The Color Purple: SM Goes to Broadway

 

[NOTE: I reviewed this play several months ago but couldn’t post it at the time. The Tony Award-winning lead actress, Cynthia Erivo, is still anchoring the show and she is phenomenal. Some other cast members have moved on.]

 

Before I start this review about this particular play, I want to clarify some of my experience and thoughts about Broadway and theater culture in general. Because this is a pop culture column, and theater is a culture. It’s not one that I’ve ever been a part of, so of course that’s going to color my interpretation and opinions of any Broadway play that I see.

 

Feel free to skip down to the * * * break if you just came for the review!

 

Still here?

 

Okay, let’s do this.

 

aaaand-send

 

I don’t mean “theater culture” as in all the fun times and traditions that go on behind the scenes between stage actors, because I am so far removed from that part of it that I’m not even going to pretend to be qualified to opine on it. I’m pretending to be qualified to opine about theater-going culture, the culture of regularly going to see Broadway plays, either cheaply or by paying significant sums of money — just considering that a routine thing to do.

 

For me, it is absolutely not. I’ve now seen three Broadway shows in my life, including this one.

 

One was a birthday present when I turned five (yes, twenty years ago) — my dad took me to see Beauty and the Beast. Of course, that was pretty much wasted on a five-year-old, even an adorably precocious one such as myself. All I remember is the moment when the Beast turned into the prince; it was basically magic.

 

I saw my second show, West Side Story, as a perk of being accepted to the full-scholarship Macaulay Honors College — you know, the CUNY program designed to poach potential Ivy League students into attending CUNY colleges by bribing us with money, laptops, and free Broadway shows. (It worked.)

 

The third was this one, The Color Purple, for which I copyedited a number of posts for a friend’s Broadway blog (shout-out to BroadwayWiz!) in exchange for a ticket.

 

You may have noticed a common thread among these experiences: I didn’t pay for my ticket. And I point that out because I think that that’s the crux of my exclusion from theater-going culture: money.

 

Broadway is expensive entertainment.

 

I don’t just mean the Hamilton craze and $1000 tickets (though I do find it sadly ironic that a play about the value of diversity and immigrants is being effectively limited to the wealthy, mostly white elites). I also mean that it’s especially expensive when you come from a big family, like I do. Seven kids, two parents. There are things you just don’t do a lot when your family is nine people and your parents are teachers. To name a couple: you don’t eat out at restaurants much, and you don’t go to Broadway shows. Because take the price of a meal or a ticket, and multiply it by nine.

 
tma

Yeah. 

 

So I didn’t grow up going to Broadway shows, and as a result, whenever I’ve got a few extra bucks and am looking for an activity or some entertainment, it doesn’t even enter my mind to consider going to a Broadway show. Like, I’ve got a $5 movie theater in my neighborhood. The price on my ticket for West Side Story was $110. Do you know how many movies I could see and how much sushi I could buy with that money? Or how many clothes or other other stuff that isn’t a one-time ephemeral experience?

 

A lot. The answer is “a lot.” So for me, Broadway has just always lived in a zone in my mind that is simply outside of my pay grade. And yeah, I know there are ways to get cheaper tickets, but some of them take a lot of effort, and it just isn’t something that occurs to me, because of that zone.

 

* * *

 

So with that in mind, what did I think of The Color Purple, the Tony Award-winning musical on Broadway?

 

Well, I think a lot of things. Firstly, I’ve read the book, and I absolutely love it. It is one of very, very few “classic” works of literature that I have genuinely enjoyed and actually recommend to other people instead of warning them away.

 

In case you haven’t read it, it’s a story that begins horrifically and ends as one of the most empowering feminist narratives that I have ever read. It’s the story of Celie, a young black girl who has been raped multiple times by her father* and borne him two children by the time she’s 16. She hasn’t seen them since she gave birth and believes he may have killed them. (I know, this is literally the worst beginning ever. Blowing up the planet would be less depressing.) Then, in order to save her sister, Nettie, from having to marry an abusive man, she agrees to marry him herself.

 

volunteer-as-tribute

 

The story then follows Celie’s married life, the people she meets, the influences they have on her, and her slowly-developing sense of self-worth as she becomes more and more fed up with her husband and her life circumstances. She learns to draw strength from the people around her and ultimately from herself and her own inner confidence and value, and finally stands up to her husband and her community, and it is GLORIOUS.

 

giphy

 

*Turns out the man she thought was her father was actually her stepfather, but that’s no less horrific.

 

The play sticks with the same basic storyline, characters, and emotional beats as the book, although I do think that it downplayed the emergent lesbian aspect of Celie’s character. Other versions, such as the 1985 movie, have probably done that too, because the book’s portrayal of lesbianism and frank discussion of female sexuality were extremely progressive for its time, and the mediums of film and stage probably weren’t ready for it.

 

But regardless, Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Celie is amazing. She is tough, vulnerable, quietly rebellious, with sharp comic timing that adds a laugh or two to some of the bleakest scenes. Erivo completely deserved the Tony Award she won for the role. Even though there are many times when the men do the talking and have all the agency in Celie’s early life, she is always in the foreground of the stage, well-lit and prominent, so that we never forget that this is her story, not theirs.

