Archive for the Rants Category

The Deafening Roar of Absence: Why Your Show Needs Designers

Posted in Rants, Theatricality with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2016 by KarenElizabeth


I’m working on a show right now that has no sound designer.

In fact, it doesn’t have much design at all.  The company decided to cut corners on the cost of designers, and we ended up with only two, splitting all of the various departments (lighting, video projections, costumes, props, and set) between them.  Sound got left out, somehow.  The director provided mp3s for a few specific moments in the show, and then was surprised when they sounded compressed-to-hell played over the big sound system (’cause an ipod with cheap earbuds doesn’t give enough depth of sound for you to tell that this music sounds like hissy, flattened crap).  But at least, for all that the costumes got delivered last minute and don’t all fit, for all that there are parts of the set that never got painted, for all that the lighting look for the show is too damn dark, there’s at least someone who’s supposed to be responsible for it.

The sound of this show was cruelly orphaned, and the absence of a carefully curated soundtrack is like an anchor tied around the show’s skinny neck, dragging it down and making it impossible for it to fly.  As a mere hired technician, brought in during the final few days before opening just to press buttons and do what the company says, I sit there listening, every time, for something that isn’t there.  Something that can’t be there, because no one conceived of its necessity.  It’s a problem I can’t fix, because it’s not my job, but it’s no one’s job, and that’s devastating.


I can’t even count how many times I’ve been in early-planning meetings and someone — a director, perhaps, or a producer; someone who doesn’t design and doesn’t know how to — says the fateful words, “I’m not really sure if we need a designer for this”.  Whatever department they’re talking about, it’s a moment when every technician and designer cringes.


“But there’s only one sound mentioned in the script; I’m sure someone can find us a telephone ring”.

“But I already know what I want for the set; we can just bring my couch from home”.

“We really only need two lighting washes, and our stage manager knows how to run a lighting board”.

“The actors can just bring their own clothes from home, and we’ll pick out their costumes from that.  If anything’s missing we’ll go to Value Village”.


It is at this point when any designer, technician, technical director, production manager, or literally any sane person in the room should say “NO!”  Say it quickly, before anyone can even begin to consider this horrible idea of not having designers for every department.  Say it loudly, and in a tone of horror, because no one should ever be considering giving in to this temptation to attempt to do it themselves.

I promise you, the audience WILL know the difference.  They might not know exactly what was wrong with the show — might not be able to put their finger on that feeling of unease — but they’ll feel it.  Deep down they will sense that there’s something wrong with this show; something incomplete, perhaps.  Something amateurish.  Something that could have been better, but then wasn’t; like a parade that happened two streets over while you waited for it to pass at the wrong intersection.


In the case of the particular show that I’m working on, the director wanted lots of silence.  The show is Modern, surreal, industrial, and bleak:  there are long, pregnant pauses and strange moments of dark emptiness.  But silence, in a theatre, isn’t truly silent.  Having nothing is distracting; it feels incomplete.  Much like an “empty” stage still has its architectural structure, its walls, its black curtains concealing the backstage, and the line dividing audience and actors (sometimes deliberately crossed, but always, unremittingly present), stage-silence isn’t, truly, silent.  The audience rustles, coughs, and breathes.  A set piece squeaks as it’s moved into place.  The lighting instruments whir and hum, and the lighting board clicks as the technician presses “GO”.  Actors’ footsteps tap across the stage floor and doors are opened and closed in distant, backstage hallways.  Cars go by on the street outside and the wind moves its way around the building, rattling shutters and whistling through gaps.

Like the architecture that surrounds the stage, the edges of the beams of light, the black curtains that conceal the stage doors, or a coat of paint that makes a plywood table look mahogany, a good sound design wraps the space of the play in a barely-perceptible blanket, muffling reality and subtly shaping the world in which the audience’s disbelief is suspended.  A proper “silence” forms the background noise that gives any space its texture; the white noise that underscores every place and time with its constant, barely-noticeable presence.  The dream in the forest is gently supported by the sound of wind, rustling through high-up leaves.  The tower is made darker by the hollow, echoing sound of its stones.  The mysterious cave reminds you of its proximity to the sea by the distant crashing of waves at its entrance.  The solicitor’s office contains the rustling of paper and the distant clicking of typewriter keys, or the murmur of voices from another room.  All of these various white noises tell us where we are, registering at the back of our minds and then fading beneath the actions of the plot and the words of the dialogue.  They keep us in the space, our disbelief suspended.  The scraping of a chair, the sound of a car outside, someone answering a phone call in the lobby — these things drop us back into reality, reminding us that we’re sitting in a theatre in Toronto in 2016, not on a French shore in 1943, or on a castle wall in medieval Denmark, or in a warm Freudian womb.

A sound designer would have watched a rehearsal of this show and come back with a two hour soundtrack of the various white noises required for each scene.  They would have shaped the audience’s expectations and experiences from the moment they walked into the space with a carefully chosen pre-show playlist, had them discussing among themselves at intermission with further music, and leaving in the right frame of mind at the end with post-show sounds.  They would have masked the creaks and groans of the building, the footsteps of actors, the shuffles of coats, and replaced them with gentle sounds that creep in at the edge of your awareness and are then accepted by the mind and mostly forgotten — but not quite.  They would have wrapped the show in a blanket; sometimes comforting, sometimes scratchy, but always enclosing the space and the dream of the play, and keeping the monsters of reality at bay.

When designers and technicians do their jobs right, you rarely notice that they did much at all.  But you can feel it — or the absence of it — like a joy, or like a weight, or like a blanket of emotions.  Not having a designer is like going to the seaside on a day when the water is perfectly, eerily calm, and having your brain cry out for the lack of waves.

