Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A Room Full of Beautiful Women

Last night the set designer of the show I'm working on came to rehearsal. Present at the rehearsal were three female actors, the director (female) and myself; the set designer is male. A long discussion ensued about the rearrangement of our set, changes that are being made to the design, how they'd be executed and how they will effect the actors. I've come onto this show pretty recently, and had met the designer the night before. He's amiable, professional, personable, and practical, and I was a fan of how he handled the meeting.

After rehearsal I met with my director, and we discussed some notes for the set designer. I sent them to him last night, first thanking him for his attendance and work at our rehearsal. This morning I received a reply that began, "first of all, you're very welcome. any excuse I can get to sit in a room full of beautiful women..." After which he went on to address the notes I'd given him.

Frustrated, I mentioned this to two co-workers, both female, one a couple of years older than I and one more than ten years older. The younger one sympathized with my frustration, while the older one, whose opinions I've generally respected very much, claimed that when I get a little older, I'll be able to take that more lightly and be grateful for the compliment.

I can't say that doesn't bother me. I like being told I'm beautiful as much as the next person, and think most people (though not all) who say they don't are lying. But as far as I'm concerned, there is a time and a place, and this would not be it. First of all, I've just met this man. I've worked with men from whom I'd take teasing about my physical attractiveness, and I have taken it. But you need to establish your professional relationship to me first, and allow us to become friends as a result of that, at which point you can tease me. I'll know you and know what you mean; I don't know what he means, and there are possible meanings that I don't appreciate. Such as this second one: it seems to me to be pissing in a circle, marking his territory. As a designer, he's been really professional and accomodating, as a designer particularly on a smaller show needs to be, but he's a man on a show where many of the power figures (the director, the stage manager, the artistic director of the company) are women, and that we need to be simply a room full of beautiful women before any professional questions are addressed feels a bit off-key, like he has to establish his maleness and masculinity of perspective before we actually do what we're there to do.

There's also the problem of Email, of course. I can't guarantee that I would have taken this in person, but there are ways to say it that might have been okay. However, when you've just met someone two days ago as part of a very established structure of power and protocol, a structure any theater professional knows and knows to adhere to, you shouldn't fuck around with tone in Email. You know it can't read, or could be read the wrong way.

So what is the wrong way? I mean, why can't he just say we're beautiful, if he thinks so? It's a compliment I've accepted with ease before, when it's been delivered in a straightforward manner, and I imagine most of the other women who were in the room have done similarly. I've accepted it even from strangers. Can I fairly say that my physical appearance is irrelevant to this context? No, but I can say that it should be treated as if it is. My physical appearance needs to alter neither my performance nor yours, and we don't know each other well enough to talk anything but business. So he's bringing in something irrelevant to what we're talking about, and it's something that objectifies me, and objectification obviously limits your assessment of how well I can do my job, if it does not limit my job performance itself. (I'm focusing on me because, of the women in the room, I'm the only person who saw or will see this Email.)

I honestly don't think the different perceptions of his comment among my co-workers is a generation gap, though I wouldn't mind readers not of my generation weighing in. It may, indeed, be harder for co-workers at this particular office, which like much of the educational publishing industry is dominated by white women, to consider such power structures. Straight theater men in particular, seeing themselves as unique in the industry and as mavericks in the first place, may feel more comfortable making such comments--since they feel women don't perceive them as "normal" men, or at least conventional men, they might feel freer to behave like conventional men.

I overreact, or at the very least I overanalyze, but let's put those together, let the analysis be part of the reaction, the intellectual being part of the personal. It is not a big deal; my work with him won't really change because of it, and it's not so severe a transgression that I'd bother calling him on it. He has slightly overstepped his boundary, but I'm certainly capable of pushing him back to the proper side of it without any kind of anger or aggression. (Our room full of beautiful women *could* take him.) But it still seems to me that I'm not so hard up for compliments that I should be desperately scrounging for them wherever I find them, and that a useless compliment such as this could land me in a position that I'd rather not be--making me think, or at least making me think he thinks, that my appearance is more important than my job performance. He is free to notice in his head that he thinks us beautiful; aesthetics and horomones will be aesthetics and horomones. But not knowing me, not having any professional reason to compliment anything that has nothing to do with my profession, he's separating me as an attractive woman from the job I'm doing. And I'm not a fan.


At 2:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

e-mail is not capitalized and has a hyphen.


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