 

Another standout performance was Sofia, played by Danielle Brooks, better known as Taystee from Orange Is The New Black [NOTE: Sophia is currently played by Carrie Compere]. Sofia is big, loud, brash, and is the first woman we meet in the play who immediately talks back to the men and takes no crap from them. She utterly rejects the accepted social norms that give men the right to beat their wives and girlfriends, and she walks out when her boyfriend hits her. It’s so refreshing in the context of the play, where so far all we’ve seen is women being crushed under men’s authority and only able to resist in quiet, subtle ways.

 
danielle-brooks-and-meI got to take a picture with her after the show. That’s her face on the poster between us. Photocred to BroadwayWiz!

 

The book, of course, is not a musical. And honestly, I preferred the speaking parts of the play to the musical parts. This is partly because I have a general preference for good dialogue, and partly because I felt like something was off with the acoustics of the theater. It was too small for the huge voices of the cast. Solos were usually fine, but when more than one person was singing or if they were belting at the top of their lungs, the words seemed to all crash together, and my friend and I could hardly ever tell what they were saying in the group songs. I really wanted subtitles. (I had the same thought when I saw West Side Story. Someone really needs to invent a subtitle projector for theater.) Maybe it was a fluke mic problem, maybe it sounded different down in the orchestra seats (we were on the mezzanine), but whatever it was, I was glad there was a lot of speaking to augment the music. If I’d paid for my ticket (about $75), I might have been disappointed. So I’d suggest that if you want to see it, listen to the cast album first so that you’re more familiar with the songs than we were.

 

Lastly, I’d like to mention that there is a pretty strong religious theme in the play — the title is a reference to how one of the characters uses the existence of good or beautiful things in the world, like the color purple, to explain her belief in God. I’ve never been the biggest fan of that sort of philosophy, where you attribute anything good to God and just kind of handwave all the bad. So that aspect of it didn’t really resonate with me, but others may have found it uplifting. I was more inspired by the strength and resilience of the characters, who fought through an oppressive society to ultimately find happiness and support each other through some of the most awful situations.

 

Bottom line: This was an excellent production with riveting performances and it held my attention easily the entire time. Those who like musicals might like it more than I did, especially if they listen to the songs in advance, but there is plenty of dialogue for those of us who prefer that. It is a more expensive show, so if you can get cheaper tickets, go for it. If you can’t, I hope I’ve done a decent job letting you know what you’re in for so you can decide if it’s worth the full price. The book is less expensive though, and definitely worth it.
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Sarah Meira (SM) Rosenberg is a former auto mechanic and current jill-of-all-writing/editing-trades. She has a degree in Creative Writing, her very own Amazon author page, a podcast with some fellow nerdgirls, and a gofundme where anyone can commission her to write about anything — movies, TV, books, sports, you name it. Got anything you want me to review? Feel free to commission it through the GoFundMe! Otherwise, just sit back and enjoy.

 

REVIEW — Babylon 5, Season 1, Episode 10, “Believers”

 

Another long-overdue commissioned review (6th commissioned post out of god knows how many), this time SPOILER FREE and sponsored by an anonymous donor, who, lo those many months ago, wrote:

 

“Review any single episode of one of the following series: Doctor Who, Star Trek (any series, including Enterprise), 24:Live Another Day, Sherlock, Firefly, Babylon 5. I love them all equally, so it doesn’t matter which one you eventually choose. 🙂 .”

 

It was an easy choice as to which show I would pick, not because those others aren’t worthy contenders, but because Babylon 5 has a special place in my heart, and so few people I know have watched it that if anyone by some freak chance gives me the opportunity to review it, I’m taking it. (Caveat: This is not so much a review of this episode as it is a discussion of the experience of revisiting a favorite TV show. I mean, there’s a review in here too, but that’s almost beside the point.)

 

This show owned my soul in 9th grade. I’d never heard of it before then, but early in my freshman year of high school, my brother introduced me to it and told me that I needed to watch the whole thing, that it was one long story arc that had to be watched in order, unlike most other shows I’d watched before (which consisted of mostly Arthur, Sesame Street, and Star Trek: The Next Generation — my parents were a lot stricter about what shows we kids were allowed to watch then than they are now). Babylon 5 was my gateway drug into the world of serialized television, and honestly, my gateway drug into television shows as a whole since up until then, my experience of TV was clearly very limited, and this was before the days of efficient methods of online streaming (I think we still had dial-up internet at the time).

 

So me and my brother bought all 5 seasons of the show on DVD from some Chinese seller on ebay for about $35 a season, which I now look at and think, “holy crap that was expensive” but at the time, believe it or not, that was ridiculously cheap for a season’s worth of DVDs, which, if purchased from respectable American sellers could have cost us $50-$60 a season.

