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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.


Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: The Psychology of Being an Enabler, and Why “Awareness” Isn’t Enough

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

It often surprises people to learn that I’ve been in not just one, but several different unhealthy and abusive relationships (and not just in my personal life — I’ve had abusive work situations, too).  As an outspoken feminist, an accomplished martial artist, a highly intelligent and university-educated person, and coming from a privileged childhood (so, no poverty-related issues to overcome), it seems on the surface that I’d be the last person to put myself in a position to be abused.  But my situation isn’t a unique one, and there are a lot of women out there who come across as strong, confident, and goal-oriented, who wind up in unhealthy relationships — serially.  Over and over again.  And the question that always comes up when these relationships fall apart and the abuse is exposed to the world is, “why would you ever put up with that?”  Because we know that we were being treated wrong.  We can identify and discuss the ways in which we were abused.  But we stayed anyway, and that’s an incredibly confusing thing — often, even to us.  Why did we put up with it?

But we don’t have to look far to see a plethora of examples of just these sorts of unhealthy relationships in media.  A popular sitcom trope is that of the beautiful, intelligent, capable woman who is in a relationship with (and continually forgives) a borderline-abusive jerk.  Look at Marge & Homer, Peter & Lois, Wilma & Fred, Spike & Buffy, Barney & Robin, Shrek & Fiona, Belle & Prince Adam … you get the idea.  The idea of a strong woman supporting and forgiving a weak man (often because he’s “just a man” and doesn’t know any better) is well-established.


The problem is that, like many other women, I’m a fixer.  I like to take things that are broken, and make them better.  And I don’t give up easily on a “project” I’ve taken on.  The traits that make me a fixer are generally considered positive traits, and many of them are traditionally considered “feminine”:  I’m a care-giver, a nurturer, a teacher, a healer.  I’m also stubborn and independent, which in  the context of an abusive relationship means that when trouble comes along, I tend to batten down the hatches and isolate myself while I fix whatever is going on, rather than seeking help from friends or family.  I self-isolate, which makes me the perfect target for an abuser.

Another factor that enters in to this equation is a sense of shame.  Because I am intelligent enough to recognize what’s going on, I will see the abuse — and try to hide it.  I don’t want my intelligent, feminist friends and family to realize that I’ve fucked up and attached myself to another abusive, controlling, life-draining, soul-destroying human being.  So when I see abusive behaviours, I’ll recognize in my brain “he’s gaslighting me”, or “he’s telling me how I should feel instead of acknowledging my emotions”, or “did he really just try to bully me into doing that?” … and I’ll hide it.  Ashamed that I’ve gotten myself into another such situation, I’ll laugh it off, keep it secret, and try to deal with it behind closed doors, because I know that one of the first questions out of anyone else’s mouth is going to be, “why would you put up with that?” — and I don’t have a good answer.

There’s always a reason why we stay, of course.  Love, often.  It’s hard to walk away from a person you love — and abusers are master manipulators.  They often set it up so that you’ll feel that if you leave, their life will be ruined.  It’s hard to take responsibility for destroying someone you care about, and that romantic sense that “you complete me” can quickly become a terrifying trap.  But there are more subtle tactics, too.  Mental illness, for example, is often used as an excuse for bad behaviours.  We tell ourselves things like, “he’s lashing out at me because he can’t cope with his own depression”, instead of recognizing the attacks for what they really are.  We tell ourselves that we can’t leave someone who’s mentally ill, that leaving someone who’s sick would be just as bad as leaving someone because they have cancer.  But bad behaviour is bad behaviour, and we have to learn eventually to escape from it.

So many campaigns against abuse, these days, are about “awareness”.  About teaching us to recognize abuse.  But the problem is that simple “awareness” isn’t enough.  I knew last November that one of my relationships had turned abusive — it took until the spring before I stopped sleeping with him, and until the end of summer before the shit really hit the fan and I stopped publicly defending his behaviour.   I was aware that he was continually gaslighting me, negging me, telling me how I should be feeling, manipulating and controlling my emotions — and when I would try to call him out on it, he’d have a “mental breakdown” and beg me for comfort, beg me to tell him it was okay and that I still loved him.  When friends and loved ones told me, “he shouldn’t be treating you like that,” I shrugged it off, even as I mentally agreed with them.  But I couldn’t give up on it and live with the consequences of another public, humiliating failure.

