I don’t get to the movies as often as I’d like these days, but I do watch a lot of TV. There’s a lot of good TV and a lot of great TV, and even in front of the mediocre stuff, I tend to be either working out or eating or just slumped in a puddle after a long day on set. So I spend a lot of time thinking about it, and its images and storylines often dominate my thoughts way more than they probably should.
Maybe that’s why, a couple of weeks ago, when I was watching The Crown, at the height of a lot of #metoo, somehow the two got stuck together in my mind. It was in a scene when Queen Elizabeth is getting ready for a royal event and her husband, Prince Philip, comes over and kisses her on the back of the neck, and she bats him away. I was struck by this: how this very powerful woman had to act like she didn’t want her husband to touch her, how he’s acting (knowingly) as a bad boy, doing something “naughty,” and it’s her job to stop him. And I thought, Man, we are so fucked.
Now, you can certainly point out that English royalty have a much more convoluted sense of propriety and duty than anyone else, and indeed, The Crown is all about that — but you could find a scene like this in virtually any show on TV. The idea that women don’t want sex or at least have to pretend like it in public while men can behave any way they want has dominated Western culture, if not all culture, for so long that it’s baked into everything. The whole concept of flirting as this dance where it’s the woman’s job to let the man know she likes/wants them, but in an indirect way in which she needs to do it with glances and gestures, because she can’t just come out and be up front about it, comes from decades upon centuries of that way of thinking. Men as the bad boys and women as the good girls is a social order that still — still — basically underpins societies around the globe. The wonderful “tradition” of French seduction that Catherine Deneuve and her ilk so feel they must protect: why does this exist? Why does the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” seem rapey but in fact probably isn’t? Why do we still have the fucking “third date rule”? Why are men still expected to initiate the first date/first kiss/first sex? Why does anyone still have the conversation, when talking about rape, about what the victim was wearing? Because we all are told on some deep and fundamental level that women aren’t supposed to want sex, and when they do, they’re sluts/whores/unnatural/wrong. Still.
And then, of course, with playing hard-to-get-good-girl the norm, everyone had to take advantage of the power of the slut, and sex became the greatest selling tool of all. From every 80s movie to nearly every beer and GoDaddy commercial you’re going to see tonight when you watch the Super Bowl to Entourage and its successor Ballers, women as sex objects have also been the flip side social norm forever. And even though none of it’s made for us as women, we’ve completely internalized it too. If we’re not the target audience for the product (and if it’s being showcased during the Super Bowl, chances are we are not), we are being sold the concept of sexy women who “own it” to sell other products, from fashion to lingerie to makeup to Lemonade and M.I.L.F.$, and women and girls are buying. And the complicated part is that of course we should own our sexuality. The problem is that we let everyone else tell us how.
As women, we are groomed to be great listeners, great followers of rules, great adaptors. The self-help books used to be all about getting a man, from Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus to The Rules (both, in typical fashion, written by men). Now, they’re telling us how to improve our lives by tidying up better (since the home and cleaning it are a woman’s domain, still), or how to Lean In to succeed in the business world. But they’re still all about reaction — about making the best of our lot, coping with men, or being more like them, about adapting better to the system that they built and run. Everyone else but especially men tell us how to be, and we be. Beyoncé may be saying that girls run the world, but if every woman in the halftime show is gyrating in a skimpy outfit while she’s saying it, is that empowerment? I love the words of the message, but when you look at how it’s delivered, it looks to me like it’s still kind of all about men – because all that cleavage certainly isn’t for my benefit. We are still letting them tell us how to be what they desire as if that were the most important thing in our lives, and we are still — still — fucking listening.
All of this was already brewing in my mind when the Aziz Ansari incident came along. You can see how caught up in all of these cultural messages the poor millennial is who wrote about her terrible night with him. The girl doesn’t want sex, that seems pretty clear, but she is also giving him mixed signals — because that’s just how women are supposed to act. This woman is supposed to attract the guy by being sexy, forward and friendly (like she was when she met Ansari and gave him her number), then find a way to let him know what she actually wants, or doesn’t, in a way that won’t hurt his ego or his feelings. And I have to also pity Ansari, who seems just as caught up in these same mixed messages. It certainly sounds like he thinks his job, as the guy, is to coax and seduce her — because that’s what he’s been told, by film, TV, and clearly, porn. If he sees her being reluctant, playing hard to get, he’s supposed to bring the sexy to help her get past it, not considering that maybe she really doesn’t want it — because she’s supposed to want what she’s told to want…which is what he wants. Still don’t get his point of view? Just watch the last season of Master of None. The first ¾ of Season 2 are fantastic and creative and full of original ideas and execution. The last two episodes, however, devolve into a traditional romcom written by a dude. They focus on how Dev, Ansari’s character, is infatuated with, pursues, and eventual attains a Hollywood-conventionally perfect woman — beautiful (in a Hollywood conventional way, even though Ansari is not), sexily foreign, cute/fun-loving and new to New York (meaning he gets to show her everything in his world and she loves it), who has the obstacle of being engaged to someone else. And she’s absolutely, maddeningly a mixed message machine who doesn’t know what she wants. It’s his job to both figure that out and coax her into it. Watching these episodes drove me nuts even when they first came out, which was way before #metoo. The woman so clearly came out of the conventional romantic comedy playbook, a perfect object of desire because she fits right into the guy’s fantasy, with no real personality of her own to get in the way. The list of what Dev likes about her sums it up completely: the things that are actually abouther are her beauty, her “magical”ness, and that she makes pasta. The rest are about him.
And it seems like so many of us are like this: we can be brilliant, unconventional thinkers, coming up with the most creative and unusual ideas, but when it comes to intimate relationships, particularly (but not always) with the opposite sex, we somehow fall back to our basest tropes and assumptions and stereotypes, our most superficial and stupid and unoriginal lowest-common-denominator ideas – and that’s what we go with.
It’s going to be a long time until we all sort this one out. But one of the main subjects we’re going to have to talk about to do that are the messages that the media tells women and men about what they are each supposed to want, or not want. You can say that a lot has changed in this country in the past 50-60 years, but it’s surprising how much the underlying things the culture teaches us about how to be male and female haven’t. When you watch the Super Bowl tonight, in between watching the game (if you even are), pay attention to the parade of commercials directed at male sportsfan America, the performances of the cheerleaders, Justin Timberlake’s halftime show, and take some time to reflect upon what the media tells us about men and women every day. Until we give the conventions we live by a long hard look, and until more women get to positions where we can break them — and we’re willing to take the creative chances necessary to do so — we’re all just going to keep repeating our same bad choices out of the same stupid cultural playbook.
Now that the season of giving and receiving is upon us, I’m betting that a lot of us are going to be doing one or the other with electronics, and that a lot of those electronics are going to be “smart.” I’m not sure how many of us have thought about how bizarre it is to use that word in reference to a phone, much less a fridge, or considered these devices at all beyond the joy of owning them or fear of having them hacked (and probably not doing as much to prevent that as we should, because who has time to worry about someone hacking your fridge?).
Living with a few new smart devices that Damon and I acquired in the past year, however, has brought up some interesting questions for me. The main one was the Amazon Echo Dot we got in the fall of 2016. In case you don’t know, the Echo, or this version of it, is a little round disc, about an inch high and three in diameter, that is constantly listening to you in order to do your bidding and provide Amazon with endless future blackmail material (hahahahahaha but that’s actually a genuine possibility because who reads the entire user agreement?). The Echo is like Siri, except that it’s meant specifically to be a tool for the home. Not only can it go order kitchen utensils or pillow covers for you at Amazon with a simple command (which I think is something Amazon wants way more than we do), but you can hook it up to various home appliances that it can operate for you as well. We have two smart lightbulbs in the kitchen and one smart plug in the living room that is also connected to a lamp, and the Echo can turn them on and off for us if we ask. But when we ask, we call it “Alexa,” which is its other name. We had to choose one of those names when we set it up, and I guess we thought that it would make us feel more stupid to hear ourselves talking to an entity with a name out of a dystopian YA novel. So now, when we want the lights in the kitchen turned on, we say, “Alexa, kitchen on,” and when we want the living room light on, the one that we use primarily for eating dinner, we say, “Alexa, dinner light on.” When Damon wants to play music, he’ll sometimes have her play directly from Pandora, which she can do because Pandora and Amazon don’t hate each other, by saying something like, “Alexa, play my lounge channel” (perfect for Sunday afternoons), but if he wants something from Apple Music, he has to play it off of his iPhone, and he’ll instead say, “Alexa, connect to my phone” (just to make it clear that we don’t need to call our devices human names. My iDevices have successively been named “Betsy’s [ordinal number] iPhone” or “Betsy’s [ordinal number] iPad,” the uncreative default names that Apple gives them).
Alexa makes a lot of mistakes, as one might expect with a piece of new technology. She often doesn’t understand what you’re saying correctly, because speech recognition just isn’t that good yet with any of our smart devices, as I’m sure you’re aware if you have an iPhone and have tried using it to speech-to-text messages to your friends like “See you leper!” Considering that understanding human speech is probably 75% of their jobs, you’d think at this point Siri and Alexa would be better at it than they are. It’s not as bad as when my dad first tried to show me how great it was on his first phone fifteen years ago, when a typical interaction I’d witness might be,
“No! Call Betsy.”
(My father has always been an early adopter, it’s just that sometimes he adopts the wrong things too early, like he did with the Betamax.) But still, today, it’s surprisingly not good. For a while, when we said, “Alexa, dinner light on,” more than half the time she would say, “I don’t know that device,” or, “I can’t find the device ‘din light,’” or, “I’m not sure what device you are referring to,” despite that she was only hooked up to three lights, and the other two are called “sink” and “entry,” or, jointly, “kitchen.” We found that, “Alexa, dinner on,” seemed to work better for a while, until it didn’t, probably due to a software update, at which point “dinner light” seemed to become more understandable to her. Luckily we, as humans, can adjust to her learning curve. Another funny thing that Alexa does is respond unexpectedly when you haven’t been talking to her. This can happen when you’re talking about her with someone else, as you might expect, which is why we’ve taken to calling her “Dingus” when we want to say something about her and we actually remember that she’s listening (an idea for which Damon gives credit John Gruber, and which I know you might think sounds kind of mean, but for the record, we aren’t using it in the Urban Dictionary sense, we are using it more in the Dictionary.com sense, or the Hudsucker Proxy sense — and if you haven’t seen that film, you MUST now watch this 8 min clip to understand why the Coen Brothers are geniuses. You’re welcome). Sometimes, though, she’ll also just start talking when we’re watching TV, because she’s heard something on the TV that sounds like “Alexa,” although we never seem to be able to figure out what that thing was, because inevitably it didn’t sound like “Alexa” to us. The times we’ve tried to go back and play the piece of offending TV again, she doesn’t react the second time, which makes it all the more baffling.
