“I’ve got some credit in the straight world. I lost a leg, I lost an eye.”
– Courtney Love “Credit in the Straight World”
LA is a dream factory built on smoke and mirrors, yet The L Word’s depiction of the queer scene in LA has some eerily parallels to my reality. In Boston, my cinematographer and I binge watched it, and it struck us as a fun but totally implausible fantasy. What major American city has large, centrally located, sun-lit apartments that look like houses? How could hairdressers, athletes, corporate yuppies, and musicians casually hang out in the same circles? Also, where on earth are all the lesbians femme, model-level beauties? In LA, actually, where the proximity to the industry makes wealth and celebrity commonplace, and pressures even lesbians to conform to mainstream ideas of feminine beauty.
When I first moved here, I began volunteering at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which introduced me to the LA Women’s Network. This fantastic women’s group supports vital services for women and girls at the center, and raises considerable funds for the homeless LGBT youth and seniors with fundraising events like “An Evening With Women.” I wanted to stop complaining about social injustice, and start taking action. In LAWN, I found a group of women and queers who felt the same way, who inspired me with the work they were doing to give back. In typical LA fashion, many of these women also work in the industry, so this group has become an informal queer Women in Film for me.
I’m a member of many groups for women in the industry, from Women in Film to Film Fatales to the Alliance of Women Directors. The discrimination that women face in entertainment on-screen and off-screen is well documented, and for directors in particular it’s extremely difficult. When you add to that the difficulty of being lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, trans, or genderqueer, it can feel almost impossible to find mentors, allies, and support. When faced with intersecting identities, I frequent women in film groups because it seems my ovaries are more of a hindrance to getting hired as a director than my queerness. Yet within these groups, there are times when I feel alienated as a non-binary person.
Is it better to be at the table, if oppressed, than not there at all? A friend and collaborator from LAWN was discussing Ellen Degeneres with me, arguing that she made an impact by waiting to come out. If she’d come out earlier, my friend explained, she would have simply been another gay person shut out of the system. Her career initially took a hit when she came out, but by waiting until she was at the top (and had plenty of money to cushion her fall), she was able to become a role model and agent of change. In this way, by infiltrating the system and playing the game, she eventually changed the rules. Changing the system from within requires politically savvy, and perhaps the ends do justify the means.
Another friend and activist in LAWN works extensively as an editor, producer, and director. As she climbed the ladder, she realized that her skater boi style was not as effective as a traditionally feminine look for fitting into a straight, patriarchal industry. Despite the challenges of a feminine look in both queer and straight communities, being a femme allows you to compete with heterosexual women for the small piece of the pie set aside for women who decorate a male-dominated business. It doesn’t put you on the same level of privilege as men, but by performing for the male gaze as the sexy, feminine lesbian fantasy, you get some credit in the straight world. If you play the Female Chauvinist Pig card, the boys club may even open to you as an honorary member.
This doesn’t create gender parity across the board, but it allows you to wiggle your way into the room- that is, until you get too old, too ugly, or too difficult, and are replaced by someone else. It’s “credit” because it’s given to you on the terms of the dominant establishment, and whatever you receive is subject to those conditions. Your success exists only as long as it works for them. While certain privileged women can work the system, many less privileged women can’t get in the door no matter how they present. Some of us can’t get any credit in the straight world.
You get credit for playing the role you’re expected to play, and I routinely fail at fitting into any expected role. My credit in the straight world is poor, but not for lack of effort. As John Waters said, “I’d love to sell out completely. It’s just that nobody has been willing to buy.” No matter how many times people explain the game to me, I just can’t seem to get the hang of it. My dream is to make change by forging a new path, rather than improving upon the one that’s already there. This divorces me from the resources of the mainstream system, but it also gives me far more creative freedom and fulfillment.
I have profound respect for my friends who can endure the daily hardships of inequality and frustration within the system. It’s a thankless job, and these women make incredible sacrifices for their careers in the industry. They use their credit in the straight world for good: by infiltrating the mainstream, they are changing it from within. Myself, I’m building equity in my own, queer world that stands as an alternative to the standard. Social change needs both kinds of voices. Together, we’re unified in this Zeitgeist of equality and diversity both behind the camera and in front of it.