Krista Knight is a young playwright well-known and well-loved in the new plays community. She’s well-loved both for her work (her plays have been produced all over the country) and for her personality, which is supportive, generous, and kind. If you scroll through her Instagram (@playtrixx), you’ll see her promoting the work of other writers as often as her own. You’ll also see pictures of her unique, fabulous look– pink hair, flamboyant outfits, wide, happy grin. Everyone who knows Krista loves Krista.
So it shocked the many people who know her when she received this email from fellow playwright Tommy Smith:
Almost simultaneously, another man– this one an attorney– publicly berated two women at a deli in midtown Manhattan for speaking Spanish during a transaction because “this is America.” In addition to his obvious racism and his less-obvious wild hypocrisy (his own legal practice advertises Spanish language services), he ends his tirade against these two women with an attack on one’s looks, telling her, “Maybe you shouldn’t eat that sandwich today. Take a break from the food.” (See the transcript here.)
What does a playwright’s wardrobe have to do with her writing? What does a woman’s weight have to do with her language? Both these attacks are illogical. Why suddenly, out of all the many Spanish-speaking people in midtown Manhattan, does a man attack two women for both their language and their appearance? Why suddenly, out of the blue, does a man attack a women for both her writing and her appearance?
Short answer: because misogyny.
Slightly longer answer: Men with fragile masculinity assert their dominance in public spaces whenever they feel their masculinity is threatened. When they feel their masculinity is threatened by a woman– the ultimate threat– they attempt to use the tools of male supremacy to put women in their place. In our male supremacist culture, women are accorded value based on their appearances alone. A man who wants to assert his dominance over a woman and make her feel small while making himself feel big and important– feel the weight of cultural male supremacy– will weaponize a woman’s appearance against her. He believes disparaging her appearance lowers her cultural value while the act of passing judgment on her appearance increases his. Weaponizing a woman’s appearance against her is one of the hallmarks of fragile masculinity.
Tommy Smith reached out to Krista Knight not because he disliked her plays or her outfits. I’m sure he dislikes both, but few adults would send such a shocking letter to an industry peer based on that alone. Here’s what I believe is going on: Knight’s industry prominence is growing. She is taking up space in what is still today a male-dominated industry, space he clearly feels belongs to him, space he feels entitled to police (“Go fuck yourself. . . . Your plays are bad”). He stresses his belief that she lives on a “trust fund,” and that her life is supported by money she doesn’t deserve, which touches on another hallmark of fragile masculinity– money. Not only is she taking up space in his industry that he feels rightfully belongs to him, but he is angered by the belief that she has more money than he does (“If you lived on the salary of a playwright”).
Under male supremacy, men are judged by other men for their success and their money. It’s an affront to fragile masculinity for a woman– a lowly woman– to have more success and more money than a man. Tommy’s email reveals the belief that he deserves success and money much more than Knight does, yet he’s faced with her rising star and (please be true) her personal fortune. She’s taking up space in his industry and therefore draining attention and resources that he evidently believes rightfully belong to him. Envying the success and wealth of a woman threatens his masculinity, which proves to be so fragile he reaches out to attack her. And like men have done for generations, Tommy reached for the closest (and laziest) misogynistic weapon at hand– her appearance.
Attorney Aaron Schlossberg was similarly threatened by the women who were speaking Spanish. In the past few days, his support of right-wing extremism has come to light, but just the transcript of the event alone reveals that he’s bought into the right-wing racist lie that Spanish-speaking = illegal immigrant = collecting welfare = drain on US taxpayers. Even a cursory look at the facts reveals how foolish and illogical that line of thought is, especially in New York, where there are thousands of US citizens who were born in the Spanish-speaking US territory Puerto Rico. But Aaron Schlossberg is not interested in logic. (If he were, he would not be having a public meltdown over women speaking Spanish in someone else’s business when he advertises speaking Spanish in his own.) As a right-wing extremist, he’s been carefully taught to see immigrants as a threat to him in general. But what sent him over the edge and into public hysterics at that moment was the sight of two women speaking Spanish during a deli transaction. The cell phone video one of the women shot shows Aaron spluttering in indignation to a heroically calm male employee who appears to deeply frustrate Aaron by failing to side with him. Just like Tommy Smith, Aaron Schlossberg sees these women as taking space that rightfully belongs to him, space he feels entitled to police (“my next call is to ICE to have each one of them kicked out of my country”). Just like Tommy, Aaron’s fragile masculinity is triggered by the idea that these Spanish-speaking women are draining financial resources from him (“they have the balls to come here and live off of my money. I pay for their welfare. I pay for their ability to be here”). And just like Tommy, just like men have done for generations, he attempts to assert his dominance by weaponizing a woman’s appearance against her.
This is Trump’s America. Women and people of color have taken a few small steps towards equity, and white men (and women), who have always been comfortable in their position as the cultural and societal elite, panicked. Equity– even a few steps toward equity– looks like oppression to people who have always assumed the special treatment they historically received was “normal.” They elected a racist, sexist oaf to “get back at” the “coastal elite liberals” they believed were responsible for these modest social justice gains. Now, emboldened by the open racism and sexism of the President, emboldened by even the mainstream right’s approval of racism and sexism, they are lashing out, no longer seeing a need to hide racism and sexism, and desperate to reassert their societal and cultural dominance by putting everyone else “back in their places.” The increase in right-wing terrorism has been a major national problem for years. But there are also millions upon millions of smaller events that come from the same hateful impulse, the same anger at women, people of color, and LGBTQ people “taking over America”– taking space people with cultural privilege feel rightfully belong to them, space they feel entitled to police.
Masculinity can be as fragile as an egg perched on the edge of a wine glass. The tiniest whisper of a threat– real or imagined– is enough to send men like Tommy Smith and Aaron Schlossberg into hysterics. But we are continuing to push forward despite their desperate attacks. Despite the backlash.
This backlash was inevitable. We knew it was coming. And it is horrible– lives are lost, people are ruined, families are ripped apart. The pain is immense, made even worse by the gleeful celebration of the right. But it is a backlash. This isn’t a fight we’re going to win. We have already won. The toddlers are kicking and screaming, but eventually, they will be sitting in that car seat, riding along with the rest of the family, driving toward the future.