Now, you’ll notice that I have lapsed into calling Alexa “she” rather than “it.” This feels only natural, since she responds to “Alexa” and has a female voice. When you ask her to turn something on or off, after she does it, she responds, cheerfully — even more cheerfully since that system update — “Okay.” Or when she can’t do what you’re asking, she’ll reply with one of the many responses above, or “The device is not responding,” which could indicate an internet problem, or a software problem, or, well, who knows what. So you kind of get used to thinking of “her” as “she.” You talk to “her,” “she” answers.
But that brings up all sorts of weird shit. For one thing, we are just basically giving Alexa orders all the time. It’s always, “Alexa, do this,” “Alexa, do that.” You aren’t even expected to use the niceties that you would use with a person, like “Alexa, would you mind,” or “Excuse me, Alexa,” or “Sorry to bother you, Alexa, but could you…” In fact, you can’t use them, because it’ll make it that much harder for her to understand, and as I’ve described, it’s already hard. She’s been programmed to respond to commands, so that’s what we give her. It’s not even like what you’d say to Siri, who likes to be hailed with “Hey, Siri,” or the Google Assistant Who Has No Name, whose attention you get with, “Okay Google.” I mean, neither one of those is particularly polite, and “Okay Google” doesn’t really even make much sense as a way to begin a conversation, but neither one sounds as much like you’re Darth Vader talking to a subordinate who you might execute at some point in the not-so-distant future. I sometimes wonder what my neighbors think of me if they hear me hollering “Alexa, kitchen off!” for the second time, louder and more fully enunciated than the first time, because she didn’t get it right the first time and turned both of the kitchen lights on instead of turning off the one I was using. It must sound like I’m yelling at some personal assistant or maid who I treat like they’re both stupid and hard of hearing, or, worse, that I’m one of those English speakers who are unused to dealing with non-English speakers, and thinks speaking louder and more slowly is somehow going to magically translate the words into the their language. Plus, as severalothers have written about, it’s bad enough with adults, but what about kids to whom we’re still trying to teach the importance of speaking to others in a polite and respectful way? Then there’s when Damon gets frustrated with Alexa getting something wrong repeatedly and says “Alexa, stop!”, or, “Alexa, shut the fuck up.” It’s not that I don’t regularly growl, “Fuck you!” or “Stop it!” or “No no no no!” to my computer or other inanimate objects when something goes wrong with them (often something which is at root my fault for how I miscommunicated with the computer, not the computer’s fault for making a mistake), and we both know that Alexa is a computer, an object, not a person. She’s not sentient, she can’t feel bad in any way when she’s derided. But there’s something about an epithet being directed at a computer with a female name and a female voice that makes me uncomfortable. It reminds me of when I worked for a day on a documentary about women’s boxing, where we filmed the first professional women’s bout. As much as I wanted the equality the moment represented, I had a hard time watching women get hit — because I associate it with domestic violence and other sorts of violence against women, rather than sport. In the same way, while I don’t see anything wrong with getting pointlessly angry at our technology as long as it has no feelings, there is such a terrible history of men (and to some extent women, although that largely has negative connotations for different reasons — catfights, backbiting, competitiveness, self-hatred) taking out their anger verbally on women that makes it feel justifiably cringe-worthy. (Why these devices come with a female-voiced default is a whole other topic for discussion. And while I’ve turned my Siri into an Australian man, Alexa’s voice is not alterable).
To compound all of this, we recently acquired Deebot. Deebot is a robot vacuum cleaner — essentially a cheap Roomba (and if you’ve never heard of a Roomba, you must now watch this). The idea is that Deebot can do your vacuuming for you, or at least keep your house cleaner between vacuums. Deebot is much less smart than Alexa. It does have a memory that you can program to vacuum at different times automatically, and it does have sensors that tell it when it needs to change direction, which are sometimes only activated when it runs into stuff (so not so smart sensors). It will even communicate with you, deploying a beeping sound when it gets stuck and needs your help. But that’s it, it’s intended to be a simple device with just one purpose: vacuuming. And yet, it’s hard not to anthropomorphize even this most basic technology. Watching it make its way around your apartment, with its little wing-like brushes, pulling out cables from underneath pieces of furniture and leaving them strewn about the floor, it really seems like a critter. Plus, our Deebot came somehow pre-programmed to vacuum in the middle of the night, leading to a couple of surprise, wee-hour encounters — in the first week, I once found it sitting outside the bathroom when I got up to pee, and then several other nights, it’s woken us up with its plaintive beeping (apparently, we are also not so smart, since we still can’t seem to figure out how to get it to stop doing that). It makes you feel like you’re dealing with a bad kitty or some other troublesome pet with a mind that you can’t quite fathom and its own objectives, which may lie counter to your own (such as sleep, or not killing yourself on the way to the bathroom), despite that you know, logically, that it can’t possibly have either. And it doesn’t hurt that seeing a worn out Deebot whose battery has died sitting on the carpet with its little brushes splayed out reminds me of Lil Bub.
I know this all seems relatively small potatoes given what’s going on in the world right now, and it is. But now, while the potatoes are still small, is the time to start thinking about this stuff and figuring out how we deal with the human-seeming inhuman and the animate inanimate, because we all know that this is the way things are going. The other day I was reading a book, an actual book, and I caught myself trying to pinch to zoom on the photo on the page (yes, electronic devices allow you to remain in denial about the fact that you need reading glasses in a way that paper books don’t). The fact that I made that gesture on a piece of paper tells you what my norm now is, and I’m 48. Older generations may not be able to wrap their heads around the increasingly rapid pace of innovation that we are witnessing, and Generation Y and beyond tend to just absorb it. It may be up to us middle-aged types to think deeply about its potential ramifications for who we are as a species. We’re not at Westworld yet, but one day in the not too distant future, we will be using voice commands for all sorts of things, and bots will be taking over many more of our menial tasks — such as driving — and even the non-menial ones. Damon and I, at this point, have created a whole bunch of bots, at first just on Twitter but soon to have their own Facebook and webpages where the non-Twitterized can see and, in some cases, interact with them as well, that do a bunch of things on their own, ranging from inserting Kiddie Rides into historical photos to creating unusual new mnemonics for learning to play musical instruments to, most recently, writing poetry. All of them work within very simple parameters and none of them have what you’d truly call AI, but they all can, at times, simulate it, by making decisions and taking actions within those parameters on their own. And there are a lot of people out there doing similar things, not just for art or entertainment, but for providing affirmation, or political activism, or, of course, profit. As we get better at AI, it’s not just expensive or top secret proprietary technology that’s going to get better at passing the Turing test, it’s stuff made by and for people like you and me. And I’m starting to think that the most important questions might be around not what will those bots do to us or for us, but how will we treat them, and use them to treat each other, when we think nobody is watching? It’s not just about etiquette. Human beings will do bad things if we don’t put boundaries, rules and laws in place that keep us in check. That’s just a fact. It’s how we allowed the mistreatment of women to become the way our culture operates, because they had no power and the incentives to look the other way were huge. So what do we need to fix now, before using our bots badly becomes the next new norm?
Something there’s been a lot of talk about lately, since so many sexual harassment and assault scandals have broken, is how hard it is to have to confront the fact that people who have done terrible things have also created wonderful works of art. One article I read recently talked about this with regard to watching the work of Woody Allen, going into detail about how hard it is to now watch Manhattan in the post-Soon-Yi era (not to mention the post-Dylan-sexual-assault era, which is something the author spends less time on, perhaps because the parallels are not so direct).
But this makes me wonder not so much How do we watch it now? but, Why did we watch it then and not feel disturbed? Why did we not talk about how problematic it was that the film’s main character, the 40-something Isaac played by Woody Allen, was dating Mariel Hemingway’s 17-year-old high school student? Why did everyone in the film and by and large the audience just accept that without feeling icky? Sure, the film is partly about how the relationship between Isaac and Tracy makes Isaac uncomfortable because he knows she’s too young for him and their feelings aren’t mutual, but it’s not about the fact that that’s true because he’s an experienced adult having sex with an vulnerable teenager. On one level, you can look at this as just being part of Allen’s problematic oeuvre: he’s pretty consistently terrible at stepping outside of himself, which is why there’s almost always a character with Woody Allen’s mannerisms and preoccupations in the film, and why too many of his films become a quite obvious repetition of those same preoccupations over and over again. He may be our most self-conscious and least self-aware celebrated filmmaker, which is one reason why his films are so drastically uneven, and also probably why he can’t face up to the fact that there were some fucked-up choices in his personal life. I know many cinephiles want to think of the man as a genius, but why can’t we, instead, think of him as a guy who has made some films with wonderful aesthetics, some with ingenious storylines, some with insightful/hilarious dialogue, and some with all three, who is still just a guy with a lot of problems (which show up in his films) who, consequently, has done bad things — partly because our elevation of him to this pedestal is what allowed him, if not inspired him, to do them, and get away with it.
This is one good thing about working in the business: you learn very early on that very few people, if any, are worthy of being worshipped. At best, these celebrated artists — male and female — whose work you admire are very talented human beings who have all of the failings that go along with the human being part, in addition to whatever additional moodiness, egotism, and poor judgment may come with the talent. At worst, they’re total assholes, thanks in large part to the distortion of reality around them that fame creates. Most of them are somewhere in between, and the idea we have that they must be wonderful because they’ve created art that affected us strongly, often on an emotional level that we have trouble critically analyzing, is a terrible mistake to make. The fact that we want this to be true is understandable. If you can say people are good or bad in the same way that movies are good or bad in the same way that ideas are good or bad, it’s all much easier for our little brains and large emotions. But that’s not how it usually is, and our desire, against all logic, to see things in black and white — even if it’s gorgeous, wide-screen, high contrast, and shot by Gordon Willis — is what needs to be dissected and challenged, because we should never have looked at them that way in the first place.
This is just one of many things we need to get past as a culture in order to make sense of things post-Woody, post-Cosby, post-Spacey, and post-whoever-is-next (I’d say Matt Lauer, but really, no great loss there). We need to start thinking more discerningly about the people we entrust with our admiration, be they actors, or directors, or public office-holders. We’d like to say that anyone who sexually harasses, assaults or abuses other people in any way should be erased from public life, which is what the entertainment industry is trying to do right now with Kevin Spacey and Louis CK (who I have worked with and am not a fan of, see here, in spite of never having been forced to look at his penis). But making them just go away without talking about what they did, the damage it inflicted, and what should happen next is going to make it impossible for our culture to take stock of where we’ve been that allowed these things to happen, and where we go from here. We need to think and talk about these men as human beings who did things we, justifiably, love, and also did things we, justifiably, condemn. Because loads of good things to do and bad things to do exist in every situation, and it’s going to be hard to teach anyone to choose one over the other if we don’t admit that each of us, no matter how brilliant or boring, is capable of doing both.
And most importantly, we need to talk about why women have been treated this way by so many men – and that means thinking critically about the art and entertainment they create, and how it often reflects and reinforces a culture that’s just plain bad for women and girls. Visual media are incredibly powerful. They build our sense of what is normal and not normal. By just devouring the images they constantly feed us without questioning them, we’re ingesting them into our worldview. The only way we change that view is to talk about it, how powerful men control it, and how it portrays and validates them at the expense of the rest of us, particularly if we’re female.
