Tag Archives: women are people

“I’m Not Apologizing for Voicing My Opinion”: Entitlement Goes to a Middle School Play

So someone I know recently went to his kid’s middle school play. Awwwww, adorable, right?

During the event, he posted a picture of a beautiful Black woman– surely another parent or relative (because who else goes to school plays?)– in a fit-and-flare leopard print dress with short sleeves, a modest neckline, and a hem that hits just above the knee. She was also wearing boots and a vintage-inspired updo. It was a secretly taken picture. She is smiling. She looks beautiful.

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Imagine a leopard-print version of this, worn by a smiling, gorgeous Black woman with fierce boots and an adorable updo.

His comment on the picture was that her outfit is not appropriate for a “jr high play (sic),” but more appropriate for a club “or, better yet, a street corner.” He secretly took a picture of another parent at a school event, posted it online, and called her a whore. The wind was just . . . knocked out of me.

Several people called him out. The first few posts were all curious, on the order of “What? That outfit looks fine to me,” or “Why?” Mine was a little more detailed. I agreed with the other commenters that there was nothing wrong with the outfit, and that I’ve taught in similar outfits, although animal prints are not my personal style. I told him that it’s never appropriate behavior to post a secretly taken picture of a woman–a fellow parent at a school event!– that includes her face and calls her a whore, no matter what your opinion is of her outfit.

He reacted angrily. He said that my comments were “subtext crap” and refused to admit that his behavior was inappropriate in any way. He told me I needed to stop being “every females champion (sic).” He told me “If you don’t like it, that’s not my problem.” He told me, “I’m not apologizing for voicing my opinion.” He told me “I’m not going to sit here and have you ridicule me for voicing my opinion.” (Of course I wasn’t actually ridiculing him in any way, merely stating the things I’ve posted above.) He told me, “I thought you were a better friend than that.”

I received a couple of messages from people who had seen the discussion, thanking me for standing up to him. One called me her “hero for the day.” It was touching.

But the incident still nags at me, and I need to speak out. I need to speak out because this one man’s behavior reflects a pervasive cultural pattern of behavior that plagues women and people of color every single damn day in this country. Enough is enough.

This necklace is sold by the etsy shop MetalTaboo. They have a lot of great stuff, so check them out!

1. She was not dressed inappropriately. When facebookland responded with that, his response was “You weren’t there. I was,” as if being in the physical presence of her magical Black sluttiness would make her dress lower cut? Shorter? What, exactly, was he objecting to about her outfit? A brilliant friend of mine jokingly speculated a subgroup of people who get their information about sex workers from 80s cop shows and believe leopard print = prostitute. The outfit was actually quite modest. Was it her figure? She was what used to be referred to as “va-va-va-voom.” She was a busty, curvy goddess– a full-figured hourglass head-turner. Was it her weight? Her curviness? Would he have objected to her outfit had she been a skinny white girl? It’s unclear, precisely, what he was objecting to, and he refused to clarify. The truth is, he created a rule in his own mind and punished her publicly for breaking it. He targeted her for reasons of his own. He targeted her because he could.

2. He secretly took a picture that included her face. If the picture had been from the neck down, or from behind, it would at least have had some tiny, tiny speck of respect for her as a human being. But he included her face. And of course she wasn’t a complete stranger at a mall he’ll never see again. She’s a fellow parent at the school, or a relative close enough to come to a middle school play on a Thursday night after work. The chances of running into this human being again are high. The chances of having, or at one point acquiring, mutual friends is high. This woman was reasonably identifiable within his social network reach. What does he think this woman, her partner, HER CHILD would think? Would he have done this if the woman was white? Would he have done this if the woman was walking with a man? He feels well within his right to publicly point out a woman and name her a whore. Would he be OK with another man doing this to his wife or daughters? Of course not. But this woman, in his opinion, deserves it. She is not worth basic human consideration to him.

3. “I’m not apologizing for voicing my opinion.” We’ve already covered that he targeted her simply because he could, and that he felt entitled to put her face on the internet and label her a whore. Now we get to the inevitable part where he defends this behavior as his right.

When called out by multiple people, he said he’s entitled to express his “opinion.” He clearly feels that the scope of his “opinion” includes public shaming (but only for others, as we’ll get to in a moment). He does not see the difference between having an opinion and expressing that opinion publicly. He has no fucks to give about that public expression’s consequences for OTHERS. Despite our dissent, he couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that the picture he posted belied his opinion, and instead insisted that the OPINION redefined THE PICTURE– that his opinion was more REAL than the EVIDENCE. (“You were not there. I was.” “It must just be the picture. You had to be there. It was inappropriate.”) He believes he has every right to state his opinion (no matter how hurtful to others), that his opinion should be accepted as fact without question despite evidence to the contrary, and that there is no possible way the public expression of this opinion could be wrong in any way. “Voicing my opinion” is, for him, a magic formula of entitlement.

4. He believes his actions should have no consequences, and is shocked and appalled when they do. It comes as no surprise that someone who targets a woman almost at random, feels entitled to put her face on the internet and label her a whore, and defends this behavior as his right should also believe that this behavior should be completely without consequence– for HIM. One wonders what school admin would think if they discover a parent is secretly taking pictures of other parents at school events and posting them to the internet with nasty comments. One wonders what this woman’s attorney would think.

I know what I think: That all too often men think they are perfectly entitled to claim authority over women’s bodies and determine when and how we are displaying ourselves “inappropriately”; that all too often white people think they are perfectly entitled to claim authority over Black bodies and determine when and how they are displaying themselves “inappropriately.” This struggle over “appropriate display” has tentacles into every aspect of our culture, including my own world of theatre. WHO is appropriate for WHAT role– WHO determines what body is acceptable to inhabit Lady Anne or Biff Loman– and HOW those determinations are applied– are processes that many in this community are constantly fighting to open wider. Representation– and who controls the definition of “appropriate”– MATTERS.

This facebook debacle is one example out of millions, happening every day. THIS MATTERS. Am I “every females champion”? FUCK YES I AM.

One of the many Black Madonnas of medieval Europe. This one is from the 12th century and is in Barcelona.