 

This was also before binge-watching had become a socially acceptable thing, and my parents limited me to one episode a day, after I finished all my homework. So my nightly schedule looked like this:

 

5:15 — finish school

6:00 — arrive home

6-9 — homework/dinner/novel writing

9-9:45 — Babylon 5

10:00 — go to bed

 

That was how it was pretty much every night — I mean, come on, it’s not like I had a social life. As I mentioned in a previous post, all my friends were school friends and all my schools were always far away, so friendship and socializing was a school thing, not a home thing. I was also too deeply closeted about my religious views at that time in my life to really attempt to make meaningful connections with anyone, especially not anyone I perceived as much more religious (“how could they ever understand my heresy?”) or less religious (“what if they corrupt me and make me even worse than I already am?”), and most of my classmates fell into those categories. I was lone wolf and a social floater — I could effortlessly sit down and have lunch with any group or clique (the ultimate in social acceptability) and everyone liked me, but nobody knew me. It wasn’t their fault; I just didn’t let anyone in. And I was sick a lot and didn’t have the energy to stay up later than 10:00 most nights (I got sicker between 9th and 10th grades; in 10th grade I could rarely stay awake past 9), and that’s a killer for a social life as well.

 

I also didn’t have my own computer or DVD player, so I couldn’t watch in the comfort of my own bed as I do now like a proper couch potato — I had to watch in my dad’s study on my brother’s computer, a room that no longer exists since we converted it to a bedroom for my grandmother when she lived with us for about six years before she passed away, and renovated the garage into my dad’s new library/study/thing which he actually rarely works in, preferring to do most of his work at the dining room table, which results in massive piles of books from the basement library teetering in stacks on the table and sometimes also the chairs, much to my mother’s chagrin.

 

None of this is relevant to Babylon 5 itself, but my point in including it here is to explain how far back me and B5 go, how deeply rooted and intertwined it is with memories and other bits of my heart and soul, regardless of the content of the show.

 

So, Babylon 5 it was.

 

Then the question became “Which episode?” and that was complicated, but mostly because I unnecessarily complicated it for myself. See, Babylon 5 is highly serialized, and I knew right off that bat that I did not want to do an arc-relevant episode, so that left standalone episodes. And the first one that popped into my head was “Believers,” because even from all those years back, I remembered how self-enclosed the whole story seemed and what a punch in the gut the ending was, but then I thought I should at least consider other options before making a final choice.

 

Fortuitously, I happened to make a new friend around that time who was an even bigger B5 groupie than me, and we started rewatching some of it, and a different B5 fan friend of mine got wind of this through our incessant B5-related posts on facebook and invited me to come rewatch the whole show from start to finish with him (which I’ve never done before), and we’ve been doing that on and off for the past few months. Between our busy schedules, we’ve managed to just finish Season 1.

 

And in a lot of ways, the show is better than I remembered it or expected it to be. Whenever you watch something that you have a nostalgic fondness for, your biggest fear tends to be that in the intervening years, the Suck Fairy may have visited and sprinkled suck dust all over everything, and you’re forced to confront the reality that when the two of you first met, you were simply too young and stupid to recognize bad acting, awkward writing, horrible CGI, or whatever it is that was always there but somehow escaped your notice and actually rendered the entire show/book/movie/thing complete crap.

 

So I was braced for the Suck Fairy, especially when it comes to one of my favorite characters, the central character of “Believers,” Dr Stephen Franklin. In the aforementioned intervening years, I’d heard plenty of people malign the character’s role and Richard Biggs’ acting of it, so I was ready for him to be awful upon revisiting this episode, which I actually thought showed up later in the series, but nope, it’s a Season 1 episode.

 

And then we rewatched this episode, and I was like, “Gosh darn it, I LIKE Franklin, and I LIKE this episode, and I AM going to review it! Take that, haters!”

 

Why do I like Franklin?

 

Well, firstly, I don’t think his acting is bad at all. I was worried that maybe I only thought this because Rick Biggs (may he rest in peace) had an incredibly beautiful face, but upon careful study and analysis of said beautiful face and all the rest, I really do think that his delivery was more natural than a lot of actors that have come and gone on the show, something which is made all the more impressive by the fact that Biggs was nearly deaf and so had to learn all his own lines and everyone else’s and lip-read for his cues. But even without that, I don’t find his acting to be bad or strained or wooden as the haterz would have me believe.

 

And aside from the acting, I like the character. He has a different vibe from all the other main cast members; he’s passionate and fiery. Each character in Babylon 5 brings something different to the table: Sinclair is solemn, Garibaldi is easygoing, Londo is bombastic, G’Kar is conniving, Delenn is dignified, Kosh is cryptic, Vir is bumbling, Lennier is adorably earnest — and Franklin is fiery. The man cares. He cares deeply, and he cares passionately, and it shows. I’ve seen some reviewers accuse him of seeming arrogant and unsympathetic in this episode, but I just don’t see it.

 

In case you don’t know or don’t remember, this episode is the one where Franklin is presented with people whose beliefs are entirely in opposition to his scientific worldview: their son is dying and needs surgery, but they believe that cutting open a body releases a person’s spirit and refuse to allow Franklin to operate.

 

Rather than verbally attacking them for this like his assistant does, he tries his hardest to work with them and be respectful, because he cares about his patients. It’s only as the situation becomes increasingly desperate that he begins to take less respectful and more drastic measures, but again, it’s because he cares so deeply about the life of this patient, Shon, that he simply can’t not do absolutely everything in his power to save his life. I’m not saying that what he does is right or wrong; I’m just saying I don’t see it as being an arrogant or unsympathetic motivation. I understood where he was coming from every step of the way.

