When I was growing up my mom, a family therapist, used to talk about the problematic representation of women in The Muppets.
I’ve felt a lot of ways about this at different points in my life. On the one hand, I totally get that it’s super crappy to have the extent of a gender be portrayed as mean/bossy, blonde/ditzy or chicken. This is why I advocate so hard for gender parity versus representation. Some women are blonde and ditzy or mean and bossy or chickens. But when you have so little room in our cultural narrative space, when this is the only version of women we see, these limited categories that appear again and again get really problematic. This “tokenism” and its cousin The Smurfette Principle are pernicious and pretty widespread in many parts of our cultural consciousness. So in that sense I am one hundred percent with my mom.
On the other hand, The Muppets.
And this is the thing. It really sucks to be the person who has to fight the silly, sublime and nostalgic force that is this thing that Jim Henson made. It’s so freaking difficult, in the face of something that you agree is wonderful in some ways and that you see is wildly commercially successful and popular, to try and fight for conversation space about the other ways in which it’s hurtful and plays into larger forces that harm women and misrepresent them. (Shout out to Katherine Fritz who wrote a lovely essay about this.)
Harder still, is the moment you have to decide if you want to be the proverbial Smurfette. Or direct her in a show. Or sign on to light her. Or whatever your part in the larger creative system might be.
This is the sticky place where our theoretical desire to stick to our Awesome Lady principles is put into real conflict with our day to day artistic and professional goals.
There’s misogyny for you. Pouring a big bucket of suck on everything.
And part of that bucket of suck, part of what sometimes happens, is that it’s super hard in the moment to figure out how to balance those two conflicting considerations.
Obviously, if there’s a project where you make a million dollars starring in the most artistically fulfilling role but there’s a tiny imbalance in the casting ratio (let’s say 5 dudes to 4 ladies), you might figure it’s still worth it. And just as obviously, if there’s a crap no-line female part with no pay and no audience and the play is about how stupid and terrible women are and the director likes to point out how much he thinks this is true, you might realize there’s really no reason to do this horrible thing.
Actresses out there, can you feel the tiny niggle inside of you that is still considering that second option? Just sayin’…
I think this instinct to jump at any and all work is part of how a perceived lack of agency pressures us into doing things that are against our ethics, don’t give us artistic fulfillment, and don’t even pay us. It’s as if any work is better than nothing at all.
I don’t buy that.
I think there is a reasonable estimate we can make of the artistic and/or professional merit in a potential project. I also think that it is possible for the problematic ethics of something to outweigh that artistic and professional merit if the problematic nature is problematic enough. What we need then is a living artist’s guide to figuring out how to measure those relative merits and ethical levels of importance – within ourselves and for individual opportunities – and come up with a way to help us gauge the overall worth.
Which brings me to the most recent meetings of The Awesome Lady Squad.
We started with exactly this question. We have internal values we want to uphold. We have a lot of factors to consider – factors of age, demand, opportunity, etc. that all play into how we make choices.
So we began by trying to define a methodology for determining the merit of a project divorced from our Awesome Lady ethics. We looked at Neil Gaiman’s great speech that includes the metaphor of a “mountain” that artists are climbing. We tried to come up with concrete categories for this inner intuitive sense about whether a project is taking you “up the mountain” or down. We chatted about the ways that different things matter at different times in one’s career, how a solid day job may make the “money issue” shift, and how we each differently balance the relative weight of artistic merit versus professional development.
We came up with four factors that any opportunity can be evaluated under:
- Professional Development (P) – i.e. street cred. Will this be a high profile gig that leads to more work? Is it with a big name company that will look good on the resume? Is it an internship that might not pay well but will give you access to a desirable new skill set?
- Financial Compensation (F) – i.e. money. Does it pay well (especially when broken down by the amount of money for the total time you will work)? Is it a job that might bring in income over a longer time frame?
- Artistic Merit (A) – i.e. art. How much do I respect and get behind the vision of this work? How much does it allow me personally to fulfill my artistic expression?
- Interpersonal Dynamics (I) – i.e. people. Do I like my collaborators? Who is in charge and how much do I trust them? Is this company one that’s easy to get along with? Are there non-artistic partners I need to interact with and do like them?
We had everyone rate the relative importance of these areas for themselves at this moment using 20 “value” points to create relative weights for each aspect of influence. We each used 20 poker chips and had to divvy them into piles for each category. The total chips in each pile became coefficients (i.e. fixed numerical values) that were used later in our larger equation.
Even doing this caused some of us to rethink. I thought my artistic merit category would be far and away the highest. But when I really thought hard about choosing a project, I realized that personality and chemistry with my collaborators is nearly as important and that I feel like I can’t get to that artistry without an ability to groove and talk to the people I’m creating with. Either way, these numbers gave us constants that would stay the same, standing for our core values when it came to evaluating a project.
Armed with this info, we talked about people’s actual upcoming opportunities and tried rating them in each of the four categories. We used a scale from 1 (perfectly advantageous) to -1 (totally detrimental) with 0 being neutral. While it was easy to freak about what we didn’t know, we made our best guess with the info we had. In some cases it also spurred the person to see where they really needed to find out more (about fee or the company’s street cred) to be able to make a more informed choice. We found it helpful to start from the middle and move up or down based on subjective factors you consider.
