Shorts and Knee Socks

Some comments by Zooey Deschanel that I reblogged last week get at how complicated it can be for women represent to themselves as individuals in a feminine – or even female – way while also making it clear that we’re empowered, intelligent professionals.  I had an experience last year that has had me thinking about this kind of a lot.

Before the end of its glamorous six-season run in 2012, I spent a week employed on the television show Gossip Girl.  I work as a location sound technician, most often as a boom operator (the person who holds the long pole with a microphone at the end over people’s heads), but on that particular job I was performing the job of sound utility.  As the third position in the sound department, it’s the catchall of un-fun tasks like coiling and uncoiling cable, changing batteries and wiring actors with body mikes – which, while important, I also place in the category of “un-fun tasks” because, believe it or not, famous people don’t really enjoy it when you invade their personal space.

But my boss did his own wiring, so I had a surplus of brain space and free time.  That’s why I couldn’t help but notice when, one day, two of the other women on set – an electrician, whose job consists of powering and setting lights, and a second assistant camera, whose job, like the sound utility’s, consists of busywork like keeping notes and fetching camera parts – showed up in shorts and brightly-colored knee socks.  I had seen this outfit often enough around New York City, where fashion often trumps practicality, to know that, while I considered it ridiculous, it was a thing.  I just didn’t expect, even on Gossip Girl, to see it on women doing jobs like mine.

Film sets sound glamorous to the uninitiated, but really, they’re mostly places where time is divided between doing nothing and moving equipment around, much of it heavy.  The actors need to look good, obviously, but most of the rest of us dress for comfort and practicality.  At a minimum, this involves rubber soles and non-itchy layers for soundstage work, but when January rolls around and we’re looking at shooting 12 to 16 hours outdoors in sub-freezing weather with only 45 minutes inside for lunch, it can require foraging for wardrobe items on websites that sell to those planning a journey to the arctic. For the hair, make-up and wardrobe departments, showing up to set smart is part of their stock in trade – so I have no reaction when a make-up woman shows up for work at 5 a.m. with a face that looks pageant-ready, or when a wardrobe person walks in wearing a full denim jumpsuit with shoulder pads.  But my response to these other 20-something women showing up for their menially technical grunt work in shorts and knee socks was instant derision.

“Did you guys talk to each other on the phone before you came in to work this morning?” I quipped to one of them.

She just shrugged.  “It’s Friday.”

Granted, in the world of TV production, Friday workdays that start before noon so that they don’t go into the wee hours and become “Fraturdays” are cause for celebration.  Still, that meant they would be spending an entire day on set in something that was noticeably an outfit.

Let me explain why I had a problem with this.  In my first years in the business, in the mid-90s, I was often the only woman on a shooting crew.  This had its advantages: I got a lot of attention and the guys on set were always trying to help me do my job.  It also had major disadvantages: I got a lot of attention and the guys on set were always trying to help me do my job.  I never had anyone squeeze my ass, but I had people say plenty of things to me or in front of me that I considered pretty wrong, and I had to figure out how to handle it.  One time, a group of the guys on the set of the low-budget feature I was on were passing around a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, and one of them came over to me, opened it to a display of women in lingerie and asked, “Now which one of these would you wear?”  In that case, I knew the guy well enough to know that he did actually respect me for the way I did my job, and to give him shit about it (and he apologized).   But once, in the early aughts, I had to keep my mouth shut when I overheard the high-powered director of the commercial I was booming on quietly tell the AD that no, he didn’t actually need sound on the shot – he’d just said that he did because he liked how I looked on his set: female working professional as decorative object.

So I’ve always felt like a large part of my goal in dressing for work is just to blend in.  My typical wardrobe was, and continues to be, jeans or shorts that fit but aren’t tight and a shirt that fits but isn’t tight, in a dark or neutral color

image  <- like this.  (Don’t ask why I’m standing on a desk, that’s irrelevant.) The reason I don’t wear white or, say, fuscia is that bright colors can be distracting to the actors when you’re booming a scene, and white is reflective enough that your body placement can actually change the exposure.  The only interesting thing might be the design on the shirt, and it had to be something for which I had to be prepared for the commentary it would inevitably generate.  (Anything from “Where’s your tattoo?” when I wore my shirt bearing a logo from the Sailor Brooklyn Electric Tattoo Parlor, to “Nice cans,” when I wore the one with the image of headphones across my chest.)

As other women began to show up on set, I saw them generally following the same rules.  When they didn’t, I felt like it made it harder for all of us.  It pissed me off when a certain script supervisor would spend 20 minutes in the bathroom at the end of lunch every day fixing her make-up.  This was partly because there was only one bathroom, but also because, to me, her behavior said that looks were important, and that they were what women cared about – as if her job was to look good even when it wasn’t her job – which was exactly the type of stereotype that I felt I was fighting on a daily basis.