 

And I also understood where Commander Sinclair is coming from, when he refuses to grant Franklin’s request for an executive order to override the parents’ wishes and operate on Shon. Being an orthodox Jew, I can tell you from personal experience that it is sometimes really nervewracking to see your religious practices come up for legal debate, to see people legislating things that they don’t understand and therefore deem “primitive” or dangerous. For instance, the process of kosher (and halal) animal slaughter has come up for debate in many countries and has recently been banned in Denmark, in a move that many have pointed out is pretty hypocritical, given the inhumane ways that animals are raised and killed in Denmark that have not been banned. I’m not trying to get political here, but my point is that there are all sorts of religious rituals, and a lot of them make people uncomfortable out of ignorance or knee-jerk reaction of “this is harmful,” and once you start legislating what religious rituals are harmful in accordance with your particular worldview, things can get very dicey and disruptive and alienating to a lot of people whose worldviews are different from yours.

 

So Sinclair’s choice to stay uninvolved even though he knows this may be condemning a child to death struck me as a profoundly humble one, a decision that recognizes the limitations of one’s own moral code in order to make room for one that one does not understand and to avoid setting a precedent that could later be abused. Again, I don’t know if I think he was right or wrong, but I respect his decision.

 

Another thing I really liked about this episode and what makes it so quintessentially Babylon 5 is how Shon’s parents approach several alien ambassadors to ask for help, and they each respond in such different ways that all make sense according to the internal logic of each society as we’ve seen so far. Babylon 5’s development of very distinct major alien cultures and attitudes is one of its greatest strengths.

 

I’m not going to discuss the ending because this is a spoiler free review, but yeah, it packs a punch, and I remember being shocked that the show went that far. A writing teacher of mine liked to quote someone else who said that the best endings are “surprising but inevitable,” and this one definitely felt that way.

 

So yay! A positive review! Let’s say 3 out of 4 stars? That sounds about right. Definite deduction for the unmemorable B-plot which involved Ivanova and some space raiders. But the A-plot, as discussed, resonated for me and picks up some of the slack.

 

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On Responsibility to the Community — Sexism, Intermarriage, and Other Fun Stuff (Part 2)

 Commissioned post count: 2 out of 8 requests so far.

 

[Continued from Part 1, found here. Requested by Elissa G.]

 

This part is going to be a lot more Jewish, because Judaism and community are so inextricably intertwined and as an agnostic Jew who keeps most observances for all the “wrong” reasons, I of course have much to say about the communal aspects of Judaism as opposed to the religious ones.

 

But first I have to talk a bit about what makes a community. A common (but by no means universal) Jewish take on community is that it’s like a diagram of concentric circles — you and your personal bubble (or “dalet amot”) in the center, your family in the circle around that, your Jewish neighbors in the circle around that, then non-Jewish neighbors, then Jews in your city, then non-Jews in your city, then Jews everywhere else in the world, and everyone else in the world in the circle around that.

Like this. Only not as tasty.

The closer the circle is to the center, the greater the urgency for you to help those people. Responsibility becomes diffused the further out you go. Which is quite practical when it comes to allotting the limited resources that we all have in life — if you try to help everyone equally and spread your resources too thinly, then no one gets the help they need. So “take care of your own first” is as good a way as any to divvy up the resources.

 

Still, in reality, a diagram of the communities that we belong to probably looks more like this:

 

 

There is family, there are school friends, there are neighborhood friends, there are internet friends, there are colleagues, there is extended family, there is step-family, half-family, people who were in the same school clubs as you, people who went to schools you graduated from, summer camp friends, people who are fans of the same shows/music/youtubers/sports teams that you are, people who are the same gender as you are, people who are the same ethnicity as you are, people who are the same religion as you are, and so on and so forth, and some of these may overlap a little and some of them may overlap a lot, and some may have absolutely no overlap at all.

 

And you may feel a strong connection to some of these communities and little or no connection to others, and other members of the community may see you differently than you see yourself. For instance, colleges are always going to consider you part of the alumni community and ask you for money, whether you feel any affinity toward them or not. Some Yankee fans may consider you basically a brother if you’re a Yankee fan too, while you yourself may have much more stringent criteria for what makes you feel connected to someone in a brotherly way. And you may feel more of an affinity for your friends than you do for your own family, or vice versa. Or you may feel very strongly drawn to a particular cause that involves a particular population, like the homeless or LGBTQ teens.

 

So when it comes to “taking care of your own first,” the question of who “your own” truly is becomes muddled and confusing.

 

Personally, I usually tend to latch onto people, not communities. True, I may feel a connection and common ground with a person who is Jewish, or a Yankee fan, or a woman, or a rabbi’s daughter, but that alone is seldom enough to inspire any kind of loyalty. I’m not gonna put myself out there for someone and do them any special favors just because of those things, if the person as a whole is not someone I find compelling. I don’t owe anyone anything just because they may belong to a community that I belong to. But for my friends, my real true friends, who are there for me and have established a reciprocal relationship? There’s very little I would not do, regardless of what community they may belong to.