We need, as a society, to stop treating abuse victims like they’re stupid.  We aren’t stupid.  We know what’s going on, and we know it isn’t right.  We just don’t know how to end these relationships without being stigmatized.  Being cast as a “victim” is bad enough — being cast as a stupid victim who didn’t know what was happening?  Is intolerable.  The discussion needs to change, because “awareness” is only the first step.  After that there’s actually getting out, and getting on with your life, which is where you really need the support.

Rape Fantasies: Why Consent Isn’t Sexy, and Why You’re Not a Bad Feminist for Enjoying It

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

TRIGGER WARNING – obviously.  Don’t read this post if you’re upset by analytical discussions of rape.


I’ll admit it:  I’m a fan of smutty literature.  Romance novels, Internet slash-fiction, even just regular old books with well-written sex scenes thrown in there.  I started swiping my mom’s Harlequin romances in my early teens, keeping favourite ones hidden in between the mattress and the bedframe for late-night reading.  Female friends and I would find books at the library with good sex scenes and share them, often reading the steamiest passages aloud and giggling at our own fascination with sex.  As I got older and became sexually active, those books served as guides — how to touch, how to talk, what to expect.  They taught me the words for what I wanted, how to ask my partners for things, and how to enjoy myself doing it.  In many ways, romance novels were what taught me to be a feminist, because it was from them that I learned the sex-positive and body-positive attitudes that my adolescence would not otherwise have provided.


But there was always one thing that puzzled me.  Why did so many of these books contain — and even romanticize — rape?



It’s a question that’s come up a lot in recent years, especially with the popularization of Twilight, Game of Thrones, and 50 Shades.  These are things marketed to women, popular among women, and yet they show women accepting, and even sometimes enjoying, being raped and abused.  It’s not a new phenomenon — I can remember Game of Thrones being among those books my friends and I found at the library, and heck, even 3onguochildhood fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty contain questionable ideas about consent — but it leaves a lot of us conflicted.  At least 50% of women will experience sexual violence at some point in their lives.  I’m certainly not the only one of my friends who has experienced sexual assault and rape.  And yet many of us still find something attractive, something undeniably sexy, about scenes like the ones between Danerys and Drogo in GoT.  While the reality of rape is abhorrent and terrifying, there is still something about the fantasy that has the power to turn us on.


What really got me thinking about it, though, was when one of my friends called herself a “bad feminist” for enjoying that fantasy.  And I immediately felt like she was wrong.  But it took me some time to define exactly why I feel that rape fantasies are not, inherently, an “unfeminist” thing to have.


Why We Enjoy the Fantasy

The first thing that I had to question, of course, was where this fantasy comes from, and why we have it.  In the end, I decided that there are a multitude of factors in play, here — and that’s really not surprising.  Culturally, we are pretty obsessed with sex, and both sex and gender play a huge role in almost every aspect of our society.  These are deeply ingrained things that we’re dealing with, here.  And there are likely more reasons than just the ones that I’m listing (feel free to bring up others in the comments, if you like).

