Tag: AP

Personal Essay: “You’re Being Too Sensitive”

mask woman dress painting identity secret hidden expression

Mihail Teisanu, “Woman Wearing A Mask”, 1919. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest.  Photo: mine. Please to not reproduce without permission.

Earlier this week Associated Press released a year-end summation of sorts relating to the story they broke earlier this year around allegations of sexual misconduct by Placido Domingo. Reading it, I found myself sad but also frustrated – it’s depressing to see so much consistent pushback against the women who spoke out, and equally sad (if unsurprising) to note the consistent attempts to discredit them. Such actions highlight the many social and cultural divisions that must be overcome if we, as an industry are to evolve. 

I wrote in a recent post about walls, and how, despite a lot of big talk on the theoretical beauty of their vanishing, the reality is that we tend to like them – what they keep in but also what they perceivably keep out. Nowhere is this more true than in the chasms that have been revealed within the classical world related to the #MeToo movement. The issue is, to my mind, larger than whether or not these women should have spoken out (though I think it’s good they did); more broadly, it points to attitudes held by many in and around the industry which dictates that women and men are “a certain way”. There’s a lot of gender-slotting into little boxes of behaviour, ones that adhere to very old-fashioned and outdated clichés. These clichés around what’s “normal” for a gender feed into a reality relating directly to power, one that can hire and fire, favor and dismiss. Some may well argue (and have, vociferously) that women should use their so-called “feminine wiles” in an industry that is so tough to break into. Why shouldn’t a woman use the gifts God gave her? Aren’t all men interested in “that sort of thing” from a woman? Such comments bring to mind an exchange I noted on social media earlier this year, in which, over the course of a lengthy thread relating to the Domingo case, one individual reiterated the belief that young women today are “too sensitive” and they should “toughen up” and “in my day we weren’t so bothered by flirtatious men.” This attitude is reflected in a quote soprano Laura Flanigan gave to AP, that “(t)he climate has always been ‘don’t tell and suck it up and deal with it.” 

sculpture silence finger mouth face no words secret meditation Preault figure human

Antoine-Augustin Préault, “Silence”, 19th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

This past year I’ve frequently thought back to a memory from childhood, of a friend and I hiding in closets as tweens whenever a flirty male friend of my mother’s would visit; this man, married and with three children, would insist on kissing us at every visit. We made a kind of game of it, daring him to find us, as my mother emitted what I can only surmise now must have been vaguely embarrassed chuckles as she clattered away in the kitchen. We would mock-shriek when closet doors opened and there he would be, this man in a three-piece suit, grinning at us and then puckering up and leaning forward, as we would duck and attempt to run. Usually we weren’t successful and would have to endure cycles of his lips repeatedly on our faces and occasionally lips. We were taught to “endure” it (and that if we weren’t enjoying it, there must be something wrong with us), but in truth, neither my friend nor I found any of it fun or playful; we found this man exasperating, irritating, his attentions humiliating and annoying. We giggled in the darkness of the closet not out of good, spirits, but out of nervousness, not knowing what else, as young girls, we should do.

My mother, being pre-boomer, belonged to an era where women were indeed taught that such attentions were “normal male behaviour” and, as I grew older, I was told, in either word or gesture, that I should “use what God gave” me. My mother was part of a generation that proclaimed women should “toughen up” (especially when it came to male behaviour) and “not take everything so seriously” (I still remember her saying that, almost up to her death in 2015), and, should any hint of complaint be uttered, it was my fault for being “too sensitive.” If I had a dime for every time my mother accused me of this in the negative sense, I would indeed be wealthy. Hers was an attitude that would shape large swaths of my life, my choices, and my perceptions around power, and men, and what validation is and how it supposedly works. I wasn’t entirely surprised when, years later telling her about my own assault, I was met with a dismissive attitude and accusations that, having drank too much and worn a low-cut a dress, I had somehow “asked” for it. Every time I see a woman vehemently defending terrible male behaviour, I think of hiding in that closet, choosing that dress, my mother, and her words. 