One of the females I champion. One of the many gorgeous Black Madonnas of medieval Europe. This one is from the 12th century and is in Barcelona.

I was much less . . . fiery in the actual discussion, posting about four or five comments, most in response to his assertion of entitlement and (inevitable) accusations that I was attacking him. Of course, I never once attacked him. Instead I told him he did not have the right to attack HER. My comments were all respectful (no name-calling, no personal belittling), stating that he was not entitled to post secretly-taken pictures of other parents and call them whores, that her outfit was actually quite modest, that I have several outfits very much like it.

His reaction was unfocused rage. He accused me several times of “ridiculing” him, and twice told me, “Don’t you know when to quit?”

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And THAT, I think, reveals the heart of the matter. He felt entitled to the right to ridicule a Black woman for displaying herself publicly in a manner he found unacceptable. He did not, however, believe that *I* was entitled to the right to disagree, and that my public disagreement with him was “ridicule.” Of course I wasn’t actually ridiculing him in any way. I know how, believe me. He was automatically interpreting a woman’s dissent as ridicule. I was challenging his authority. He felt entitled to claim authority over a woman’s body without consequences, and did everything he could, including deleting my comments, to silence my dissent.

His twice-repeated “Don’t you know when to quit?” came while he was still directing comments at me– comments I was expected to take silently.

5. “This is MY facebook timeline . . . I’ll remove content from my timeline I don’t wish to have there.” Apart from the obvious (there are still ToS, harassment laws, and fucking basic human decency), he’s right that it’s his timeline and he can control its contents. He has every right to remove content from his own timeline that’s critical of his actions.

When I told him I agreed that he had every right to delete my comments, and that I would, since I had quite a bit to say about this issue, blog about it instead (assuring him I would not reveal his identity), using my own venue for my own thoughts, he accused me of “throwing him under the bus.”

He believes, correctly, that he has every right to delete comments that are critical of his actions or unflattering to him from his own timeline. But he also believes he’s entitled to post whatever unflattering content he likes about other people, and– this is the real kicker– that no one else is entitled to post anything critical or unflattering about him in ANY venue.

Of course it never occurred to him that he was throwing this beautiful Black woman “under the bus.” In his mind, she DESERVES IT by daring to appear in public in an outfit of which he disapproves. He feels that he deserves sympathy, empathy, and compassion, but she does not deserve the like.

This is the very soul of entitlement. He believes he intrinsically deserves, and should automatically receive, a level of consideration and compassion he is unwilling to extend to others.

This is an attitude I see far too often about women, Black people, people in poverty, LGBT people, people who exist outside of any of the basic markers of privilege in this country. We are not entitled to the same treatment because people like this refuse to see us as fully human, as real, as entitled to compassionate treatment as THEY are. They feel entitled to mete out punishment and shame to us as they see fit, and howl with rage when met with dissent. They do everything within their power to silence or discredit dissent.

DO NOT LET THEM SILENCE YOU. Enough is enough.

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Just Out of Curiosity, WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU, Commercial Costume Companies?

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For little girls. But it’s OK because all police uniforms include a miniskirt, right?

This is the time of year when Concerned Citizens, such as MYSELF, like to point out how uncomfortably sexualized Halloween costumes have gotten, especially for little girls, and how the sexualization of Halloween costumes for girls and women of all ages is a symptom of the way in which women are positioned in our culture as containers for “sex,” and are valued primarily– and I mean that literally, as in, first and above all else– on how well we inhabit that role. Women are judged on how well they contain “sex” no matter how much wealth or power they have, and no matter what else they happen to be doing at the moment. You could be accepting the Nobel Prize for Physics and you would still be judged primarily on how well you are enacting the role of sex toy.

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A costume for little girls that Spirit calls “Major Flirt.”

While the sexualization of children needs to be stopped, I’m not sure what the answer is to the overall sexualization of women, especially as regards Halloween– the human brain responds to visual sexual stimuli, and this dance of display/observe is older than humans are– but working towards a major cultural shift that opens up the way women are perceived so that perception can contain both sexuality as well as other things– every scrap of humanity we allow men– should be the goal here. To be clear, sexualized costumes for adult women are not the problem in and of themselves, and women should be able to display their sexuality whenever they like. I’m not here to slut shame.

In fact, I’m not here to discuss Sexoween at all. I think most people are aware of the Sexoween issue to some degree. In prepping for this article, I dove into the many Halloween costume websites, and while there were plenty of the expected “sexy plumber” and “sexy branch manager” and “sexy ball peen hammer” costumes, I was floored by the massive amount of racist costumes for sale at major costume retailers JUST SITTING THERE ONLINE AS IF THEY’RE NOT COMPLETELY INSANELY JAW-DROPPINGLY RACIST. Many of them have the extra-added bonus of being sexist AND racist. Of course I knew racist costumes exist, but the flat-out, overtly racist, fuck-it-it-might-as-well-be-1954 straight-up racism in both these costumes and their accompanying text descriptions surprised me. Not that I believe retailers have a single fuck to give about racism, just that I would imagine there would have been public outcry long before now about this. And yet.

While Spirit was the big winner, there were plenty to be found all over. I could have done this quite literally all day long. The costumes, along with their accompanying text, I present to you without comment. OR EDITING, although it pained me.

Party City’s “Old School Tight Afro Wig.”

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“Want a ‘fro that’s totally tight? Pull on our Old School Tight Afro Wig for a look that’s all right. This Tight Afro Wig features larger-than-usual black afro curls in a slightly disorganized mop of hair that reflects your carefree attitude towards life. No job, no problem! ”

Party City: “Hey Amigo Mexican Costume.”

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“Hey amigo, this Mexican Costume is bound to be noticed! Hey Amigo Mexican Costume features a fringed poncho, long moustache, red trimmed sombrero, and pants with an attached plush donkey and rider legs, which create the illusion that you’re riding said plush donkey.”