  1. Puritanical attitudes towards sex.  If we believe that sex is bad or “dirty”, as many of us have been raised to think, then saying “yes” is an impure act.  This is especially true when you’re talking about premarital sex, casual sex, or pretty much any sex that is not purely for the purposes of procreation.  Women, especially, are often told that good girls don’t have (or at least, don’t enjoy) sex, and that we must always be careful to not act “slutty”.  Women who do openly enjoy sex are often punished by society for doing so.  As a result, saying “no” seems like a virtuous, positive thing to do.  The rape fantasy then becomes, somewhat perversely, a way of indulging in a sexual fantasy wherein you don’t have to say “yes” (thus becoming a “slut” and damning yourself).  In such a fantasy, you can maintain your “purity” while still engaging in the act.  Of course, such a fantasy is problematic — and it doesn’t line up with reality.  Victim-blaming and the idea that rape victims somehow “asked for it” means that in reality, a woman who has gone through rape is usually stigmatized as a “slut” anyhow.  But a fantasy world where you can escape from such stigmatization and abuse, and enjoy sex without feeling guilt about it, is actually a pretty sex-positive thing, when you get right down to it.  Especially for younger women or those from particularly sheltered, puritanical upbringings, the rape fantasy may actually be an avenue towards more sex-positive attitudes in their lives in general.
  2. Conventional ideals of “manliness”.   The knight in shining armor.  The dashing pirate/outlaw.  The lone wolf, or the rebel who plays by his own rules.  The millionaire playboy.  The mystery, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a vest.  What do all of these “romantic ideals” have in common?  Power.  Whether it be money, fame, good looks, the power of the unknown, or just raw muscle and steel, men are expected by society to wield power if they want to be attractive.  And that, of course, is what rape is all about:  it’s about power.  This is why rape occurs across all demographics, and doesn’t depend on a victim’s attractiveness or age or place within society.  And so for women, having been raised being told that the best man to have is the most powerful one — well, what’s more powerful than a rapist?
  3. The other side of power and control.  Jumping off from #2, we come to the other side of power:  being powerless.  A lack of control.  It’s something that many of us seek out quite actively, as a form of escape from our daily lives and the demands of mature adulthood.  We enjoy getting “swept up in the moment” and being able to just go along with things, no decision-making required.  We escape into books and media, into drunken nights with friends, into cruise vacations where the biggest choice you have to make is “chicken or fish?”.  Sex can be a terrifying thing to be in control of, especially if you’re inexperienced or not confident in your abilities.  The rape fantasy takes away the need to be “good” at what you’re doing.  It takes away the responsibility of pleasing your partner.  It allows you to simply receive, without having to give anything back.  For the neophyte, this sort of fantasy can take away some of the anxieties surrounding sex, actually encouraging more sex-positive attitudes because it frees them up to simply enjoy, without worrying about their skill level.
  4. A female sort of power.  There is another way to interpret the power relationship in rape fantasies:  in the concept of the male as a stupid, insatiable animal, unable to resist a woman’s sexy wiles.  This particular fantasy stems from right-wing, conservative attitudes towards rape, which are unfortunately quite pervasive in our society.  When victims are blamed for being raped because they were “acting slutty” or “dressed inappropriately”, and when rapists are excused because “boys will be boys”, it’s an incredibly sexist and sex-negative thing.  But if you take that particular fantasy, and examine it purely as fantasy, it becomes the victim who holds the power.  For women, raised in a society where power tends to be tied to male privilege, the idea of being able to drive a man to unspeakable acts just by looking really, really good?  That’s a pretty cool power fantasy right there.  And it’s also a body-positive sort of fantasy, too, because it requires that the victim be not just desirable, but VERY desirable.  It lets you feel wanted, and in a world where the media regularly tells us that our body is not good enough just as it is?  That can be a very positive feeling.
  5. Exposure.  Like me, many women had some of their first encounters with the concept of enjoyable sex through romance novels.  And a lot of romance novels contain depictions of rape — maybe as many as half of them.  Most such depictions aren’t terribly realistic (usually the men involved are ridiculously good looking and are experienced sexual gods capable of giving multiple, mind-blowing orgasms, and the sex itself isn’t in any way violent or taboo — just non-consensual, because the woman is protesting even as she enjoys it).  We also see depictions of rape in plenty of other media — mainstream TV, movies, books, and porn all contain it with some frequency.  With such fuel for our imaginations, it’s not surprising that our fantasy lives also contain depictions of rape.
  6. Fear.  There’s a fine line between fear and excitement.  It’s why we enjoy roller coasters, horror movies, and skydiving.  Fear gets your heart pumping and your adrenaline rushing.  It does, in some sense, turn you on.  The fear associated with the idea of rape can do exactly the same thing — especially when, just like with a roller coaster or a horror movie, we know we’re in no real danger.  When it’s all a fantasy, you can experience that fear in a controlled and safe fashion.  This is also a common theory as to why some victims of actual rape may afterwards enjoy rape fantasies, while still hating and fearing what truly happened to them:  it’s a way of controlling and “taking back” the power of the experience.
  7. Exploring the taboo.  This one links back to #1 in many ways, because we live in a society with a lot of taboos — especially when it comes to sex and sexuality.  A part of figuring out your own sexuality is in exploring those various taboos, and finding out which ones are fun and which are scary.  Rape is a taboo that most people would never want to explore outside of the realm of pure fantasy, but considering it as fantasy can definitely be a part of healthy sexual exploration, because doing so can help you to define your limits and your desires.


