White People Get Away With Everything: How “Empowerment” Agendas Backfire

I try to blog once a month, but lately even that has been a tall order. (Sigh…with tiny violin in hand.) Between my day job and writing at night, working on film program applications, scripts I’m tidying up, petting attention-starved kitties, etc., the hum of fatigue rattles the walls of my skull. No amount of coffee or good sleep can quite shake off this monster, convince it to retreat into a dark cave of isolation where it can groom its toenails. So, I apologize for lack of cohesion. I will have to blog about this stupid false concept of work-life balance, because I think it’s a load of shit, passed through the intestines of the wolves of corporations hiding in sheep’s clothing.

But not today. Today is about stuff I touched on in the last blog, long long ago in a far away land during an ancient time called March of 2015. I wrote then about ethnicity, and the problems it can cause an artist when they label themselves, or are labeled, as part of a minority group. Whether that group be an ethnic or racial minority, sexual minority, etc., putting a label on oneself can be a bit of a dangerous game creatively speaking. Sometimes, you just can’t avoid it, say, by virtue of your name or gender, for two examples, and other times, you can choose to avoid telling the world.

On one well-manicured hand, attaching this label to oneself does open up opportunities for exposure, for there are plenty of entities like some film festivals or grant programs, that want to expose the work of a particular group. It’s wonderful to have these organizations around, because ultimately, they are giving presence and attention to certain people that might not otherwise have it.

On the other dirty nasty hand, it’s when some of these same groups expect those they are promoting to support the agenda they have.  For example, and this is one I see ALL of the time, quite a few female-oriented film festivals that promote the work of women filmmakers expect these films to empower women by showing “strong” female characters, create “uplifting” messages for viewers, “enable” women to seek self-empowerment.  Sounds a bit like a propaganda machine to me.  Apparently, it’s not enough to support women just by virtue of showing their work, no matter how it may come across or what their messages are, it has to be a big pat-each-other-on-the-back affair. I see similar situations in some organizations that want to promote the work of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities.

Frankly, this is all quite boring. Why would I ever want to go to an art exhibit, or film festival, or stage play, where the creators are cramming an agenda down my throat? As a creator, I also find this limiting AND horribly dull. None of my films or fiction are about women sitting around empowering each other. They are about people, men and women of various ethnicities and sexual orientations, dealing with life’s messy shit flying at them at 90 miles an hour. Tragedy does not discriminate, and well, comedy doesn’t really either.

Now before you angrily retort with closed fists and gritted teeth: “Yeah well, the repressed need to fight back with strong messages about how bad things have been and how bad things still are.”  I suppose. I’m not saying I agree with the status quo, letting old white men continue to manage all the power and resources, and that people SHOULDN’T be making art about things like, transgender discrimination, as one example, but I’m saying there are better ways to go about expressing messages in one’s art.

Once the artist is required to create around an agenda and portray a message before looking at the qualities of what are just generally good aspects of a story or work of art, the beauty and subtlety of that piece is lost. Walter Kerr said it best: “The best way to destroy a play is to force it to prove something.” I cut this out from a book I read during my many playwriting classes in college and I have carried this with me ever since, taped to my editing station at home. If I ever try to focus on theme or message before I get a really good solid plot down, and get to know the nuances of my characters, the work is lost. It’s like wine without alcohol, it’s not so great anymore, better suited for a journey down the kitchen sink.

None-the-less, it’s very sad that artists living and creating on the periphery of their societies are very often expected to create within a very narrow band of theme that only addresses issues of repression, discrimination, injustice, etc. If you read an interview with a white male filmmaker, we don’t have the same creative expectations of his content that we do when, say, a black lesbian female filmmaker is being interviewed. We expect minority filmmakers, or minority creators of any sort, to make content about their own racial, ethnic, sexual group, etc. and we expect it to be laden with messages. That’s what organizations give grants for, what convinces film programmers to include in their lineup, what journalists like to write about in interviews, etc. etc.

But this is limiting. Why do white men get to make work about whatever they want and as a female filmmaker, I am expected to make romantic comedies and “good” portrayals about women? In my first film, In the Shadow, (a horror-tinged psychological drama, not a typical “woman’s” film) my female lead character makes a confession about how she had a momentary impulse to drown her infant. Despite the fact we often read in our daily news about mothers in real life doing similar horrific acts to their kids, I have been told during a test screening: “Women just don’t feel like killing their kids.” Talk to any mother and I can guarantee you that at some point, they probably had the desire to stop an endless temper tantrum by strangling the kid. But when I address this issue in my work, by giving a nuanced and complicated portrayal of a mother, I am creating a “bad” female character who should not be seen on screen, and I’m not “empowering women.”

I can’t tell you how many grants and film festivals I cannot apply to because my female characters are complicated people, with lots of “flaws,” rather than some poster child of Second or Third Wave Feminism, or show some idealized characteristics of modern motherhood where women “have it all.” I almost don’t read the posting for calls-for-entries when I see the word “feminism” or “femme” or anything related to women in filmmaking. Most of them just sound like copy cat versions of each other, asking for things no truly self-respecting artist would impose on their art. By limiting the scope of the peripheral artists’ work, these organizations are doing the very thing they claim to be fighting against: limitations, repression, and false representation.

Before I step down from my soapbox and get back to work on a screenplay, let me just say that, as a female writer, filmmaker, and all around artsy-fartsy dreamer, the very fact that I create at all, and have opted to make my work public, I am empowering women creators (and hopefully everyone else too), just by making something from my own experiences and perspectives. I don’t have to infuse any messages in it. That will work itself out on its own. It just happens naturally when the place of creating is honest and real.