I happen to come from a school of design that was all-encompassing in its scope.  When I design shows, I think not just about how it looks and how it sounds, but how it feels, and tastes, and smells.  What is the temperature in the room?  How do the seats feel?  Is there a scent to the building (and do we want to bring in air fresheners, or pine shavings, or dryer sheets, or stale beer?).  Should we have fans blowing air across the audience’s faces?  I want people to move through the lobby in specific ways, and see things on the way to their seats.  I want to serve snacks so that they all have salt in their mouths and feel the thirst of the characters.  I consider where the theatre is — what city, what street?  Who lives here?  What will the audience have passed on their way to the theatre?  What experiences will have shaped their landing here, in these seats, and how can I harness that?  That is the designer’s job.  The playwright gives you the words.  The director gives you the movements.  The producer gives you the audience, and the actors give you the raw materials.  But the designers give you the space and time and world for all of that to live and play within.

The denizens of that world, then, thank you in advance for always hiring designers, and not falling into the trap of thinking that you can do it yourself.  Because while you might know very well what you want, it’s unlikely that you’ve thought of all the other stuff that’s going to muck it up.

with all appropriate credit to Steve Younkins at

with all appropriate credit to Steve Younkins at

Please, for the love of all the theatre gods, hire designers.

Telling Strangers to Smile, and Other Patriarchal Entitlement

Posted in Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2014 by KarenElizabeth

“Hey, I like your hair!”


I was halfway through opening my mouth to say a quick “thanx” , when the second half of the statement hit me like a slap across the face:


“But you dropped your smile!”


Now, as a young female-bodied person in a city like Toronto, I’m no stranger to street harassment.  It’s rare that I can be out walking, shopping, etc. for more than a few minutes without someone shouting a catcall or honking a horn or making an unsolicited comment on my appearance.  And most of it rolls right off my back — in the 5 years I’ve been living in this city, I’ve developed a thousand-mile stare, resting bitch face, and a purposeful stride when walking anywhere.  I’ve learned to put up the armor, to keep going and ignore, to be ready to run or to fight if they pursue me.  I’ve learned how to identify which people are just harmlessly creepy, and which are more likely to be genuine threats:  the kind that reach in for a grope, or start following you when you don’t respond to their advances.



This particular time, though, I was truly caught off-guard.  I was in a neighborhood where I generally feel fairly “safe” — Church and Wellesley, right in the middle of the gay village, where the street harassment that I witness is usually male-on-male (and yeah, it’s uncomfortable, but at least it’s not directed at me).  The person talking at me was female.  And she was carrying a binder.  She was out campaigning for pledges for Plan Canada’s “Because I am a Girl” campaign, and that was what stopped me dead in my tracks, mouth open, not even knowing how to begin to respond.  I actually took a few steps away before turning around and confronting her.


“No, you know what?  You don’t get to say that to me.  That is fucking sexist, and it is bullshit.  You don’t own my body”.  She stammered a protest, tried to claim that she hadn’t said anything wrong, but I was already spinning on my heel to walk away — moving faster, bitch-face firmly in place, practically fuming that an ostensibly feminist organization couldn’t even be bothered to give their canvassers some simple sensitivity training about how to correctly approach a person cold.


Why You Should Never Tell a Person — Especially a Female-Bodied Person — to Smile

What it comes down to, mostly, is the simple fact that a stranger does not owe you anything.  If they’re a service-industry person and you’re their customer, fine, they might be expected to appear pleasant and pleasing to you (and you might be justified in knocking a percentage or two off the tip for surly, unsmiling service).  Human resources might back you up when you complain about that coworker who’s never happy. And if a friend or family member is looking unsmiling and dour, you’re probably justified in asking them what’s going on.  But with a stranger?

You don’t know what their day has been like.  You don’t know what’s on their mind.  Maybe they just got dumped, their dog just died, they’ve got a major deadline coming up at work and are stressed and overtired — or maybe some other asshole just said something awful to them not ten seconds ago.  Maybe they’re going home to a sick child, or fighting to keep from being evicted, or running late, or they just threw their seven-dollar latte in the trash because the barista screwed up and made it with soy milk.  Or maybe, just maybe, the expression on their face has to do with absolutely anything in the world that isn’t you.  Maybe they’re lost in thought, and it isn’t a frown, just a pensive non-smile.  Or maybe they’ve been warned not to smile at strangers (especially strange men), because then they might be thought to be “asking for it” (whatever “it” is).

Women, especially, spend a lot of our time being told (by the media, by peers, etc), that our bodies are not our own.  Ongoing debates about topics such as abortion, the definition of “rape” (especially as it pertains to “marital rape” and “coercive rape”), access to contraception, etc., frame women’s bodies as something of a sociopolitical object, not a person.  Puritanical attitudes towards sex place women as “gatekeepers” of sexual and sensual pleasure, foisting the responsibility  for others’ misbehaviour onto us in a sort of paternalistic “well you should have known better” and “boys will be boys” shrugging-off of the realities of the world.  And yet, simultaneously, we are expected to be miraculously young-and-beautiful (via cosmetics, surgeries, whatever), eternally thin, eternally sexually appealing, because to not conform to society’s standards of feminine beauty is to appear “slovenly” and “uncaring” and “unprofessional”.  Displays of negative emotion are seen as either weak or threatening (or sometimes both), and yet being stoic  and self-contained is “unnatural” or unfeminine (and, again, may well be taken as a threat).  Every decision that we take with our appearance is a catch-22 of some sort, and will likely be questioned and criticized by many people.


So when you tell a female-bodied person to “smile, sweetheart”, or that her face would look better with a smile on it, or that she shouldn’t forget her smile, or whatever else — you’re playing in to that patriarchal concept that women’s bodies are not our own, but rather public property, useful only to please others.  Telling anyone to smile for you is entitled, but cultural context makes this even more true when that person is a woman.