Anytime Costumes: “Arabian Seductress”

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“Cool Arabian nights will be blazing like in the daytime when you wear the Sexy Arabian Seductress Halloween Costume. It features a halter bikini top with a rose accent and beaded chain trim, matching mini-shorts with an attached panel skirt and gold chain trim. Sheer arm sleeves also come included to make your dances more seductive and mysterious and a gold headband and rose head comb remind your significant other why royalty has everything the best. If you’re getting into belly dancing and want to put on a show, you’ll be instantly prepared to add the sultry component that makes these dances a marvel to watch. Put on a spectacular show and become the head courtesan of the harem. Stop by our accessories page to add some jewelry accessories to add some lively noise to the dances that will keep him wanting.”

Spirit: “Reservation Royalty”

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“There’s no need to send smoke signals to get your point across when you wear this Reservation Royalty adult womens costume. The fringed, microsuede mini dress comes complete with a matching feathered headband. You’ll be a smokin’ hot site in this sexy womens costume.”

Spirit: “Pimpin Da Hos”

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“Show me da money! Be a hustler on Halloween when you don this outrageous Pimpin’ Da Hos adult mens costume. It’s all flash so be ready to talk the talk and walk the walk in this over the top ensemble. Great couples or group costume…”

Spirit: “Asian Empress”

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“Explore the mysteries of the East when you don the Asian Empress adult womens costume. The satiny black dress of this seductive and sexy womens costume features purple trim and comes complete with a pair of chopsticks for your hair. Add some mystery to Halloween!”

Spirit: “Mexican Style”

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“Grab a bag of tortilla chips, open a can of salsa, and show off your spiciness in this Mexican Style mens costume. This funny costume comes with a colorful sarape, traditional sombrero, and giant mustache–sure to get you laughs both north and south of the border.”

Spirit: “Sexy Bandita”

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“Spice things up with some south of the boarder heat when you wear this smokin’ hot, Sexy Bandita adult womens costume. The brown, vest-like top comes complete with a matching low-rise fringed mini skirt, a serape-inspired striped scarf, a red bandanna and a belt with shot glasses.”

Finally, deserving its own category of TAKE A SEAT wrongness, I give you:

Spirit: “Phat Pimp Child Costume.”

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“Be the big money when you trick yourself out in this Phat Pimp child costume. The purple, polyester jumpsuit of this pimp costume features zebra print trim, attached fake money, a PVC waist loop and a matching zebra print hat.”

Like I said, I could have done this literally all day long. It stands to reason that companies wouldn’t be selling this nonsense if people weren’t buying it. There are an infinite variety of costumes you can choose that do not involve racism. Seriously. Do us all a favor and choose one.

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The Problem with Cosplay Celebrity

My husband and I are both 501st. My initial forays into cosplay were through the 501st, and I became an official member in 2007. We did local events. We did cons. And we branched out early on into other areas of cosplay.

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My husband and I out in front of our theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

As someone who has always been a nerd, usually in the process of varying degrees of hiding my nerdiness, the cosplay scene was like a dream come true. I’d never been involved in a more openly nerdy, less judgmental activity. It was a way to express your enjoyment of a certain thing and enjoy it along with others. The accuracy, complexity, or creativity of the costume was paramount. I remember examining the craftmanship on one woman’s costume as she proudly told me she learned metalworking in order to create it.

Then . . . it became popular. Mainstream culture moved in, and what happened to cosplay when mainstream culture moved in is what happens to everything when mainstream culture moves in. The values change. The culture changes. And the mainstream dynamic of “popular kids front and center, nerds to the margins” came roaring in. Cosplay went from an all-skate to Superhero Suicide Girls in no time flat.

Long-term cosplayers who voice concerns about the costuming and the fandom aspects taking a firm backseat to the hotness of the girl in the costume are told, repeatedly, that they’re “just jealous” because they aren’t as pretty as popular cosplayers, or are called “haters,” as if expressing dismay at being pushed to the margins of your own hobby is somehow being unfair. I felt exceedingly lucky to be able to remove myself from the whole thing by being 501st (armor is a great equalizer) but there are non-501st costumes I’ll likely never wear again.

Cosplay is now dominated by models and women striving to look like models, who sell seductive pictures of themselves posing in sexy costumes. And you know? There’s not a damn thing wrong with that. My issue isn’t what they do– it’s what we lost when cosplay changed. Cosplay, once a way of expressing fandom with other fans, has become another area of our culture where we privilege the concepts of celebrity, oppressive beauty standards, and the commodification of both over everything else.

Women who are young and beautiful (and, to a much lesser extent, men who are young and beautiful) are the “popular kids.” They’re minor celebrities with facebook fan pages, press attention, and now, web series, films, and video games devoted to them. Their popularity is based on their physical attractiveness. Cosplayers who do not conform to traditional beauty standards are publicly shamed (I will not post the many, many links as they do not deserve the hits), occupying the same position of “marginalized outsider” we occupied throughout our lives EVERYWHERE BUT THE CON SCENE, our little oasis. That was our one place to belong until mainstream culture invaded the cosplay scene and shoved us back to the margins, back to where the “not good enough” are always shoved.

I’m not implying that cosplay celebrities aren’t nerds or fans. Of course they are. Apart from the obvious– that everyone is suddenly a nerd in this cultural moment (I never thought I’d see the day)– I absolutely believe that these women are true fans of the work they represent. And I absolutely believe that most of them have no intention of marginalizing others. I see some cosplay celebrities regularly championing body acceptance and cosplayer diversity, shutting people down for shaming other cosplayers, and encouraging people of all types to get their nerd on.

I DON’T BLAME THE COSPLAYERS. Nor do I expect (or even want) them to stop doing what they’re doing. I’m so committed to not blaming the cosplayers themselves that I refuse to post any pictures of them along with this article, because I don’t want anyone to feel implicated or blamed. Cosplay celebrities are not, however, in control of the culture at large (would that they were), and even the most vocal supporter of nonconforming cosplayers has little power to change mainstream culture as a whole.

The problem isn’t cosplay celebrities themselves, it’s the way mainstream culture requires our celebrities, especially the women, to conform to oppressive beauty standards, the way we commodify women’s bodies, and the way we divide women into categories of “acceptable” and “unacceptable.”