Such moments from the past year, together with the AP round-up, also make me think back to a frank discussion I had with soprano Lisette Oropesa this past autumn. Much has been made about using so-called “womanly power” and how, in the classical world, this has and continues to be a key tool to getting ahead, and staying ahead. As Oropesa put it:

I’ve seen successful women behave and talk and dress and flirt a certain way and I think to myself, why? At this point, it shouldn’t be necessary… it’s such a cheap trick. It’s low-hanging fruit! Any gorgeous woman can use it to advantage – and how many women can have careers doing that? Sure it has power, but it’s *old* feminine power.

This attitude of, “if you got it, flaunt it” makes as many gigantic assumptions as its closest sibling, “she had a choice“; first of all, why should you? To quote the song, is that all there is? Secondly, what if one doesn’t have “it”? Through choice or not, what if the “it” simply isn’t there? In many senses the lack of a societally defined “it” makes a woman, no matter how talented, entirely invisible. In an ideal world, talent would win out (and sometimes it does, but not often), but to quote my post about walls, human foibles make such idealism incredibly difficult to manifest, let alone enact. Changing attitudes in the industry means changing the way classical is both thought of, and marketed,  and yes, run – which means changing the way both audiences and artists view a very specific list of things that require redefinition, starting squarely with what “it” is and why it should so matter in 2020 – or be booted out the proverbial door along with last century ideas. 

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Alessandro Varotari (called Il Padovanino), “Susannah and the Elders” (detail), 16th-17th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

A woman coming into an industry where she can expect to be objectified (and used) sexually is de rigueur for success, where that notion of utilitarianism as it relates to the interweaving threads of success, sex, power, and identity, has no actual power– or choice. To pretend otherwise is a very convenient illusion; what a wonderful trick of the prevailing powers, to have so many, young and old, mouthing such nonsense with such wide-eyed seriousness, for so long. Secondly, there is no notion of “two consenting adults” when the playing field is not level to begin with; who’s doing the hiring and firing? Who’s propagating a continuing (outdated) framework of what “it” is? Who’s making the decisions? Why? To quote Lisette Oropesa again, “There’s this attitude of, “I went to the theater and didn’t get a boner, so it’s crap!”” A woman fortunate enough to have “it” and using “it” within a world run by those holding on to their outmoded frames is not levelling the playing field, it’s bending over to make the world seem normal. To pretend otherwise is to engage in the most intense form of cognitive dissonance, and such a willful misperception would be amusing were it not so common.

Women who speak out against this system do not deserve to be branded as harpies, or to be called “over-sensitive.” They don’t deserve to be held up as examples of “typical American overreaction” or some “Westernized” anti-male brigade. If you hate the term “woke,” fine – use “evolution” in its place. Cultural difference is understandable but sharply contrasting ideas about the female experience reveals uncomfortable truths about which environments are willing to acknowledge alternative (and perhaps more equitable) realities, and which ones are fiercely determined to stay the same.

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Aelbert Van Der Schoor, “The Concert” (detail), 17th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

The intransigent adherence to so-called “tradition” in this sense (“men are like this; women are like this”), even as modern presentations and productions are simultaneously applauded, reveals a sad if unsurprisingly comfortable hypocrisy that gives a strange new meaning to the term “Old World”; I would ask such audience members to apply their same spirit of opennness to women who don’t fit the so-called “traditional” moulds of desirability, and indeed, to women who are willing to stand up and say clearly, “I don’t like this system, it’s crap, can we please make a change?” They aren’t sensitive; they’re direct. I would ask women who can’t understand such directness to kindly not use the very same brush for others’ portraits as they might use for their own; everyone requires different shading, details, application, and focus. There is no one-size-fits-all in any world, classical or otherwise. Your experience is not their experience; your time is not their time; your voice is not their voice – nor should it be.

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Hans Von Aachen, “The Three Graces” (detail), 16th-17th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

And so, as 2019 comes to a close, I want to believe there is a chance for evolution in the classical world. I want to believe there is a will to use ways and means heretofore unseen. I want to believe we can all do better. Whether or not we choose such an evolution is entirely up to us. We hate to admit loving our walls, and, more than that (and especially within the classical world), we hate to admit they exist at all. Let 2020 be the time we can at least see them, and if not take them down entirely, at least remove a few pieces here and there, to let the most strange, new, beautifully sensitive and wondrously strong flowers emerge.

2009: Not A List, a Remembrance.