So, getting back to 2012, that’s also what I thought the shorts and knee socks were saying.  Until I realized that…maybe they weren’t.  As the day wore on, I realized that I seemed to have been the only one who even noticed the two women’s outfits.  I reflected on the fact that on the Gossip Girl shooting crew of 50-60 people, there were usually at least seven or eight women, and they were spread across most of the departments.  We often had women in the key positions of first assistant director, camera operator, and, sometimes, even director. This level of representation is now pretty standard, and the result is that the atmosphere has definitely changed.  Set still feels way more male than female, but it no longer feels like a boys’ club.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all fixed and hunky dory.  After 18+ years in the business, I still regularly find myself on set with some camera guy trying to mansplain my job to me like it’s my first barbecue.  But that day made me consider something for the first time: why was I the one looking down on these women for what they were wearing?  Had I so internalized the dress code that says that women have to look a certain way in order to be respected for the way they do their jobs that now I was the one enforcing it?

That’s the last thing I would want.  It’s crazy that 50 years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, women like me are still struggling to feel like we can just be ourselves at work.  For those of us employed in an environment that has always been overwhelmingly male, it can be hard to even know what that means.  I fought for so long against being forced into the box labeled “girl” that I rejected everything in it – not by choice, but because I felt I had to.  But isn’t real liberation about being able to choose from that box what suits us?  Women like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer say it’s on women to adjust to the male workplace in order to succeed, and for years, we have done that.  But how much are they, and I, really helping the next generation by telling them just to keep on keeping on?  How much can things really change if we aren’t making the workplace conform to us?

Those 20-something chicks would probably laugh if they heard me call their shorts and knee socks a feminist statement.  But even if they don’t fully appreciate how far we’ve come, we all still need to move forward together – and maybe sometimes they see the way better than I can.  We gave them the right to dress like fools.  Isn’t it time we let them do it?

Questions People My Age Are Tired of Answering (Or At Least I Am) In Casual Conversation

1) What do you do?
This has always been at the top of the list of problematic questions for me, or at least it has been ever since I became an adult. Granted, becoming an adult took a pretty long time since I went from high school straight to undergrad and then straight to graduate school in film, and it took me five years to graduate from there. So for the first 24 years of my life, the answer (“I’m in school in…” or something along those lines) was pretty easy. And because the schools I went to were fairly prestigious, it also sounded good, and people were duly impressed. But it was all downhill from there.

For one thing, it’s pretentious to say you’re any kind of artist, period.  “I’m a writer,” or “I’m a filmmaker” is preferable to “I’m an artist,” but even those imply that you do those things for the sake of art and art alone. Because if you were a technical writer you would say “I’m a technical writer,” if you were a journalist you’d say “I’m a journalist,” if you were a producer for “Toddlers With Tiaras” you’d say…well, maybe you wouldn’t tell anybody that, but you’d say “I produce for television” or something vague but not entirely pretentious like that, because those are all actual jobs. When people ask what you do, they mean, “What do you do for a living?” So unless you happen to inhabit that rare stratosphere of people who get paid to create, you probably can’t answer the question simply by saying, “I’m a filmmaker.” Or you can, but then the next question will inevitably be, “What have I seen that you’ve made?” and then you’ll be stuck explaining that the answer is probably nothing. Which might be okay if you were still someone who got paid to make the stuff that this hypothetical person has probably never seen. Getting paid to do something implies that someone else (the person or company that is paying you) thinks it has value.

I have gotten “paid” to “make” “films" (really videos these days but who’s counting?), so I do sometimes say that I’m “a filmmaker.” But then I always add, “and I also work in the film business,” because working in the film business is the primary way that I earn my living. Often I then go on to say, “Doing sound,” which really muddies the waters and leads to more need for explanation (as in, “No, not sound design, that’s post-production…No, not sound editing, I do location sound…Yeah, sound recording, on set.  Like, pointing the microphone at people.”) But then at least if people ask what I’ve worked on, I can talk about stuff that they’ve actually heard of, and then I can tell stories about famous people that are amusing but actually have very little to do with me personally creating things that I have to either laud or defend, and I’m much more comfortable with that.  And I can also tell them about the documentary I completed, well, nearly two years ago now, but then they ask me what I’m working on now. 