Why it is Threatening (and what you should do about that)

Of course, the reasons why street harassment is shitty don’t end with simple objectification and entitlement. There’s the threat element, too. Not every instance of street harassment is a red-alert, fight-or-flight sort of situation — in the case of the stupid Church Street girl with her binder and her lack of training, I certainly didn’t feel like I was in any danger. It was daylight, a busy street, a relatively safe neighborhood, and she was just one person, not much taller than me. It was unlikely in the extreme that she was carrying a concealed weapon, or going to jump me when I turned my back. But the majority of street harassment isn’t quite so benign. It only takes one instance of getting groped on the subway, or followed home late at night, or having objects thrown at you, to plant the seed of fear & have you questioning your safety every time someone makes eye contact or steps into your personal bubble. And we spend a lot of time getting warned to not get ourselves raped — whenever an attack is in the news, a woman is questioned for what she was wearing, why she was alone, why she was in that neighborhood, why she didn’t call for help or fight harder to escape or have the presence of mind to have not been born with a vagina. So we are constantly questioning, constantly worrying, wondering if letting our guard down for even a moment will be the time that we made a mistake & get assaulted or raped or killed as a consequence.

And it really doesn’t matter that 99% of the time, it isn’t a threat. The vast majority of the time, the person approaching you with a leer or a whistle or an unsolicited comment or a demand for a smile is going to just walk away (perhaps after hurling an insult at you for daring to snub their advances — “stuck up bitch”, or “fuck you, you’re ugly anyway”, or something of that ilk is fairly common). Those few times when it IS a threat, we need to be on guard and ready to act — to run, to scream, to fight, whatever is necessary to protect ourselves, because if we don’t put up enough of a fight, the law won’t defend us nor punish our attackers.  If we’re not ready to claw the fucker’s eyes out while screaming RAPE at the top of our lungs, we were clearly “asking for it”, and it wasn’t “legitimate rape“.

This is all, of course, a symptom of a much larger problem –again, cultural context means everything. If victims were better protected by the legal system, we wouldn’t have to rely so much on our own physical ability to defend ourselves. If criminals were punished more effectively, there would be fewer willing to commit the crimes in the first place. And if people were taught to not commit rape, instead of being taught to not GET raped, we might have different social norms to work with, here. But until we see wide, systemic change, every approach must be treated as a threat — because if it isn’t, you were “asking for it”.



There’s been quite a bit of attention paid, in recent years, to the Hollaback movement. Basically, it encourages victims and witnesses of street harassment to do exactly what I did: call them out on it.

While I think that the general idea has some merit, it’s not really the solution. As anyone who experiences regular street harassment can tell you, engaging them usually only serves to make it worse. People are, as a rule, usually unwilling to admit wrongdoing, even when directly confronted. They’re more likely to react with aggression to what they perceive as an attack on them. So in many cases (the already threatening cases, as outlined above), being able to “hollaback” at someone who has just threatened you takes real courage, and a willingness to fight or run like hell should things go south.

And Hollaback does, unfortunately, put too much onus on the victim to save themselves. While the campaign encourages people who are merely witnesses or bystanders to speak up as well, it is largely aimed at the people (women, people of colour, and other visible minorities) who are already being oppressed and attacked. It’s an imperfect, band-aid solution at best. Worth drawing attention to, though, because in cases where it IS safe to do so, calling people out (whether in the moment, or after the fact via means such as social media, blogging about it, postering areas where street harassment habitually occurs, etc) draws attention to the issue and hopefully encourages & supports other who are experiencing the same sort of attacks.


Of course, as critical as I am of Hollaback’s effectiveness, I’m not sure if we have any better solutions right now.

Social change is a long, convoluted, difficult, painful process. I don’t really expect that I will ever, in my lifetime, see a world where women in densely populated urban areas are truly free to go about our days. But I do hope that it will get at least a little bit better. Getting street harassed by a supposedly-feminist canvasser was a pretty low point, I think, and the world needs, absolutely NEEDS, to be better than this.

For the moment, pleasant fantasies will have to do.


Why Saying “I’m Not a Feminist” is NEVER an Okay Thing To Do

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2014 by KarenElizabeth

There are a lot of misconceptions about feminism in the world.

There are many different reasons for this, of course.  Feminism is a complicated topic.  It’s hard to look at approximately 50% of the world’s population — women of all races, all nationalities, all ages, all sexual orientations, all income brackets, all political affiliations, all education levels, etc — and define a simple, clear message that everyone can agree upon.  Especially since the advent of 3rd wave feminism, there are countless splinter and “niche” groups working under the greater feminist umbrella, and often working directly at cross-purposes to one another, or talking about completely different topics.  In an age where information is readily accessed with the click of a mouse, we’re faced with an overwhelming glut of information regarding feminism, and very little of it is concise or clear or speaks with a single voice representing all of us.

But when it’s stripped back to the bare essentials, feminism *does* have one simple, easily expressed goal:  gender equality, and the elimination of sexism.  We disagree (sometimes vehemently) on how best to *achieve* that goal, of course, but the goal remains the same for all.  And when you strip it back to that — when you say, “gender equality” instead of “feminism” — there are very few people who’ll argue against it.

And this is why the way we express ourselves about feminism, and the way we self-identify, needs to see some serious change.

If you believe that sexism is a bad thing, and that a person’s gender does not determine their worth, then you’re a feminist.  You may not agree with *every* feminist group (no one does — there are simply too many of them out there) — but you’re a feminist, of some description.  That’s all there is to it.  Saying “I’m not a feminist”, then, is a lie — and worse, it’s hurting feminists (and people) everywhere.