Maybe if we hadn’t been so focused on Woody being a genius, we would have seen sooner that his flawed work reflects a culture that views teenaged girls as sex objects. Maybe Alabama would have paid attention sooner to the fact that Roy Moore was acting out those cultural fantasies. But before more women get hurt, it’s time to talk about the important differences between men like him, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Al Franken, but how they all reflect a culture that encourages men to perceive sex as a trophy to which they are entitled. We need to look more closely at how these fucked-up human beings reflect us, instead of choosing to look away.
When I heard the “news” about Harvey Weinstein, I wasn’t surprised. I already knew. The rumors had been around for years. As many other women have talked about, there were “whispers” among us, telling fellow women to beware. But even if I hadn’t heard some of the actual stories about Harvey — including that he’d raped women, because someone had told me that too — my reaction would probably have been the same. I was appalled, of course, and I’d surely have been more appalled if I’d known the extent of it, how many women had been subjected to this harassment or assault or rape, how regular it was for him. But at the same time, these types of stories about men in power in the business, this system — because it is a system — was to a certain degree something I realized I’d accepted for a long time. It was part of my experience, it was part of the experience of people I knew personally, and it was par for the course. That’s the one thing Harvey said that was true: he was “used to this,” because “this” was considered how the business works. That’s why those are the words used not just by him but women trying to explain why they couldn’t say anything, or who decided they’d rather not be in the business at all than have to deal with this type of treatment. That was the choice, for many: accept and deal, or decide that a career in film is not for you. Period.
How did it get to be this way, that we just accepted this situation as the norm? I think for all of us in the industry, and particularly women, it’s a long story. It’s about how you take up visual storytelling because you love it and because you think you’re good at it. How, at that stage, when you’re first drawn to it, you’re idealistic enough to think that art is really what it’s about, and then the more you become immersed in it, and trying to succeed in it, adjusting to what it takes to succeed in it, the more you slowly come to realize that it’s about a few things that are entirely different. One of them, as I’ve written about before, is money. But another is the fucked up relationship between sex and power in the entertainment industry. But at the point at which you understand, for better or worse, you’re already a part it, maybe hoping to change it to the degree that you can from the inside, but also accepting what exists as reality, because of everything that you’ve had drummed into you along the way.
For me, that story begins in film school. When I started grad school at NYU, I was 21, and really naive about everything. In my group of college friends at Stanford, most of us knew how to either be in relationships or be single, with very little in between. At film school, full of 20-somethings released into the wild of New York City, there were not only constantly hookups and shifting short- and long-term affairs among the students, but also power dynamics that were playing out in uncomfortable ways. There was one woman I knew who always seemed to be in relationships with men who could do something for her, like provide her with a place to live or help on a project. There was another who was rumored to sleep around, not just with fellow students and TAs, but with professors who were not young or attractive (mind you we also had slutty male classmates but we didn’t talk about them in quite the same way). And then there was the fact that, while everyone in first year shot three films for their fellow students, because rotating roles was the structure of the curriculum, by the time we got to third year, the only women who were shooting were shooting for their boyfriends.
Now, you could look at these facts and make no assumptions, or you could look at them and just think they justified some truly negative stereotypes about women: that they use sex and intimacy to get somewhere, and that they wouldn’t succeed if they didn’t use those things to get ahead — and indeed, that was how a lot of people looked at the first two women I mentioned. But I looked at what was going on and saw,
1) That the people who had the power in the business were generally men. In the entire grad program, I worked with only two female professors. 75% of the TAs were men, and the students and former students who staffed the equipment room were exclusively men.
2) Everyone needed the help of these men in power, because what enabled you to move up in the business was almost purely subjective. In my undergraduate years, the grades you received, even when they involved writing or something else seemingly creative, had generally reflected how hard you’d worked. In film school, you could still get decent grades by working hard, but people only really cared about how “talented” you were. Their judgment of that was partly based on cinematic convention — at the time and in that place, we were watching and talking about Spike Lee, Nick Gomez, and Martin Scorsese (and a small number of us were talking about Jane Campion) — and partly on things like personal taste, how much they liked you, and how much they felt they’d influenced your work. This was why professors promoted their favorites, and that was now considered okay. It was why the chair of the department in my first year (who was let go at the end of that year, probably more because he was an alcoholic) was able to call in a handful of students out of 50 in the first week of school and tell them, “You are the ones I chose to succeed.” In other words, success was just about convincing other people, particularly those in power, that you had something special.
How did you do that? Well, that was the question. If you were a man, you often did it with boldness, confidence and swagger, but by and large, those things didn’t benefit you if you were a woman. Ergo,
3) If you were a woman, a large part of how you gained recognition was through the relationships you created with men. Sexual or intimate relationships certainly were not the only kind that worked. Throughout my first three years of film school, I had a boyfriend, so I generally built friendships with my male classmates by crewing with them on other people’s films. Nothing helps you get to know someone like long days sweating in a swamp in Jersey or long nights freezing on a rat-infested trash pile in the East Village on a disorganized student film, and doing those things with Jim, who ran the equipment room mafia, is how I ended up getting HMIs and the good tripod for my thesis. But I could only get two fellow classmates to let me be their DP after first year — both women — despite that the two guys I’d shot for in first year, who were friends of mine, had been really happy with my work. Basically, I found out that I could become friends with men, but that they generally developed stronger bonds, the kind that made them trust them trust each other with what was important (like the look of their film), with other men. Men generally just did not form those types of relationships with women unless they were intimate with them.
The next couple of lessons I learned in my first years out of film school, when I started working in production while trying to write feature scripts that, I hoped, would help me break into the business as a writer/director. One day, I was at a local cafe and I ended up sitting next to an older man with whom I struck up a conversation. That wasn’t something I normally did, but I was trying to be better about learning how to network, since I knew that this was necessary, and he’d noticed the screenplay on which I was working. This man said that he was a professor and a successful screenwriter, and he gave me his card. I sent him a copy of my script and called him soon after (email wasn’t yet a thing) to see if we could meet up for him to read and talk about my script. When he wrote back, he invited me to go over my script at his apartment. I declined. He didn’t call back. Huh, I thought, this shit really does happen. I was lucky, I guess, in that I really had no incentive to get into an ambiguous situation with a man I didn’t know but who was clearly not earning his living as a screenwriter if he was also a professor. As I started to work in independent film, I learned the second half of this equation: that men will finance any piece of crap another man wants to make if it enables them to live out their sexual fantasies. I saw this over and over and over again in the 90s — I mean, it was embarrassing. The film about the cab driver who gets the supermodel to fall in love with him and leave her boyfriend because of sexual prowess so amazing that he gives her an orgasm the first time they meet without touching her (and without her touching herself either, which to me really only makes her amazing. But anyway, the dirty talk that makes her orgasm is in the script in graphic detail); the one about the man who can have all sorts of wild sex with any woman he wants (again, in the script in graphic detail) but yet gives all that up when he falls in love with the right one, only to be confronted with (surprise!) a supermodel who he must resist at all cost (fun fact: James Toback had a part in that one, and I was treated to listening to him talk to the director about the women on set were while he leered at me, like I was a piece of furniture with breasts. Scumbag). I’d go on, but that’s the point when they were basically all the same? What these things add up to is
4) Sex in the entertainment industry is a commodity, plain and simple. You may have gotten that just from watching movies, television and commercials, but seeing it play out within the business while you’re working in it? That really drives it home.
Especially when you’re trying to navigate dating and relationships. If you were one of the few women on a film set in the 90s, you got a lot of attention, and it was often difficult to figure out what that meant. Spending those intense hours together day in and day out but now for weeks or months, people developed intense feelings about each other that didn’t necessarily have to do with anything real. I often had flirtations or crushes, which I thought meant something, that just ended suddenly ended when you each moved on to other projects. At wrap parties, I’d be the recipient of sloppy drunk kisses, or solicitations for my phone number, from multiple guys with whom I didn’t think I’d had any real connection other than a fine working relationship, but in which there probably had been some flirtatious content, because, well, when you were the only woman on set, that was how everyone interacted with you. And that content often included those things said to you, or to a group of people of which you were a part, that were not appropriate for the workplace — sexual jokes, innuendoes, etc. — but that you had to ignore if you were going to keep working with these people. So, I figured out
5) The rules of behavior for women in the film business often require a certain degree of “friendliness” and tolerance that isn’t required from men. You need to be smiling and nice even when you’re not feeling it, or ignore what makes you uncomfortable, because that’s how you survive and stay employed. There were times when I responded that I considered successful, because only one guy felt uncomfortable around me afterward despite my efforts to explain my feelings to him – and that person didn’t have any control over my job. More often than not, though, like when a sound mixer I was booming for made sexual jokes to me on the private line that only he and I could hear, or when another chose to kiss me on the lips every time we said goodbye at the end of the day, I felt like I couldn’t say anything and still have them hire me, and so I didn’t.
I also ended up erring on the side of not having sex with people I worked with when things were complicated, which largely meant (although not always) my not having sex with anyone, because I was always at work. The actor I was flirting with on the first professional film I ever mixed, but was nervous about getting involved with because it was my first professional film, and because I thought maybe he was only interested in me because he was the one non-gay actor on the film and wanted to prove he wasn’t gay? While I was trying to figure that one out, he slept with my boom operator. The AD I was into who seemed into me but who had a girlfriend? I waffled, he slept with the makeup artist, and I hooked up with someone else – after the film was over, because even when I was desperate to get laid, I was absurdly cautious about getting into awkward situations in the workplace and how other people there might perceive me. I found, however, that there seem to be no rules for most people, because
6) It’s easy to get involved in inappropriate and often fucked up relationships on film sets. This is probably true of many work environments, because workplace sex is fraught (and if HR is ineffective now, in the 90s it basically didn’t exist), but it’s even more true, I think, when you have short-term jobs with an ever-changing cast of potential partners, which creates an even greater incentive to think only about yourself and fuck all else, sometimes literally. A lot of people have an affair or two on every job, which is just complicated in the normal ways (especially when it’s two). But then there’s the key PA who always seems to hook up with the hottest guy on the set she’s on, who is usually the main actor (once it was a good-looking AC, but that was the exception), or the European DP who assumes his AC will be his mistress for the duration of the shoot (on the job where I met him, the first AC told me she had turned him down, so he was sleeping with the second). This is where it gets particularly murky: when it’s a seemingly consensual relationship between a man in power and a woman who’s not, whose career he can directly affect. Where do you draw the line on who’s doing something wrong? I bet many of you would draw it between those two women: the key PA, like the European DP, did this serially, so she was clearly “no innocent,” whereas the AC was in a position where she may have felt pressured. I bet some of you would just say that they were both adults, making their own choices. Some might even say that both women used sex for personal gain, and using that calculus, you might look down on the AC more, since she’s now a successful camera operator. But to me, both situations are indications of something just plain rotten in the industry. We don’t know what really went down between these men and these women, except that the men had power and the women didn’t, and sex was involved.