Conforming to traditional beauty standards is the basic entrance fee to celebrity. Our culture demands that women who participate in the kinds of activities that might make one a celebrity conform to these beauty standards or receive a barrage of shaming. Actors, politicians, singers . . . and now cosplayers. Where once upon a time a cosplayer could be anyone with a costume and a lanyard, the rise of cosplay celebrity has brought with it our culture’s oppressive normativity for female (and often male) bodies in display-related activities, and that extends to body size, body type, gender identity, age, and race. Before this change, the display was from fan to fan, largely unseen in the mainstream community. Now it’s celebrity to admirers (or perceived as aspirationally so), bringing with it all the cultural restrictions on who is allowed to occupy that celebrity space and who is not. Mainstream culture demands that we know our assigned places and stick to them or the shaming is fierce.

The cosplay community was never perfect. Don’t get me wrong; there are douches everywhere. And there’s nothing (apart from being publicly shamed: again, not posting links) stopping anyone of any type from slapping on a costume and living the dream.  I see cosplayers who don’t conform openly flouting the new oppressive standards, setting up tumblrs for cosplayers of size and of color, with some cosplay celebrities in full, vocal support. I see resistance from lots of sources, and it’s good.

But it would be disingenuous in the extreme to assert that there’s been no change in the cosplay community over the past 5 or so years, or that all change has been positive. And it would be disingenuous in the extreme to pretend that the mainstream dynamic of “popular kids > marginalized misfits” hasn’t taken over cosplay to at least some degree, particularly in how it’s expressed on the internet and in press coverage, which is, let’s face it, MOST of cosplay now. Cons are only a few days long and not everyone can go to them, so cosplay celebrity lives primarily on websites, fan pages, and the like.

And even as they sit at the top of the heap, is cosplay celebrity nothing but good for these young and beautiful women? Their authenticity is questioned nonstop, as if beauty cannot coexist with a love for comics. A young and beautiful cosplayer is inundated with disrespectful attention from the kinds of guys who are at the con primarily to see hot girls in costume– the new phenomenon of cosplay fans. There have always been young and beautiful nerdy cosplayers, and there always will be, but they haven’t always been forced into a cosplay situation that values their beauty far, far more than their craftmanship, or that forces them into competitions they never sought over “who’s the hottest Poison Ivy” or “which Slave Leia is hotter?”

I don’t have a solution. I don’t think one exists, apart from the obvious: keep resisting and keep the conversation going. I think cosplay will slowly become more accepting of cosplayers whose size, age, gender identity, or race currently marginalize them, but only if we choose to carve a place for acceptance of difference in a space where acceptance of difference used to be the norm. I honestly don’t know if that will make it easier or more difficult. And maybe the change will come when mainstream culture gets bored with us and tosses us back onto the scrap heap. Until that time, I’ll stay under my helmet for the most part. But I think you look great– truly.

UPDATE: I approve almost all the comments I find in my moderation queue. I will not, however, despite the fact that they prove my point, be approving the comments I’m getting that are accusing me of being a “jealous hater,” or that are based on reading comprehension errors, such as the assertion that I “hate” that there are beautiful cosplayers now, where before there were none, all of which is demonstrably false and nowhere in the blog post, and is, of course, just another way of calling me a “jealous hater.” I have no problem approving comments that disagree with me– I welcome debate– but I am under no obligation to approve comments that have no purpose other than to attack me. So, gentlemen (and so far, all of the attacks are coming from self-identified guys), that’s what happened to your eloquently worded “Your just jealous” comment, and all comments of that ilk.

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Stand Like You Mean It!

I don’t know a lot about Lena Dunham or her work. And this post isn’t about her specifically. My point is the fact that in this major portrait of a powerful young woman shot by Annie Fucking Leibovitz, the photographer who shows up to tell you you’ve ARRIVED– she is posed like THIS.

cn_image.size.lena-dunhamThis familiar, infantilizing, pigeon-toed stance that is one of the ways we pose young women to make them look hapless and charming and harmless. The semiotics of that pigeon-toed stance are clear and culturally very well-defined. And of course everything in this photo is deliberate. Leibovitz is a master photographer, not your aunt shooting holiday snaps. Both of these women know what they’re doing, and deliberately chose a pose with a specific cultural meaning.

As I’ve said, I don’t know much about Lena Dunham and I’ve never seen Girls (because I suck at watching TV) but I’m fairly certain that this woman who is well on her way to heading a media empire is, if anything, sure of herself.

Why does it matter? Why do I have any fucks to give about a person I’ve never met and the pose she’s throwing in her Annie Leibovitz portrait?

Because: How we portray powerful women MATTERS. This is a portrait of a young woman who is newly very, very powerful, and she is posed in such as way as to ameliorate that power. Lena Dunham is a very powerful, very young, very wealthy woman now, and whether she herself chose to ameliorate that by using a childlike pose and Leibovitz agreed, or whether Leibovitz posed her that way deliberately and Dunham agreed, it sends exactly the wrong message.

We have a lot of trouble with powerful women in our culture, and even more trouble with powerful young women. We pose young, powerful men in ways that celebrate their power (this, this, this, this, this, and this). We pose young, powerful women in ways that sexualize or infantilize them (or–ick–both). See this, this, this, this, this, and this.

I understand that Lena Dunham’s character in Girls is all about straddling the line between adolescence and adulthood. I get that. But this is not a portrait of her character. It’s a portrait of a powerful writer, producer, and actor.

I understand that it’s her choice to pose how she likes, and Leibovitz’s choice to shoot what she likes. I understand that Dunham is likely considering her branding in this image, and uses the helplessness and winsomeness she’s portraying here to aid her success in an industry that’s famously skittish around powerful women. I understand the “don’t mind me; I’m harmless” branding choice. I understand branding yourself that way makes powerful men in the industry less nervous, and makes potential audience feel protective and charmed.

Understanding all this is part of what makes me so frustrated with it. We only ask women to ameliorate their power in this way. Only women need to soft-sell their power. This is gendered branding.

What would make it suck a lot less for me, personally (because this whole blog is, of course my personal opinion, and YMMV)

DID YOU JUST READ THAT?