When most people say “I’m not a feminist”, it’s because they’re misguided about what feminism means.  They’ve bought in to a harmful stereotype — the man-hating, (often) lesbian, radical feminist who burns bras, thinks men should be slaves, and considers all penetrative sex to be rape.  This is a stereotype that was created by (and has been largely perpetuated by) the oppressing class, as a way of discrediting the perfectly logical claim that women are people and should be treated as such.  It’s a caricature, designed to make feminists look laughable and ridiculous and unfeminine, and unsexy, and unlovable, and criminal.  So when you characterize all feminists this way, it’s no different than characterizing all Scots as “cheap”, or all Irishmen as “drunks”.  You’re buying in to a bigoted stereotype, rather than learning about the individual people.

And when you buy in to that bigoted stereotype, and say “I’m not a feminist”, you’re also lumping yourself in with the people who actually ARE bigots.  You’re aligning yourself with the people who believe that women’s rights should be taken away so we can go back to the “good old days”.  You’re aligning yourself with sexual predators and rapists who don’t want their victims to have rights or be treated as people.  You’re aligning yourself with the Taliban who shot Malala Yousafzai in the head for wanting an education.

Do you really want to be on the same side as those people?

I’m not saying that you should blindly help any cause that identifies itself as “feminist”.  There’s no “supreme guiding council of feminist elders”, and no peer-review process, to determine the validity of any particular group’s claim to feminism.  There are plenty of self-identified “feminist” groups out there who have views that may not, in fact, be particularly helpful ones.  There are radfem groups who call themselves feminist but believe in the subjugation of men (I happen to strongly dispute their use of the term “feminist”, since by definition any group that advocates sexism is not, in fact, feminist — but that’s an issue that’s still considered up for debate in the broader feminist community).  There are feminist groups who are anti-choice, or who align themselves with religious organizations, or who are sex-worker exclusionary, or trans-exclusionary, or classist/racist/etc in their aims, and I disagree vehemently with all of those things.  And there are many feminist groups advocating for very specific, niche causes that may or may not be relevant to a particular person’s life — for example, a group dedicated to eliminating sexism in the medical profession might have a very good point, but not be relevant to me personally, as I’m an arts worker, not a doctor (dammit, Jim!).  So just calling yourself “feminist” doesn’t make you right, and it’s still important to research the motivations and background of any group you’re looking to join up with or support.

One of the biggest groups who commonly say “I’m not a feminist” are, unfortunately, men.  They’ll say, “I believe in women’s rights and equality, but I can’t be a feminist ’cause I’m a guy”.  And that’s just ridiculously misguided.  Not only is it perfectly possible for a guy to believe in gender equality (thus making him a feminist), it’s supremely important for people who are NOT women, who are NOT a part of the oppressed class, to take up the banner of feminism and make a conscious choice to support feminist aims.  Because it’s the oppressing class (in this case, males) who has the majority of the power — and thus, it’s males who have the most power to change things.  It’s been proven time and again that it’s easier for men (and especially white men) to get top positions at most jobs — they’re the bosses, the ones in charge of salaries, the ones in charge of hiring, and the ones in charge of policy.  They’re the majority of the politicians.  They’re the educators at universities.  They’re the police and the lawyers and the judges who enforce and influence the laws.  So if they’re working with feminist aims in mind (ie, a CEO who implements fair hiring policies, or a politician who fights for women’s reproductive rights), they’re in a position to do much more to help the cause than almost anyone else would be capable of.  They’re the ones who, by and large, have the ability to tip the scales and start the workings of a fair society.

Another group that commonly denies feminism is people of colour.  This is a more problematic issue — people of colour are already a part of an oppressed class, whether they are female or male or anything in-between.  They’re already fighting for fair wages, fair representation, and fair application of the law.  And many feminist groups are, unfortunately, very whitewashed.  Because it’s white people who have traditionally had more education & wealth, it’s white women who largely spearheaded the early feminist movements, and it’s white women who have remained at the forefront.  Many feminist groups are blatantly racist (or at least racially insensitive), and when you bring religion into the equation (people of colour are traditionally more attached to their faith, for a variety of reasons not worth going into here), it gets even more difficult — many feminist groups actively attack religious organizations, without regard to the people who worship that particular god, and this can be a massive turn-off for otherwise pro-gender-equality types.  And because feminism has historically been white, it’s difficult for people of colour to break that barrier — too many, already exhausted from spending a lifetime being oppressed for the colour of their skin, walk into a feminist meeting only to see a sea of white faces and no one who looks remotely like themselves, and they feel automatically excluded.  It’s hard to blame people for feeling that way.  In the end, though, we’ll never be able to make feminism more POC-friendly without having some people of colour standing in those rooms.  Some are going to have to break down those barriers, and walk into those rooms full of white faces, and decide they’re going to stay.  And those of us who *are* white need to recognize this difficulty, and welcome such people with open arms, so that more of them will feel comfortable saying “I’m a feminist”.

What I find, personally, the most painful, are those women who believe that identifying as feminist will make them seem unattractive.  They’re victims of fear — fear of being hated, fear of being spurned, fear of being alone.  These are the people who media depictions of feminists are directly attacking, and directly oppressing.  I just want to take those women and say, “It’s okay! What they said on TV was a lie — you can be a feminist and still be beautiful, and feminine, and a stay-at-home-mom, and people will still love you”.  And they tell me that they’re “not as strong” as I am, or that they “don’t belong”.  And that’s so wrong, because you don’t have to be an exception — or an exceptional person — to be a feminist.  You just have to believe in equality.

In most media depictions, it’s the loudest and most strident voices who get the most airtime.  These are the people who are easy to pick out of a crowd, and they give entertainment and good sound bites.  They’re also the people who are easiest to ridicule and discredit.  So we need more of the “normal” people, the ones with perfectly rational and moderate views (the ones that the majority of us espouse) to stand up and say clearly, “I’m a feminist”.  We need to drown out those radical voices, and get voices of reason to be standing at the forefront.  Because until we can “normalize” feminism, it’s never going to be fully successful.

And it really should be perfectly “normal” to believe that all people should have equal rights, right?