Maybe all of this still doesn’t make sense to you, how so many of us could know that this is how things work in this business and still work in this business. But let me point out one more thing in case it’s not clear:
7) What’s at stake is huge. It’s the fulfillment of your creative aspirations, plus fame that opens doors to everything, and financial reward beyond what any human being really needs. This is what the film industry promises to all of us, and even once you realize you’re probably not going to get those things because hardly anyone does, and that the people who have them aren’t necessarily happy because they’ve made loads of compromises to get there, once you’re a part of the system, once you think you understand it, even once you know how rigged and wrong it is in every way, it’s really hard to let go of the dream. Especially when you’ve been through or put up with or done so much that you never thought you would.
I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re in this industry, you knew because you know. You know that this is what it’s like, and that makes you culpable, because you’ve compromised, just like we all have. A business where men have all the power and relationships with them are everything, where sex is a commodity, where women are constantly placed in inappropriate situations and forced to choose between poor options, and where the stakes are incredibly high, is just going to be a bad business for women. So if you’re a part of the business, you’re also a part of the bad. Yes, I’ve been a victim, but I’m also part of the system, I’m one of those cogs that keeps it chugging along. I’m taking responsibility for that, as hard as it may sometimes be, rather than just shrugging and saying, as I have so many times, That’s just how it is. That means speaking up not just occasionally but whenever I see something that shouldn’t happen happen. It means creating work with complex female lead characters instead of just Madonnas and supermodels. It means supporting women and helping them move up whenever possible, to change the power imbalance. And even if I’ve failed at changing much because I’m nobody, I need to keep trying, or I need to get the fuck out.
So I thought today, I’d take a moment and try to explain, for those who don’t get it, why groups and events created specifically for people who identify as female, and perhaps feminism in general (for the truly clueless, or perhaps just young and stupid, or cats), are necessary. And I’d like to use as my primary example a phenomenon that uniquely affects us: girl pockets.
I was at work the other day wearing a pair of pants that I typically wear to work. I like them because they fit well, plus they’re twill and not jeans but not shorts. Thus I know that if I end up on a set that’s been overheated by lights, I won’t get too hot, but if the air-conditioning on a stage is pumping, I also won’t freeze to death if I accompany it with sweatshirt, which I always do. Basically, I need to show up for work prepared for a variety of situations, and this is also reflected in the fact that my work clothes require pockets, in order that I can keep my phone (I get all of my jobs via text these days), my sides (these are the miniaturized versions of the script pages that we’ll be shooting for the day that production hands out), and my gloves (for booming, carrying heavy cases and coiling cable) on me at all times, and also be able to shove in them things like lavaliere microphones, scissors, tape, foot foam, and other items which might be necessary for one of the many tasks that my work on set entails. Well, this pair of pants has four pockets, two front and two back, so you’d think, “perfect.” In reality, though, I was dropping stuff everywhere I went all day long. The problem? They’re girl pockets, meaning that they are small and shallow and completely impractical for keeping in anything you might need to keep on your person. I used to be able to fit a phone into a front pocket, but while phones have grown, girl pockets haven’t, so a large corner to a whole half the thing inevitably sticks out. Trying to get a wallet into one of these — yeah, I occasionally do that, even though I’m a woman. Crazy! — is just a joke, or an invitation for it to drop out or get grabbed by someone. I know from experience that even a small pair of thin gloves falls out of both the front pockets and the equally-if-not-more lame back pockets, unless you really ball them up and shove them down there. So why don’t I wear a different pair of pants to work, you’re asking? Well, because it’s not just these pants that have these stupid pockets, it’s just about everything I own.
Exhibit A: jeans:
See what I mean?
Exhibit B: shorts.
To add insult to injury, these add on to the useless regular pockets a bizarre tiny pocket that is good for absolutely nothing, but I guess is supposed to look…cute? Why would anyone want a pocket to be cute?
Yeah, clearly this is just a design element, not an actual pocket.
What’s the big deal, you might say? Don’t women just carry purses everywhere anyway? Well, yes, but for a lot of us, that’s only because we don’t have decent pockets. I’m obviously not going to carry a purse around with me at work on set because it would get in the way of basically everything I have to do – and to be honest, that’s also how I feel about them in general, every day life. This is why I pretty much spent the first 25 years of mine trying to avoid carrying one: because having to hang this stupid bag on your person at all times in an absurd pain in the ass that and also makes you more of an easy target for theft. One of the few reasons I like winter is that I can wear jackets with pockets and therefore don’t have to carry a purse(women’s jacket pockets are still lame compared to men’s jacket pockets – for example, there are almost never inside pockets in women’s coats or jackets, unless they’re performance outerwear, and even then they’re fewer and smaller – but they are still bigger than normal girl pockets). I know many women consider purses a “fashion accessory,” but that’s only because once we were forced to have them, the fashion industry (created and mostly run by men) decided to capitalize on it. And I know, there’s this whole image of women needing to carry so much shit around that they have to have a bag with them at all times, but let’s break that down. What supposedly goes into a purse? In my case, Tylenol, antacid, tissues, pens, hand-sanitizer, sunglasses, and a sweater? We could fit some of those in our pockets if we had decent ones, some we could wear around waists or necks, and the rest, we could borrow — like guys do. Binkies, snacks, water, and other things we think we “need” to carry for other people, such as our kids? Well, why are we expected to be the caretakers who have to carry those things? That’s what diaper bags and backpacks are for, and dads can carry those too. Make-up, or a hairbrush? If the world didn’t think we needed to touch up our appearances every hour, we wouldn’t need those things — and I, in fact, don’t need and don’t carry them, because I don’t care if my one coat of mascara and whatever’s going on with my hair when I leave the house doesn’t last through the day, and neither does my husband, or anyone who’s ever been my friend.
Which brings me to why pockets on women’s clothing are so incredibly lame as a rule: because for us, in a nutshell, it’s considered more important that we look good than that we can function. No, really. You see it reflected literally everywhere, from the fact that the media thinks it’s more important to talk about our clothes or our hair or our make-up than about our ideas — and the way we are said to be bitchy or shrill or talk too much when we try to make those ideas heard — to that we are often only mentioned as the wife of so-and-so, like we exist solely to be decoration or enhancement of their personhood, rather than people ourselves. I’ve dealt with this so much at work I can’t even tell you (although I actually have told you), and I’ve also, like most women, completely internalized it too (see here, here, and here), so that my appearance matters to me way more than it would ever matter to a man of my similar age and occupation/education, even though I grew up a feminist, with a feminist mother, and am pretty freaking self-aware. No, despite our best intentions, the prioritization of our having to look good, often at the expense of anything and everything else, is a consistent state of being for women. And I haven’t even gotten into how complicated the concept of “looking good” is for us — because you also have to look good in just the appropriate way, too, and you’re expected to know what that is at all times. You can’t look too businessy or too casual or too dressed up; too slutty or too buttoned up or too dowdy or too cheap; too young or too old, too hip or too retro. Sure, guys can make these mistakes too, but the consequences of them for women tend to be much, much greater; everything from being denied a tip or a job to public vilification to deserving to get raped is routinely blamed on how women dress. And just like those girl pockets, that’s a perpetual disadvantage that we are so accustomed to wearing every day that we just come to accept it, and are expected, even — or perhaps most of all — by other women, to work around.
Realistically, I know there’s no easy solution to the problem of girl pockets. We can’t just wear men’s clothes, because they’re not made for most of us and won’t fit our bodies, making them both non-functional and unattractive. We can’t change the way all women’s clothes are made, because the fashion industry, as well as most men and women — who, again, have 100% internalized that they’d rather look good than have convenience, in the same way that they’d rather wear undergarments that hurt and shoes that destroy their knees, back and ankles, not to mention inject toxins into or chop up and insert toxic foreign objects into their faces and bodies, than not conform to the current standard of “looking their best” — have decided that truly functional pockets would alter the shape of women’s clothes, and would therefore freak the fuck out and basically bring our entire culture to its knees if we tried. Again: no, really. I am not exaggerating about this. The fact is, women looking a certain way is so deeply important to nearly all of us, on some level, that making the kind of changes that would make women’s clothing as practical and useful to women as men’s clothing is to men could never ever happen.
So what’s my point? Well guys (and especially white, straight, non-disabled, and of course cis-gender guys), if you want to understand how important it is to have something that’s actually made for you in a society in which basically everything is built to satisfy the needs, desires and convenience of someone who is not you; in a culture where many of those someones say it’s fine for you to have your comfort only as long as it doesn’t threaten theirs in any way – comfort about which they are so sensitive that even something so small as a woman talking about gender in video games makes them angry enough to send death threats; then try not walking a mile in my shoes (because I can choose not to wear heels, and so my shoes are comfortable), but wearing my pants for a week. Maybe the day you get girl pockets is the day you at least maybe kinda sorta begin to understand what it’s like to be a woman in our culture. Until then, just sit down and shut up. No, really.
As many of you who come here even occasionally know by now, part of what’s going on in my ongoing midlife crisis is that I’ve been trying to make some sort of transition career wise. Just to recap the long story for those of you who need it: went to grad school in film to become a writer/director, started doing sound to pay the bills, been doing it for going on 25 years now while continuing to try and write stuff and make films and…er, that’s it, not such a long story after all I guess. Since the actual filmmaking and writing isn’t paying my bills, I’ve been trying to figure out what else I can do other than sound to earn a living.
Now, before those of you with whom I work stop calling me, IT’S NOT HAPPENING YET, I AM NOT OUT OF THE BUSINESS. Because there’s this thing that happens in production when you even dip your toe into something other than your regular production day job. One person hears that you’re teaching a class, or that you’re making a documentary, and all of a sudden everybody’s saying, “I hear she’s out of the business.” It isn’t necessarily done out of malice, although there are always people who are super competitive and will take any available opportunity to find a way to knock you out of contention for whatever jobs they might also want, especially if you work in commercials like I do, which is a pretty small pool. That type of sniping happens a lot more among sound mixers, who spread rumors like a bunch of nearly-all-male fishwives when they think it’s to their advantage. I think the fast pace of rumor-spreading among people who work in production really has more to do with the fact that we have so much downtime on every job, and not always that much to talk about other than work, especially when you’re literally at work all the time and therefore have no outside life to speak of. You’ve gotta talk about something sometimesand the latest scuttlebutt that you’ve heard but not necessarily verified about your co-workers is going to be the best something to keep your colleagues interested — and everyone wants to feel interesting.