Why it’s Not “Unfeminist” to Like It

I touched on a few of the reasons in my list up there — depending on the context of your particular fantasy, rape fantasies may include aspects that are decidedly sex-positive and body-positive, and they can certainly be a part of  a healthy fantasy life.




More important, though, is the fact that rape fantasies are just that:  fantasies.  And fantasies, by their very nature, really can’t be non-consensual.  The one doing the fantasizing is always in control, and can stop things whenever they want to.  This is why in BDSM, “rape play” or “consensual non-consent” can be enjoyed:  because the “victim” in this case has a safe-word and can stop things at any time if it becomes too frightening or painful.  They are completely in control, even if it seems to be otherwise.  And of course, taking back control of traumatizing, terrifying things like rape is a part of what feminism is all about.  It’s about taking and enjoying your individual power as a human being.


Of course, finding an actual partner to engage in such fantasies with is a problematic thing in and of itself.  Fantasizing about being raped is a very different thing from fantasizing about being a rapist.  So taking this kind of a fantasy from your mind into the bedroom is something to be done with a lot of caution, and only with a partner who you very deeply trust.  Someone who’s immediately eager to try it probably isn’t the safest person to play with (better to choose someone who’s uncomfortable, but willing to do it because it’s something you want), and while it may be a very private and intimate fantasy, it’s something perhaps better kept to a public dungeon or play space, where there will be others around to ensure that your safe words are heeded if they must be used.  It wouldn’t be fun for “play rape” to turn into the actual thing.

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.

Cluttered Desks and Other Stories

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , on February 20, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?


Confession time:  I’m a terribly cluttered person.  My desk is never clean.  My laundry is rarely put away.  I toss my backpack and coat on the floor when I arrive home from work (despite the conveniently located coat rack on the wall), and leave half-finished projects all over my apartment.  Dishes live in the drying rack until I use them again, and I only make my bed if somebody else is going to be joining me in it (the cats don’t count — they don’t mind if it’s just a pile of blankets and pillows any more than I do).  At this very moment I can only see about two square feet of the floorboards in my bedroom (the rest is dirty clothes and shoes and books and my sewing machine and a pile of gift-wrapping supplies that I pulled out 2 weeks ago and haven’t put away yet).

A couple of times a year, I go on a massive cleaning-spree and get everything in order.  All the laundry folded and in its proper spot.  All the books back on the shelves (organized alphabetically and by category).  Everything picked up off the floors, and the floors meticulously scrubbed clean of any remaining debris.  The kitchen and bathroom sparkle.

And it lasts for about a week.

And then there’s laundry all over the floor again.

And somehow?  I really don’t care about the mess.  Which is, of course, what allows it to proliferate in the first place, because if I actually cared about the fact that I can’t see my floor, I’d probably do something about it.

The fact that I’m a chronic clutterbug is something that surprises most people who know me in my professional life.  At work, I’m neat and efficient.  I fuss about things like putting the tools back in the correct cabinets, and making sure the paint brushes are properly cleaned, and sweeping & mopping the stage before the actors get anywhere near it and impale themselves on a loose screw or something (because if someone CAN injure themselves on something?  An actor will figure out how to do it).  I’m the one who takes notes at meetings and during rehearsals, writes and re-writes the schedules, and tries to keep everybody else on task.

The trouble is that, at work?  There’s a logic to being tidy.  Keeping tools in the proper cabinets means that everyone knows where they are, and you don’t have to go around asking 20 people who last used the nail-set because there’s a staple sticking out here and oh my gods why did you not put that back where it belongs this is taking frickin’ forEVER to do the simplest of tasks!!!  At home, though?  I live alone.  I’m the only one who ever moves things around.  I can set a tool down wherever I like, and I’ll remember where it is the next time I need to use it.  No one else may understand why there’s a cordless drill sitting behind the bathroom sink, but I know that I put it there after I installed the new soap-dispenser, and that’s all that I need to know.  Walking over there to collect it takes no longer than digging through my tool closet would, so I’m actually saving time in the long run by not bothering to put it away.

