How useful is it to rail against thoughtless people? Is it better to focus that energy instead on the people who are getting it right, or at least putting forth a serious effort to get it right? Is there really any point in spending a ton of time and energy trying to craft a cutting response to a blowhard who is perpetuating old and stale stereotypes through his work? Or am I better off just ignoring him, neglecting to pay him any attention in the same way he and his ilk have so blithely disregarded so many others for centuries?
Venting can definitely feel cathartic, but it can also end up feeling like a bottomless pit—once you’ve sunken in, it’s almost impossible to see out of it.
So what do I do with that anger?
I recently had to sit through a short play by a fairly famous writer that was a hot pile of misogynist and homophobic shit. According to one interview with the writer I read before going to the festival, he was really excited to be writing his first play with two women, one of whom was intended to be a lesbian. Apparently his best lesbian reference points are pulp novels from the first half of the 20th century in which lesbians have a funny (read: infuriating) tendency to seduce, rape, and brainwash (in that order) perfectly straight and patriarchy-abiding women, before either murdering their confiscated lovers or themselves, or both. And just for clarification, his homophobic and misogynist ideas about lesbians were not being presented in an ironic manner (not even Alanis Morissette ironic).
Let me give you the plot in one sentence so you can understand what I’m talking about: girl meet girl; lez girl decides that the best way to get straight girl is to fuck straight girl’s boyfriend; apparently this strategy works; end of story.
So, problem number one with this plot—the dyke fucks a dude in order to get with a chick. One of the key characteristics of a dyke is that she generally prefers to fuck women. In fact, that’s pretty much exactly the meaning of the word. There are shades of gray, and people live inside and outside of labels and closets and identities in all kind of ways that can just make a poor old gay reparative therapist want to flog himself extra hard at night before bed. But, generally speaking, dyke = woman who fucks women, or thereabouts. Dyke ≠ woman who sucks bio-dick in straight porn fantasies after sloppily rubbing tongue tips and silicone implants with another woman.
Second problem with this plot—the dyke fucks a dude in order to get with a chick. In what world does fucking someone’s partner in order to get to them actually work, regardless of their sexuality? Even among the poly folks I know, this is generally not the best strategy, though certainly it could work. But usually a modicum of honesty and a whole lot of consent need to be involved for that to work, which probably means not being a robotically manipulative figment of some asshole’s vacant imagination. In the real world, like the actual real world, secretively fucking someone’s partner is a great way to get yourself and/or the person you’re fucking murdered, divorced, or on an express bus into unhappy land (not true in every case, obvs, but in the reality we currently live in affairs are at the root of a ton of murders the world over, as well as STD transmissions, so, you know, secrets, secrets… Plus, there is this whole other crazy option where you have consensually open relationships in which you don’t actually have to lie to your partner about who else you’re fucking, but that’s just the crazy fucking queer in me talking.).
Third problem—the dyke is chasing after a straight chick. In my experience, while there are plenty of homos who fuck hets, it’s quite often the hets who are hanging out online looking to “experiment” or find someone to “fulfill my darkest fantasy” (homos totally only have sex in really dark places full of unicorns suspended from the ceiling by hooks while being slapped around by big butches wearing Elmo costumes and strap-on machetes, btw), or who just accidentally call every single vaguely queer person they know and beg them pseudo-coyly to take them to the nearest gay bar. So, you know, stones, glass houses…
Fourth problem— …No, I’m done. I don’t want to anymore.
Look, life is complicated and people make no sense a lot of the time—because sense is usually tied to some overarching narrative about the ways we’re supposed to behave based on our own and other people’s expectations. And every single one of us is full of contradictions, good qualities and bad qualities. That’s reality. But let’s just say that one essential thing became incredibly clear in watching this play unfold—one of this writer’s primary bad qualities is that he doesn’t give a shit about whether his characters bear any relation to actual human beings. He’s clearly been told over and over again by other people that he has something interesting to say, so he doesn’t even bother to check in with himself to see if what he’s saying is actually interesting or if it’s just tired old bullshit that’s all been said better in the past. Have you ever read any of those old lesbo pulps? Some of them are incredibly inventive and original, if, in the end, by the censors’ decree, totally shaming and homo-hating.
In fact, this play I saw bears a striking resemblance to the three other plays of his that I have had the unfortunate opportunity to sit through. Here’s the basic plot outline for each of those plays: Some basically “good,” if vapid and dull, person is bouncing through life, not harming anyone (if emptiness can be said to be harmless), and then along comes a cunty witch of a woman who gets the dullard’s trust for a second, proceeds to emotionally and mentally knife them a few times, and then walks away with a wink, having supposedly gotten some of what she wanted in the end.
And that’s exactly how this short shit of a play with the “lesbian” went. Bright-eyed blink-fest of a lady doesn’t see any of it coming, then half-heartedly acts really upset while being confronted by the she-devil, pouts about it all for a few seconds, but then proceeds to kiss the banshee in the final moment. Banshee metaphorically rubs her hands together, cackles, and licks her lips, all of them.