 

Obviously I try to have a basic baseline of human decency with most people I meet, and I try to stand up for what I think is right/fight injustice on a situational basis as discussed in Part 1, but just as obviously, I’m not an unendingly generous person who will just give and give and give to anyone who needs regardless of who they are and how they treat me and what they mean to me. Just because we inhabit this world together or share some particular commonality does not put some cosmic, crushing responsibility on me for them, or on them for me. I don’t think that is a healthy way of thinking.

 

[Side note: I wrote this conflict into characters from the series of (mostly unpublished) novels I wrote in elementary school and high school — one of the characters, Jake, has a phenomenal range of superpowers, one of which is the power to heal others, and once he develops that one enough, he begins to feel that any time he spends sleeping, or eating, or talking to his girlfriend, is essentially causing other people to die, because he could be healing them. He internalizes that cosmic, crushing weight of responsibility to others, any others, to the point where his friends begin to conspire to somehow weaken his powers because the guilt is destroying him. Great power, great responsibility, etc. Yeah, that was the way High School Me grappled with this issue and the pressure to be a good person. Aaaaaangst.]

Self Portrait of High School SM

 

Nowadays, I rarely do things that are “good for the community” or “what the community wants/needs” if I do not also have enough personal reasons to do those things.

 

For instance, religious Jewry is a very small minority in the world, and is probably getting smaller. As a result, what is good for the community, and what is built into the cultural programming of most people in it, is that you should a) remain religious, b) marry someone religious or at least Jewish, c) have lots of Jewish babies.

 

I do not think that “because the community needs you to” is a good enough reason for any of those things. People should be able to remain religious because they want to, and stop being religious if they want to, and if a different religion speaks to them more, they should be free to go for that. And people should have children if they want children, and if they don’t want children, well, they probably shouldn’t be having them.

 

And this may be a controversial thing to say on a public blog, but I have zero philosophical/ideological problems with Jews dating and marrying non-Jews, because I don’t think anyone’s responsibility to the continuity of their community should supersede their own personal needs. If I were 1000% convinced that religious Judaism is the absolute best of all possibly ways of living and that bringing it closer to extinction is this horrible, unspeakable crime toward future generations and the world as a whole, then maybe I’d be sad about people intermarrying. But…I don’t think that. I think Judaism is certainly a valuable, valid, often excellent way of living, but so are lots of other ways. And yeah, I think it would be a shame if it died out completely, but I don’t think that putting that responsibility on any one person’s shoulders, at the cost of their personal happiness or fulfillment, is fair.

 

Again, personally, I keep many religious observances for various different reasons, as I’ve written about before. I also, after much consideration, decided that I am not willing to date non-Jews, not for ideological reasons, but rather for practical and emotional ones.

 

Practically speaking, I know it would alienate me from my community, my family, many of my friends, and even the possibility of being truly, madly, deeply in love does not make up that cost. And since I am not the sort of person who falls truly, madly, deeply in love without an intense period of dating, it’s unlikely I will form an emotional connection with a person who is not Jewish that is strong enough to make me want to date them and risk all the fallout.

 

Emotionally speaking . . . oy. So much of my fight for my identity and my life struggles are deeply tied to religious Judaism. And that’s a part of me that needs to be understood, and understood on the intuitive soul-deep level that only comes from having been through it yourself. I don’t need everything about me to be understood that way — I don’t need a partner to intuitively understand what it’s like to be from a big family, or what it’s like to want to be an automotive technician, or what it’s like to be a woman — but I need this, I need a partner who intuitively understands what Judaism has put me through. It’s like how some war veterans find it difficult to adjust back to relationships with civilians and only feel at home among their old army buddies. I’m not saying that my upbringing was the equivalent of a war, but it was an emotional pressure-cooker of an experience that’s difficult to convey to others who haven’t lived it. That’s also why I’m reluctant to date people who’ve never had their heart broken. I’m a snob like that.

 

Well, Elissa, I hope you got your money’s worth. I did not intend to write this much, but your topic gave me thinky thoughts.

 

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On Responsibility to the Community — Sexism, Intermarriage, and Other Fun Stuff (Part 1)

Commissioned post count: 2 out of 8 requests so far.

 

Elissa G. donated and requested that I write about my opinion on “an individual’s responsibility to his/her community. For example, a person may not commit “X” crime, but by not speaking up and being proactive to change things, that person may be silently contributing to an environment in which “X” crime is considered an accepted thing. What can/should an individual do to take responsibility for bad things in his/her environment? How far does the responsibility reach?”

 

She acknowledges that this is a seriously broad topic, but I’ve elected not to have her narrow it down so that I can just write whatever I want. And since this post got away from me a bit, it’s going to be a two-parter. Brace yourselves.

 

I’ve decided to start this impossibly broad discussion with 4 instances where I encountered sexism, to varying degrees, and did nothing about it. (I’m defining sexism here as roughly: “degrading or demeaning remarks and/or actions toward a woman or women that probably would not be said or done to men.” I am not addressing thoughts because I am not the thought police. Your thoughts are yours to deal with.)

 

Incident #1: Degree: pretty minor.