DID I JUST TYPE THAT?

OK, I’m stopping myself. I have a blog that’s read by more people than I ever imagined possible. I’m in the middle of a post about the portrayal of women, and how it sucks that we’re encouraged to soft-sell our power. AND I JUST MITIGATED MY OWN OPINION IN THE MIDDLE OF WRITING IT. This training runs deep.

In the facebook discussion leading up to this post, I was told by an older man that my “style of criticism” was “over the top.” Whenever women speak out, whenever women claim our own power, whenever women voice an opinion without a meek “Well, it’s just my opinion,” someone is there to tell us we’re wrong for it. Often, we do it ourselves. This training runs deep.

I’m choosing to own my power. This is my critical read of this image and this branding. Full stop.

Deep breath.

What would make this a lot less frustrating for me would be if the imaging and branding of men and women were less gendered. There’s nothing wrong with a woman posing for a portrait in an infantilized way in and of itself, but at this cultural moment we’re faced with the hard, cold reality that women– young women especially– are instructed to present ourselves in ways that mitigate our power, and are met with a wagonload of disapproval if we do not, while men are encouraged to do exactly the opposite. This kind of gendered branding sucks for women AND men.

I’ve spent quite some time this morning looking through images of young, powerful men and women. I’ve flipped through hundreds of images of dozens of people. And the one that seems to sum it all up is this:

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This photo of Tom Ford, Scarlett Johansson, and Keira Knightly, shot by Leibovitz for a Vanity Fair cover in 2010, sums it all up nicely. The parody shot Leibovitz did later also speaks volumes about how we portray powerful men vs. how we portray powerful women. It’s funny because of the ironic juxtaposition.

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It’s the same kind of humor we get from this bit of awesomeness:

Created by Theamat on Deviant Art

Created by Theamat on Deviant Art

and this:

What is all the Avengers posed like artists draw female superheroes?

What if all the Avengers posed like artists draw female superheroes?

And this:

Vicious Grace - Jim

The man in the above photo is fantasy author Jim C. Hines, who has an entire series of photos of himself posing the way women are drawn on book covers. It’s glorious, so check it out here.

There are numerous examples of men posing or dressing the way women are posed and dressed, all creating humor out of the ironic juxtaposition and all (hopefully) highlighting the sexualized and infantilized ways we create images of women. Check this out, and this, and this.

Lena Dunham is a powerful young woman, and an Annie Leibovitz portrait is a potent, lasting statement of one’s celebrity. I just wish they had chosen to frame her within that power, rather than mitigating it.

UPDATE: To my astonishment, 3000 people read this post within the first 48 hours it was up. So far I’ve read and/or received dozens of comments on it in various venues. The people who agree with me are a mixed bag of genders. The people who disagree with me are, so far, 100% men. That was, I must say, completely unexpected. I assume there will eventually be women who disagree (or, more accurately, voice their disagreement to me), but the fact remains that it’s gone this long with only male voices telling me I’m wrong, scolding me for “reading too much into it,” or taking me to task for “attacking” Lena Dunham. Interesting, right?

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WOMEN PLAYWRIGHTS: I Challenge You

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Arwen Anderson and L. Peter Callender with Marissa Keltie, Julia Brothers and Robert Parsons in Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, at MTC

Marin Theatre Company, a LORT here in the Bay Area (and let’s give them a round of applause for how much local talent they hire, shall we? YAY) has two prizes they’re giving out for new plays. No submission fees, and the submission process is simple and online.

Here’s the deal: No matter what the thing is– prizes, contests, festivals, open calls– plays by men make up between 65% and 75% of the submissions. I’ve experienced this personally, seen it measured in studies, and had it quoted to me anecdotally by other ADs.

While I’m sure there are some contests out there somewhere achieving 50/50 submissions, the norm is nowhere near parity. If we want 50/50 productions, the first step is to make sure everyone has 50/50 submissions.

Start with MTC.

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Bowman Wright (Lincoln) and Biko Eisen-Martin (Booth) in Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, at MTC. Photo by DavidAllenStudio.com

I’ve issued my challenge on my facebook. All you need to do is submit to one of the two prizes MTC has going and then comment “DONE” on my facebook note. I want to see 100 women submitting to these contests.

If 100 women comment on my facebook note that they’ve submitted, I’ll do profiles of three playwrights, randomly selected from the list, on this blog. I’m no Adam Szymkowicz, but still.

Here’s the link to the facebook note. LET’S DO THIS.

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No, I Will Not Smile

Art by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. More of her awesome work at: http://www.tlynnfaz.com

Art by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. More of her awesome work at: http://www.tlynnfaz.com

So lots and lots of people who are cooler than I am have written about street harassment. Whenever I post about street harassment on facebook, I get dogpiled with comments– always from men– defending the behavior, or saying things like (and I quote):

“You should take it as a compliment!”

“That doesn’t happen in [city name].”

“That never happens in [type of place, such as subway, mall, universities].”

“I’ve never seen that happen.”

“Only men of certain ethnicities do that.”

“How else are we supposed to meet women? Give us a break!”

…….and the like. I have been told by men, in no uncertain terms, just how wrong I am every single time I’ve ever spoken up about this issue. Every. Single. Time. I see you, men who are limbering up your fingers to tell me I’m just a dumb girl, or a feminazi, or that I just don’t understand, or that I’ve made the entire issue up because duh women do that all the time. Hold up. Read the rest of the article, click on the hyperlinks and read those, and if you still feel like telling me what an asshat I am, I promise you I will read your comment with a serious look on my face THROUGH THE WHOLE THING.

This is what my serious face looks like . . . IN MY IMAGINATION. And please stop telling me I'm Simon, not Zoe. I ALREADY KNOW.

This is what my serious face looks like . . . IN MY IMAGINATION. And please stop telling me I’m Simon, not Zoe. I ALREADY KNOW.

The small area of the Street Harassment Monster I want to tackle right now is the, “Smile, baby! Why don’t you smile? You’d look so much prettier with a smile on your face.”

