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Why #TimesUp Matters To Me

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VANCOUVER – “Arch your back for me. More. More. There we go. Hold it there.” Aside from the few lights on C-stands glaring down on me, the sound stage was completely dark. I couldn’t see their faces but I could hear their snickers and murmuring. It was a 2nd unit shoot for my first real acting job. I was twenty years old. It would be my first experience with the easy exploitation and degradation of women in the entertainment industry.

I remember sitting on an apple box in nothing but a pair of underwear. I can’t recall if I got to keep my slippers on.  I was topless, freezing, goosebumps all over.  The sound stage was giant, empty, and concrete-laden. Wardrobe, the only female crew member, was standing by somewhere behind me with a robe.

I was too nervous to speak up. I wanted to say that I didn’t have my back arched in the original shoot. I may have mumbled that or maybe it was just in my head. Either way, no one heard. No one cared. They would have seen the dailies. Their job was to match them for a special effects bit. In every single take on the main unit, my character – a simple, virginal, ‘country girl’ – was slumped over; torso leaning forward, curved back, bony spine protruding, decidedly unglamorous and unsexy – true to the character.  I was inexperienced but I wasn’t stupid – I knew they wanted me to stick my chest out, frozen bits and all. It was humiliating.

I knew the role involved nudity but the 2nd unit experience was night and day compared to the main shoot. The main shoot had a co-star who, upon learning it was my first ‘real’ gig and first love scene, guided and protected me through a vulnerable and awkward day. The director was nothing but class, dignity and professionalism. I was respected and taken care of by these two men.  But sitting on that apple box I was scared. I felt small. I felt like a whore; a word I don’t like to use, a word that a misogynistic culture has weaponized to shame women. I felt the shame.

I don’t know how long I sat there. It felt like a long time. Finally, wardrobe, in a huff, came over and put the big robe on me; saying something to the effect of not needing me to sit there nude while they set up the shot.  The tone in her voice suggested disgust, annoyance, reprimand. It suggested they knew better and were taking delight in this exploitation.

I didn’t know they weren’t filming. Even if I had, I didn’t know my rights. I didn’t know the rules. No one had explained them to me. I’m thankful she advocated for me. It was an important gesture. One I will never forget.

Nearly 20 years later, I still don’t know who that 2nd unit director was or any of that crew. Part of the humility is not wanting to look them in the face while they treat you like a series of body parts that exist, quite literally, only for their perverted pleasure. I blamed myself because I auditioned for the role. Part of me believed I wasn’t allowed to be upset because I agreed to do nudity. Again, I felt shame. The conditioning of patriarchy runs deep.

I wonder if I have worked with these faceless men since. Surely it’s not unrealistic that our paths would have crossed. Vancouver’s film industry is small. Do they remember what they did? Do they even care? Probably not. Indeed their actions were shameful however if a group of adult men feel so brazen, so entitled to objectify a woman with such ease, confidence and casualty – all in a day’s work – without fear of accountability or consequence it speaks volumes about the patriarchal stronghold of the industry they work in; an industry that tacitly accepts the degradation, harassment, and assault of women as commonplace.

Years later, I was working coat check at a nightclub on Granville Street in downtown Vancouver. A friend, one of the DJs, helped me get the job. Arguably, I had no business working in a nightclub: I enjoy going to bed early, I don’t drink, I am deeply introverted, and at the time experienced a great deal of social anxiety. However, the cloak room was a good fit. There was a barrier between me and the incoming humans. All I had to do was take coats and hand out tickets. When it was slow, I could read a book.  A few weeks in, management wanted me to be on the floor serving. I really didn’t want to but I did need the job so I tried to give it a go. One night, while talking to the manager and the owner about my performance, one of the bartenders – a ‘good guy’ and an actor now well-known – walked up behind me, put his hand between my legs and grabbed my vagina (Yes, a literal ‘grab ’em by the pussy’) then stroked his hand across my genitals, back between my legs until he reached my buttocks. I froze. I still don’t have adequate words to describe how that violation made me feel. By legal definition this was sexual assault and when I turned around, my assailant was walking away, looking back at me with what is best described as a shit-eating grin. I turned back around to face my employers, horrified, expecting them to say something. The owner told me I needed to smile more. I quit soon thereafter.