Taking Ownership of Public Spaces

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

Today I went out to get a coffee, just to get myself out of the house for a short while.  I’d been doing work around the house all day and was beginning to feel cooped up, and figured that a ten-minute walk to the end of the street and back (and the small amount of social interaction involved in buying a drink) would do me some good.  Since I live with an anxiety disorder that often manifests itself as agoraphobia, little trips out into public space are an important thing for me.


Because I suffer from these bouts of agoraphobia (fear of or anxiety regarding open spaces and social situations, often manifesting as an inability to leave the house), I’m a person who is very aware of the divides between private, public, and semi-private spaces.  I’m very protective of my own private space, and guarded when entering public spaces.  When in public or in others’ private spaces, I am very aware of the etiquette surrounding these spaces and make a conscious effort to be “proper”.  It can, therefore, be incredibly difficult for me to deal with anyone who I see as being “improper”.

Mr RudeThere are a lot of people, though, who don’t seem to have an understanding of where it is, and isn’t, polite to do certain things, and on my trip out of the house today I encountered one of these individuals.  As I entered the coffee shop and got in line, I could hear someone talking very loudly.  Almost yelling, in fact.  Their voice filled the entire coffee shop, like an actor projecting to reach the cheap seats at the back of the theatre.  I looked around, half expecting to see someone talking on a cell phone, oblivious to their surroundings.  We’re all familiar with this particular brand of rude person:  instead of stepping outside to get better reception, they yell their half of a one-sided conversation at top volume (often punctuated with a lot of, “sorry, could you repeat that?  Bad reception in here”).

What I saw, though, was something that I had never encountered before:  a whole new brand of rude human being.  Two women, sitting with their small children, and one of the women was reading what appeared to be a bedtime story (something vaguely racist about the difference between Italian and Chinese noodle dishes and kids being turned into pasta via magical accident).  At top volume.  Their bags, coats, and other belongings were spread out across two tables and spilling onto the floor.  One of the kids was running around and not listening to the story.  And they were being glared at (and commented on) by almost every customer in the place.

Of course a restaurant is not, strictly speaking, public space.  It is owned by someone (in this case, the owner of that particular Tim Horton’s location), and they are free to set their own rules regarding what is accepted and what is not.  The fact that no employees seemed to be bothered by this woman’s display made me timid, and I felt like I couldn’t approach them and ask them to be quieter.  I simply took my drink “to go”, and left the rudeness behind.  Still, a restaurant dining room is only semi-private, with the general public being invited to come and go and to use the space in a variety of ways.  Despite it belonging to someone else, I can’t help but think of that Tim Horton’s as “my” Timmies, as I’ve visited it several times a week for over three years now.

As I walked home, iced coffee in hand, I reflected on the fact that these rude customers obviously considered this Timmies “theirs” just as much as I considered it “mine”.  They felt entitled to use the space for their loud reading, and to take up multiple tables in an almost full coffee shop, just as they would in their own private space.

This got me to thinking about how we all take ownership of certain public and semi-private spaces.  We have “our” neighborhoods, “our” parks, “our” restaurants, and bars, and favourite places to hang out.  We feel safe in these places, and the people we share them with form a community, even if we’ve got nothing else in common.  We feel personally violated when we hear about a robbery at “our” convenience store, or vandalism at “our” park, or violence in “our” city.  We band together to support “our” community theatre, or to restore “our” historical monument.  Especially for someone like me, having public spaces that are safe and familiar is very important, because it makes it easier to get myself out of the house and not be such an agoraphobic turtle.  But communities are important to us all, because they form one of the foundational elements of a society.

It’s hard to define at what point that sense of ownership goes from being positive and community-building, to being entitled and hurtful.  Anything which denies others their enjoyment of a space could probably be considered negative — but even that isn’t a hard-and-fast line.  Protests, for example, tend to happen in public space, and are often an impediment to the daily lives of people who use those spaces, but nonviolent protest is a basic human right and can be an agent for incredibly positive change (note that I only say “can be” — there are some protests that cross the line into entitled abuse of space, such as the Occupy Toronto campers who heavily damaged a public green space with their actions … one of those times where I agree with a group in spirit, but not in methodology).  Art, too, can blur the lines between building and destroying:  a piece of graffiti may be considered vandalism by some, art by others, while a guerrilla theatre performance may be enjoyed by some, but seen as threatening or a nuisance by others.  We as artists have to be aware of the multiple lenses through which our work may be viewed, and try to limit the negative, or else we risk alienating our audiences.  And yet, not all “great” art is comfortable and friendly.  Sometimes alienation is all a part of the message.

Another troubling side to the ownership of public spaces can be seen in this theory of why many mass-murderers are privileged white men.  The general idea is that public mass murders are most likely to be committed by those who believe that the public space belongs to them.  To quote from the article:

For white male murderers from “nice” families, the fact that they chose public spaces like schools, university campuses, or movie theaters as their targets suggests that they saw these places as legitimately theirs.

The suggestion here is that when we decide that a space is our own, we may begin to lose track of what it is “proper” to do in that space.  We may abuse resources, take up too much space, or just talk too loudly, ultimately denying others their enjoyment of what should be shared.

I think that this is one of those situations where a greater awareness of the problem is likely to solve it entirely.  If we are all more aware of the people around us, we’re less likely to abuse the public and semi-private spaces that we share.  If we all make an effort to ensure that our sense of ownership does not become a sense of entitlement, we’ll build strong communities on the foundation of these shared public spaces.

I kind of wish that I’d said something to the loud-reading woman and her table.  A simple, polite, “Could you please keep it down?  Others are trying to enjoy the space.”  But I’m not very good at approaching strangers, so I just took my coffee and ran away.  I sacrificed “my” coffee shop, if only temporarily.  And I’m a bit annoyed at myself for that, because my community (and my sense of belonging within it) is important to me.

What is “Real Beauty”, Anyway?