 

Dragon*Con. September 2013. Waiting in line to see George Takei speak. (I was number 976 on the line, fyi. And it’s not like there was no other major panel going on; I’m pretty sure William Shatner was speaking in the same time slot. He had a different line. The lines wrapped around several blocks, crossing each other a couple of times which was in no way confusing.)

 

As one is wont to do while waiting on an infinite line at Dragon*Con, I struck up a conversation with my line-neighbor. I don’t recall exactly what we talked about, aside from basic fandom affinities and speculation about his odd accent (he was from Georgia [the state, not the country] but his accent was a bizarre mix of US southern and some kind of British or possibly Australian and even he didn’t know where it came from). He was a big man, probably in his 40s and I was probably a head and shoulders shorter than him and maybe a third of his width, but he seemed perfectly nice and non-threatening, albeit not terribly well-educated despite the accent.

 

Anyway, at one point, he asked me what I was dressed as. For reference, here’s what I was wearing that day:

IMAG1817

(The shirt is blue, by the way. For some reason it looks black here. Oh well.)

 

I told him it wasn’t actually a costume; I’d just had a bunch of weddings to attend over the summer and bought a bunch of cheap ballgowny-type dresses and now was wearing them all in succession on the 4 days of Dragon*Con. Because as every Con-goer knows, even an unseasoned Con-goer such as myself, fandom is the only place where you never have to ask: “But when would I wear that?”

 

“But,” I added, “I figured that if anyone asked, I could just tell them I’m Inara from Firefly.”

 

“The whore!” he exclaimed.

 

“Companion,” I corrected, using the Firefly term for Inara’s job.

 

“The whore!” he repeated loudly, oblivious. “You’re the whore! I knew it! As soon you said you said you liked Joss Whedon shows, I was thinking, ‘She’s the whore!’”

 

I didn’t object again, or say anything about how “whore” is an extremely disrespectful and derogatory word (as is discussed within the show itself) and if he absolutely must, I’d prefer to be called “space prostitute” because SPAAAACE, and I didn’t say that using words like that to refer to people, fictional or otherwise, contributes to slut-shaming, also violence against sex workers, rape culture, etc etc. I knew that a) he didn’t mean it maliciously and b) someone who very loudly refers to a young woman as a whore in front of an infinite line of people is probably not self-aware enough to bother with nuances of word usage.

 

So I shrugged and changed the subject.

 

Incident #2: Degree: a bit worse, I think?

 

Brooklyn College Radio station. Sometime in 2013. Horsing around by the computer nook outside the sound studios with some of the other radio people, waiting for our turns to go on the air.

 

I confess, I don’t remember the conversation leading up to this at all, but there were three girls there, including me, and one guy. Everyone was bantering and joking around, and for some reason the guy returned a remark made by one of the girls with something like, “Oh, you know it, sugar-tits.”

 

The girl just kind of made an incredulous noise and said in disbelief, “Did you just call me sugar-tits?!

 

And the guy, who looked sort of embarrassed and was not quite looking her in the eye because even he knew that that kind of comment was not warranted in this semi-professional setting or in this totally non-sexual conversation, laughed and slapped his knee, “yeah, yeah, I did.”

 

And of course I knew that going off on some kind of feminist rant was absolutely not what the situation needed and would just make everybody involved even more uncomfortable, plus I was relatively new to the radio station and did not need to get a reputation as a humorless feminazi, plus the guy was higher on the authority totem pole than I was and was actually mostly responsible for me even interning on my show in the first place, so I just said, “Hey, if anybody’s the sugar-tits around here, it’s me.” Because, well, yeah. And if I couldn’t properly defend the other girl from that kind of attention (which was clearly uncomfortable for her even though she tried not to show it), at least I could take the focus off her and package it in a way that gave me some control over it. And thus began an argument between us girls wherein we debated who was the true sugar-tits in the room while the guy just sat there in his shame.

 

But no, I did not call him out on it.

 

Incident #3: Degree: A bit worse than #3, owing to slightly greater power imbalances and potential safety concerns.

 

Heading home the afternoon after enrolling in the automotive school you may have heard me talk about. May 2014. I was semi-lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood, trying to find the bus I needed to transfer to because holy moly are there a lot of buses in that area and none of them were mine.

 

Walking just ahead of me down a street lined with little shops was this tall, gorgeous African American girl. She was wearing high heels, blue ones with studs, the kind of shoes that look more like a sculpture or work of abstract art than actual functional shoes, but she was walking in them so they were clearly impressively functional.

 

Something like this. Except with little square studs.

 

They also caused her already impressively-shaped backside to jiggle quite noticeably as she walked, although it should be noted that that probably would have happened regardless of her shoes because anatomy + physics. None of her clothes were in the least suggestive, by the way — she was wearing a fairly high-necked white t-shirt and light blue skirt that went past her knees, but like I said, she was hot stuff and it looked great on her.

 

As we walked by, there were, of course, catcalls and wolf-whistles and “Would you look at THAT, I like THAT”s from the peanut gallery, by which I mean the boys on the street, and narcissist though I am, I knew that for once they weren’t catcalling me. It was broad daylight so nothing was going to happen beyond catcalling, but if the same thing had happened at night, yikes.