Now that I’ve gotten the “I’M NOT OUT OF THE BUSINESS” disclaimer out of the way, what I will say is that, in the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a couple of jobs as a video editor. They’re not my first, but I wasn’t really making an effort before to try that out as a possible new day job, for a few reasons which now seem to be diminishing in importance. One, I also like teaching, so I’ve been pursuing that. Getting a full-time faculty job, however, at a time when most colleges just want to chew up adjuncts and and spit them out with no health insurance is getting really frustrating (for public schools that are being starved by their states who are in turn being starved by the federal government, it’s economic necessity, but for many other universities it’s really not, it’s just greed, and part of the whole growing trend in this country toward two completely divided Americas, rich and poor…but whatevs). Two, I was worried for some time that the bulk of the editing work out there was reality TV, and you all know how I feel about that. It does seem now, though, that with so many entities getting some sort of presence on the web and wanting video for their sites, there’s a lot more content being created out there that doesn’t make me want to vomit, so hooray for that. Three, I’ve always had reservations about spending all my time alone in a little room with a computer. And yet I’m finding that that prospect has actually gotten more appealing to me as I’ve aged into introversion and discovered how pleasant the company of machines who don’t expect you to make conversation can be. Not to mention that I just can’t spend all day on my feet any more, holding a pole with a mic on it over my head for long periods of time or working knees/back to move heavy cases and plug and unplug cables the way I have to when I work on set. Every year, a new part of my body cries out in pain and says “Are we really still doing this?” Plus, for me, editing is more intellectually stimulating than location sound. I enjoy the problem-solving and trouble-shooting of location work, particularly when I can anticipate and shoot the problems before they really become trouble, which is generally how you have to do it in our department, and which naturally implies that the problems aren’t intractable, like certain DPs’lighting, or the now-nearly-ubiquitous wide and tight framing when you have 2+ cameras. Problem-solving with a problem that can’t be solved is just probleming, which is basically gnashing your teeth and muttering to yourself that everyone on set can just go fuck themselves. You can’t possibly overestimate how much time as a location sound person is spent doing exactly that. I also still find it interesting to read the script pages when I arrive on set and picture how they’ll translate, as well as watching actors and directors work — and not just the good ones, because it’s always interesting to see someone make the wrong choice and consider what a better one might have been. I still do learn new things that way, but after so many years, there’s not that much I haven’t seen in terms of technique, and I’ve probably stored about as much as I can for future use considering that many of the futures in which I’d use such knowledge may well never happen.
The thing that’s tough about taking on editing as a new occupation, however, is that, while I’ve edited a number of projects, I certainly haven’t done it in the mass quantities in which I’ve done sound work. As an editor, there’s quite a bit I still haven’t seen — in terms of technique, individual work styles, and what directors want and expect. One way to learn that would be to apprentice in a lower-level position. Coming up in a two- or three-person sound department, I got to see a lot of other people mix and boom, which was incredibly helpful. I never would have started wearing gloves to get more reach and range if I hadn’t worked with a couple of boom ops who I watched do that and discussed with them why they did. I couldn’t have acquired the plethora of wiring techniques that I now know if I hadn’t been able to watch so many mixers try so many combinations of moleskin and snot tape and Topstick and Transpore and HushLavs and all of the other bizarre shit people have developed over the years to make lavs sound good on other people. In the same way, there are tips and tricks that experienced editors have that I’ve only heard about or caught glimpses of, or tried to understand in online tutorials, which may be the godsend of modern life, but can’t reveal everything. Working as an assistant editor used to be the traditional point of entry to the editing ladder, but now that digital editing makes it so easy and fast to organize a project (no more searching for teeny tiny bits of celluloid that fell under your Steenbeck), and editing programs are pretty cheap, most anyone can teach themselves to edit and jump right into being the sole editor on their first or second bupkis-paying project. The fleet of lowly assistant editors who work the overnight shift digitizing, importing, synching and conforming just to catch glimpses of the master in action now mainly survives in L.A., where the bulk of narrative studio work, including most TV and film editing, is done. And that’s a terrible job, even when you’re 25.
One key thing I realized immediately that I didn’t know how to do was judge how long an edit is going to take. Most of my cutting hasn’t been on a deadline, or it’s been on a deadline which was given to me and I simply had to make, so I never needed to answer the question, “How long do you think you’ll need to complete this?” As a result, when I was asked that on my first editing job of the past few weeks, then had to decide if I could do it in 2/3 that time since that was all they had budgeted for, I said, “Suurremmmaybe?” And when I realized that even my first estimate was optimistic, I had to suck it up and eat those extra days on the budget I’d agreed to — which was at a low rate in addition to having too few hours, because that’s what you have to do when you’re starting out. The last job I had to work for the hourly rate I ended up with was probably one of those independent films that male directors somehow got funded in the 90s to play out all of their fantasy sexual conquests (I’m looking at you, Eric Schaeffer, but not just you, unfortunately). Something I also didn’t really know how to do before? Edit while someone else is watching. Pretty much all of the editing work I’ve done has entailed having a discussion with the director/producer, then going home and creating cuts on my own, getting feedback on those cuts from the powers that be, and then going back and making changes based on that, also on my own. On my second editing job these past couple of weeks, I had to sit with the director and work together nearly every day, which meant she was kind of just watching the gears in my head turn — a process that nobody should have to witness, ever. And it was bad enough having to try and come up with clever ideas about how to move the story along or improve the flow while she waited, since there’s nothing that makes you feel more stupid than having to be smart under duress. It was also trying to remember “Oh fuck, now how do I do that again?” fairly often, because all the nitpicky mechanical shit of how to do things quickly in an editing program is not yet ingrained, along with the occasional, “Oh fuck, what did I do that caused that to happen?” that comes from hitting a button by mistake when I don’t know Premiere well enough (”Command-Z” is also in competition for the godsend of modern life). This situation of not knowing what I was doing all the time in front of someone else was made doubly hard by knowing I shouldn’t be making it totally obvious just how much I didn’t know. Everyone who’s had a job probably went through the process of working their way up by taking on new challenges — aka stuff they have to learn how to do as they go — and any employer who hires below the going rate should be aware that the person they’re hiring is probably doing that and that’s why they’re willing to work for less. Nevertheless, there’s always this charade where the employee pretends that they’re just giving the employer an awesome deal because they really like the project, and the employer pretends that the person they’ve hired is the super-experienced professional they couldn’t afford to hire who knows everything. And all of that stupid and pointless pretending? I’m not very good at that either – like most women, who tend to be more comfortable learning by asking questions about what we don’t know than faking our way through it, which sure seems more logical if you ask me, but whatevs. Anyway, thank goodness it didn’t really matter on this job, as the director I was working with was female, nice, and knows less about technology than I do, and so is just as big a fan of the “Should we Google how we do that?” technique as I am.
Basically, the hardest thing for me as an editor is that I’m kind of a newbie again, and that’s rough when you’re nearly 50 (okay I’m 48, but I have so many friends turning 49 or 50 this year that I figure I should just go ahead and try to get into the headspace now to try to diminish the trauma later on). Whereas I’m at the point with booming that I can often do it in my sleep — and sometimes I do — as an editor, I need to be not just awake but fully on. This is, like I said, partly why I wanted to switch careers: editing uses so much more of my brain, in addition to a whole lot less of my body. But these past couple of weeks have made me wonder once or twice, “Huh, do I really want to have a job that forces me to think that hard all day long?” I’ve tried to find some way that I can creatively employ myself in my downtime on set — like by tweeting, which I need to do more of and get better at (being pithy? Also hard), or other little tasks like creating new material for our bots — but it’s hard to focus in the short bursts of downtime that I tend to have on TV, and on commercials I have to work less but appear like I’m working more, to make sure people know I’m working, which is also work. Plus, I find that most of my potential for focused, productive thought is ruined by having to get up at five. But then again, if I can’t use my creative energy at my job, then I don’t use all of it up there either — and I think this has always been the conundrum. We want to be fulfilled by what we do for money, but if that side job becomes too engaging, will we lose our drive to do and be something more? And on the flip side, how do you hold on to that drive for 2.5 decades and still feel like the goal is worth it when your everyday is unsatisfying?
I know the particulars will get easier if editing becomes my full-time job. I just didn’t ever think I’d be starting again, even partly, at this age, and having to face these types of questions. That might be the biggest reason why I put off trying out editing as a job for so long, and of course now that I have waited this long, it’s harder. You know how science has shown how our brain activity wears in neural pathways that make habits normal and easy for us? These days, when I try to do something new, it’s like I can feel those pathways being scraped in with that tool my dental hygienist uses. And yet, smushing together those tiny pieces of what were once celluloid and are now zeros and ones that somehow appear as little purple rectangles to powerfully tell a story or convey a point is fulfilling for me in a way that hitting all my cues during a dialogue scene will never be. In one way they’re quite similar: a feat of strength and dexterity that only a handful of people will ever witness and probably never remember, because the point of doing sound right is that nobody notices, vs. making it possible for someone else to tell their story seamlessly in a style that will most likely only be attributed to them. They’re both ultimately just tiny names somewhere in the credits that you have to search for, and accepting that as my future might be the real growing up I have to do.
A while ago, I worked on promos at Fox News. This was back when we all knew Fox was awful, but didn’t yet know how awful it would become, as its power grew to effectively eat the presidency. Anyway, I remember filming Geraldo Rivera pretending to load fake aid supplies on to a truck as if it were in a war zone, doing it multiple times until we got the right take. I remember filming with a correspondent (whose name I don’t recall but who’s most certainly gone now since that was at least ten years ago and she was a woman) who had a flag with a picture of Lenin on it on her wall, but who kept calling him Marx — as in, “Do you think it would be bad to have Marx in the frame behind my head?” I remember filming with Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes, then of the show Hannity and Colmes, before Fox stopped pretending that they were being “fair and balanced” by putting up this messy, unattractive, poorly-spoken liberal opposite a slick conservative with all the answers, and just made it Hannity.
But what I remember most was filming with Bill O’Reilly. Along with his plug to camera at his desk, which was basically the same as everyone else’s, we filmed a scene of him with his “team,” discussing pitches of the stories they would do that night. He was ruthless, cutting those people off and knocking down all of their ideas when he deemed them not fit, but the most impressive thing was how they clearly all worshipped him because of it. He had a power over them, a combination of the fact that he was their boss, and a star, and tall (never underestimate the power of physical stature) and that he was confident, unyielding, and unflinching in what he thought and what he wanted. He knew how to dole out cutting remarks, praise and abuse in the right amounts to keep those below him hanging on his every word.
I’m remembering that experience now that he’s been fired from Fox News, not actually for sexually harassing multiple women but for losing advertisers after the extent of the harassment claims against him finally came to light. Money talks, and this time, I guess, it said the right thing. But what struck me when I read about the scandal and the stories of what he did to these women who came forward was the idea of how many more there probably were out there who didn’t speak up. This was a guy who knew how to use his power over people, and did it for sexual gain. These women we’ve all heard about said “no,” they all felt that they had the wherewithal to do so. But how many were there who didn’t? How many underlings were overawed by his strong personality? How many women didn’t know what would happen if they spurned their powerful boss, were afraid of getting fired, or not getting asked back, worrying that it might be the end of a promising career, or a serious setback? How many felt belittled enough by him — because that’s how he treated people — and low enough in value as a result that when he picked them to be the object of his sexual advances, they felt somehow chosen, and gave in?
I get sexual harassment – I mean, I’mfemale. I’ve written before about how, like most women, I’ve experienced it many times but never reported it. It was simply easier not to, to avoid not getting rehired as a freelancer, or the discomfort that would be created in my work environment, which has always been majority male and used to be nearly all male except for me, or because I brushed it off as being nonthreatening, something I could handle. But it clicked for me this time in a new way, knowing that the perpetrator was someone who I’d seen exerting that kind of manipulative power over a room full of people. Just because nobody has come forward who actually was coerced into sex with him, or Roger Ailes, doesn’t mean that that didn’t happen. In fact, it most certainly did. We now know that he, and Ailes, did this again and again, with multiple women who reported it or sued Fox over it. People don’t repeat things that often when they fail, they repeat them because they work.