2) What are you working on now?
This is one of those questions that, in my business, you are not allowed to not have an answer to, or have the answer be, “Uh, nothing.” If you aren’t working on anything new, you have to make it sound like you’re actually working on one of the many impractical ideas you’ve had floating through the transom of your mind, often preceded by the words, “Wouldn’t it be cool to make a film about _____?”, but without any concrete thoughts about how to begin to explore said idea, or accompanied by roadblocks like, “But ___ would never agree to be interviewed by me,” or “But then I’d have to raise the money to fly to Mumbai and hire a translator,” or, “But I’m not that suicidal, so naah.” But you can’t tell people that part, you have to just tell them the crazy but cool idea and say you’re “researching.“ You certainly can’t say that you’re currently wandering around in the existential wasteland of middle age, wondering if you really want to do that thing you thought you wanted to do your entire life. Not only because that’s depressing, and waaay more information than the person who asked this question was bargaining for, but because if you tell enough people this, you really will never make another film, because nobody wants to work with a big loser, and that’s what you are, basically, if you aren’t moving and shaking, always in pursuit of what’s next. This is why one of the things you have to learn to do well in the film business is how to excel at pitching yourself and pitching ideas, aka pitching bullshit.

Mind you, I don’t necessarily mean this in a bad way.  Being confident in yourself and your ideas and being able to describe them in an engrossing yet pithy way are great qualities/skills to have. I truly admire people who are like this, and I’m proud of myself when I can pull it off. I just also know that nobody can that consistently generate excellent, fully-formed and executable ideas all the time, so, if you’re expected to do that, being able to spin crap at will becomes an important job requirement.

3) Why aren’t you seeing anyone?
It’s funny how often people would ask this question when I was single, which I was for the nine years between 1993 and 2002 and then for nearly all of my late 30s.  Variations on this theme are, “How is it possible that you are single?” or, “When are you going to get a boyfriend?”

The fact is, a stupid question is still a stupid question, even when it’s meant to be a compliment. Most people (and definitely female people) who have actually been single for any length of time realize that most people aren’t single for years by choice, and if they are, there’s still no good answer you can give to someone about the whys, hows and whens. The nicest answer you can possibly give is something along the lines of, “Beats me.” If you’re expecting more, then how about, “Because apparently nobody wants to date me?” “Because ever since I turned ___, it’s like I have an expiration date stamped on my forehead”? “Because, even though I guess you can’t see it, I’ve got a lot of shit to work out”? Or “When I finally stop only attracting assholes”? If you don’t think that any of these are answers you’d like to hear, stop asking this question, even if you think you’re being nice.

4) When are you getting married?
If you are in a serious relationship and of a certain age, you are guaranteed to get asked this all the time. Again, I don’t understand why people think it’s okay to ask this in casual conversation, because even if there is an answer, it’s probably not something anybody wants to get into. Again, what answer do you think you’re going to get? “Oh, some day”? “When we darn well feel like it”? “Never, because we actually know that this would someday result in an ugly, ugly divorce”? And think about it, what could your goal in asking this possibly be? 1) Embarrass this person or 2) Cause an argument?  Well then bravo, you’ve succeeded.  Anything else, then you’ve probably failed.

My then-boyfriend-now-spouse and I did actually just get married at the City’ Clerk’s office, and the awesome thing was that the last time he was asked this question, he was able to say, “Oh, probably next week.”  Best answer to that question ever, but not one you’re likely to hear.

5) How many times have you been arrested?
Just kidding.  Nobody ever asks me this, which I suppose says something positive/sad about everyone’s assumptions about me — something else it’s probably too late to change at this point in my life.

6) Are you planning on having kids?
When you get to be my age, this sometimes morphs into, “You’re still planning on having kids??”, but more often, it just becomes one of those Things You’re Not Allowed To Talk About, which is a totally different category of stuff that appears in middle age. We’ll get to some of those later. 

I suppose when a woman is young, before she’s fully realized that fertility is not an open-ended state of being, there’s not anything wrong with this question. But it gets increasingly fraught as you get older, ike most questions that call attention to one’s age in general. If you ask me this expecting a real answer, be prepared for a long discourse on my career, the progression of men through my life, and gory recent details of fertility treatments and miscarriages. Did you really want to know about all that when you asked? Didn’t think so.  (But for those of you who did, lucky you, because, again, we will be covering some of these topics later on).

(Asking men this question tends to be fraught in completely different ways, since I’ve found, to a surprising degree, it’s often something childless men of middle age have not really considered unless and until they’ve been prompted into it by a woman who is either their mother or their partner. So you’re opening up a completely different can of worms along the lines of, “Oh my God, should I be thinking about having kids?  Am I that old? Wow, I really am that old.  Oh shit…”  Cue purchase of sportscar and/or annexation of inappropriately young arm candy. I know this is a stereotype, but sadly it’s one that’s not really that far off base.)