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

My social media network has been alive, these past few days, with two things:  the Boston Marathon Explosions, and Dove’s latest advertising campaign.

There’s not much I can say about Boston that hasn’t already been said.  It horrifies me that people can plan & commit such acts of violence.  It scares me that we still, a couple of days later, have no idea who did it, or where and when they might strike again.  I’m afraid of the what the political fallout will be, since if it truly was a terror attack on American soil … well, we have Afghanistan and Iraq and the past 12 years to tell us what can happen as a result of that.

So instead, I’ll talk about the other thing that’s been bugging the hell out of me for the past few days:  Dove’ “real beauty sketches” campaign.


For those unfamiliar with the campaign (although seriously, have you been living under a rock all week?  This thing is showing up everywhere right now), Dove marketing people hired a police sketch artist to do a series of drawings.  In the sketch on the left, you see a woman as described by herself.  On the right you see the same woman as described by a random stranger.  The point of the exercise (besides selling Dove products — I’ll get into that later) is ostensibly to show women that we are our own harshest critics & that other people see more beauty in us than we do in ourselves.

Most of my issues with the campaign have been covered quite eloquently by tumblr user Jazz in her post on the subject.  Jazz’s post, too, has been making the rounds on social media, so this may not be the first you’re seeing of it (I shared it via my Facebook page yesterday).  I agree with the points that she has made, and definitely suggest that you go and read what she has to say.  I’ll reiterate a few of the main points, and add some new ones of my own.

While the idea that we need to focus less on our flaws and think more positively of ourselves is a good one, the overall message of the campaign falls far short of the mark from a feminist perspective.

As Jazz points out in her post, the majority of the participants are white women, with light hair & eyes.  They are young (probably all under 40), slim, and conform to a very conventional standard of beauty.  There are women of colour in the campaign, but in the video they see very little face time, and none of them are featured in the extra interviews available on the website.  This is the standard of beauty that we are always shown by the cosmetics industry:  young, white, and slim.  For a campaign that claims to break boundaries, it’s very much inside the box.

Why not feature some people who are NOT conventionally beautiful?  Someone significantly overweight, or in their 80s, or with very obvious scars/birthmarks/other “deformities” on their face, or with very “ethnic” features (even the women of colour shown in the video are people with relatively neutral features).  Why not show a man, or a transgendered person?  Why is beauty something only for cisgendered women?

Just as important are the descriptive words being used in the video.  The “negative” terms that women are using to describe their own features are things like “fat, rounder face”, “freckles”, “40 and starting to get crow’s feet”, “thin lips”, “tired looking”, “big jaw”.  While the sketches revealed that the majority of the participants were overly focused on these “negative” aspects, the video did nothing to destroy the perception that these are “bad” traits … and this is incredibly sad, because for the most part these are not “bad” things.  A rounder face or thinner lips or a wider jawline may not be what’s popular in the media right now,  but if it’s the shape you were born with then there’s nothing you can do about it, and you should feel beautiful even if you’re not like what you see in make-up ads, because beauty comes in all shapes.  Freckles and crows’ feet and tiredness: that’s all just life.  None of us look airbrushed; the life we’ve lived is going to show on our faces, and we should LOVE that, not feel pressured to cover it up.

While the video tries to be uplifting, it’s still delivering a hurtful message to women who don’t fit that conventional standard of beauty.  Someone who honestly looks more like the sketches on the left might come away actually feeling worse about themselves, because they’ve been reminded yet again that they’re not thin and white and young.

Perhaps the most troubling thing said in the whole video is this, though:

[Beauty] impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, they way we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.

Because if you’re female, the most important thing is to be beautiful.  It doesn’t matter how skilled you are; how intelligent; how kind; how loving and giving and wonderful.  If you’re not beautiful, you’re a second-class woman.  There’s something “critical” missing from your life, and you cannot be happy without it.  You can’t even be a good person and treat others (your children, even!) right if you’re not beautiful and don’t believe that you are beautiful.

That’s right.  If you’re ugly, you’re a bad person.  If you doubt yourself, you’re going to treat other people wrong and your life will suck because of it.  Thanx, Dove.  Thanx for reminding us all that the most important part of being female is being aesthetically pleasing.

And of course, when it comes right down to it, that *is* what Dove is trying to sell you.  They want you to buy their beauty products and their moisturizers.  They want you to buy their “pro*age” lotion to get rid of those crow’s feet, and their “colour care” shampoo to keep your dye-job shiny and “natural” looking.  They want you to shave off all your body hair, smell like a flower garden, and cover up your “flaws”, just like any other cosmetics company.  So they need you to believe that you ARE flawed, and that you need products to make you better.  It is, in the end, marketing.  And advertisers discovered long ago that the way to make you buy a product, is to make you feel as though you’re not as good without it.

If I were to redo this campaign, I’d rather see them focus on things that aren’t traditionally beautiful. I want to see someone’s scars being complimented as a sign of strength, or their round “overweight” belly being loved for its soft warmth, or their adorable freckles being complimented rather than showing this constant quest for “clear” skin. I want beauty to be about more than just cisgendered women.  I want to love people for their bald patches and their places where there’s too much hair and for their stretch marks and their crooked teeth and their beautiful asymmetry.  I want people to meet up in darkened rooms where they can’t see each other at all, and can only use talk & touch without sight to tell them what they’re supposed to be thinking and feeling. I want to be truly colourblind, and blind to gender, and blind to sexual orientation, and blind to traditional ideas of “beauty”. I’m kind of an idealist that way.

Expectations of Genius

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

I stumbled across this story today in my ramblings around the Internet.

