One night a few weeks ago at the bar I work at, I got hit on by a guy named Jake. This happens a fair amount, and I’m pretty sure they’re all aspiring screenwriters named Jake. I don’t have a uniform, and when I’m standing by the bar waiting to carry drinks to customers, I look like a girl who is alone in a bar. Cue drunk dudes assuming I do not value my solitude or personal space.
Jake approaches me. I scream over the music that I am working and do not want him to buy me a drink. He asks what I do when I’m not working. I scream that I’m an actress and a writer, and, being in LA and having exactly zero shame, whip out my business card and hand it over. While examining my business card, he adjusts his dark-rimmed glasses and says he’s a screenwriter too. NYU class of 2012, in case I was wondering, which I was not.
He says, “I bet working at a bar you get a lot of material for writing.” I scream that I do in fact. He then, confidently and shamelessly, proclaims that he’s not going to get anywhere in writing or directing as a white dude, and that I, as a woman, am a “novelty,” and should “use that to my advantage.” He then said it would be better if I were black.
I was proud of myself for having the presence of mind to respond something like, “Actually in the short span of my film career, I’ve been lucky to have mostly great experiences, but when I’ve served in leadership positions I’ve received a fair amount of condescension from people who have no right to condescend to me. Also it would not be better if I were black; I assure you.”
I used a hand gesture to describe that being a woman in film feels like ~hands pressing on my face~
He didn’t get it.
“Most of the people I know who worship logical reasoning are white men.”
“Most of the people I know who worship logical reasoning are white men.”
He muttered something like, “Woah, that sucks, but you know,” and then said his Uber was there and he promptly exited.
There are many, many Jakes in the world. They usually don’t bother me. This particular Jake, however, did.
I thought about him for the rest of the night and later, while I lay in bed, feet throbbing from a night of running vodka sodas to young Hollywood. I thought about him the next day as I tweeted about him, hoping the momentary release of sharing a small trauma on social media would make me forget.
I realized that the reason I’m still thinking about Jake is that while I did speak my truth, and felt good about that and my little hand gesture, I did it because I was trying to prove something to him. I needed to somehow give him concrete facts about why I was oppressed in the film industry, and that saying, “It would be better if you were black” was layers on layers of fracked up.
What I wanted to say, but couldn’t, because both the music and my anxiety were too loud, was this.
Oppression is not logical or legible. Externalized, it looks like women and minorities (and intersections thereof) not being in as many leadership positions in the film industry, thus inspiring all of these conversations around inclusivity (#oscarssowhite, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, etc). Problem solved!
Internalized, it’s a warm, familiar, suffocating blanket that cannot be differentiated from your brain itself. It is not a system within your brain. It IS your brain.
Your brain was created in part by this interplay of trying to make sense of a world which values your reality less than other people’s. It feels like, in situations where your particular identity is not often found, walking into a party where you don’t know anyone. Should I get a drink? I don’t know the host very well. I don’t want to seem like I’m being greedy, but I should have something in my hand. God I wish I were drunk. I guess I’ll just hang in the bathroom for a while until I can find a nice dog. Is everyone staring at me or am I just being paranoid? Wow these people seem really nice, but I feel very suspicious and afraid of them for some reason. God I’m such an idiot. This is all in my head. BE COOL, NATALIE. JUST BE COOL FOR ONCE.
Humans desire survival. They strive for security. They do not strive for joy. That’s why I apologize every time I speak, even though I can actively feel those apologies stacking a weight on my shoulders.
I also didn’t say that the condescension was pretty easily dismissed, or that the director I’m co-writing a film with is a 45-year-old man who has been absolutely nothing but supportive and encouraging with me. I didn’t say that I would not trade my femaleness, despite the danger, objectification, and lack of representation for anything in the entire universe, but that it’s still hard to be a woman every single day.
My femaleness, though I struggle with how well I perform femininity, is one of my greatest joys. It’s an inextricable part of what makes me an artist, and an inextricable part of what makes me despair. I don’t feel that it’s a novelty, per se, but I think it’s a juicy, interesting thing about me. Hopefully people will give me opportunities because they like me and my work, both of which are female. So will they only give me opportunities because of my femaleness? Will I care if I’m getting paid?