7) How are your parents?
I shouldn’t really lump this in with all of the other questions, because it is actually something people ask solicitously, and in fact, some people will consider you impolite if you don’t ask it. But for me, and I think for many other people (based on what I see posted on the Facebook statuses of friends and "friends” alike), this brings up the fact that, if you’re my age, your parents are probably kind of getting up there, and that’s scary. You don’t want your parents to become your grandparents, not because you don’t/didn’t like your grandparents, but because they’re supposed to be your parents, aka, taking care of you, not the other way around. My parents are in good health and retain all of their faculties, but I don’t want to think about what could happen when and if they aren’t. Which doesn’t mean I don’t think about it, I worry about it quite a bit, but I don’t necessarily want to shower you, casual friend, with my deepest fears. And of course if the person’s parents are in poor health, you may not be prepared to hear about it. And if they’re dead, uh, yeah, oops, you should have remembered that before you asked, shouldn’t you?

I’m sure there are plenty more questions that belong on this list.  Thoughts?

My So-Called Midlife Crisis

I remember when I turned 30. I felt old, but at least I felt I had worked out a lot of my shit. Then I turned 35. I felt significantly older (somehow, being smack in the middle of my 30s meant more on an existential level than I had anticipated), but at least I had worked out way more than I thought I’d worked out at 30 – that 30-year-old me, she was NUTS for thinking she knew stuff. 40: the same, but even more so, because it was 40. 

Now, at 44, officially in my mid-40s, I have to face the fact that I officially don’t know anything about my life or where it’s headed.  So I get to feel both stupider and older – and less cute, or at least that’s the general opinion of the world at large, trust me, I feel you all checking me out less than you used to. Not everything attached to me works the way it’s supposed to any more either, I’ve got these knees and this back and this repetitive-stress-fucked neck and shoulder from spending too much of the past 20 years on my laptop and, now, my phone. And some things, apparently, like my ovaries, don’t really work at all any more.

TMI?  Well, welcome to midlife, or at least my midlife. I’m not sure how yours is going (if it is going yet, perhaps you’re just oh so excitedly anticipating it), but it seems as if I’m going through a perfect storm of the type of crap a woman my age can go through – the perfect shit storm, as it were. Now, I’m not about to go get a fancy car or some young blond arm candy or eye tucks and cheek implants in the interest of trying to somehow wrestle back the hands of time. I am feeling a little worn and in need of refurbishing, but I’m not an investment banker or Madonna, and more importantly, I just refuse to go there. The central hard part for me is that I’ve stuck with this road I’m on in terms of my career and life choices just long enough that I don’t know if I can change now, but I’m still not ready to say THIS IS IT, the big IT, what my life will look like from now on.  Hell no.

It’s not like this is a big revelation to me or anyone else.  I’ve become steadily more disillusioned with the business that I’m in, the film business, for the past 20-odd years that I’ve been in it.  Okay, that’s not really true, I think I kind of knew it sucked from the very beginning, because I considered dropping out of film school at least three times before my career even officially started, then I considered taking a real job when I got out of film school (my part time office job in financial management offered me $30K a year plus a full business wardrobe to come work for them), then I tried a couple of alternate careers along the way to now. But ultimately, I chose to be a freelancer and work in film production, doing location sound for a pittance (at first – it’s not entirely pitiable now, and as a union member I do have health insurance) in order to stay in, or close to, the work that I loved, or told myself I did. When you almost give up something that many times and don’t, it starts to feel almost providential that you’re still with it – like that man you just can’t quit, or the bad penny that keeps turning up, or the monkey’s paw…are you getting the sense that I have some negative associations with my chosen line of work?  But anyway, I don’t believe in that fate nonsense any more.  The only thing being stuck where I am means to me is that I opted, time and again, not to change things. I can’t really regret the experiences I’ve had because of my choice to be a filmmaker and have this peripatetic freelance lifestyle, many of which have been fantastic – or at least enjoyable when they weren’t fantastic, and at least blog-worthy when they weren’t enjoyable – but I can still wonder if it’s ultimately led me to a dead end. 

Look, I know it could be worse. I’m not dying – at least, not any faster than your average 44-year-old – and I do basically have my health, aside from the occasional bike accident, and persistent acid reflux, and all that other stuff I mentioned above. I’m not about to be evicted or in horrible debt, and I’m absolutely not alone, because I have a great boyfriend and family and friends. So I haven’t been placed on the curb, at least not yet. Maybe I should just shake this off and be happy instead of reflecting on everything and turning it into dark, navel-gazing commentary as I am wont to do.

Naaaaaah, where’s the fun in that? Have a seat and I’ll tell you all about it.