If you are approaching a stranger with any variation of the above, you are behaving like the human embodiment of painful rectal itch. Here’s why.

Accosting strangers on the street is uncool. In addition to being fucking annoying, it makes women feel unsafe. We have no way of knowing what you’re going to do. I was pushed, HARD, to the ground, at an ATM because I refused to acknowledge a strange guy who was demanding that I smile at him. If our responses to your demands for attention are not to your liking, many of you immediately escalate the encounter to verbal or even physical abuse. We have no way of knowing whether you’re just going to walk away or whether you’re going to follow us down the street yelling, “Fuck you, you stuck-up bitch. Who do you think you are, fat bitch? Don’t you ignore me, bitch,” grab us by the arm, pin us up against a wall, or surround us with jeering companions who threaten to rape us. WE DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU WILL DO. It’s scary. Stop it.

Is it unfair that you, who believe you are a Nice Guy, have to curtail your behavior because other men are behaving like worthless chumpbuckets? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s MUCH more unfair that you’re forcing a woman into an interaction that she knows has a very real chance of ending in verbal or physical abuse.

You have no idea why she’s not smiling. Did she just get the news of a death in her family? Lose her job? Is she having painful menstrual cramps? Did she just kill a strange man who harassed her on the street and is worried about doing it again now that she’s tasted blood? Demanding that a woman construct a cheerful look on her face simply because you demand it is to ignore the fact that she is a person with a life, just like you are. You know NOTHING about that life, and therefore, you know NOTHING about her emotional state. Back off. Actually, back off and read this.

You are not entitled to cheerful interactions with women on demand. Why do you think it’s OK to make random demands of women on the street? You are not our toddlers. Do not demand juice boxes, smiles, or attention from women you do not know. This is what toddlers do. This is why mothers are exhausted: constant demands for attention. Before you demand that the woman you see walking towards you (or are following, ew) force a smile on her face, remember that you are the third man who has demanded her attention in the last 20 minutes. She just wants to walk down the damn street. If she wanted a toddler, she’d have one. If she has a toddler and you harass her with “Smile for me! Don’t forget to smile!” she is now, thanks to Olympia Snowe and her outgoing gift to American women everywhere, The American Patriot Mothers for American Patriotic Heritage Act,  legally entitled to give you a roundhouse kick to the temple.

No, your attention is not flattering. I’m just going to leave this here in case you’re wondering what women think of your commentary and/or demands.

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If you think this behavior is OK, remember that there are quite literally millions of men all over the world who agree with you, and many of them will start harassing your daughter once she hits middle school. They harass your wife. They harass your little sister.

All we’re asking is that you remember that women are people. All we’re asking is that you treat women on the street with the same respect you’d treat your daughter, your mother, or a heavily armed level 20 dwarf fighter.

Did I just hear you demand that I smile? I will smile over your bloody corpse, human.

Did I just hear you demand that I smile? I will smile over your bloody corpse, human.

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Skinny White Girls are Exhausting My Eyes

I have nothing against skinny white girls. I really, really do not. I know and love many of them. I cast them all the time, which is not surprising, since the nonunion acting pool anywhere in the US is made up of something like 65% skinny white girls. And even lumping them all together in one group is needlessly reductive– they are as varied as any other group of humans.

But but but.

My eyes are exhausted from looking at skinny white girls and ONLY skinny white girls.

In nearly every representational context, “female” = “skinny white girls.” We, as a culture, are forcing the female experience, in all its variety, to be almost ALWAYS represented by and contained within the body of a skinny white girl. Skinny white girls are not seen as particular; they are seen as general, as “the female.”

In our culture, we posit the stories of straight able-bodied white people, especially of straight able-bodied white men, as universal, and the stories of everyone else as marked by difference. A romantic comedy starring a straight, white, able-bodied couple is just a romcom; but change any one of those characteristics and it becomes a genre film: a Black film, a gay film, a disability “issue” film. You wouldn’t need to change a single word of dialogue to change the perception of the film– just the casting.

What is considered “universal” in representational media is actually reflective of a particular experience– the experience of privilege, usually straight white able-bodied male privilege. Those of us who do not share that experience are always expected to translate– to find and relate to the humanity within the experiences of people unlike us. But those privileged people are rarely expected to do the opposite. Men are rarely expected to relate to plays or films about women, but women are ALWAYS expected to relate to plays or films about men. A film centered around the story of a white man is just a film culturally positioned with the expectation that all will enjoy it in its universality, but a film centered around the story of a Black woman is culturally positioned with the expectation that only Black women will relate to it.

This is a potent issue resulting in a paucity of variation in the portrayal of women. In American mainstream film, TV, and, unfortunately, theatre, what’s positioned as a “normal” and “universal” portrayal of a woman is skinny and white.  All women everywhere are expected to see ourselves, find our humanity, and relate our experiences to the experiences of skinny white girls, most of whom (let’s be realistic) are under the age of 40. AND WE DO. We do it all the time. We do it so well we don’t even think about it most of the time.

I didn’t even realize how exhausted I was by this until I started going to shows at African American Shakespeare Company. As I was watching Merry Wives of Windsor, it slowly dawned on me that I had a level of buy-in to the three lead female characters in the show that I hadn’t had in quite some time. I found myself wondering why. Was it the fantastic acting? Well, sure, but I see fantastic acting all the time. Was it the solid directing or the midcentury costumes (I’m such a sucker for vintage)? I turned it over and over in my mind. And then I realized: Because the three lead women were not all skinny white girls, I felt a level of comfort with them and, by extension, with the narrative, that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. By seeing women who were outside the circle of mainstream privilege, even though they were outside it in a different (and, I would say, more deeply meaningful) way than I am, I felt . . . welcomed. I felt like I could relax. I felt like there was a level of implied judgment that was left outside.

So what does this mean? I’m not saying we should stop casting skinny white girls. Of course not. They’re talented, wonderful human beings who deserve roles and love and cupcakes and all the good things in life, just like anyone else. But clearly we need to step away from the formula “normal = skinny and white.”

