AN AFTERNOON WITH MARY MCDONNELL AT FREDONIA’S COLLEGE OF VISUAL AND PERFORMING ARTS

PART I: THE BURDEN OF PERFECTION, BY CHRISTINE ROGERS

 

On Saturday October 20th, Mary McDonnell came back to her Alma Mater, SUNY Fredonia to talk to the theater and film students and have a public conversation, on the occasion of the homecoming weekend. Truly at ease and grounded in her home and roots, Ms. McDonnell had a conversation about her career, acting, and the business of acting with Dr. Jessica Hillman-McCord, Associate Professor in the Department of Theater and Dance, whose enthusiastic students were in the audience. We have heard her speak publicly several times and we can say without hesitation that this conversation was the best to date. The conversation was intellectually stimulating with so much depth on the various topics that were addressed during the afternoon. Ms. McDonnell took many questions from the audience, mostly students, professors and actors. She listened attentively to everyone and was able to address all questions in an open-hearted and compassionate manner, focusing on each person fully. Her answers were deep, generous, practical and very helpful. She may have stolen a few hearts that afternoon and certainly made many new fans. She is spreading love generously around her. Rather that transcribing everything that was said from memory (recording was forbidden), we will reflect individually on several topics that were addressed during the afternoon in essays and share our thoughts in this blog.

Mary Heyl wrote an excellent article with the highlights of this very interesting conversation for the Observer. Find it here.

I start today with my own reflection: “The Burden of Perfection”.

 

THE BURDEN OF PERFECTION

A look on the media industry in the era of social media, a reflection on Mary McDonnell’s conversation at SUNY Fredonia

 

One of the topic that was discussed by Ms. McDonnell in her conversation with Dr. Jessica Hillman-McCord was how social media has changed, in the past few years, the way actors do business. It is absolutely true that technology has shifted tremendously the dynamics of the business and the communication with the public. She expressed how the actor and the movie used to be mysterious in older times, when we knew nothing about them and, maybe with a hint of nostalgia, how this aura of mystery has completely disappeared, as in our present time information is now on open forums where everything is disclosed and the public has come to expect it. In Birmingham two weeks ago, she added that the actors used to be sort of inside a “cocoon”, maybe yearning to have back some protection and softness around her, and not being so exposed to the –sometimes– brutal rawness of social media. It is an environment that felt safe, when so much in the outside world is threatening.

I remember the glamour of old-times movie stars, perfectly smooth faces, gorgeous hair, slender bodies, photographed perfectly in an aura of soft light, soothing away every little skin flaw expertly concealed under layers of primer, filler, foundation and powder. They moved gracefully from fancy convertible cars to opulent mansions, hidden from the California sun and the public, under wide borders hats, black sunglasses, wide scarves and loose silky clothing. The nature of the film medium, the Kodak film, first in black and white, allowed diffuse images, which added to the shroud of mystery. Generations of young people idolized Hollywood stars, modern Gods and Goddesses, inaccessible and perfect. It created a distance, and the creative process was hardly ever mentioned publicly. Maybe people used to go to the movies to dream of lives unreachable to them, where, even with the struggles told in the plot, the heroes and heroines always looked perfect and perfectly groomed, despite often difficult scenes. The image of the perfect woman got burned in our psyche, always gorgeous, always perfectly dressed, slim, flawless and young. With time, there was an evolution, color movies, and stories that told of the struggles of common people, based more on reality. Ms. McDonnell has to be commended for her incredible portrayal of Stands With a Fist, in Dances with Wolves, which represented the reality of her character, her Lakota accent, the persistent trauma of her childhood as she was rescued by the Native tribe, the natural -almost absent- makeup, wild untamed hair, and even unshaven armpits, which would have been the case for anyone living at the time among Native Americans. She was authentic, just like the movie was. I love completely how she so realistically represented the life of a white woman in a Native tribe. Even as movie plots slowly democratized, somewhere in the collective psyche there was still this perception of actors and actresses as part of ‘royalty’. This was amplified with most definitely stories about male heroes and certainly a sexist and ageist bias with women put in supporting roles, always perfectly beautiful and impossibly young.