It bothers me how the media buys in to the stereotype of the “dumb blonde” and the idea that beautiful women cannot possibly be intelligent, too — I’ve talked about this before.  It’s hard to be judged as “stupid” before you’ve even opened your mouth, just because of how you look.  It’s hard to fight an uphill battle every day against the preconceived notion that if you’re pretty, you’ve had everything handed to you on a silver platter and have never had to work or to fight for what you have in your life.  It’s hard to stay positive when people attack you based on those assumptions, or avoid you entirely and refuse to get to know you.

But what actually struck me more, in reading this story, was the commentary surrounding how this girl is “wasting her potential”.  How she’s wasting valuable time, thought, and energy on a beauty routine that involves self-tanner and fake nails.  How she’s wasting her mind by watching trash TV shows.  How she’s wasting her thoughts and her potential on dreams of a future in performance.  The general disdain for beauty and so-called “superficial” pursuits is prevalent throughout the article, and even more so in the comments being left by readers.

This kind of pressure is commonly faced by those of us with higher-than-average intellects, and it can be absolutely crushing.  When everyone’s telling you how much you could do and pushing you to “live up to your full potential”, it feels as though the expectations placed upon you are almost impossible to live up to — as though nothing you do can ever possibly be good enough.  Any “wasted” time becomes a source of guilt, and whenever you can’t be in two places at once or do everything perfectly on the first try, you feel as though you’re letting everyone down and not doing as well as you “should” be.  And when you need to ask for help, you feel bad, as though you’re somehow failing by needing someone else to lend a hand or show you the way.  And it can feel incredibly unfair when you feel those expectations being put upon you, but not on anybody else:  I still feel a huge sense of injustice when my parents brush off my siblings’ lack of scholastic ability, when they spent so much time berating me for every “A minus” grade that I “could have done better” on, or when a well-meaning friend or relative criticizes my choice to pursue an arts career when I “could be” a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist or whatever other career they happen to think is more suitable.

This is a pressure that I’ve faced throughout my life, and I’m sure the girl in this story is feeling a huge wave of it right now.  And it’s completely unfair.

First of all, there’s the simple fact that just having a high IQ does not mean you’re good at every single subject.  You may be able to grasp unfamiliar concepts more quickly, remember things more readily, or assimilate information in a quick & easy fashion, but that doesn’t mean you’re good at everything you do.  I still have my subjects that I struggle in, and so does every other “genius” I’ve ever met.  I’ve needed extra help, from time to time, and it’s often frustratingly hard to get — it’s amazing how often people will say things like, “but you’re smart, why can’t you understand this?”, or dismiss your efforts as though you’re not even trying because “you’d get it if you just put your mind to it”.  But just being generally smart does not mean you’ve got a natural aptitude for everything.

And along with aptitude, there’s interest.  Different things catch different people’s attention, and we shouldn’t feel limited to only certain areas of study because those are traditionally seen as more “intellectual”.  So what if a smart person wants to apply their brains to an artistic field, or if they’d rather do a job that involves using their hands?  A person shouldn’t need to feel intellectually challenged by their work every single day (unless that’s what they themselves actually want).  And if a person decides to go into a field that’s not “intellectual”, they shouldn’t feel guilty because they “could” be doing something else.  I may be intelligent, but I wouldn’t be happy working in a lab — spending my life trying to cure cancer or blaze new legal trails would leave me feeling unhappy and unfulfilled, and ultimately I’d never have the sort of passion for the work that drives true innovation.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that IQ is only one measure of intelligence.  As we come to understand more and more about the way the human brain works, we’re beginning to place more important on things like the “emotional quotient” and on different learning styles and “types” of intelligence.  A person who has a relatively average IQ, but is very passionate about their subject, is likely to spend more time and energy working on it — and if they’re coming at it from a different angle or “learning style”, they may see things in it that a traditionally-intelligent, “booksmart”-type would not see.

There’s a high level of “burnout” among high-IQ individuals, and a lot of that is directly related to these pressures that we face.  We’re expected to be highly self-reliant and to need less teaching.  Our peers often rely on us to help them out when they are struggling with a topic (“hey, you’re smart, can you explain this?”), but who do the “smart kids” turn to when we’re in need of a little help?  If we choose to spend a few hours relaxing and playing a video game or watching TV, we face the criticism that we “should be” learning something instead, never mind that down-time and letting your brain shut off for a while is important for all people (“why aren’t you off curing cancer right now instead of watching that reality TV show?”).  And often our less-intellectual friends come to rely on us for things that aren’t even really our responsibility:  we’re the ones who are expected to remember every little detail, even if we’re not directly in charge (“well you should have known better”).  Sometimes the more you deliver, the more it seems people expect of you, until everything in life becomes a thankless struggle to keep up with the expectations that are being placed on you.

The “Friendzone” is a Myth, and You are Not a Nice Guy

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

“Friendzone” is one of those terms that I absolutely cannot stand.  While the term’s been around since the 90s (most sources credit the TV show “Friends” with its origin), it has become much more popular in the last couple of years, and now seems to be a fixture in common parlance.  The Internet is rife with the rants and whinings of the “friendzoned”.  Of course, this whining usually has the opposite effect of what was intended — its only purpose, really, is to let me know that the person using the term is an asshole and not worth being friends with in the first place.

For those unfamiliar with it, Urban Dictionary defines the friendzone as “What you attain after you fail to impress a woman you’re attracted to.”  Wikipedia’s definition is a little bit more honest (as well as being gender neutral):  “the friend zone refers to a platonic relationship where one person wishes to enter into a romantic relationship, while the other does not.

Now, I’m not saying that wanting “more” from a friendship with a person who you find attractive is always a bad thing.  I actually prefer to date people with whom I’ve already built a friendship, as it’s easier to trust a person who you already know and like.  The problem is that “friendzone” is generally presented as a negative thing, as though being friends is some sort of “consolation prize”.  It creates the impression that you were only in it for the possibility of sex, and if that possibility is removed, you’re really not interested in continuing the friendship.