Lists are, to my mind, a way of categorizing those things that generally defy categorization. They’re also just a cop-out for reminiscence. I tend to shy away from lists that show up this time of year, mainly because what I think is the best so-and-so of the past year (or decade) probably won’t match anyone else’s -nor should it. Memories are personal things, like opinions, and rather than arguing over veracity or validity, I tend to find a deeper meaning in simply reading the personal remembrances of others -for instance, someone’s most memorable meal or personal highlight for the year -as opposed to any top ten list that’s designed (usually solely) to ruffle feathers.

So here, in no particular order, are just a few of my favourite 2009 highlights:

Jessica Jensen
The Canadian designer best known for her exquisite leather goods ventured into the world of clothing at the start of this past autumn’s LG Fashion Week. The pieces were interestingly presented in artist Thrush Holmes‘ studio, located along Queen Street West in Toronto.

What made this marriage of fashion and art so fascinating were the various intersections between creativity and commerce; with the muted colours and billowing folds of Jensen’s pieces draped onto white, faceless, feature-less mannequins, Holmes’ studio resembled something of a retail space; it was less creation, and more consumption. But placed together with the work of Jensen’s photographer-husband (which definitely had hints of Sugimoto in its contemplative simplicity), the set-up encouraged lingering, contemplating, and connecting different ideas and pressentations. The links between the source of her inspiration (the moody climate of the American Eastern seaboard) and the end result (simply-constructed pieces in an array of pre and post-storm colours) was made clearer, with the space transformed into an intriguing mix of old and new definitions of art, artfulness, creation and commerce. Nicely done.

Goran Bregovic
The Eastern European singer, in Toronto this past June for the Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity, proved to be wonderful, charming, curios conversationalist, and it remains one of my favourite interviews. His first appearance here -he played two shows, the first being a massive, open-air show in a main square in the city’s core -was met with a riotous response. Singing, clapping, dancing, climbing the scaffolding -and two of the city’s main roads closed -all for a man who doesn’t sing in English (okay, one song). His concert the following night -in a smaller club, the celebrate the release of his Best-Of album -was warm, ebullient, joyous, and raucous, and brought me closer to my own Eastern European background than I’d ever been before. It also re-awakened my love of dance. Easily one of the most musically fascinating -and personally important -concerts of my life.

The Nightingale
The Robert LePage-directed work received its world premiere at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts this past fall. I had my doubts about pairing Stravinsky and the Quebec-born artist, mainly because the former’s music is, to my ears, so incredibly difficult at points. Where -how -would LePage find his way into this? Find his way he did, though, with the use of creative puppetry, shadowplay, sumptuous costuming, and a pit-full of water. Using a fascinating visual palette that embraced the Russian flavour of the piece, as well as the piece’s Oriental leanings, The Nightingale was a feast for the eyes, ears -and the heart. Easily one of the most memorable opera productions, ever.

Food Writing
From walking around Antony John’s wonderous, beautiful farm, to attending the Brickworks Picnic, to tasting teas -and champagnes -at Hart House, this has been one heck of a great year, food-wise, for me. Not only have I expanded my professional (and photographic) repertoire by chasing these features, but I’ve received a great education in the process.

I’ve also become keenly aware of both my own purchasing power, and of the power of social media with regards to food. I was interviewed by AP reporter Michael Hill about my love of twecipes. And I’ve met and spoke with some truly wonderful people, some of whom I met via the wonders of the interwebs, including Food & Drink/Globe writer/author Lucy Waverman, Ruth Klahsen (the Queen of Monforte) and Maria Solokofski, the Guerilla Gourmet; there’s been more enlightening yacks with raw milk farmer (and good food crusader) Michael Schmidt and Earth To Table authors/chefs Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann, who were so informative, affable, and down-to-earth (irony intended) in their approach to food. More than ever, 2009 was the year in which my kitchen became my haven.

Toot Toot
One more thing: I was profiled in Shameless Magazine. It’s not very often I feel completely proud or satisfied with my work -creative, professional or otherwise (my inner critic is also a relentless bully) -but really, having this piece out there and so widely circulated was a personal boon, and the response I’ve received has been tremendous, and inspiring. I’m going to try to keep myself open to more of these good moments in 2010, and the decade it heralds.

Here’s to continuing the magic.

Jessica Jensen / Thrush Holmes’ studio photo by Kimberly Lyn.
Goran Bregovic photo by Imre Szekely.

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