So I’ve been thinking a lot in the hours since my last post about how to have this conversation.
I’ve been thinking about how we can best begin to discuss issues of unequal representation in a way that both is honest and straightforward and is also productive and provokes dialogue instead of defensiveness?
In other words, I want to start by talking about how we talk about this.
I find it easy to provoke and push when the target seems large and imposing. I find strength in feeling myself becoming a David in the face of a Goliath. My guess, without having been there, is that this was the awesome power of what happened at #thesummit. It was a moment where the folks on the stage, the ones with some degree of sway and power and perhaps a degree of unknowing complacency, had to take in the might of opinion and feeling of the voices sitting on the other side.
But in a business as tiny as this, in a community where community is key, when networking and positive relationships determine your ability to get a job or a grant next week, month or year, it is easy in the micro-moments of inequity to excuse the tiny things. Too often any one moment or choice or thought seems isolated or small enough to swallow. And as the distance between we and the “giants” gets smaller, the harder it is to see them as the Goliaths they once were. Little things amass because it’s sometimes hard to know what is and isn’t a battleground.
And let’s also point out that these are really hard conversations to have.
Because so often I see an cry to battle dissolve when it has to translate into the daily implementation of such ideas on the nitty gritty detail level. Based on the conversation in our few meetings of the Awesome Lady Squad I hear female artists find the balance of when and how and where to try and bring these issues up the biggest barrier to change. “Do I really want to make this tiny line or scene or interaction a soapbox?” “Do I want to be that actress today, tomorrow, through this whole process.” “Am I really seeing this or am I being overly sensitive?”
It’s exhausting constantly trying to parsing it out in the moment.
And even if you are sure and you do know it’s an issue, it is so so so so so so so much more difficult to say things that are tricky and sticky to people we know and care about. It sucks to be a watchdog. To be a nag. To feel like you’re stopping everyone’s fun. To put people on their guard. It can feel like the opposite of the artistic impulse, where we want to feel open and accepting of each other. And I think it’s so hard because to have that conversation is also to acknowledge that the ills of our culture, the biases and darknesses that float around us all the time, also make their way into our brains. That we are sometimes making choices with little pushes from beliefs or stereotypes we’d never support if we said them out loud.
I wrote a while back about a study that showed how academic scientists displayed preferential treatment of men when filling a position for a lab manager.
In that post I explained how candidates in the study were never seen in person and scored based on identical applications save for the gendered first name of the potential employee. I underscored that this bias was shown in both men and women assessing the candidate. And I made a particular point of noting that none of the decision makers felt their choice had been affected by the applicant’s gender in any way. They all felt they were being totally gender objective in their assessments.
In other words, you can display bias and stigma and stereotype even when you don’t subscribe to them, EVEN when YOU are the negative recipient of them.
It is scary to think that stuff is in us. Even scarier to come to terms with the fact that it can affect our actions despite the best of our intentions. And when confronted with it, defense is natural. From the outside it seems ignorant and bigoted. But my guess is that the real cause is that no one wants to find in themselves dark things they didn’t ask to be in there. So sometimes it’s easier to believe they aren’t.
And it is here I want to point out the latent superpower we are missing: Yes, this is hard. Yes, It is tricky to talk David to David rather than David to Goliath. But. The closer we are, the more potential impact we are likely to have. The closer we are to them, the more likely we can get people to let that guard down. The closer we are to the offending source, the more likely we are to find a safe space to excise these demons with their hosts intact. And if we can win them to our side we grow our army of soldiers. The less it looks like a war and the more it looks like a conversion, I think the faster the battle will be over. If we have to kill them all, we may still do it, but I bet we lose much more time and resource and energy.
So I think we should begin with two assumptions, even if it may seem idealistic or naïve:
1) No one intentionally wants to make harmful choices to women artists.
2) Everyone imbibes some level cultural crap that will predispose him or her to doing so.
So when we look at the choices of a company, or another artist (or in our own work for that matter) and we see something that makes us feel squicky, our goal should be to remind them of #1 and help them see where they might be displaying the crap of #2 (pun by the way, totally intended).
To do that I think we start by asking these questions:
Is it conscious? – i.e. Does the person or company know and realize what they’re doing? Do they identify their behavior as a problem or are they truly unaware of it and its effect?
Is it conscionably contextualized? – i.e. Have they passively presented potential problematic material/decisions or have they taken steps (even if imperfectly) to justify them through dialogue or contextualization? In other words, do they balance a guy heavy Glengarry Glen Ross with another play with mostly female cast? Do they perform a problematic cannon text in context of a conversation series about historical representation of women in history to point out the potential in conflict with the morals we have today?
How we assess the answers to these questions will help set the stage for the modes through which we express our concerns and I think also help start to identify the solutions. And in tailoring it in this way, I think we get closer to coming to real understanding of what’s at play in each specific case. Because the devils really are in these details. And if we don’t treat all offenses alike, I think we’re likelier to find specific tailored solutions, likelier to find and commit the people who are ready and wanting to change but may not yet be brave enough or know how on their own to do so.
More on this tomorrow…