The hours I’ve spent thinking about all of that ^^ have been innumerable. How many hours could I have spent writing or relaxing when this was running through my head? What was Jake doing while I was worrying about all of this?
There are many contradictions. There is joy and sorrow at the same time. I understand Jake’s frustration, but what is MORE frustrating is that I will never ever be able to articulate all of this to him in a way that he will ever understand. I attempted to give him facts about something that is based on a lie. I was speaking his language about something without words in it.
Oppression is a phantom. Oppression is a metaphysical force with tangible consequences and effects, but also with intangible consequences and effects. Oppressed people have to contend with this faceless, slippery thing every day and somehow try and convince other people of its existence and harmfulness. Believing in someone’s oppression, in her experience, requires a leap of faith, not logical reasoning.
Most of the people I know who worship logical reasoning are white men. Logic and reasoning are necessary for our collective existence. But it is not lost on me that the people in my life who tell me to “be logical and reasonable about x, y, z” are people whose lives seemed to have been governed by these rules. My life has largely not been (and I’m a straight white cis lady!).
In my gender studies classes in college, we were always searching for the source of oppression. We were searching for the source of gender. We were searching for sources that could never be found. It was head spinning and off-putting. There is one text I come back to over and over, as a balm. This is Judith Butler from her essay, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.”
“Gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself.”
This quote has served me as a mantra and prayer. When I repeat it to myself, I remember that there is no concrete source for the illogical, supernatural, metaphysical, cosmic, outside-of-reason, manipulative, horrifying force that is gendered oppression. There is only performance and justification. Anything can be justified if you need it enough; anything can be explained away.
So what Jake sees is a person who should just game the system, which seems to him to be swinging my way in the cultural discourse around the arts. From his perspective, the logical and reasonable thing to do would be for me to use my gender (which for some unknown reason has been oppressed and is now being celebrated-ish) to get ahead. He thinks that this will, in turn, keep straight white men out of the film industry. He sees his own destruction.
What I see that Jake fails to see or be curious about seeing, is that I have to contend with my insecurities as an artist in addition to my insecurities about this nebulous game that I don’t know the rules to. I see polo shirts and jeans and direct, masculine hand gestures during discussions about how Quentin Tarantino is the greatest of all time. I smell Old Spice. I see dudes looking at me expectantly, hoping that I’ll be brilliant, and then feeling blank and very aware of my breasts, anxiety churning my stomach. I read my scripts back to myself and think 1) it is shitty in general 2) my priorities are all wrong 3) plot is too feminine 3) female whininess 4) I have no place here. I cannot be invisible, even to myself. Everyone sees my femaleness, and so do I. It’s exhausting.
Can I logically talk myself out of all of those points? Yes. Does it work? No. Will I ever know if any of that is true or if it’s just me questioning myself because I’m a woman? Do all women feel like this or is it just because I’ve experienced abuse because I’m a woman?
In a perfect world, Jake would be right. I’d be able to use my “novel” identity to take advantage of all the outreach programs and diversity pushes happening right now. But we do not live a perfect world, dear Jake. We live in a world where the exchange of internal and external oppression creates a very strange, grey, shitty, and at times joyful and euphoric and defiant experience for those caught in its crosshairs. It’s different for everyone, and we are all trying our best, including you.
What would help though is for the Jakes of the world to put the logic and reasoning they so desperately cling to, away for a moment. Save them for later, for they are still necessary, and to listen to what we are saying. To watch the strange hand gestures we make in the dark in West Hollywood bars, and then say, “Tell me more.”
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Natalie Houchins is a graduate of Northwestern University, with
degrees in Theatre and Gender & Sexuality Studies. She is a writer and
actress based out of LA, who is perennially homesick for Austin, TX.
She currently spends her free time hiking, watching Battlestar
Galactica and resisting the Trump administration. For more information, visit her website: www.nataliehouchins.com.