With a lot of discomfort, I recall when the grandmother of relatives was sampling weekly the German tabloids and telling the saucy secrets of some members of the monarchy in Europe. Celebrities were hiding on their vacation places and paparazzi were chasing…, no, they were hunting them undercover to take pictures of them in private moments with telephoto lenses. And then, Princess Diana’s accident happened in Paris, largely caused by paparazzi chasing the car to photograph her in intimate moments. With her death, I believe, a lot changed. The public became more aware of the damage done by these repeated breaches of privacy and of the extent of that hunting. I remember vividly some of the comments I heard in the wake of her death, how the disgust at what a certain press was doing to public persons was spreading. The 90’s and early 2000’s were really transition years between regular press and social media. Such disgrace, hunting people, still happen, I’m sure. I would not know because I am not interested and I do not read those magazines. Certainly, there will be always some journalists or fans, who invade people’s privacy. There will be people who hack private photographic cloud storage accounts and publish private pictures or emails, as we saw in the past few years. Yet, I believe that the public has been now educated. There will be identity theft and not just for public persons. This can happen to anyone. And, yes absolutely, celebrities are a lot more scrutinized. This can happen to me as well, because I am a teacher in a public school and my behavior is scrutinized on social media. While I tweet about politics on my personal account, I never post any picture that features me with a glass of wine, or I never comment publicly on very private moments. I am careful and even so, even while being careful, I know that at any moment I can make a mistake and tweet something that will be misinterpreted and repeated everywhere with a negative spin. There is certainly a danger with social media and new technology. It’s a tool, just like a hammer is a tool. You can build a house with a hammer; you can also hurt someone with it or drop it on your foot. It is really how you choose to use it.

We often think of the past with nostalgia and our memory tends to erase the negatives of a situation we looked back as “ideal”. I am old enough to remember times when the internet was not present everywhere in our lives and the only information on movies and celebrities was found in magazines, newspapers, the occasional interviews and, sadly, tabloids. Movie stars were glorified, deified and certainly not at the level of the common human. I felt quite frankly that it lacked authenticity. That distance, I think, created more readily an atmosphere of idolization, prone to objectification. The public was easily made to forget that actors were human beings, with their qualities and their problems just like everyone else. With distance and a public image depicting physical perfection, it is was lot easier to objectify celebrities. I wondered what it felt like to be hiding behind a mask of perfection continuously. The burden of perfection can be particularly taxing, it seems; it can drive anorexia, self-esteem problems, fear of aging, agoraphobia. The pressure to excel and to constantly look gorgeous not only can impact the psychology the actresses, but also of their public. Despite the more recent democratization of the media, the image of physical perfection is still very pervasive in pop culture. It has an incredibly strong reducing impact, not only on the actresses, but on the roles offered to them and on the quality of the stories shown on television and in movies. The representation of women on screen has a strong influence on girls, how they perceive their value as human beings and what is offered to them in society. The damage of glorifying perfection is particularly felt in younger girls and women, who want to emulate a physical perfection that is all but natural. Times are changing. A certain public has become educated; women in particular have woken up. The recent MeToo movement, the activism born in response to the current political current, has created a wave of natural feminism, which is now invading every single layer of society. The women’s awakening is reflected in the past couple of years in what women demand to see on television and movies: stories that tell their stories, actresses that resemble them, with their flaws, their imperfect bodies, their wrinkles and the raw emotion that they experience in real life. The unreachable perfect goddess is gone, and is being replaced by a natural woman, who is playing deep and complex roles, showing vulnerability, not afraid to show scars and wrinkles. The complexity of women’s characters, their vulnerability and their power, telling stories which are not fairytales, but deeply grounded in reality is what we need. It represents the authenticity we all are yearning for. More than ever women need this now.

