance to, and participation in, systems of oppression is a complex process, not a three-point test.

Even issuing a test is a classic white gatekeeping maneuver. White liberals are always looking for clear-cut guidelines to make us instantly “not racist” or “not sexist,” and we excel at creating oversimplified litmus tests that prove we are the Most Woke and everyone else is Doing It Wrong.

magicmirrormeme

not how it works

You can’t fill out a form with your credentials (“voted for Obama,” “watched Jessica Jones,” “smiled hard at Black guy on the street”), mail it in with a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Women’s Studies department at Howard and then just wait for your NOT RACIST OR SEXIST certificate to roll in. There’s no “Woke White Person” checklist.

There’s no test.

Fighting for diversity and equity in theatre is a complex, multifaceted process that involves the stories we tell and how we tell them, including who tells those stories and who’s in our audiences, who are the decision-makers and gatekeepers, where the funding comes from, and so much more. As tempting as it is to get a definitive ruling on what is “resistance theatre” and what is “collaboration theatre,” that fact remains that each piece of theatre we make will have facets of resistance and facets of collaboration, and all we can do is commit to the process of examining our decisions in both the work we make and the work we consume as thoroughly and realistically as possible. It’s never going to be as simple as only going to shows with The Gold Star of Bechdel next to their titles. Fighting systems of oppression requires more of us, much more.

Commit to the process. Continue to love the Bechdel test for what it is– an eye-opening way to examine narrative that sometimes works and sometimes does not, but can be an effective tool when used correctly. It was one moment of genius in a long career of genius moments for Alison Bechdel, but cannot be– and was never meant to be– the sole, definitive arbiter of acceptable work.

 

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