Work is also a different environment with regards to “down time”.  At home, I can finish a task and then immediately move on to something else that catches my interest.  Or there’s the Internet, or TV, or I can leave the house entirely and go somewhere else for a while, just because I want to.  At work, you’re often waiting for other people to finish a task before you can move on to the next thing, but you can’t be “not working” while you’re on the clock, so there’s built-in time to clean.

The one thing that often does inspire me to clean (or at least to shove the mess into a closet or other out-of-the-way location for a little while) is having friends over.  There’s a social expectation, especially when you’re female, that you should present a clean house to people, and the pressure of that can be enough to overcome my inherent laziness.  But even then, it’s only a partial fix — and the pressure to hide my clutter can actually be a source of stress & unhappiness, because I worry about it too much if a friend drops by unexpectedly and I don’t have time to “properly” clean.


The Einstein quote at the top of this post has always been a favourite of mine.  The belief that “genius is cluttered” is a relatively common one (although there’s little in the way of conclusive evidence — for every “genius” that one can point out who was a cluttered mess, another can be found who was meticulously neat, and most studies on the subject have very small sample sizes and a lot of variables to contend with).

I do think, though, that people of high intellect are better able to “get away with” being clutterbugs.  A good memory, especially, is useful when you don’t always keep things organized in any rational sort of fashion — knowing what you have and where it is and when you need to do something about it is a lot of information to keep sorted, and it takes a special kind of brain to look at an apartment as messy as mine and go, “oh, I know exactly where (random object I haven’t used in 6 months) is, let me go get it”.  Being able to pull out the pair of pants I wore 5 days ago and retrieve a needed receipt from the back pocket, or remember where I hid a particular pair of shoes, or when I last used my plumb line, is one of the reasons why I can let my clutter get the better of me:  because it never impairs me.  It never causes me delays or annoyance, because I can still remember where all of it is.  In fact, I often screw myself up when I do take the time to actually clean, because I move so many things during a cleaning-spree that it’s harder to remember when and where I last touched a particular object.

One of the more interesting studies I’ve seen on the subject is this one – in which people were asked to complete tasks in a messy or a clean office/shop environment, and their efficiency was measured.  The theory that the researchers came up with was that a cluttered environment led your brain to try to “cut through” the mess and find the most efficient solutions.  Also interesting was the difference found between people with different political leanings (conservatives were more likely to be distressed by a messy environment, while liberals tended to care a lot less).

Other theories I’ve seen include the idea that geniuses tend to be “non-linear thinkers” and thus don’t have the same sense of “order” that a normal person does (although I’d have to argue this one somewhat … a terribly intelligent theoretical genius like Einstein might have been non-linear, but I’m betting that a terribly intelligent applied mathematician or computer programmer is probably pretty linear in their thoughts).  And there’s also the (flattering, but likely inaccurate) idea that geniuses are simply “too busy thinking to spend time cleaning”.

Ah, well.  Perhaps now that I’ve written about it, I’ll be motivated to spend the next couple of days on a cleaning spree … clean all the things?

“Sticking it in the Crazy” – Thoughts on Sex, Dating, and Mental Illness

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2012 by KarenElizabeth

Mental Illness

Mental illness is, of course, a topic near and dear to my heart — and my mind, since I myself am clinically bipolar and have suffered throughout all of my remembered life from alternating periods of moderate-to-severe depression and anxiety.  I am the “one in five”, that statistic that gets tossed around so much (although of course there are legitimate concerns with the metrics used to measure such statistics — not least that they require self-reporting, which many people will not do, fearing the stigma of “craziness”).