So let’s just remember that for every woman who has spoken up, there could easily be three who didn’t, and out of those three, or six or nine, there’s a good chance one felt like she had no choice but to acquiesce. She’s living with a memory much worse than being groped or verbally abused or flashed, or of even having to listen to him masturbate on the phone (although even hearing John Oliver try to describe what it might sound like is a pretty terrible experience). And how many of those cases must have happened, aside from the ones we’ve heard of (the most recent allegations reported in the press are from 2016), after O’Reilly’s serial harassment came to light with the first suit 2004, when Fox could and should have put a stop to it? And then think about all of the cases of sexual harassment with male bosses preying on women that you don’t hear about, and how often those guys — the non-famous ones who don’t make the news — have likely succeeded, and how they are probably continuing to succeed because, just like at Uber, someone calculated that those guys are worth more than the women they harm…until they aren’t.
That’s what we’re really talking about here, in terms of numbers, in terms of physical and mental and emotional pain suffered, in terms of the type of self-blame and self-disgust and self-hatred that inevitably result, in terms of slut-shaming and reputations created and destroyed, and how, overall, we are failing women in the workplace when we talk about Bill O’Reilly and sexual harassment.
I’ve always had a pretty positive relationship with alcohol. I know this isn’t true of many people, especially women, but in my own life, I really can’t think of any negative experiences that befell me because I drank too much. I always knew that my parents drank but not to excess. They were the kind of people that had a coffee table that opened up into a bar because everyone did in the 70s, but pretty much the only time anyone went in there was to get rum for cooking, or to bring out weird bottles of stuff that nobody really wanted to try but my father had picked up somewhere out of curiosity (like Goldwasser, which exists because…alchemy?). The first time I remember having alcohol was trying egg nog at one of my parents’ New Year’s Eve parties, all of which I have fond memories of as being fine times when lots of adults came over and were more friendly to me than usual (and no, not in an icky way). I had my first buzz at maybe 15, off white sangria at a Spanish restaurant in Newark, also with my parents, and it was very pleasant. I started drinking with friends not that long after, thanks to a liquor store, also in Newark, that sold to minors with fake IDs that every teenager in the suburbs knew about. As is typical with privileged suburban kids taking advantage of urban blight, nothing bad ever happened to any of us, except maybe for the time the friend buying the alcohol for a party got arrested for having too much alcohol in a vehicle, which apparently is against the law in New Jersey, probably to prevent exactly what we were doing — but even that just turned into a good story. There was also the time I had a small party at my house while my parents were away, and some things got broken — a bean bag chair (someone rode it down the stairs), the screen door (probably by the same someone, though I don’t know how). My brother even told my parents about the party, but again, it just turned into a funny story for them to tell my relatives at Thanksgiving, because they knew I was a responsible kid. The first time I got drunk at college resulted in my first hangover, thanks to the Everclear-laced “jungle juice” served at the Theta Xi fraternity, but thereafter, I was careful about tasty punches, and didn’t have another hangover for three years (until the quarter I spent at Oxford my junior year, and that was because England + Stanford students = mixing Kahlua with, like, everything). My first time throwing up from drinking wasn’t until my 30s. It took me until then to realize that three martinis was too many, but again, I learned my lesson, and have only been sick from drinking one time since — so that’s twice ever.
Things changed a bit some time in my 30s, when I started to have stomach issues. I actually wrote something about this years ago when I felt like I was doing better. It does that, my stomach, goes through periods of being better and worse. I started taking probiotics and that seemed to make things better, and I confirmed that by going off them and discovering that that seemed to make things worse, so now I definitely take probiotics. I also realized, through more totally unscientific experimentation (otherwise known as “eating and drinking”) that acid reflux was a factor. This is why I don’t drink coffee any more, and try to avoid spicy food (which is tough when your favorite cuisines are Indian, Thai, Chinese, Tibetan, Malaysian, Mexican — yes, basically anything spicy), and too much juice, and tomato sauce, and a handful of other things. Oh, and alcohol. However, whereas coffee gives me literally immediate acid reflux which turns into a stomach ache within half an hour, with alcohol, if I’ve been good in other ways, I can usually get away with it here and there without suffering major consequences. It’s only on the third night or so of drinking a couple of glasses of wine that it becomes apparent that something is very very bad and I need to stop. How can I tell? Oh, something about the combination of a burning sensation in my throat, tightness in my chest, the taste of acid in my mouth in the morning, the need to clear my throat incessantly, and a somewhat diminished appetite from just feeling kind of gross — all of which one can easily ignore if you like drinking as much as I do.
Because here’s the thing: thanks to a combination of genetics, common sense, and control issues, a fairly small amount of alcohol has always really been enough to make me happy. Having a couple of drinks removes my inhibitions and anxiety just enough that I feel like a more outgoing, more carefree version of myself, who can dance. I’m really, at heart, an awkward, shy person, something of an introvert, which means I’m basically much more comfortable in all social situations after one to two drinks. I can’t be sure that I’m truly wittier and more fun at that point, but I certainly feel like I am, and that makes a huge difference in helping me get to being that person. Going beyond that, however, to where I’m aware of the fact that I’m not in control — slurring my speech, walking in a wavy line, saying embarrassing things — I do not like, at all. I find it hard to relate to people who get black-out drunk, or who make serious mistakes that they wouldn’t make when they were sober, because I’m too self-conscious to be unaware that I’m losing my grip en route to getting there. Even in cases where I had sex with people after drinking that I later regretted, I had already made the decision to have the sex before I started drinking; it was just part of the follow-through. Sadly, that’s how I roll. I think too much, and while drinking makes me think less, even well-lubricated I am still way too aware of how people are reacting to me, and that is a major buzz kill. So I’d just rather not get to the point where I’m doing stuff that makes me feel stupid — walking funny, slurring my speech, laughing too loud — and that’s pretty much what happens at drink #¾ in the course of one evening. Basically, something has to be really, really wrong for me to get to that place.
So of course, the only time in recent memory that I got that drunk was on election night. I had bourbon. I never drink bourbon. I had two — after a martini, and before a final glass of wine. That was over about five hours, mind you (although the bartender got more and more generous as he realized that we were all doomed), and still I stumbled home, already feeling ill, from the bar where I’d been watching the returns come in, got no sleep — that’s another thing that happens when I drink that I could easily ignore when I was younger: it really messes up my sleep — and had to go to work the next day at the unfairly early hour of 10 am. Luckily, the job was easy and my boss was sympathetic (we were all fucking freaking out if you recall), but that day and the several after that was reminder that I really, really, cannot do that any more.
But when the world is going to shit, it’s really, really hard to stop drinking. I get home from work after a long day, during which I do something which can be somewhat stressful for work and spend my downtime on set on Facebook or Twitter or reading the news, or talking to people about the news and Facebook and Twitter, and I want a drink. Just one glass of wine, that’s all. Nope, now, I can’t do that regularly, my stomach isn’t having it. If I’ve had a few glasses of wine over the weekend, there has to be a cooling down period of at least a few days, preferably longer, or else the irritation keeps building. As a result, I now have to prioritize my drinking. Like, when do I really need to have a drink and when do I not? “What’s that look like?” you may ask. Here’s the list I’ve come up with, in order of priority:
1) Networking events.
2) When I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep because I’m freaking out over the state of the world.
3) When it’s late and I can’t sleep because I’ve been spending too much time looking at Facebook/Twitter/NY Times app freaking out over the state of the world, and I have to get up the next day.
4) Family get-togethers.
6) Tapas bars.
7) When it’s late and I’ve been spending too much time on Facebook/Twitter and I don’t have to get up the next day, but I’d still like to be functional in the morning.
8) Just for fun at a restaurant or bar.
Note that “Just for fun” has fallen to the bottom of the list. Now, you might ask, “Aren’t parties also ‘Just for fun,’?” and the answer would be “Yes, mostly,” but they rank higher on the scale of alcohol necessity because they generally involve socializing with larger groups of people, many of whom I may not have met before, barely know, and/or wouldn’t normally hang out with, so let’s just say that when it comes to parties, the amount of alcohol tends to be more directly proportional to the amount of fun had (introverts, back me up here, I know you know what I’m talking about). And tapas bars also rank above “Just for fun” even though, again, they are fun, because I went to Spain two years ago and seriously, what’s the point of a tapas bar without wine? Anyway, my point is: this list is sad. Living in NYC, nearly my entire social life in my 20s and 30s took place in bars, and now, my drinking priorities are first and foremost about not so much enjoying myself as about getting by.
I realized, given the current state of things — did I mention that I’m also on an email list called, “What The Fuck Just Happened Today”? — that I needed to find another way to take the edge off, and since I wasn’t actually going to start sniffing glue, I decided to give marijuana a try as a replacement. My experiences with pot have also been fairly positive, but not nearly as frequent. I’ve probably been stoned a grand total of less than 20 times in my entire life, and this despite the fact that my relationship to weed also began at a youthful age. My parents smoked pot, but that was more of a deterrent than anything else: nothing reduces the cool quotient of drugs as a teenager like having your parents do them. Nevertheless, it would have been kind of hard to avoid at my high school, which had a reputation for stoners, and lots of people in my peer group seemed to have ready access to it. I had to try weed several times before I actually got high, though, perhaps since I never smoked cigarettes, so the whole breathing smoke into your lungs thing was kind of alien to me. My friend’s (possibly underage and who eventually came out of the closet. Yep: suburbia) boyfriend at the time had to make it his mission to get me stoned one night, using a gravity bong — basically one half of an emptied liter bottle, with a bowl made out of the cap enhanced with aluminum foil, half submerged in a bucket of water. When you light the bowl at the top, you lift the bottle up in the water, and the suction draws the smoke out and fills the plastic half-liter with it. Then you take the cap off, put your mouth over the top of the bottle, and push down on it as you breathe in, which forces a lot of pot smoke into your lungs. Who says physics can’t be fun? So that worked, and all of my friends who were there that night enjoyed watching me be stoned, which still didn’t decrease the fun of it, because they were all stoned too. Ever since, I’ve generally had fun getting high, and in a variety of situations — hanging with friends, parties with new acquaintances, crew colleagues on shoots out of town. One of the nice things about having it be a more unusual occurrence than drinking for me is that the unique experiences are more distinct in my memory. The one time I remember having a bad time was when I took medical marijuana with an ex-boyfriend toward the end of our relationship. The two things I was sure of, even though I was high, were that 1) he wasn’t, and 2) our relationship was doomed — which it was, but that just wasn’t the evening I was looking for at the time.
