When the opportunity to write a piece for Girls Block was brought to my attention, I hadn’t noted the automatic assumption I’d made- the assumption that I would be writing about others, reporting on musicians or creatives involved in the event- myself, in my head, already a caricature of a journalist; running around town with a big camera and an ill-fitting suit asking people to ‘smile, sweetheart, the camera loves you.’
Instead, Girls Block asked me to write about myself. I am here and I have been given the mission to write about my own experience, to be reflecting rather than inquiring, to project one of so many tender and curious southern female voices.
I appreciate men. And I’ll be damned if some of them aren’t really cute. For 20 gentle and eager years I have been navigating the tricky world of being a Woman in the South in the Arts in the 21st Century. I have been lucky, and I have been safe, and I am grateful. I have been privileged enough to be granted an education and artistic surroundings majoritively of support and encouragement. I can not and will not attempt to tackle and unpack the entirety of what it means to be a Woman in the South in the Arts in the 21st Century. I will, for you, try my best to tease out the instances and patterns that feel useful to note. I am not bitter, but I am... suspicious.
Once, my freshman year, when Five Points At Night was a world I more regularly frequented- as a result of social coercion more than anything else- I was talking to a boy in a bar. I was talking to a boy in a bar, and I was holding a beer like real adults do, and he seemed interested in me, and I was excited. This was also a window of my life in which a disproportionately large amount of my excitement could be found through garnering the interest of others. I was talking to a boy and leaning up against a wall that I guessed might have initially been a beige color, but had now become this charred, disquieting gray, or maybe it was just the utter lack of light playing tricks on my eyes. I was talking to a boy, and he was looking at me kind of like he was hungry and kind of like he was sleepy, and the music was too loud, and even after hours of moving our mouths at each other, the sound and excitement and adult beers were enough to warrant me completely ignorant of anything about this boy slumped on this soot-wall only inches from my face.
His right hand found the wall above my left shoulder, and he leaned into my ear, and with the charm of a beer-cigarette cocktail on his breath, he asked “So, are you a feminist?”
When he drew back, the expression on his face was as if he’d just revealed the punchline to a joke he’d been telling all night. Amusement, pride(?), condescending inquisition. The look he gave me almost said more than the question itself. It said, “You are vulnerable. You are eager to stay pristine in my eyes, even if it means being dumb.” And he was right. After a few too many moments of stunned, buzzed background noise, I laughed nervously and looked at the ground. I let myself down that night. And I say that I let myself down, and not that this unnamed boy in a backwards baseball cap let me down, because this is how I have come to view what it means to be a woman with goals and personality and ideas and feelings: it is a position of responsibility.
Shouldn't the men be responsible? Shouldn’t the men be held accountable?
Of course they should. But how will they learn how to live and work alongside headstrong, capable, unafraid women, if they have never seen any before. That is our responsibility. To be one, to be many, and everywhere, in every environment.
I am an actor. I have been a part of 7 productions since coming to Columbia. Of those 7, only one was directed by a woman. That, however, makes my experience in Columbia’s art scene sound worse than is true. I am currently part of Overreactors improv group, fearlessly and hilariously lead by senior Susanna McElveen. I am a member of the board for the student-run theater organization on USC’s campus, Green Room Productions, alongside two fantastic men and four(!) fantastic women. On the night that I am writing this, the critically acclaimed play ‘The Wolves’ will open at Longstreet Theater, which boasts a cast and crew comprised entirely of women, and presents female characters with nuance, depth, and honesty. The Revolutionists, an all-female, firecracker play offering an eclectic take on the French Revolution, just finished its run at the Center for Performance Experiment on campus. Among the moments, frequent as they are, of male voices dominating the conversation, there is progress being made here. We’re reaching past familiar, harmful norms, and incredible women are everywhere I seem to look, on teams and platforms and stages. I am not worried. If anything, I just want all these women to know that they deserve to be where they are.
Something that I find fascinating and entirely sensical is the link between the conversation surrounding women in positions of power, and the conversation surrounding imposter syndrome. In a recent Forbes article, CEO Liz Etling discussed this dissonance between women’s success and their belief that they earned it, explaining how “women often face accusations that we have only advanced or succeeded due to presumed “preferential treatment” and that we don’t actually deserve or belong in the positions we’ve earned. It can be hard not to take those criticisms – and the additional barriers, work experience, and qualifications required of women – to heart, convincing us we don’t deserve what we have ourselves achieved.” Here in Columbia, or maybe more specifically at USC, in the ways that I can see- there are a lot of women being blessed with the opportunities to find their footing. There are women creating their own opportunities to find their footing where prior there had been none. I am familiar with that disbelief- a manufactured ignorance of one’s deserved accolades, an incredulous voice inside oneself that is sure some grand mistake was made. There was none. It is possible to be so powerful, so gentle and so capable. Breathe and know that. The conversation that you have with yourself about your potential and your accomplishments begs urgently for kindness and encouragement.
Maybe what I’m trying to say is that the next time that you, a woman, are tasked with your respective equivalent of writing an article, do not immediately assume that you’ll be reporting on the accomplishments of others. On the ways that others are remarkable. Do not automatically assume the position of secondary importance. You’ve assumed that position for long enough, I’m sure.