I want to see movies or television shows which represent complex women, with layers of strength and vulnerability. I want to see them grow and become empowered, their failures and their victories. I do not care for their perfection or their younger age. There is a deep beauty in wrinkles, the beauty of a life lived with emotions, of tears and laughter, of humanness. When Oliver Sacks first described his patients, who had been suspended for years in a catatonic state, in the book ‘Awakenings’, he stated that their faces had hardly any wrinkles. Wrinkles are the product of fully living with depth and authenticity. Ageing beautifully is also ageing with confidence, serenity and acceptance. If the high definition digital cameras will now show us the imperfections of a face, I welcome it for the authenticity it brings. It is something we all struggle with. To accept our own lives, we also have to accept that our defects are also part of ourselves; our flaws are also part of our beauty and our humanness. Nobody is perfect; the imperfections are what make us human. They are what is beautiful in each of us.

Social media, despite its flaws, allows for more control than before. I can decide to use it or not; I can decide how I use it. I am in the driver seat of my social media communication. It is a tool that allows for better communication with authenticity, when it is used well. It can be used for creativity as well, and Ms. McDonnell illustrated how the industry has changed with the technology. It is not just social media, but streaming programs on platform like Netflix and Hulu; on demand shows are now immediately available to purchase. The audience, directly buying programs, feels more like a customer. Television is not a service anymore; it is a product. And so, the public feels more entitled to react, criticize and even demand, a certain content in programs that they have purchased.

When I was a kid and you wanted to watch something, you’d better had to organize your schedule to be on time in front of your television. It was an event. I still remember watching the first moon landing in front of the old black and white television. It was public television and there were no commercials. There were no remote controls. Changing the channel required to be bored enough with the program to actually want to get up and check the two other channels for something more interesting. Yes, there were only three channels on my television in France in the 70’s. People were still talking on the phone and you were carrying that bulky grey phone as long as the cord would let you to continue watching your program while you talked, since there was no other way to see it. Waiting for a second broadcast could take months. I used to take pictures of the shows I liked, photographing the screen so that I would remember parts of the plot, having tempered with the camera for the perfect shutter speed setting. Our lack of focus or attention, which I probably had growing up, was maybe not so much of an issue, because there were far fewer activities to distract us. And out of my boredom, days after days stuck in my parents’ house, came many works of art.

Now, every program is available at the tip of our fingers, I rarely watch live television anymore, only maybe Rachel Maddow. I watch Netflix, Hulu and buy shows on Apple TV. If someone had told my ten years old self that I would be able to do that forty-four years later, I would not have believed them. The VCR was, already by itself, a little miracle, freeing schedules. There is now almost instant feedback in the creative process as the public interacts on line with the creators of shows and actors. The public also has become educated and understands the creative process a lot more. It has become democratized, in a way, as the technology enables everyone to express their creativity directly online and broadcast it. I imagine it can be very stimulating to be in a conversation with the public for a creator, producer or actor about a show or movie. This certainly has a huge creative power and also the reverse situation is that the criticism can be very hash and sudden, and spread in a viral manner in a few hours or even less.

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Tweet from Mary McDonnell after she changed her profile picture

 