And, of course, I’m not the only person in my life who suffers from this sort of thing — I have friends, lovers, and family members who’ve been diagnosed, at one time or another, with disorders ranging from seasonal depression to borderline personality disorder.  Each deals with it in their own way:  some are more private than others with the details of their lives and struggles, and some are more successful than others at blending in and appearing “normal” in everyday society.  But they are unavoidably present, in all of our lives.  You can’t just completely avoid 20% of the population, so we’ve all got a few “crazies” in our inner circles.

The Dating Question

One of the hardest things about being open and honest with the world regarding my own mental illness is dating.  Just saying, “I’m bipolar” to a potential romantic interest can be enough to send some people running for the hills, wailing “why are all the hot ones crazy?” and shielding their genitals as though bipolar were an STI and could be caught from me.  “Don’t stick your dick in crazy” (or the less gendered, “don’t stick it in crazy”, if you prefer), has become a well-known Internet meme and gets bandied about alongside so many other offensive little tidbits of “advice”.

Nevermind that I’m a very intelligent and self-aware person who works hard to manage and control my particular disorder; nevermind that I’ve spent years analyzing my own wants and needs when it comes to relationships and learning to compensate for my shortcomings at interpersonal interaction.  No matter how hard I work at it, to some I’m still just a “crazy chick”, and that renders me completely undateable (or even outright untouchable).  I’ve been told on multiple occasions that I have to “fix myself” before I should even consider a relationship — nevermind that bipolar disorder isn’t like a cold or a broken bone that can be “healed” with just a little time and attention, and that I’m going to be “crazy” for the rest of the foreseeable future.

I’m attractive, talented, intelligent, fun — a lot of very desirable traits.  And those are all supposed to be overshadowed by a psychological diagnosis?  No thank you.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t challenges associated with dating the mentally ill.  Especially when you get two of us together (and some of the most significant relationships in my life have been with other mentally ill individuals), it can be incredibly difficult, at times, to manage the extremes of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic flashbacks, dissociative periods — and then there’s the many unhealthy coping mechanisms that many of us may resort to in difficult times, such as substance abuse, self-harm, and reckless behaviours.

But these challenges do not have to be deal-breakers.  People with mental illnesses, even severe ones, should not be relegated to a loveless existence or avoided like the plague.  Because yes, there are challenges to be overcome, but there are challenges in every relationship.  There are always going to be ways in which two personalities will not perfectly mesh, and topics or situations where one partner has very different feelings from the other.  And being mentally ill does not make a person any less functional, intelligent, mature, or self-aware (actually I’d argue that the mentally ill among us are often the most self-aware, since we have to spend so much of our time analyzing and controlling our own behaviours).

Of course, not every mentally ill person is at a place in their life where they are ready to be dating — but then, not every supposedly “normal” person is at that place in their life, either.  Plenty of relationships fall apart for reasons other than, “s/he’s crazy!”

Atypical Relationships and Desires

Another challenge that I often have to face in the dating world, independent from my diagnosis, is that the relationships I’m looking for are not “typical” ones.  As someone who identifies as polyamorous, bisexual, and kinky, it can be very difficult to add “bipolar” to that list.  Polyamory is already seen by many people as an indication of a “fear of commitment”, or even as a sign of mental illness in and of itself (people who keep multiple partners are quickly labeled as “nymphos” and “sex addicts”, whether or not the definition really fits).  Bisexuality itself has often been characterized as a pathology, and (along with other non-normative sexualities) has been in the past something which was criminalized and punished.  Kink is especially complicated, since it can be very difficult to explain to people the difference between self-harm and consensual BDSM, and within the kink community itself there is a strong prejudice against “crazy people”, who are often characterized as being “unsafe” to play with.

Many people are quick to blame my atypical desires on my bipolar disorder, as though my “craziness” is the perfect explanation for why I don’t want a husband, kids, and a house in the suburbs.  “You like tying your partners to the bed and dripping hot wax all over their naked bodies?  Ugh, that must be because you’re insane”.  But this is an incredibly unhelpful (not to mention inaccurate) conclusion:  by assuming that all kinky people are “insane” and that all “insane” people like doing weird things in bed, you unfairly stigmatize both groups.