In 2005 I was finally able to quit all my day jobs.  I booked a series regular on a television series. The show ran for two seasons.  In the second season, a director requested I wear lingerie and allow him to take photos of me alone in his hotel room. The show was going to create a new opening sequence with the main cast. It was decided my character would be in a nightgown or negligee looking out a window.  Why my character needed to be in this state of dress, I’m not sure.  The director decided that he needed to, in his words, “test the light” before we shot my scene for the sequence. He had even gone to the trouble of raiding the wardrobe truck without my consent or knowledge to pick out lingerie for me to wear.  Here’s the thing: we have stand-ins to ‘test the light’ and even stand-ins would not be required to strip down to their squivvies to do so. That’s not how that works. Secondly, he wanted to “test the light” days before we were even going to shoot the actual sequence and in a private hotel room no less. Attempted private hotel room indiscretions aside, anyone in film knows natural light changes every moment of every day. One would “test the light” just prior to the actual shot, not days before.

I didn’t want to do it.  I felt uncomfortable. It didn’t make sense. It felt creepy and totally inappropriate. So I told the production manager. He advocated for me and the whole thing was shut down.  In the end, I received a long-winded ranting email from the director reprimanding me for almost ruining his life because, you know, he’s married with kids.

Later that year during the Vancouver International Film Festival, I attended an industry event. A group of us decided to head to a restaurant next door after the party.  There were several tens of people from the party that had come to this restaurant, most of whom I did not know. Chatting with another actress, I suddenly felt a hand on my bare calf. I looked over and a man sitting in a booth just a few feet away (another ‘good guy’, an actor, also now well-known) was reaching out and stroking my leg while saying, “Ooooh girl”. I had never met this man before. All the men in his booth and standing nearby watched and did nothing. Some of these men I knew – two I had worked with on my show. They were ‘good guys’.

I realized then that it didn’t matter if it was my first job or if I was a well-seasoned professional and star of a show:  my womanhood always automatically negated my value and dictated the treatment I was to tolerate.  The harassment, exploitation, and sexism are ongoing.  The aforementioned tales are but a mere sampling of near two decades in this industry.  I’ve experienced lewd behavior from fellow actors, directors, producers, cinematographers, photographers, crew members both above and below the line. From inappropriate and unwanted touching, to harassment and stalking, to verbal bullying, to sexual comments, my experiences are not unique. They are the norm. They are so much the norm that many women have feared and continue to fear to speak out.  As a result, many women internalize and normalize the behavior.

Speaking up against exploitation and harassment in this industry meant and still means you are a trouble-maker at best or overly dramatic, hysterical, a liar, or a ‘crazy bitch’ at worst. No one wants to hire a trouble-maker or a hysterical, dramatic, lying, crazy bitch. Our economic livelihood and reputation is dependent on our silence and our compliance.

This is our job. This is how we make a living. How we support our families, our lives, pay our bills, pay school fees, put food on the table, and personally how I was able to start and fund a charity. And no, I do not and should not have to get another job. People who abuse their power, who delight in degradation, who harass and bully should be dismissed full stop.

The entertainment industry is full of passionate creatives, dreamers, innovators, hard workers, and good people.  But it’s also brimming with toxic masculinity, sexism, and male privilege (not to mention racism, white privilege and transphobia). It’s full of seemingly ‘good men’ that feel perfectly comfortable degrading, exploiting and harassing women.  It’s also full of ‘good men’ that stand by and do nothing when they see this bad (and also criminal) behavior.

We cannot create a compassionate, equal and peaceful world if bullies, predators, and complicit bystanders are continuously being protected while victims are blamed, shamed and ostracized for their courage.  Equally, we cannot have a world of empathy and kindness if we favour our privileged bubbles over the rights of others. There’s been far too much passivity of ‘good men’ and too much silencing of brave women cis and trans alike.

This is not about a battle of the sexes. This is not about ‘man hating’. Nor is it an invitation to tell me I should be grateful because women in such-and-such country still don’t have the rights I have. To make such claims and arguments is lazy and reduces us all. This is about centuries of systematic oppression of half the world’s population, an ideology that has spread across cultures. This is about human rights; our right to be safe, free from harm, harassment and abuse. This is about shining a light in dark spaces so we can collectively heal and grow. This is about human decency. .

If you are currently facing harassment, abuse, or exploitation, my advice: With all the love in your heart and courage in your bones speak up, demand to be heard. Find the good-hearted people, surround yourself with them. Find organizations that can support you, provide legal support and protection. You deserve to be here. You deserve to be safe always. Don’t let anyone steal your dreams. Don’t let anyone make you small.  Know your rights and exercise them. Blaze your trail.

Elissa

About Elissa

Elissa is an ecofeminist interdisciplinary artist and activist. To learn more about her work visit mylifeon.earth