Make Sure You Choose a Knife That Can Cut Through Bullshit

Make Sure You Choose a Knife That Can Cut Through Bullshit

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Large butcher knife cutting through bloody steak.

“I’d love for you to write something for us with all of your passion but less of your politics.”

I was sitting with an online publisher who’d approached me about writing for his site.

PAUSE.

I remember thinking, “Did I hear that right?” I’d sent him links to my blog to get a sense of my prose style and the ideas I write about. He was already familiar with my playwriting as we’d been friends for a while. He kept talking about possible stories, aesthetics and whatnot, but I was frozen in that moment. I wanted to turn to the camera that wasn’t there and say to the audience that wasn’t watching, “Yep, that just happened.”

How do we navigate compromise as artists? And how do we learn to know the difference between healthy compromise and spiritual self-betrayal? Growing up female, compromise is a loaded word for me. The following statements were all said to me by male artists in either curatorial or programming positions of power, or as my director during times I was acting:

“Your politics are getting in the way of my creativity.”

“The character needs to be sexier – less of a bitch.”

“Maybe it’s time you stop asking questions, you’re making me feel less smart than I thought I was.”

“It’s OK for the male character to undress her while she’s sleeping because he’s a doctor.”

“I want the female character to speak less.”

Slow clap boys. Slowest fucking clap. No this isn’t a sampler of ‘hilarious’ historical sexist quotes – this is hot off the 2016 press folks – ask any female artist for stories like these and she’s got them. I’ve got more, these are just my favourites. For those of you who don’t know me, welcome to my passionate politics.

Some of these men apologized to me, in some fashion. They apologized for hurting my feelings, or speaking bluntly, or they expressed regret that the situation had gotten so “difficult” between us. None of them addressed the larger political context in which their comments came from – and supported – the on-going history of male privilege. When I broached this difference in perspective with some of them, they often reframed it as ‘two people have a disagreement’; not as a male in a position of curatorial or directorial power having a disagreement with a female art-maker/actor seeking ways to explore and disseminate her art and new models of femininity. That subjectivity was stripped. Our individual locations on the spectrum of social power were nullified – these men framed it as just two people having a little tiff floating around ‘out of political context’. Which is of course, impossible. None of them wanted to explore how their comments, opinions, or our “clashing” might be viewed through the lens of their privilege being threatened.

Some of these friendships/collaborations ended because of these conversations. Others are navigated much more carefully on my end. Which is to say I give them less time, less room, and do not bring my art-making or trust anywhere near the quicksand of their “still too afraid to identify as a FEMINIST but yeah of course I think women are equal” (so long as they don’t challenge my understanding of art/the world).

The pain of disappointment when you learn that someone you considered a friend or collaborator cannot hear or see you and your experience within a greater social-political context is deeply disorienting and distressing. Traditional gender roles have been telling me not to upset people, especially men, my whole life. I’ve been conditioned to be an emotional care-taker and accommodate the needs of those around me before my own. I learned this lesson largely by watching women older than me, often moms, take care of everyone. Obviously we all need to navigate how to care for each other’s feelings with respect and a willingness to compromise our own, but women are taught and expected to do this more than men, and we are societally punished when we do not meet this expectation.

So before I learned to identify what was happening politically within these confrontations, I believed it was my job to fix them – to not upset these men further – or at all. Traditional gender narratives tell women the worst fate that can befall them is being rejected by men. Thus the knee jerk, unconscious conditioning in many women is to do anything to make sure that DOESN’T HAPPEN. No matter the conflict, or how he behaves. So women learn to swallow that anger, justify away pain, feel shame, talk themselves into more empathy, more understanding, more room for his feelings, while dissipating hers elsewhere. Through friends, therapy, vices, whatever.

But rage and anger are signals: our boundaries have been crossed, which could mean physical boundaries, emotional, spiritual, or all. Instead of teaching women to experience, express, or understand their anger as a signal – we condition them to deny, punish, or feel guilt or shame for having anger. By storying female anger as a deficiency to be denied and shamed, society teaches women and girls their boundaries do not matter and that anyone/thing may cross them at any time. This is how Patriarchy perfects and perpetuates the psychic rape of women, and seeks to bind them to their rapist by conditioning them to believe it is only “his” gaze that gives them meaning.

The price of re-finding and fortifying your boundaries is that abusive male (and misogynist female) power will react and attack – no longer able to enjoy the freedom of access to your personhood, or actions without consequences.

“Your politics (boundaries) are getting in the way of my creativity (privilege).”

In short, you will lose friends, colleagues, and sometimes, family. Only you know what losses you are willing to take. Only you will know where your boundaries lay, and which signals are your anger and which are generational.

There’s a whole universe filled with women’s talked away or silently denied rage. There’s also a whole universe inside women of that rage. It’s that force that if and when you brush against it threatens to break you apart. It’s the reason you do sometimes bite someone’s head off and you feel like you cannot stop, you cannot stop, you cannot stop because it’s not just your rage it’s the generations of women, the millions of women, who came before you and were denied. When we discover this rage it is our responsibility to grieve it, as well as learn to cope and manage it. If we don’t learn how to do this, it will seek to destroy us and everyone around us. This is our shadow.

Art is a potent arena in which to explore our individual and collective shadow – because it is a meeting place between the living and the dead. We can grieve and rage there, forgive and atone, exorcise and renew – held by narrative, symbol, and dream.

When I think about passion and politics I think of something my dad always says, “let the tool do the work” – his favourite advice when he would watch his four kids trying to mangle cut a slice of bread by just mashing down hard on the serrated knife. He’d show us how to move the knife back and forth, so our pressure was most effectively applied.

Politics is the knife. Passion is the force to wield it. What each of us must decide is where to cut.

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About the Author

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Susanna is an award-winning actor, writer, and theatre maker. She is graduate of The National Theatre School of Canada and has worked on every scale of performance from indie gigs to Hollywood blockbusters for the last 10 years. Her plays interrogate socio-economic-gender power relations and their perversions. Her writing is supported by the Toronto and Ontario Arts Councils, The National Arts Centre of Canada, and The Banff Centre for the Arts. Her play, The Philosopher’s Wife, was an Honourable Mention in the 2013 Herman Voaden National Playwriting Competition and garnered Susanna the Cayle Chernin Award for Emerging Female Talent. Her company, PARADIGM productions has premiered and developed work at Canada’s leading theatre institutions and festivals. Her work has also been seen in Dublin and Berlin. She is currently developing a screenplay, and is an instructor at Armstrong Acting Studios. Susanna was a finalist for the 2016 Ontario Arts Council’s K.M Hunter Award for Theatre Artist of the Year.