This isn’t to say that my bipolar disorder doesn’t play some part in my desires and choices with regards to relationships — but it’s certainly not the only factor, nor even the most defining one.  I prefer to seek casual, “friends-with-benefits” type relationships at this point in my life partially because I am not professionally settled, but also because I don’t feel emotionally ready for a connection of that sort, and my diagnosis is a factor in that choice.  But this is not an unhealthy attitude to take: I’m being honest with myself and with my partners as to my desires and the reasons for them, and this makes for relationships that are open, honest, and very rewarding.  And by exploring and indulging my sexuality, I’m learning more about myself (and how to deal with any potential future relationships that may be more “serious”) in a safe, consensual, and fun manner.

It’s not like I’d learn to be “more healthy” by just shutting myself away and being entirely celibate, after all.  If we don’t push and challenge ourselves, we stagnate and fall into bad habits.

The Bad Stuff

I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t difficulties in my relationships — especially in those with other mentally ill people.  In the past, especially when I was much younger and didn’t yet know very well how to deal with my own issues, I’ve dealt with abuse (emotional and physical), being raped by a partner, abandonment, self-harm (by myself and by two partners), suicide threats and attempts (by a mentally ill partner), trying to manage being on medication (my own and three partners), breakdowns (mine and theirs), fights, spats, irrational displays, and many, many, many tearful encounters.  I’ve ended a relationship because I didn’t feel he was dealing well with his mental illness and I was having too much trouble with trying to help.  And I’ve been left for being “crazy”.

At the moment I have casual (or casual-ish) relationships with four people, three of whom have a diagnosis of some sort.  And we’ve had conflicts — they’re inevitable.  But we’re also learning to be giving and honest, and how to deal with those conflicts and problems when they arise.  Because a relationship is not defined by whether or not you have issues (let’s face it: we all do), but by how you deal with those issues.

My Advice

So … what have I learned from more than 10 years of being (and dating) “crazy”?

Know yourself.  The more time that you spend getting to know yourself (and your diagnosis), the more books you read on psychology, the more time you spend with a therapist, the more work you put into making yourself a better person, the better you’ll be as a partner.  This is true whether or not you’re mentally ill, but is especially important if you are.  Understanding what triggers your “bad” periods, what emotional stimuli are difficult for you, the places where you have difficulty understanding “normal” people … this will all help you to deal better with the times when you’re just not quite “yourself”, and make it easier for your partner to love and deal with you.

Know your partner.  If your partner has a mental illness, get to know everything you can about it.  Ask them questions.  Read books.  Seek support groups.  Learn all that you can, so that when the rough patches hit?  You can understand what they’re going through, empathize with them, and help, rather than just being confused and afraid.  Even if your partner is “normal”, you should spend time talking to them and getting to know them and figuring out what makes them tick, because it will help when you have conflicts — knowing how they react to, for example, a difficult emotional situation (grief, anger, etc) will help you to deal with and assist them when those situations arise.

Stop hiding.  We spend too much time fearing the stigmas of mental illness.  20% of the population is going through something very similar.  You are never, ever alone.  By hiding away, you’re hiding from your support networks.  You’re closing yourself off.  You’re making yourself harder to connect to and to love.  Saying “I’m bipolar” to people at an early stage in getting to know them might scare a few away, but it will make just as many people open up and welcome you all the more strongly, because they understand what you’re going through.  And those are the ones you WANT to let in, so don’t hide from them.

Be honest.  We all like to seem as though we’re in control, all of the time.  But sometimes we’re not.  And we need to acknowledge the times when we’re not having it easy, when we’re going through a rough patch or a “down” period.  Because if we don’t recognize those times, we can’t fix them or deal with them properly.

Forgive more easily.  It’s easy to take things personally, to see every conflict or difference of opinion or random happenstance in life as being directed specifically to hurt you.  Stepping back, taking a breath, and choosing to act with love and forgiveness, goes a long way, because in 95% of cases?  People aren’t acting deliberately to do harm.  And even if they are, they probably have a reason that you don’t see.  We can choose to live with more love, and we should do so.

Never, EVER, dismiss something or someone as “crazy”.  Because there’s probably a very good reason for it, and you’re just not seeing it.  And “crazy” isn’t irrelevant, or unimportant, or unlovable.  “Crazy” is just as beautiful and wonderful as “sane”.