 

The girl didn’t even seem to notice or hear them at all, but once we were out of earshot, I felt compelled to say something dignity-affirming to her, something to make her feel like more than just a piece of meat. So I turned to her and said, “Those shoes are awesome,” because they were, and (tip to those who don’t know) complimenting a girl’s clothes or shoes isn’t usually objectifying because what you’re really complimenting is the fact that she has good taste.

 

“Thanks!” she said with a smile, and I grinned back, and, both of us smiling, we went our separate ways.

 

But no, I didn’t say a thing to those boys.

 

Incident #4: Degree: Depends who you ask.

 

Monsey. The weekend before a cousin’s wedding. About a month ago. We were visiting the very religious and somewhat isolated enclave where my cousins live. It was what we call an “aufruf,” a huge get-together of extended family and friends giving the groom one last send-off into married life.

 

My cousin, the groom, asked me to speak. I was shocked, because public speaking by women in front of men is not done in this community; women don’t even sit with men at the formal meals. Sometimes they even go so far as to have separate tables with a divider between the men’s section and the women’s section. This includes separation of husbands and wives as well as brothers and sisters, by the way. I had of course not prepared a speech, but the prospect of giving one was exciting and I felt honored.

 

But when I told my mother, she urged me not to speak, on the grounds that it would not be well-received by this particular community and would make them uncomfortable at having their accepted norms violated. I knew she was right, and rather than make a fuss, I told my cousin that I would write up a speech for him and post it on facebook for him. After all, it was their community that was welcoming us and their community’s hospitality that we were enjoying, and it would have been obnoxious to rock the boat and thumb my nose at their customs. Even though I strongly disagree with those customs and do think that they can ultimately be harmful to young girls and their self image, as well as the ways in which they relate to men and men relate to them. That was not the place to get up on a soapbox and make a nuisance of myself. No one would have listened, anyway.

 

[Postscript: We wound up hosting one of the post-wedding celebration meals at my house, where men and women sat together, and I spoke there. The speech was very well-received; it got a lot of laughs and several people came up to me afterward to tell me what a great speech it was. Huzzah!]

 

*

 

My point in giving you all these stories is simply this: Standing up for what you believe is right is complicated.

 

There is no blueprint on how and when to do it. Every situation is different, with its own unique set of calculations. There are concerns involving safety, practicality, receptiveness of the listeners, and so on. Often you have to decide whether it’s worth it to stand up for something on principle, or if you should choose your battles carefully and pick spots where your standing up will actually have a chance at having an impact. If you go full throttle on every little thing, no one takes you seriously.

 

This is an issue with Jezebel — while I applaud many of their efforts to point out sexism and social injustice and often agree with them, and I am absolutely glad that someone is doing that, I also know that many people tune them out because they’ve become white noise, blaring at a constant volume. So I don’t have to be Jezebel; I try to add a different voice and not take vocal umbrage at all injustice. Because hey, the world is full of injustice and being upset about all of it all the time is just too much, and I don’t think that anyone should feel responsible for doing that or for fixing all of it.

 

You do the best you can and don’t beat yourself up for not doing more. That’s all I got.

 

There are other aspects of communal responsibility that I want to talk about, but they will have to wait until Part 2.

 

____

 

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A Much Too Personal Movie Review of the First Ten Minutes of “Fill the Void”

 

“Are – are you going to be all right?”

“You mean, like, ever?”

My date chuckles halfheartedly. “Well, at the very least, ever. But I meant more like, by the time you go to sleep tonight?”

I inhale shakily. Everything under my skin is still vibrating — not in the sexy-clichéd-romance-novel kind of way; in the stitched-together-ripping-apart kind of way. My stomach gives an ominous residual lurch. “I honestly don’t know.”

We’re sitting on a bench outside the Lincoln Center movie theater at dusk on a Sunday evening. The paths and other benches around the fountains and mini waterfalls are relatively deserted. It’s quiet, or maybe just quiet for New York City. My quiet barometers are probably not working terribly well, though.

 

*

 

I’m hesitant to call my reaction to the first ten or fifteen minutes of the indie drama “Fill the Void” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2219514/) a panic attack, not because I’m concerned about the stigma that might come with a loaded phrase like that, but because I don’t think the symptoms fit and I don’t want to belittle the severity of people’s actual panic attacks when my experience was probably a lot milder by comparison. No heart palpitations, no inability to breathe, no paralysis of thought, no actual panic or fear.

Just wave after wave of nausea sliming my insides, coating my throat, making it spasm. Shakes. Dizziness. Surges of heat under my skin that vanish, leaving me shivery.

It wasn’t pleasant, I’ll say that.

But if it had been a full-fledged panic attack, I don’t know that after rushing out of the movie, locking myself in a bathroom stall, crashing down on the toilet, trying not to hunch over lest I make the nausea worse, I would have been able to scoop up my phone and send a coherent, properly-spelled text to my very worried date:

“I think it’s a combination of physical and mental. That movie has a lot of emotional triggers for me, I didn’t realize – marriage, religion, claustrophobic/repressive culture . . . all hit me really hard.”

