Shorts and Knee Socks

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

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

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

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

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

She just shrugged.  “It’s Friday.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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