I think we all, as a culture, need to look at the ways in which we portray women. While we always portray men in specific ways (the attorney, the action hero, the troubled scoundrel, the cop, the bad guy), we all too often portray women in generalized ways (“the woman”) connected only to their relationship with the men, or to the male-driven narrative. When we step out of that, we fear scaring away potential audience by stepping outside of the “universal” when we step outside the portrayal of privilege.

If you’re a skinny white woman, or a white man, you represent an ever-shrinking segment of the population, but the bulk of representational media still posits you as “normal” and everyone outside of you as marked by difference– the further the difference, the deeper the marking.

Here’s what you can do– here’s what we ALL can do– to have the greatest impact on creating real diversity in our representational media.

If you ever find yourself thinking, “That play/film/show/book isn’t for me,” STOP YOURSELF and ask yourself why you think that. Is it because it has a central female character? A central non-white female character? What is it about her experience or humanity that you find so foreign to your own human experience you feel like her story ISN’T EVEN POSSIBLE TO UNDERSTAND? Yes, you will need to do some work to find YOUR humanity in HER story, but I promise you that you can do it, because SHE does it for YOUR stories every day of her life.

I have heard, dozens and dozens of times, smart, educated, awesome men say about plays with female-driven narratives, “I think this play is well-written, but I don’t get it.” They see the difference and stop there, because they’ve never learned to translate. They’ve never had to.

This is a learned skill. You have to TRY to do it if you don’t already know how. It has to be a conscious choice to step over your privilege and learn to translate the experiences of people who do not share your privilege, finding your own humanity within them. Will you understand every nuance? Of course not. I don’t understand every nuance of every play about the male experience. I’ve never been a closeted boy on a chicken farm, I’ve never been kicked in the balls, I’ve never been on a professional sports team. BUT NEITHER HAVE YOU. Well, maybe the balls part (sorry, that must have sucked), but certainly not the other two. Yet, because the protagonists of Joshua Conkel‘s MilkMilkLemonade and Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out (both wonderful plays) are male, I’ve seen men relate to those characters and effortlessly see their own humanity in them, even while claiming not to understand plays with female central characters whose stories more closely match their own experience.

I firmly believe that being able to have a theatre community that  stages work with female protagonists– or, hell, even with female supporting characters– who are as diverse in as many ways as women actually are RELIES on having translation buy-in from the resistant members of our potential audiences AND from the resistant members of our own community– two groups, by the way, with significant overlap.

Skinny white girls are cast in almost all our female roles, and have become associated with “normal woman,” because our culture equates whiteness and thinness with beauty (an extremely problematic notion in and of itself), and the body of the actress is there to be looked at– the actress is all too often there to be “the female” in a man’s story rather than there to inhabit a particular story about a particular woman. We can change this in two ways: by expanding the concept of desirable beauty to include more types of women (good) and (even better) we can stop positioning women all the damn time as “desired object,” start staging work that features stories about different kinds of women, and stop pretending that any play that doesn’t conform to “normal woman = skinny white girl as object of desire” is some kind of crazy deviation from the norm.

In order to do this, to achieve diversity, especially a realistic diversity of women on our stages, those who are unused to translating must make a commitment to learn how to translate the experiences of others unlike themselves and see their own humanity therein. But this must be a conscious CHOICE and an ongoing process, or it’s not going to happen.

I know this is not only possible, but happening right now, because I see it myself. Not every white guy is mystified by translation. We’re in a cultural moment where everything is shifting, and our kids are growing up in a world that values diversity in ways never before seen in the history of the world. This is an achievable goal. But we must consciously CHOOSE to achieve it.

Once that choice is made, we’ll start to see more work wherein women aren’t there as decorative objects and events in the lives of men, and we’ll start to see more women on our stages who do not conform to mainstream images of beauty, because their primary function will be telling a story, a story the entire audience will be able to relate to, empathize with, see themselves in because they have chosen to. Our stages will still have room for skinny white girls, but they will also have room for every other kind of woman, and, for that matter, every other kind of man.

We just have to all make the choice, together, to see the humanity in others.

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Hey, Screenwriters and Playwrights: Create Better Characters

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I’ve been teaching at a film school for over five years now, and working with filmmakers has been an eye-opener. I’ve learned a lot, and I hope I’ve helped some filmmakers along the way.

One thing I think screenwriters and playwrights share is the need to create compelling, honest characters, and yet it’s one of the most common areas in which I see scripts fall flat. This can be a real struggle for early career writers.

So: Are your characters boring? Oh, don’t give me that look. You know what I mean. Bland, flavorless characters; characters whose predictability could be spotted by a nine-year-old; characters that are carbon copies of archetypal characters of the past.  They are all too common.

How are memorable, believable, intriguing characters made? While there’s no one right way, I can give you some pointers to help you, early career playwright or screenwriter, find your own process.

1. Imagine your characters as personalities, not as a collection of visuals.

This one is a particular issue for filmmakers. Filmmakers tend to be visual people, and I often see scripts that approach a character from the outside, and stop there. The writer knows what she wants the scene to look like, but hasn’t thought any more deeply about it than that. When you think about your characters, think in more detail about personality traits. Who is this character? Why does he do what he does? What does he want? Which leads me to:

2. Think of your characters as real people with needs and desires.

I often see characters that are treated as nothing but events in the life of the main character. Imagine your characters as real people with goals, hopes, dreams, fears. What does this person want? What does she want from the other character(s) in the scene? What is her opinion about the other character(s) in the scene, what’s happening around them, what might happen, etc? I see this particular “event-in-the-life” type of sloppy writing shine out in its fullest glory when people write women and people of color.

3. Write better women and people of color.

The amount of stereotypical, flat, and unrealistic women and people of color in film and theatre could, if turned into gold, buy every man, woman, and child who ever lived a copy of the latest version of Final Draft. It’s depressing. Even more depressing is the fact that this isn’t the sole province of white male writers. When writing supporting characters that are women or people of color, treat these characters as real people with stories of their own—feelings, opinions, needs, desires—and not just an event in the life of the main character. And here’s a thought: consider writing more pieces with a woman or a person of color AS the main character. I see much more diversity in main characters in theatre than in film, but we could use much more in both. (More stories from more diverse perspectives, please, with extra awesome.) BTW: One more hooker/call girl character and I will scream. Despite what you see in film, 57% of all women between the ages of 18 and 30 are not hookers. Crazy, right? I KNOW. Additionally, I could easily write a 1000-word blog post just about stereotypical writing for people of color. Be better.

