Stick in the Mud


Man, some days I just feel like this guy.

Ok. Follow up on this post.

I’ve been working on a statistic project on gender breakdowns in roles in theaters in town. It has expanded in a massive way. I’m planning on unveiling some time next week but it’s become much much larger a project than I anticipated. It’s going to have pie charts and line graphs and all that awesome data driven stuff my left brain loves.

And I was working out yesterday had a moment where the video I do totally jogged this big question in my mind about doing this. This moment made me think, “I really hope that this project is productive.” It made me wonder if there was a way to show this information to the people included in it so that it feels like a positive step forward and not an attack. Because as a fellow artist, I don’t really want to attack. I just want to make Philly theater more equitable in the future.

All of this comes from wanting to make our whole community better.

The workout, INSANITY, is marketed as high intensity circuit training. I could spend a lot of time unpacking why I like a workout that include a buff person screaming at me to move. (Actually, I don’t need to spend that much time. I just like someone kicking my ass. Working out is totally shame-based for me.) Anyway, INSANITY is short compared to their parent company’s more popular P90X series – a mere 40 minutes to the 60 or 90 that I had to commit when doing the later. P90X is hard. INSANITY is basically the plyometrics (aka cardio) day of P90X with all the air sucked out of it. The super fit people in the background of these videos ALL look wasted by the half way point.

I say this to set the scene for this moment, one in which the instructor “Shaun T” walks over to an incredibly shredded woman named Shanita who is placed near the front of the group. She is in midst of a circuit and roughly 35 minutes through the 41 minute video.  She is throwing her arms and legs up into the air and has a tough time talking when he asks her a question. The camera closes in on her and Shaun T corrects her form:

“Get your knees up Shanita.”

She looks pissed.

Shanita is working hard. She doesn’t feel like listening to Shaun T. She would clearly rather concentrate on getting to the end of the set. She probably already knows her form isn’t perfect. So she hikes the knees up for a sec and then says she needs a water break. Shaun T looks out at us in the audience and says something about how you have to get the form right, realizes what Shanita just said and then looks back at her and says:

“You want to leave? Ok, go take a break.”

He goes back to the front and picks up the routine. After a moment’s pause (well, fervent jumping in heavy breathing silence) Shaun T looks at the camera and clearly intending to reach both Shanita off screen and the viewers at home says:

“I’m not trying to hurt you, just trying to make you better.”

I feel this way a lot when I talk to peers about some of the issues I bring up in this blog, ESPECIALLY when it comes to gender inequality in the arts. I don’t know if Shaun T gets tired of correcting form. I feel like a stick in the mud.

Is there a good way to tell someone you think they are acting in a biased way?

“Hey, I know this isn’t what you want right now, in fact, I know this is probably going to make what’s already tough seem even more difficult, I know you’re barely keeping your head above water and you probably feel like you can’t use any critique, let alone one from someone who’s supposed to be a supporter, but you’re doing something wrong, and I think you need to fix it.”

No. There is not.

Or at least, I have not found it yet. I have not found a way to talk to people about these issues in a way that doesn’t seem like an attack. I’m not sure how to address a problem without putting people on the defensive. And it can be tiring when you feel like you are constantly stopping the crazy frenetic pace to raise your hand and say “Sorry to be that person again, but I really think we need to deal with this.”

Like Shaun T, I see some problems. His are with knees and getting your butt down in the squat. Mine are sustainability and the imbalance of women in theater.

And I would wager that a little more concentration on the form and not the race to the finish would fix it. I actually don’t believe it would take nearly as much extra effort as we think it would. But it will take some thought and it will be a little harder for a while. And that eye roll from Shanita says it’s not at the top of her priority list. She’ll listen and go along for a minute, but when he’s not looking, she might just go back to what’s easier.

It feels like general reminders don’t do anything. It feels like you have to be specific. It feels like you have to call people out.

Not “Hey everyone let’s remember to work on keeping our knees in the air.”

But  “You, person in front of me, I see how you’re doing the exercise and I think you need to slow down a little and re-learn some aspects of the form or you’ll always do it a little wrong.”

Shanita doesn’t want to slow down. She wants to get to the end. And I understand why. I’m the same way. I need some calling out to fix some problems. Because, like Shanita, sometimes you’re just tired and not paying attention. But Shaun T can’t let her get away with it. He knows Shanita’s going to short herself in the long run, that next time she does this circuit she’ll do it wrong again if she doesn’t fix it now.

And, maybe I’m investing way too much of my own personal struggle into an exercise video guru but I think that the real reason he makes her get it right is that she’s out in front.

She’s the badass person that you see first in the video. She’s the one showing the newbies who are just getting started how it’s done. I think he knows you are going to watch her and that if he doesn’t point out what she’s doing wrong, others will copy it. They won’t realize that it’s the wrong form, even if she does. So you can be pissed that Shaun T singles calls you out. But you’re out in front because ostensibly you know what you’re doing. If you’re the model, you’re more prominent, and if you’re more prominent, the more getting it right matters.

All silly and light-hearted exercise metaphors aside, I really wonder what to do sometimes. What is the way, that with care and kindness, with love and belief in the ability for improvement, that you say to a peer:

“Hey, from where I stand, it looks you’ve institutionalized some seriously discriminatory practices. Lots of people copy your model. Young creators look up to you. When you do it, it encourages others to follow suit. And it’s no longer acceptable that you continue to let it happen.”

It isn’t ever fun to be the stick in the mud. It feels like getting in other people’s way. It is getting in people’s way. Because you think it’s the wrong way. My feeling these days is that kind or not, people need to know. My feeling is that institutional leaders can (and might) keep doing it the way they always have, but at least they’re going to have a voice in their head telling them that they’re doing so with an intentional oversight. And when people watch what they do, they’ll have to display it knowing full well that the oversight is there, not because they were too busy and out of breath to pay attention. And that’s only possible if a stick in the mud bothered to point it out. Which I think is what we all need to commit to.

“I’m not trying to hurt you, just trying to make you better.”

And then it’s on Shanita to be better.


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