 

*

 

I should point out that we didn’t even get to the major plot development listed in the film’s summary: “A devout 18-year-old Israeli is pressured to marry the husband of her late sister” — my reaction was triggered solely from the film’s highly effective handful of setup scenes before the major crisis is even introduced.

I want to clarify that (a) every one of these scenes is brilliantly conceived and executed, and (b) they constitute my own personal horror show. I’m aware that the rest of the movie was probably a very good negation of the awfulness of these opening scenes, but we didn’t get that far. I should also clarify that I am not Hasidic, although my paternal grandfather was and some of my cousins are, and some of them are Yeshivish, which is also a very insular community with some fairly extreme marriage practices.

 

Sample scene: Young Hasidic girl in the supermarket with her mother. They’re both pretending to shop but really trying to get a look at the guy the girl has been betrothed to but never met. They can’t seem to find him, so they call someone, and are immediately told, “He’s in aisle 5.” (Or, “he’s in the produce section” – I don’t remember exactly.) They find him soon after and gawk from a distance. He looks singularly unimpressive: not particularly well-groomed or dressed, uninspired posture. Basically more or less like every other Hasidic male in the movie thus far. The girl does not seem bothered.

Two triggers in this scene: (1) The idea of marrying a total stranger, and (2) the fact that it’s not just one person presenting this as the norm but rather an entire network of people in this girl’s life (as evidenced by the phone call). I find these two things deeply, deeply horrific — tethering your entire life to someone you don’t know, and being told on all sides that this is the only option, and this is simply how it’s done, and having been kept naïve and sheltered enough not to question it.

I would love to say that this is foreign to me and I can’t imagine it ever happening to me or anyone else, but that would be a lie, for reasons brought out further in the next scene I’ll discuss, and because I know that dating before getting engaged in the circles I live in goes at a brisk pace. My Yeshivish cousins date for 2 or 3 weeks, generally, before the engagement. In my own, non-Yeshivish circles, 3 to 6 months is often fairly standard. Ten months to a year is an eternity, and very rare, unless the relationship began as high school sweethearts, in which case waiting longer was legally mandatory. Is 3 months enough time to get to know someone? Maybe. Maybe not. Everyone’s in such a rush to pair up for life that even I can’t help but feel the marriage pressure from the second I start dating someone new. I feel it much less when I’m not seeing anyone, and that’s an enormous incentive for me to never date. I’d much rather be single forever than get too involved with the wrong person just because of outside pressure. But obviously playing it safe because of pressure is just another way of letting yourself be pressured.

 

Sample scene: It’s the holiday of Purim, and at the Purim feast, the Rabbi is doling out charity money to those who ask. One man asks for money because, “My wife is mentally ill. I didn’t know that when I married her.” The rabbi gives him money, and when he protests that it’s not enough, he’s told whom to go to for more.

Triggers: (1) example of results of marrying a total stranger, (2) I have a Hasidic cousin who married a girl, had a child with her, and only then found out she was mentally ill because she stopped taking her medication. Her family had kept her condition under wraps, knowing full well that they were duping her husband. As far as I know, the custody battle is still going on, but nobody talks about it because it’s all so very scandalous and shameful and would force people to confront realities in their community that they don’t want to confront. (3) It’s all well and good that the man in the movie is receiving charity from the community to help him with this awful situation, but that’s a band-aid, and nothing is ever going to be said about the underlying cause: DON’T MARRY STRANGERS.

 

Sample scene: The girl’s pregnant sister talks briefly with her husband. Purim is the holiday of getting publicly wasted, and the sister immediately knows that her husband is drunk because he starts saying affectionate things to her. If he were sober, he’d never say a thing like, “I love you.” She says with a smile, “You’re drunk,” somehow manages convey an eye-roll without actually rolling her eyes, and walks away.

Trigger: THAT WHOLE THING. I have recently developed a personal, visceral fear of settling for a relationship where my partner is incapable of paying me a compliment. There are some people who, well, getting a compliment from them is like wrenching it out with pliers. I may have dated someone like that. I have also dated someone who is the exact opposite and I can’t imagine going back from that. But I have this way of listening to those voices in my head that say, “Come on, you can’t expect everyone to be so open about their thoughts and so willing to say nice things. People just aren’t conditioned that way. Especially men, sad as that is.” Just because they don’t say it doesn’t mean they don’t think it — if I got them drunk, maybe all that nice stuff would come pouring out. But maybe not. And I would hate to have a relationship like that.

 

*

 

I understand that when you’re a small minority group, you need to have an emphasis on marriage and children or else you’ll die off. But there has to be a better way.

I could easily have been born into that community. A little to the right on my family tree, and poof!

I wouldn’t have lasted. While I was watching, I felt like I was seeing a life that could have been mine, and I don’t think I would have survived it. I was the kind of kid who pitched a fit when my mom wanted all us kids to wear cute matching outfits. I can’t stand sameness. I can’t stand restrictions on my individuality. It makes me want to tear my skin off. I feel very sure that if I were indeed a part of that type of community, I would not have lived to be as old as I am now. I feel very sure that I’d have done something drastic to get out of it.

Ten minutes of that movie. Jeez.

 

 

 

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