While watching this play unfold I felt a distinct frustration with the fact that were I to throw my wine glass at the writer, from where I was sitting I couldn’t be sure that it wouldn’t hit someone else on the way, or spray shards of glass out onto other people instead of just him. Having to quietly swallow my enmity in the dark, I started to think about the Lesbian Avengers and mythical gangs of lez vampires. I felt inclined to go along with what I imagined their response to this kind of shit would be. Yes, lesbian are over-sexed, maladjusted, man-eating whores. Which is to say, they are out to destroy your fucked up, self-obsessed, backward, dick-wagging world. And they do it by tearing down your bigoted patriarchal institutions and by fucking all your overworked and abused women, and then converting them into progressive, DIY sex toy manufacturing tree-huggers who howl at the goddamn moon and stick organic farm-raised strap-on cucumbers in their vaginas instead of penises. You fucking assholes!
Anger is tiring.
A big part of me would love to slander this guy in public for his bullshit; to name him in a careful and cutting, but balanced, diatribe in some prominent publication where all could see. But if I were to name him, in that way, then my anger becomes nothing more than fodder for gossip and will most likely be read as petty sniping from a jealous and talentless woman. Because that is what generally happens when people, specifically women, try to shame men who are well-liked fixtures of various little corners of the arts. To top it all off, rather than reading what I’m writing, they’ll just choose sides. And because I’m not a fixture, the majority will just call me a harpy or a worthless cunt in the comments section of the internet version of the critique, while the few people who agree with me will publically defend the man while privately telling me how right I was, that he is a total cock, and they will even give me additional information, in that private message, that makes him out to be an even worse human being than I had imagined in the first place. This last thing actually happened the last time I publically called bullshit on even a minor figure in a niche of an already niche-y area of the arts.
Which means, I would burn a ton of bridges, while he would only get more attention and more people rushing to defend him. And nobody would read the piece for any purpose other than to chortle over the latest silly dust-up in the “media.”
And perhaps more importantly, his name doesn’t matter. Because he could be one of literally thousands of men who do similar things to women and people of color, or any other group that isn’t them, all the fucking time. Replace misogynist and/or homophobic “play” with any one of these and you can begin to come up with names all on your own: novel, film, memoir, “memoir,” television show, etc.
It’s such an old and obvious fight that is starts to feel boring at a certain point. And it is boring, as much as it’s infuriating, to see yet another crappy play by yet another asshole.
So, if that’s the case, then what?
What about that anger and frustration? What about the desire to do something about the fact that everyone seems to be giving every goddamn opportunity to pricks like that, while thousands of other writers are being told things like their plays about lesbians would be a lot more producible if there was a straight male lead, or that their three-act drama about multiple generations of Latinos would be a lot more “universal” if there were a lot fewer Latinos in it?
When I got to the airport after my short time in the city where the festival was, I sat down in one of the few empty chairs at the gate and waited for boarding to start. A few minutes before they were due to start calling the first class passengers, who should stroll up but him—the writer. Fucking fantastic—he was on the same flight as me! He didn’t see me, and I had no interest in making small talk, so I quietly watched and waited, hoping he wouldn’t spot me at all.
Meanwhile, proving himself to be as much of a shit as I imagined him to be, he walked straight up to the set of chairs closest to the gate, which, by the way, were clearly marked as reserved for disabled or handicapped passengers (apparently white male privilege is a handicap now—who knew?). He plunked his ratty ass self down and started jacking around with his phone and laptop, but apparently not enough people sent him declarations of love and admiration that morning and so his electronic distractions were short-lived.
Unfortunately, that was when he spotted me. He slumped over and said hello. I made meaningless small talk and then thankfully they called for the first group of people to start boarding, and of course he was in first class.
After he left, the man beside me, who couldn’t have helped but overhear our conversation because of how closely I was sitting to him, asked if I was a playwright. It turns out that he’s the Artistic Director of a small theater company in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, a rough and tumble exurb of Providence that used to be the site of some of the country’s biggest textile mills. The new man and I chatted briefly about theater and, funnily enough, the dogged persistence of the white male voice in the American theatrical canon came up—he started that one, not me. But this man expressed what is really the only appropriate response—fuck the canon. He, of course, didn’t put it quite like that, I’m paraphrasing, but that was the upshot of it.
When I got home that evening I looked up his theater. For over ten years their black-led company has been presenting well-known and original work with multi-ethnic casts aimed at a variety of audiences, from programs for school kids to the wider Rhode Island community. In other words, it’s something of an antidote to the sore thumb I’ve been hammering on here.
At the opening of this rant, I asked if it was better to focus on the people getting it right rather than banging my verbal fists against the wall of careless people who so easily accumulate other people’s time and money. As I’ve learned time and again in life, particularly recently, it’s not an either/or situation. The anger and frustration has a purpose, and the outcome is both a dogged presence anywhere you can get to in the wider culture and the creation and occupation of spaces that cultivate and nurture varied voices, like the Mixed Magic Theater in Pawtucket. Far better to name them than bother any more with the other.