So it was a complete surprise to me that when I decided to try marijuana again recently, I had what can only be described as a terrible trip. I used some medical marijuana chocolate in what I thought was the proper dosage of only a quarter of a square, though considering the way chocolate fragments unevenly, and that I ate all of the fragments, it was probably more. We were watching TV, so I didn’t notice it coming on until I got up to get a glass of water, and realized that time had stopped. I was fully prepared to go back to watching TV, but soon I discovered that that wasn’t working out at all. I couldn’t follow anything — even The Big Bang Theory was unfathomable — and on top of that, I kept worrying about the fact that I couldn’t follow The Big Bang Theory. Could Damon tell that I couldn’t keep up with the show? Was I suddenly stupid? Would I get to the end of the episode, not knowing what had happened…and thenwhat? Damon wasn’t going to want to watch it again! Moreover, did this mean that I was now an idiot? Would I never be able to follow any TV show, ever? Eventually we gave up on that show and tried watching Clueless, thinking it would be easier to follow since I have probably seen it half a dozen times, but no. I still couldn’t follow the plot, which upset me because it was fucking Clueless, and yet despite that, I was inordinately caught up in it on an emotional level. People seemed to be so mean to each other, or poking fun at situations and people that were not funny. How could Cher and Dionne trick Mr. Hall and Ms. Geist for the sake of improving their grades, and then ruins things between Tai and Travis before they even get started?! This was clearly fucked up. What was wrong with me that I saw this was wrong but everyone else watching clearly thought it was funny? What was wrong with them? What the hell was wrong with the world?! And even while all of this was stressing me out, I couldn’t stop watching TV because I was afraid of what would happen if I got up. I was also afraid to drink wine and I was afraid to go to sleep, but eventually I did both of those things, one leading to the other I suppose. The worst part of all, though, was that I woke up the next day no longer stoned, and thinking it was all over — but it wasn’t. When I left the house and had to deal with the outside world, I was second-guessing myself on absolutely everything. Was I driving stupidly? Was I doing everything wrong at pilates, and was anyone watching? Was I making dumb shopping decisions at the Co-op? Was I now permanently going to be making dumb decisions, or just worry that I was all the time? Was my brain now broken? Didn’t you hear stories about that happening to people? — for probably another eight to ten hours. The only thing that somehow did not provoke my anxiety hangover was coming home and playing Plants vs. Zombies 2 over and over again, despite repeated losses accompanied by the message “THE ZOMBIES ATE YOUR BRAINS!” (Plants vs. Zombies 2, so utterly mindless yet completely absorbing, has actually helped me a lot since the election.) Finally, at a certain point, I felt like myself again, as well as a person who might someday be able to have contact with others.
The sad thing is that I think the bad trip was just me unfiltered and magnified. I have, of course, developed coping skills since adolescence – yes, aside from alcohol, and Prozac – to tamp all down the over-thinking, the self-consciousness, and the anxiety that goes with them to a manageable level on a daily basis. At the wise old age of 48, these are things that I know that I do and I am able to distract myself from them – Hey, look over there! It’s a kiddie ride! When I got stoned this time, I couldn’t look away, and I don’t know why. Yes, I think it’s fairly safe to say that I was more stoned than I’d ever been before, but I don’t know if I can blame the terrible nature of the experience on that. And even though my last medical marijuana episode wasn’t good, it wasn’t anything like this. Which takes me back to maybe my brain really is broken – not from smoking pot, but from not smoking it. The way that all of my experiences with drugs and my body – from alcohol to Pepto Bismol to Robitussen (which, no, I haven’t used recreationally) – have changed over time, it’s not hard for me to believe that in the…wow, eight years since I last got high, my brain chemistry has changed enough that this is how getting stoned is going to be from now on. Combine this with my inability to drink alcohol, eat spicy food, and play any sport with lateral movement (knees), and one could easily conclude that my body is now, saying to me, “You’re 48, you’ve officially had all of the fun you’re entitled to. NO MORE FUN FOR YOU!” Yes, my body has become the Soup Nazi.
All I can do is hope not, or at least hope this current situation doesn’t last. I mean, I know that the stomach situation probably will, and that the Trump situation probably will, but I think that my relationship to depressants will have to change. I will have to learn to just want them rather than need them. Exercise is already a crutch for me, and I don’t really have time to do more of that than I already do. I’ve used sleeping pills for periods of time and I don’t really want to go back there — for a shitty sleeper like me, it’s too easy to get hooked. I’ve tried meditation, and it hasn’t really worked, but I probably need to give it more of a chance. Because now I’ve got four years to get through, on top of the continuing mid-life bullshit, and what else is there?
Last semester was my fourth teaching Documentary Production at Brooklyn College. My students ended up creating a bunch of really cool films on an incredibly diverse range of topics that reflected who they are — everything from the two homegrown fashion designers from Bed-Stuy to the challenges facing a young immigrant from Myanmar (the filmmaker’s brother), to a profile of a trans guitarist that explores the intersection between queer identity and punk music.
One of the biggest challenges with teaching today’s crop of up-and-coming filmmakers, however, is driving home the huge difference between reality TV, promotional/branded content, and the wide variety of YouTube videos that more or less fit into one of those two categories on the one hand, and actual documentary films on the other. It’s partly about technique. I have to practically shout at them, “Jump cuts or dissolves between pieces of an interview are lame and lazy, this is what b-roll is for, people!” Other common 101-type lessons are, “If a story doesn’t need to include you, it probably shouldn’t,” “A cute blooper, or a person introducing themselves in a cute way, is not an original way to begin your doc,” “Using on-screen titles to explain stuff is not visual storytelling,” and, “If you’re selling what you’re showing, it’s not a documentary.” These bad habits are ones that they see out there in that world and just adopt, because they’ve so internalized them as the way things are done that they think they’re the way things should be done. I consider it one of my personal missions in life to teach them that those two things are not the same.
But the difference between “reality” videos and documentary is also about content, and that, I think, is the more significant problem. It’s the difference between learning how to craft a story of out fact that intends to tell the truth, and creating something that purports to be real but is mostly fabricated.
This can be a difficult distinction to comprehend, especially when you’re learning how our modern media sausage is made. One of the first things I was told in film school was, “Film is a lie.” What this means is that, because of editing, every film or video you ever see — everything but raw footage — is a construction. It’s a creative work that somebody put together to communicate something, and, with the exception of experimental video, video art, and sometimes music videos, that something is usually a story of some kind. As human beings, we’re suckers for stories. We generally expect the building blocks of drama — action, characters, obstacles, conflict — in order to be entertained, and we like a beginning, middle and end that includes a dramatic arc for the main character to be satisfied. That we expect all this is not necessarily a bad thing, and you have to at least know about it to be an effective storyteller. It does not mean, however, that that’s all a story can or should do. Sure, you could tell a version of the hero’s journey over and over again — I mean, that’s basically what Hollywood is in the business of doing, because it’s the easiest way to make money — but you can also tells stories that use these basic rules to take people somewhere they didn’t expect. You can have an anti-hero (gasp), or more than one main character. You can (really!) havean unhappy ending, or an open-ended one that provokes the audience, and makes them keep thinking rather than turn off their brains. Just because the easiest answer, the crowd-pleaser, the lowest common denominator, often works, doesn’t mean you have to take that road. In other words, all of these “lies” don’t lie equally, and to say that they do is false equivalency. Most pieces of media tell a story that somebody chose to tell, and therefore have a perspective or a bias, buttrying to tell a truthful story matters.
I think that, in these disturbing times especially, this is important. The concepts of truth and reality are something about which the whole country, and possibly the world, is more and more confused these days. I didn’t consider it all that much in the months leading up to the election, or even immediately after it, not just because I was too busy drinking large quantities of alcohol and trying to pretend it didn’t happen, but because I’ve hardly seen anything of what’s on reality television or YouTube. I had never seen The Apprentice, which is part of what made Trump’s win so unfathomable, but I’m talking about something more than that. Yes, I occasionally see stuff that people post to YouTube thanks to my Facebook feed, or things my students have posted, or when I’m in the room when Damon is streaming people playing synthesizers (there are a lot more videos of that than you might think), and I know what YouTubers and Let’s Play videos are, but I don’t “watch” YouTube. I do watch Top Chef and Project Runway and some of their spin-offs (Masters, All-Stars, Junior, etc), but that’s pretty much it for reality TV. I’ll admit that, back when I had cable television, I would occasionally put on Bravo when there was nothing else, and so I would sometimes start watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, or The Millionaire Matchmaker. They were horrible shows, and I knew it, but they really were like car crashes: cheap, messy, loud drama that’s hard to look away from. Now that my household is fully on-demand, I don’t see anything any more just because it’s on and I get sucked in. I have to consciously choose what I watch, and that has changed my habits a lot — and I’m not unhappy about it. It nice to not feel like you both have fewer brain cells and need a shower after putting down the remote. But this puts me way outside the mainstream of America. My friends and I talk about Stranger Things, Transparent and Orange Is The New Black (Project Runway will come up sometimes, but that’s an outlier). My work colleagues talk about Game of Thrones and Westworld (duh, they’re still mostly guys). When we visit my in-laws in Florida, though, the shows that come up in conversation are Dancing with the Stars and Shark Tank. The “characters” they want to talk about aren’t Arya Stark and Walter White, they’re Mark Cuban and that Indy Car driver who won DWTS and is back this season to defend his title.
The impact of this goes far beyond just dinner table conversation. When we were making Flat Daddy, we traveled around the country meeting and interviewing a ton of people, and it was surprising how many of them seemed like they should have their own show. This wasn’t just because they were attractive or funny or had moving things to say. Many of them seemed fully aware that their banter and trash-talk, and even some of their confessionals, were prime-time-/streaming-ready, because they learned how to talk about themselves, how to create drama, how to be “personalities,” from reality TV. With some people, it took a while to get past that, to get them to be their actual selves on camera — not just the version of themselves that they thought belonged on camera — and talk honestly about what they’d been through and what they thought and felt. We generally did manage it, through spending lots of time with them. But I think now, nearly ten years on, this way of being that has been engendered by reality TV and YouTube, where everyone can have an audience, has gotten much more ingrained in our national psyche. The young people my students feature in their films (often including themselves) are very savvy about not just how to act on camera, but about the stories that they need to construct about themselves to get views. They often already have thousands of Instagram followers and their own YouTube channels, and there is a clear belief, evidenced in their behavior, that if you talk enough about yourself and present yourself on social media as if you are a thing — a successful designer, singer, actor, model, dancer, or designer-singer-actor-model-dancer — it makes you that thing. In other words, if you can sell it, you can live it. And often, in today’s world, where everyone has a camera, where celebrity is so unattached to ability, and where the line between famous and not is so porous and breachable, they’re basically right. And when fame and image and the ability to sell a message makes you into some sort of “talent” rather than the other way around, that’s when our view of the world and what has value gets drastically skewed. Things that should be taken seriously — love, in The Bachelor, The Millionaire Matchmaker and their ilk; a successful career in The Apprentice or Shark Tank — become entertainment. Things that we used to do to make our lives worth living are now being acted out just to make them watchable.
