I’ve talked recently about filters to see what surrounds us, and how it can be a good thing. I’m gonna explore a bit further the consequences of speaking up. What are the things we usually hear when addressing these issues, why ignoring our patterns can be hurtful, and how easy it can be for us to be better, if we are willing to be changed? I will never be perfect, probably not have a full understanding of my own priviledges, but I want to spend my whole life learning.
The push-backs: the why?
If we call out something that we estimate being undermining in any way, we expose ourself to a lot of push-backs. The reason for that is that most of us do not like being called out for a sexist endowment, a slightly racist joke or any other type of discriminative behavior. Being called out make us feel unconfortable, and in this situation most people will react the same way: by pushing back and acting defensive.
The problem in there is that we still have troubles to separate our actions from the definition of who we are. We call somebody that does something sexist a sexist, as if the individual action could be extrapolate to some sort of larger definition of the person themselves. The corollary is that if somebody calls out a sexist action we do, we immediately associate this with being seen as sexist and we start judging ourselves. And nobody WANTS to be sexist. So we just get defensive. My hope is that we can be willing to be changed, to improve, to learn, and fight for it. Because acting sexist once doesn’t make us sexist; but refusing to listen, be changed and keep repeating the same patterns makes us sexist.
The justifications: the what?
When somebody expresses how affected they have been by something happening on stage (by being directly offended or uncomfortable, or seeing other people being offended or uncomfortable), they face push-backs. What are the answers we all face in these cases? What are the poor justifications we all find to protect ouselves to not be held accountable? Below is a short list of classical examples of things I’ve experienced myself directly or in my direct environment. I will focus on sexism here because that’s one of the most classical one, but all the examples are valid for any type of minority.
Let’s not be dramatic with everything
That’s probably the most classical one. The one I’ve heard the most, by offenders, potential offended, players, audience, etc. I’ve had the experience two weeks ago again of questioning the content of a scene (men commenting from the side on women in a cooking contest putting back in place their hair to gain a man’s attention) and facing that answer from a woman. That’s when I started asking myself if I did have a filter through which I would highlight only these kind of things, and my trigger to write my last article. Often this comes with something like “It could have happened to anybody”.
It was justified by the scene/genre
That’s another discussable usual one. We all already encountered cases where it actually was the case. Of course if you play a distopia in the genre of the Handmaid’s Tale, there will be inequal treatment of women and men in the world you show. But this shouldn’t prevent to create equally interesting characters, to give them a real depth independently from their gender. And study hard our genres to not end up just being a jerk. Unfortunately often we use the genre or the scene to justify a posteriori our offensive move, and it’s not reflecting the thinking process a priori.
Their character was calling for it
That’s probably one of the worst we can find, but it goes a little bit with the previous type, depending on the level of it. I’ve heard that one recently from a man acting rapey on stage and justifying it afterward by the fact that the actress that was with him on stage was “calling for it” because she was wearing a skirt. Yes. All of us don’t go that far, but it is not more valid if the level of justification is lower.
It was to make a point and show how bad reality is
We almost all answered that once to justify our behavior, probably thinking honestly that it is the case. In order to show the audience how aweful patriarcal society is, we show sexist behaviors. Or at least that’s what we say afterwards. It’s interesting to realise that researchers have shown that showing what we expect from people is more efficient than showing them how bad things are hoping for them to change.
Ow I guess you cannot handle that
Another one that you might have heard: making it the problem of the person that shares their opinion and call out the sexism. This one is used to flip the situation from being an offender to being a misunderstood artist/improviser/brilliant human. It has the double benefit to make the offender feel comfortable with their choice (because all artists are misunderstood by their peers) and make the offended feel ashamed enough to let go most of the time. This behavior is usually going with taking other people as witnesses of our cause: “Haha they thought I was doing a sexist move, unbelievable how sensitive they are, right?”. It also goes often with the patronizing “I will stop doing it with you, if you can’t handle it.”. Which probably comes from a good place. But doesn’t solve anything because it will be repeated again and again with others.
I know, I’m not politically correct
That is the one that drives me mad. And that we all have faced at least once for sure. It is used to justify actions or decisions to “make a point”, but add a judgment of value. By defining themselves as not politically correct, they hope that the decision they made will be fine by putting the label of voluntarily provocative. The side-effect of it is also that the others are by consequence politically correct, ie. too weak or dumb to have their own opinion. This last one is encouraged by the mis-understanding of sentences like “Any show should offend someone”. The problem here is when it’s applied blindly to groups victim of systemic oppression: punching down isn’t being provocative, it is just and only being oppressive.
The alternatives: the how?
If you are willing to change and be changed, there are plenty of alternatives in the choices you can make. You do not need to be dramatic about it, but you can just make different choices and show different things on stage. Make normal different types of relationships, endow your partners on stage being aware of what you want to give the audience, etc. Stephen Davidson has an awesome book about how to Play like an Ally.
If you play with a specific genre, don’t forget that it’s up to you to respect the usual gender repartition or not. To help you go through that process, it can be interesting to replace the question in context: are stories centered around male heroes because men are heroes or because stories are mostly written by men? Does it still make sense to play Shakespeare with only male actors today? Around storytelling, the Bechdel Test is a good reference to be conscious of the under-representation of women in medias today. I encourage us as storytellers to be aware of it when we decide to build stories on stage, if we want to be more inclusive.
If you come to think that a character is calling for something, reflect a minute about what it means. What will be the optic (how will it look on stage if we objectively watch a scene / picture without the story around) of that scene? In improv we can be whatever and whoever we aspire to be. Let’s make sure we guarantee that right to all our fellow players without distinction.
If you find somehow yourself thinking that somebody cannot handle it, and that it’s just them, you can reverse the reality of this exchange: that person is probably the only / first / one of the few person that took on them to tell you that you offended them. It’s an amazing opportunity to listen and to learn. Calling out for something or someone requires a lot of courage, and it will lead to a lot of emotional labor. So even if you hear this type of feedback rarely, you probably want to pay attention to it for all the people that stayed silent. On stage, in rehearsal, and in the audience.
If you define yourself as not politically correct, you probably have strong opinions about how everything should be doable, to kick in the dirt and awake a bit the soft minds about the reality of the world. So far, the only people that I’ve found not willing to listen under to not be politically correct are white, heterosexual, cis-gender men. I’m not saying that it means that they are wrong. But probably from the position of privilege it is more difficult to see the difference between standing for something and offending half of the world. For that reason, if you are the one that is not easily offended, you should listen even more carefully to the ones that are. Because your aim as a non-politically correct is to make the world better, right?
On these topics, there is a very interesting article on the topic of the rape trope in movies, and that was an inspiration for me. I recommend reading it because I find it well built.
If you are not willing to change (yet?), think about it a second. Talk about it, take workshops about these topics, and listen to the people that are victims of systemic oppression. Black Out, an improv group from Minneapolis, has awesome workshops in this area. Think about the emotional labor you ask the people we offend, how we ask them to educate us, to explain us calmly, to remain nice and smiling. And maybe next time you are on stage, think twice about the optic of your scene: what is the image that is shown to the audience. Are you using your special position being on stage to confirm the societal patterns (often unconsciously) or are you conscious of your choices to show something different, a more inclusive community?
Changing is scary. It’s painful sometimes. It requires from us to face our mistakes, the unknown, the potential failure.
But more than anything, changing is necessary. It’s fascinating, exciting. It opens us, makes us more flexible.
That’s why I want to change, to improve my behaviors, my knowledge, my reflection on my actions. Next time I will find myself pushing back, I will ask myself if I really disagree or if it’s just the way I find to cope with my own discomfort.