I’ve lost my share of friendships this way, and the usual way of things is this:  you meet, chat, realize that you have a lot in common.  You hang out more often, find shared interests that you can do together.  You talk about all sorts of different topics.  And at some point, one party falls for the other.  The crush is revealed and – oh no – it’s not mutual.  Awkward.  Everybody feels kind of bad.  You say that you won’t let it change anything, and then … they disappear.  They’re never available to hang out any more.  Calls go unanswered.  You’ve lost a friend, because they couldn’t deal with the embarrassment of being sexually rejected.

It’s pretty unpleasant, not to mention rather insulting, to think that a friendship you’ve invested time and energy into was only a plan to get into your pants.  And it can be heartbreaking when someone you’ve spent a lot of time with, and built a connection with, decides that they don’t want to be around you any more because you won’t offer them sex.

There can be dozens of different reasons why people who are compatible as friends may not feel a sexual attraction for each other.  The simplest explanation is physical attraction (or the lack thereof) — there’s not much that you can do if you just simply aren’t attracted to the person.  But there are countless other factors as well.  Maybe your wants and needs in a relationship are different (ie, if one person is polyamorous and the other is monogamous, it’s unlikely to work).  Maybe your future plans don’t mesh (ie, one person wants kids and the other doesn’t).  Maybe there’s already someone else, or you’re not over a recent breakup, or you’re still figuring out your sexuality, or you’re simply happy with being single.

Whatever the reason, deciding that friendship, without sex or other “benefits”, just isn’t quite “good enough” for you?  It’s an asshole move.  Ditching a friend because you’ve decided it’s not “going anywhere” makes you a total jerkbag asshat.  At least the person you’re dumping as a friend is probably better off without you, but that really is a totally shitty consolation prize.

The thing is, if you’re using the term “friendzone” to describe your relationship with a person?  You probably aren’t really their friend.  Friends care about each other as more than just objects, and want one another to be happy.  It’s fair to be disappointed when you fall for a person and they don’t fall for you — it’s a shitty thing to happen.  But grow up, be an adult about it, and respect their feelings.  You’ll get over it and find somebody else to crush on soon enough.  If you’re really their friend, you want them to find somebody great to be in a relationship with (even if that person isn’t you) — and they’ll want the same for you, as well.  You might even be able to have some good discussions with them, now, about why they don’t see you as a romantic possibility and about how you can go about improving yourself to become a better “catch” for when the right one comes along.  If you’re really lucky, you might even gain a “wingman“, to help you with approaching and attracting the next person you develop a crush on.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking right now, so I’m just going to nip this in the bud — substitute alternative pronouns if necessary.  “But I’m really a nice guy!  Why can’t she see that I’d be perfect for her?”

To start with?  No.  No, you’re probably not a nice guy.  Because the guys who complain about how “nice guys finish last” and “girls only like to date assholes”?  Are usually not particularly nice.  They are, instead, what is known as a “Nice Guy” (note the capitalization and quotation marks).

In the world of the “Nice Guy”, people to whom you’re attracted are not seen as individual human beings.  They are interchangeable objects, into whom you deposit token gestures of how “Nice” you are.  Paying compliments.  Giving gifts.  Doing favours.  You count up all of these gestures like notches on a headboard, and expect that at some point you’ll be “paid back” with sex or a relationship, once the person is sufficiently in your “debt”.  Never mind that their feelings might be different from yours — they “owe” you, for all that you’ve “given” them.  It’s a shitty way to treat another person.  If you were truly their friend, you’d do favours and make such gestures without expecting anything in return, because that’s how friends treat each other.  You’d be upset if one of your friends gave you a gift, and then turned around and said “now where’s my present?”, so don’t do that to people you’re attracted to.

In addition to this, even if you are an excellent match?  They need to come to that conclusion themselves.  It might be a case of “right person, wrong time”, and if you stick around and are a genuine friend (and not a “Nice Guy”) to them, they may eventually reach that conclusion.  Don’t sit around waiting for it, of course, and certainly don’t pester them about it — seek other relationships and friendships in the meantime, and leave the ball in their court — but don’t consider the conversation over.  People grow, and change, and sometimes an initial rejection will turn into something different over time.

But wait — what’s that, Morpheus?

That’s right — there’s one other category that I haven’t dealt with yet.  That’s the people who “friendzone” themselves, because they never even bothered to say anything about their feelings.

This can be one of the most hurtful things to experience.  You make friends with a person, spend a bunch of time together … and then out of the blue, they stop calling, stop being available, and the friendship simply ends.  No explanation, you didn’t have a fight or a falling out, it’s just over.

And then you hear from a mutual friend: “oh, X had a crush on you, and you didn’t like them back, so they decided to end it”.  And you’re floored.  You didn’t know they felt that way.  Were there signs that you should have seen?  Why didn’t they talk to you about it?  It hurts to think that a person felt so intimidated by you that they found it easier to cut you off than it was to just talk to you about it.

This is one of the stupidest things that a person can do.  In addition to the usual problems associated with “friendzoning” (you’re treating the person as an object rather than a person, you’re more interested in sex and your own desires than you are in the friendship and their wants & needs, etc), there’s the added hurt of being completely left out of the decision-making process.  Maybe you hadn’t thought of that person as a possible sexual partner, but knowing that they feel that way about you might have left you feeling open to exploring the possibility.  But they chose for you; they decided how you felt (and took away your ownership and agency of your own emotions), acted on it, and you didn’t even get a say.

So to sum up:

  • Never use the term “friendzone”.  It’s a term only used by assholes.
  • If you’re attracted to a friend, and they don’t feel the same way about you, respect them enough to accept their decision and move on.
  • Cutting a person out of your life because they won’t have sex with you is shallow and childish, and not the way you’d treat a friend.
  • If you’re attracted to a person, say something.  Don’t assume that they are psychic, and don’t assume anything about their feelings in return.