Of course it’s not just reality TV that has blurred these lines, it’s also TV and internet news, thanks to its rapid degradation of the division between info and -tainment and -mercial. Again, I believe we need news stories that are compelling to watch. It’s okay to take what happens in the real world and give it a shape and meaning in order to engage people, because if you can’t interest your audience in what’s going on, you’re just creating a filmstrip, a compliance video, something that people have to watch because it’s good for them, and you’ve already lost the battle to raise their awareness. So given that, the question then becomes, how much can you do to make the real into a story without making it no longer real? And by extension, how far is it okay for the media to go to make a story that may not be newsworthy into a news story, just to attract eyeballs or ratings or ads?
My point is that the more interests that get involved in making media that are not about presenting what’s real or truthful in an engaging way, and that bury that goal beneath another — promoting a viewpoint or product or person, or just plain making money — that’s when we start to get into trouble. Add to that that a large portion of America now thinks of reality not as something you seek to discover and understand better but as something you make true by believing it, and it’s no wonder that we’re having more and more trouble separating reality video from reality, and news from propaganda and advertising. Some combination of not being able to tell the difference and not wanting to know is making people believe the version of reality that makes them happy, even if they have to be heavily in denial to do so. Could it be possible that the bachelor is really in love with the girl he’s only known for two months and spent zero time alone with without a camera? Do the Real Housewives, or any of these celebrities who are “rich, but still just like us,” really live fascinating, glamorous lives? Is it okay for Sean Spicer to lie in a press conference, or for Kelly Ann Conway to promote Ivanka Trump’s brand on a news program, when both of these people are supposed to be speaking for the President of the United States? Any person who really considers these questions for two seconds would have to answer “no,” but people prefer to just accept the fantasy rather than look beneath it. Then they never have to comprehend the world’s complexity, because this version has been written out for them in really simple terms — good, bad, love, hate, win, lose, us, them, everything black and white. It’s easier to accept the answer that is just handed to us and reinforces everything we already want to believe than to actually try and understand and fix what’s wrong. And when we adjust our expectations to that, when we start expecting things to always turn out the way that’s most obvious, almost as if it’s been constructed to please us (because it has), it’s no wonder that we have the president we do.
There is a different way to tell stories from this. It’s the way that shapes reality without breaking it down. Good fiction does this when writers draw from life to create characters and situations that feel valid. But documentary, at its best, is the essence of telling a true and truthful story. It seeks to show the world the way it is, and in doing so, to edify and enlighten and provoke. Real reality is surprising. It’s often inconvenient or uncomfortable, and it doesn’t sound like a slogan. It just doesn’t.
It used to feel like these two versions of things, reality and “reality,” could co-exist, because it was just about television. But in 2017, we know better. Especially with public funding for the arts and sciences under siege — and hey, let’s just go ahead and say art and science in general given everything that’s being done to the NEA, NEH, CPB, IMLS, Department of Education, Department of Energy, EPA, NIH, CDC, NPS, etc etc etc etc etc etc — this is a war, and it’s one that documentary has to win. The question is, do we want to live in a reality video future, where media dumbs us down and scares us so that we can be spoon fed comforting “branded content” and “alternative facts” like baby food, and not care about anyone other than people exactly like us? Or do we we want to live in one where media shows us a wider world, makes us think critically and care about it, and question why it is the way it is and if we can make it better?
I’m a pretty good soldier. I always vote, and I always vote Democratic. With my positions on literally everything, before Trump, before the Tea Party, even before both Bushes, I could really never vote Republican, and I care too much to not vote at all, or log a third-party vote that’s purely a protest. So I’ll vote on the Working Families Party line because we have fusion voting here in New York State, and I may vote for someone like Bernie Sanders, who isn’t the establishment candidate, in the primary, but I’m never going to do anything that’s going to hurt the Democratic candidate’s chances in the long run, or the party, unless and until there’s a viable alternative, because2016Election. For the record, I saw that coming a mile away. I called out Bernie people on the stupid things that they were doing and saying, warning them not to make Hillary unelectable. I didn’t love her and everything she stood for by any means, but she had to win, and for those of you who didn’t get why before, I hope now you do. Welcome to the shit show that is at least the next 2-4 years.
So this is meant with if not with all love and affection then with a devotion born out of basically no other option, when I say, Democratic Party, please, stop treating me like I’m an idiot. What I’m referring to, mainly, are your emails, Kirsten Gillibrand, the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Governor’s Association, and yes, even you a bit, MoveOn. You see it seems like, since the election, rather than analyzing what went wrong and telling me what you were going to do to fix the situation, what your next positive action was going to be (MoveOn, the exception, did do some of those things), you just started immediately and constantly asking me for money. Now, I get a lot of email from a lot of different political groups. The ACLU? True, they do some of the same kind of stuff. They did ask me to “renew my membership” when it had been less than a year since I donated (the whole membership thing, where they send you a card and stuff, is kind of just another bullshit way of getting you to donate), but since I did that, they’ve basically just been emailing to keep me updated on what they are actually doing. The International Rescue Committee? Yes, they too keep asking me for money since I donated, but they do also write sometimes just to thank me, or to tell me where my money is going. Aavaaz, another advocacy group, asks me to sign petitions on particular issues way more often than I care to, and then they ask me to share to social media. But none of these groups write every day like you do MoveOn, KG and DNC, and most of all, their petitions and polls aren’t thinly-veiled excuses to ask for money.
Don’t know what I’m talking about? Let me show you.
Here’s a MoveOn email, asking for money four times in a row. Guess what, MoveOn? Got it after the first time.
But at least when MoveOn sends me an email asking me to hear my thoughts, it takes me to a web page where they can actually hear my thoughts — like, through a series of questions to which they genuinely seem to want answers. Questions like, “What actions are you personally most interested in taking?” and “What resources could MoveOn provide to help facilitate your organizing?” This email from Kirsten Gillibrand about Trump’s cabinet nominees starts kind of the same way, saying, “I need to hear your priorities. What’s most important to you as the Senate considers these nominations?”
But then the first “question” is “Do you think it’s important to protect our students?” Really, “Kirsten”? — which is how you show up in my inbox, just your first name in the “from” line, like we’re pals, or as “KG,” like you want that to become your sorority nickname. Are you seriously asking me that, KG?
I mean, who is really going to pick “No, I’m not worried about protecting students,” or, “No, it’s fine if people with preexisting conditions are discriminated against”? Every question is designed to milk my fear, guilt, and panic in order to have me scrambling for my credit card by page six (the one that says “Will you donate $5 today to help me keep standing up to President Trump and the GOP?”). And yet, I have to waste a whole bunch of my valuable time so you can go through this ruse of pretending to care about what I think in order to get me to the real point.
But then, if possible, this one is even worse. I mean, it starts with this email asking me if I voted for Trump.
Do you think I’d be on your email list, Democratic Governor’s Association, if I had voted for Trump? But then it manages to get increasingly cynical, with one disingenuous “question” after another.
I mean, in response to the question, “Are you worried Republicans in Congress will pass Trump’s racist, misogynistic agenda into law?” what kind of monster is going to pick, “No, I’m not worried about Trump’s hateful agenda”? Or are you seriously going to show you’re an idiot by saying, “No, I didn’t realize we need to win governors’ seats”? Then they ask me twice about my level of concern (pretending that they are separate questions, when really they are the same), and they start the bidding at the magic page six at $100. Was that since I marked that I was “Extremely Concerned” about the election results? Someone determined that $100 was the “Extremely Concerned” amount? Then they drop it down to $5 – because they know I’ll say to myself, “Well, $5 isn’t very much compared to $100.” Nice touch using the White House rose garden as a backdrop for all of this, by the way, as a way to visually underscore how truly screwed we are because of who is now in that White House. But in case that was too subtle, they end with this:
For any non-moron, the salient take-away from all this has to be that you really don’t care at all about me, your donor and constituent, beyond the “donor” part. Sure, I get that these are probably tried and true fundraising techniques that everyone uses because somebody has figured out that they work. But in case you haven’t noticed, political fundraising hacks, all bets are now off. It’s pretty disgusting to see the Democratic establishment resorting to “business as usual,” as in, “We will just go on raising money because that’s what we do,” while at the same time cynically acknowledging that the situation is anything but business as usual, because so many of us are justifiably freaking out over the actions of this new administration, which are putting us and the people we know and the values that we care about in jeopardy. I mean, I seriously want to know who said, “People are panicking! Let’s go capitalize on that!”
I gave to the Democratic Governor’s Association during the election because I think it’s important that we have more Democrats and Progressives elected at the state level, no question. I think Republican statehouses across the country, thanks largely to gerrymandering, are doing horrible, horrible things, and they need to be stopped. I also genuinely like my Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. She used to be a moderate, but she’s listened to her constituents and moved steadily to the left, and is taking a really strong line against this administration. She’s the only Democrat on the committees reviewing Trump’s nominees who has voted against nearly every one. And I do think MoveOn has been an important voice for advocacy ever since they tried to get everyone to “move on” from the impeachment of Bill Clinton, even if they are becoming more and more part of the party establishment all the time. But I did not sign up to have my time wasted by any of your extremely obvious attempts at manipulation and exploitation in a time of crisis.
Because, oh yeah, I’m not fucking stupid. We’ve all heard at this point about the data supporting the fact that Trump voters are not college educated. We’ve also seen a fair amount of real-time evidence that they will believe pretty much anything if it fits in with their world view. But I am not that. That’s why I’m a supporter of yours, you idiots. Plus, in case you haven’t noticed, all of us Progressives are in the process of getting a lot more active and a lot more savvy about the media, the internet, “fake news,” social media, and messaging in general. Because the election proved that a lot of people in the population cannot detect bias or manipulation in what they read, a lot of us are starting to pay much better attention to that sort of thing — especially Democrats, aka the people to whom you are sending this stuff. We are also learning a lot about the political process and mobilizing behind new organizations that are promising to create change. We are looking to build a new, grassroots movement, like a Progressive Tea Party, that can succeed in the ways that you and people/groups like you have been failing. That means that we are looking to replace candidates and organizations who are too concerned with protecting their own positions and special interest dollars to listen to their constituents and fight for what we want. Hmm, does that sound like you? Then wake the fuck up.
Look, we are all in crisis/battle mode right now, and it’s absolutely not the time for political infighting. We all have to work together, and I could see why the Democratic Party thinks that maybe that gives them a free pass. Well, I’m here to say that it does not. It’s true, if we were having a general election right now, I wouldn’t be voting against you, and that may still hold true for a while. But I and a lot of others like me firmly believe that you are at least partly responsible for getting us to the hellscape in which we now find ourselves, and that, ergo, we are done with your business as usual. So I’m not going to fight you, but I am utterly prepared to go around, over and right past you if you continue to prove yourselves to be unworthy and irrelevant with crap like this. I have not even begun to give the money and time that I have to spend to fight what the Trump Administration is doing to ruin this country, but with so much of what I believe in under siege — human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, equal protection under the law for those folks and people of color, immigrants and religious minorities, organized labor, public education, public support for the arts, I mean, at this point we are just basically talking about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for anyone who isn’t a white male investment banker or oil company executive — why would I give any of what I have to the patronizing, manipulating, capitalizing-on-our-pain establishment that is you people?