And then we created an equation that uses these numbers and pops out a score. To do this yourself multiply your four personal value numbers for each area (each some portion of 20) with the specific project’s strength or weakness (from 1 to -1) and…
Voila! An objective measure of whether you should do this thing or not! Like a pro and con list on steroids. For you math heads, here’s how we wrote it as an equation:
(P * P’) + (F * F’) + (A * A’) + (I * I’) = Overall Project rating
NOTE: In the above P = Professional Development value to you generally and P’ is the value for the specific project.
And then we came up with a scoring system:
- Negative: Don’t do it unless you can adjust something to bump the result positive
- 0 – 5: Only nominally worth it. Might be worth considering saying no if you’ve got a lot of these on your plate so you don’t end up at burn out.
- 5 – 10: Decent. Barring another great project this is likely worth your time, so long as it’s in balance with other stuff and your life.
- 10 – 15: A pretty sweet spot. This is where the work is satisfying and sustainable.
- 15 – 20: A mountain-climbing fast track. Chase this stuff as fast as you can.
“But, wait!” you might be saying. What about all that Muppet and Smurf stuff from the start of this blog post? Where’s that factor for Awesome Lady ethics? How do we include the value of projects that advance or detract from our Awesome Lady principles?
I thought about one project in particular, the statistic project I did a while back analyzing data on female creative professionals in the Philadelphia theater community. This project, if looked at only in terms of the equation, would be massively negative, a definite no-go. It made me no money and took time away from finding projects that might. It offered no professional advancement because if anything I was a little nervous it might put people off of working with me if I’d criticized them. It had no interpersonal reward because I was all alone and had no obvious artistic merit because it was all admin.
Using my value numbers and the equation I came up with a -5. A total no, right?
Well obviously (Awesomely) not. I loved this project. I talk about it all the time. It is still super meaningful to me as a female creator, even if some part of me saw that it took time away from all those other things. At the moment I did it, advancing the Awesome Lady cause was front and center in my mind. I was doing a lot of writing. I was feeling really frustrated. I felt a strong need to make a dent in the artistic world for Awesome Ladies.
And what about companies where the people are nice, the money and professional advancement is good, and the shows have lots of artistic merit in most respects but you just can’t help noticing that all the folks running things and all the writers being produced are male, most of the designers and actors are guys and the voice of women in the artistic process feels shut out? Clearly, even though there’s lots going right in a situation like that, there’s something else that needs to weigh in to reflect this complicated picture.
How do we rate such a thing?
By using the Awesome Lady Coefficient!
Without it, a max score for an opportunity is 20. This is a project where everything is perfect. So let’s say you are in a theoretical world where you rate the project a 20 in the money, professional development, artistic merit, and interpersonal categories, but the project is undeniably misogynist. If you could shut your eyes to that one aspect, you’d love doing this, but the message, the gender makeup of the cast/crew/production team, the way that females are paid compared to men, and/or all the little ways we subtly make female creators feel less than their male counterparts is glaring to the maximal degree.
The way we’ve defined the Awesome Lady Coefficient (ALC) is to say that at its maximal level, a project at a perfect 20 when confronted with the maximal frustration of gender inequity and discrimination becomes neutral. In other words, the max of the ALC is 20. And you can rate a given project or opportunity on that same 1 to -1 scale. When you add it into the equation it looks like this:
(P * P’) + (F * F’) + (A * A’) + (I * I’) + (ALC * ALC’) = Overall Project rating including assessment of project’s gender equity ideals.
Knowing how to factor in your desire to make that ALC value something specific and as quantifiable as money is important. It allows you a chance to look clearly at the hidden cost of projects that make you feel like you’re compromising your ethics. You may not rate the coefficient at 20. For a lot of people they might want to but find that doing so is just too tough right now. We’re not here to judge, but we do think it’s useful to note that if a project doesn’t come up positive unless that coefficient comes down near 0, there’s some thinking to do. And if you are consistently in a place where you never raise that ALC number into positive territory but say that you’re an Awesome Lady ally then there’s some thinking to do there as well…
It also means that if you REALLY want to say yes for the other reasons, maybe you might have a conversation that shifts the project or your role in it in a way that helps raise up the ALC factor so it’s more agreeable. That might be requiring conversations around problematic stereotypes in rehearsals or with audiences, asking to audition for a part that doesn’t include a rape scene, requiring a female AD or dramaturg to be a part of the show’s development so there are non-performer female perspectives in the room.
And maybe, sometimes, it’s a way to help justify the saying no to something that seems so logical but for the fact that it really messes with your internal sense of ethics. It’s a way to validate that inner voice that often gets sidelined with other people’s “rational” choices.
It’s a way to help yourself clean off that bucket of suck and grab back your own agency.
Even in the face of powerful forces like Muppets.
Or artistically stellar companies that overwhelmingly produce male playwrights.
It’s a way for you to own your own values and figure out what part of these complicated legacies you want to be a part of.
Just another day’s work for the Awesome Lady Squad…
PS – We’re thinking about expanding this into an interactive app that will let people adjust these numbers and calculate the math automatically. If you know of someone that might be interested in designing such a thing, hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org