4. People are never generic, always specific.

So stop creating generic characters. Stop throwing generic characters into scenes just to advance the narrative and start thinking of characters as essential parts of the equation of storytelling. I promise you that you can, with a little more thought, advance your narrative just as well—actually, better—with an interesting bartender as easily as a generic “bartender.” What’s more, an interesting, complex character can take your narrative in unexpected directions. Allow your characters to be specific people and see where that takes you.

5. The stronger your antagonist, the stronger your protagonist.

This one is more germane to screenwriting than playwriting, but this basic piece of advice should apply to all characters you create, whether they fall into the protagonist/antagonist structure or not. Make sure your antagonist isn’t a total screaming douchebag from the get go. It cheapens your protagonist’s eventual victory (or defeat, if that’s where you’re going). Make your antagonist a worthy opponent and the end will be much more satisfying. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious asshole (SPOILER ALERT: too late) take a tip from Shakespeare—all of his villains have some redeeming qualities, and all of his heroes have some flaws. People are complex, and if you want your characters to be believable, they must reflect that. An antagonist who has a point and makes some sense in his opposition to the protagonist will provide a much more satisfying conclusion.

6. Show, don’t tell.

Yes, I know this is the 100th time you’ve heard this, but it’s really true. Your character doesn’t need to offload sixteen lines of exposition in the first scene. Don’t be afraid of a little ambiguity. Allow the actors some room to create believable characters with your text. Real people are sometimes indirect, are mistaken, lie. People seldom come right out and say precisely what they’re thinking. Show us the character, the relationships, the emotional journey. Don’t feel the need to load it all into the lines.

7. Pay attention to “voice.”

Characters who all sound the same are annoyingly common in scripts. Create specific character voices. Observe the people around you—you’ll encounter interesting character voices every day. Individuals have specific vocabularies, speech patterns, and ways of framing and expressing opinions. Build this in tandem with your characters’ personality traits, as they will inform each other.

My last, and most important word of advice: Follow your heart. Tell the story you need to tell in the way you need to tell it. Only you can tell your stories, so honor those stories by crafting the best scripts you can.

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Hey, Guess What? If You Think Women Are People, You’re a Feminist

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So facebook, amirite? Facebook. It’s a roiling sea of poorly-thought-out opinions, my own included. In the middle of a discussion about women playwrights (blog post coming soon), someone said that she’s not a feminist because women are “different,” and that we are “not equal” to men.

After I found my eyeballs and put them back into their sockets like a Tex Avery cartoon, I wondered if maybe she and I are just defining the term “equal” differently. What is “equal”? And can difference preclude that? Sure, there are ways in which difference can create inequality. Almost every human on the planet is a better athlete than I am. They are better; I am inferior; there is undeniable inequality there.

When we’re talking about gender equality, though, we’re talking about cultural equality and civil rights, where “equal” means “equal under the law” and “of equal worth.” Of course we’re not fully there yet; I know that. In a world where women still make 81 cents when a man in the same position makes a dollar, where 81% of all male faculty in the US are tenure-track or tenured as opposed to a measly 68% of female faculty (fully 32% of female faculty are lecturers– academic temps), where a woman CEO of a major corporation is as rare as the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field (NEVER TELL ME THE ODDS), we clearly have yet to achieve cultural equality. And when everyone down at the courthouse barely had a single fuck to give when my husband and I picked up our marriage license, but would have rung the HOMO ALARM had my betrothed been female, we have some progress to make regarding gender under the law. And pause for a moment to remember just how privileged cisgendered women are, despite our struggles.
But we ARE making progress.

I suppose it’s no surprise that a woman whose mother subscribed to Ms Magazine in the 70s and taught her who Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis were before she could walk has no problem proclaiming herself a feminist. The surprise to me is why YOU DON’T, people.

If it's good enough for Captain Picard . . .

If it’s good enough for Captain Picard . . .

Sure, women are different, I guess, in the aggregate. And there are plenty of things about me that conform to the stereotypical woman’s role. I loved being pregnant. I love to bake. I take pride in making seder. I also love to be in charge of shit and, honestly, I’m damn good at it. I don’t usually wear make up, I spend way too much of my free time on the xbox, I swear like 100 sailors, and I would rather listen to five hours of jackhammering than watch fourteen seconds of Sex and the City.

But “different” doesn’t mean “unequal.” When you say “I am a feminist,” what you’re saying is “I believe women should be treated equally, both under the law and culturally: That women should earn as much as men; that women’s stories are as important as men’s; that women should be considered equally for jobs and promotions.”

The tenure thing expressly pisses me off, yes, partly because I’ve been a dramatically underemployed lecturer for eleventy scrotillion years while watching men with less education and experience get tenure, but mostly because the gender breakdown of underpaid, overworked academic temps known as lecturers (who make less than the people working at the campus Starbucks) weighs heavily to WOMEN, while the gender breakdown of the people with tenured positions making twice what we make (to start) weighs heavily to MEN. Bear in mind that women earn 52% of the PhDs awarded each year, corresponding neatly to our percentage of the population. And yet we’re still largely held down into temp positions while the men around us land tenure-track positions in numbers that far outweigh their representation in the population.

But I digress.

YES, women are different than men, sometimes. Maybe most of the time. I’m interested in the neurology about gender. I still find babies miraculous and pregnant women enthralling and special. But women are not BETTER than men, nor are men BETTER than women, and if you think so, it’s a matter of opinion. Also, you are awful.

So what is a “feminist”? I gave it away in the headline, so if you made it this far, I SALUTE YOU. I hope you don’t feel cheated.

“Feminism” is the belief that women are people, and, as people, are as important as men, regardless of any differences, and deserve equal protection under the law. (Recommended reading: The equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.)

YOU ARE A FEMINIST. Boom. What? BOOM.

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