Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Sense and Sensitivity

Marissa Skudlarek, commenting on comments.

There was a piece posted on the theater website Howlround earlier this week that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. In it, Erin Butcher, a young woman who runs a theater company called Maiden Phoenix in the Boston area, talks about the harassment her all-female cast experienced when putting on a Shakespeare play in a public park, and vows never to make the same mistake again.

If you’re a young woman, nothing about Butcher’s piece is particularly surprising — not the fact that an all-female group experienced harassment that a mixed-gender group wouldn’t, nor the long and sometimes antagonistic comment thread that sprung up below the article. But as I said, something about this piece has stuck with me. I was even moved to post a comment on it on the Howlround site — which is not something I usually do.

Maybe it’s because I produced a play last year where the writer (me), the stage manager, and eight of the nine actors were women under the age of 30, and I remember taking that into account when choosing a venue for the production. I rejected a theater on Sixth Street in favor of one near Union Square, and one reason was because that neighborhood is safer. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable asking nine young women to walk down Sixth Street every evening to get to the theater.

It’s because, in a little while, I will leave the café where I am writing and go to the EXIT Theatre for the Olympians Festival, and I know I will need to keep my wits about me and my bitch-face on as I walk down Eddy Street.

It’s because, this summer, when I told a guy that I put my bitch-face on when I walk to the EXIT, he thought I was being kind of funny, and teased me about it in a good-natured way, and only later did he realize that I was entirely serious.

It’s because I resent the idea (inherent in some of the ugly comments on Erin Butcher’s piece) that you have to suck up and deal with whatever unfair shit life throws at you, or else you are a thin-skinned, spoiled Millennial who overreacts to everything.

Certainly, a large part of what is meant by “maturity” is learning how to suck it up and deal with it. A mature person knows how to pick her battles. But that’s not the same thing as saying that mature people never battle or protest. Sometimes the only way to deal with something is to mount a spirited objection to it. The amount of outrage and overreaction in the culture these days can be both fatiguing and depressing — but I don’t think the solution is to suggest that people should stop reacting entirely. Mature people know how to manage their sensitivity, but they do not disown their sensitivity.

Erin Butcher’s essay is certainly a reaction to what happened to her theater company in the park, but (apart from the click-baity headline) I don’t believe it’s an overreaction. She’s not demanding that the men who harassed her be jailed or even punished; her proposed solution is that she will change her behavior and never again produce an all-female outdoor show. She implies that the alternatives proposed in the comments — namely, to hire security, or to suck it up and deal with it — would cost her too much, either in money or in emotional distress.

Above all, the comments implying that women who object to being leered at and harassed by men just need to grow a thicker skin, piss me off because I believe that a world full of thick-skinned, emotionally hardened people is a world without artists. It’s also a world where problems fester and the pace of progress is slow.

Certainly, we do need a skin. Our skin is the boundary between us and the world, and we need boundaries. But if you have strong boundaries, you also have a strong sense of right and wrong; of what you will tolerate, and what you will find intolerable. And I don’t think we should tolerate the idea that every complaint is a sign of hypersensitivity — nor should we tolerate it when women are required to pay extra in order to exist in the world and make art.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She’s involved in two Olympians Festival shows at the EXIT Theatre next week: she’s playing an intense French lady in Delphin, or Christian Teen Dolphin-Sex Beach Party on Wednesday the 18th, and she wrote & directed Tethys, or You’ll Not Feel the Drowning on Friday the 20th.

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4 comments on “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Sense and Sensitivity

  1. Trish Tillman says:

    Excellent essay, Melissa. And I can’t help but notice (without reading every single comment) that the focus seems to be on women changing (sucking it up, etc.). Men have no responsibility for their behavior? Nor society? This to me is the equivalent of saying to an African-American, well, you just really shouldn’t be so black. (Which is what is implied, most of the time.) And as a decidedly older woman, it ain’t about being young and feeling entitled or Millennial. This has be going on for ages. We just shouldn’t be so, you know, shaped like a human female. Ah, I’ve got the solution. Wear burkas. Because it’s our fault.

  2. Tim says:

    “a world full of thick-skinned, emotionally hardened people is a world without artists” Lovely. Agree. With everything you wrote (although haven’t read howlround article yet.
    P.S. Really enjoyed Pleiades.

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