Ms. McDonnell mentioned the reactions to the death of Sharon Raydor, the beloved character she played on the TV show Major Crimes and how the social media uproar and anger that followed the demise of Sharon midseason took her by surprise. While her acting was absolutely not at the heart of the controversy (her acting deserved all awards), the anger and backlash that were displayed on line was very intense. She rationalizes this by saying that the political times, with the 2016 elections and also with the mobilization of women against abuse, was in part a trigger for the public reaction. I think that a certain public has become much more aware how the media may distort the image of women. After simmering underground for several years, the injustice of women’s representation in the media came out to the surface and became conscious in the public. A beloved character was terminated two thirds into the season for reasons (in my opinion), which had a lot to do with misogyny, ageism and disrespect, questionable creative choices –the emphasis put on a secondary character–, and mostly an internal feud with the network. The removal of Ms. McDonnell’s name in the credits for the remaining episodes created additional public outrage, with her supporters changing their profile pictures to her credit screen. This was prompted by the original idea of María Traver, which was propagated by Julia Krassnik and me. Within a couple of hours most social media accounts of Ms. McDonnell’s supporters had turned black. That is the power of social media. Ms. McDonnell is right when she uses this particular example as the way social media works, give instant feedback, and transforms the industry. It is indeed a very revealing example. When the public and supporters of a show become involved in the creative process, as they were in this case interacting directly with actors and producers throughout many years, and, when they are also the consumers of a product that they have helped create, it is logical that the public will also become engaged and more entitled. Producers and creators cannot choose to involve the audience, take questions, and directly interact over years, and then not take into account what the public said. Years of such relationship create a covenant with the public. At the end, the public is also buying a product. If producers promise the public certain developments in the characters or show, they are held accountable directly to the public a lot more than ever before. In my opinion, the dissonance between what was said -and promised- online in the many interactions established for years with the creators, and, what was created ultimately in the last season of Major Crimes, killing a character who had empowered women in the public before the end of the season and subsequently removing the moral legacy of the character in the final story arc, gave rise to the social media storm that took everyone by surprise. The public felt betrayed, as a creator sought feedback and yet followed his own agenda, which was his right, however breaking promises in the process (“I will not kill anymore main characters”) and then calling the more vocal protesters “irrational fans” hereby invalidating their anger, which inflamed the argument further as they felt disrespected. The covenant between loyal supporters of many years and creators was broken, and the audience reacted strongly.

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My Twitter notifications on the day we all changed our profile picture

 

With a direct contact to the public, a person can forge some more personal authentic relationships. Actors can take this opportunity to reinforce their humanness, and connect with the public on a basis of understanding their human nature and who they are as persons. They have good days and bad days, just like anyone. They appreciate rainbows, beautiful sunsets, share the accomplishments of beloved family members, and share pictures of their pets. They love certain foods, and so on. The have fears and pain, joy and elation, quiet moment and excited ones. While sharing some human moments, they can allow the public to know them more without necessarily sacrificing their private life. Everyone is human. Everyone wants to be happy and suffer less. Sharing our common humanity is more than ever important in a world that is so divided and divisive. Spreading love and compassion, togetherness and connection, in a world where we are hurting from hate, division and intransigence is becoming increasingly important. We have a voice. We have a purpose. We need to use this voice to create a better world. Social media can be the platform for all kinds of activism and the fruitful exchange of ideas. It can nurture creativity rather than stifle it. I have said this before in other instances, I believe that the relationships we forge online or in person do not depend on the medium, they depend on who we are. Social media is a tool for communication. Just like any tool, it can be used well or not. Yes, it may be easier to fake an identity online (and I know some who have done this), but the sincerity that is shared depends on the person and the choices that person makes in the way she wants to interact with others. Liars lie everywhere, not just on social media. If you are a genuine person, open and willing to communicate, then there is in social media a way to reach out to others with love and authenticity that is very powerful. I strongly believe that people who genuinely engage with their supporters probably will earn respect and that this respect with prevent abuse.

Ms. McDonnell talked about how the business has changed and now actors have to have a brand. She gave solid advice to the students with openness and honesty. She exemplified what character and authenticity look like by her attentiveness to the students’ questions, her humility and the sincerity of her answers. Actors are selling their bodies, their talent, their emotions and all of this is part of their brand. With the development of modern methods of communication, actors are not just artists anymore but also a product, which they have to build and sell, and at the same time the CEO of their own company selling that same product. It is business, marketing, law, management and finance. It seems harsh to think of persons objectified that way, yet it is true. Not only it is true, it is also essential in order to promote their work and find work. This type of objectification of actors and actresses may be necessary, but care has to be taken not to lose the very core of authenticity that is part of their humanness. With the advance of technology, a social media profile also becomes part of the actor’s brand, which is scrutinized by future producers. I do not know the business well enough to recognize what producers are really looking for. It is clear, however, that the simplest and laziest way to gauge someone these days may be to look at their social media accounts. There is a fine line and a difficult balance to walk, it seems: how much to share out in the public without compromising the actor’s brand and one’s privacy. Too little and one becomes cold and inaccessible, too much and one opens their character to scrutiny. We are so conditioned to expect physical perfection of body and faces, that some cannot tolerate, or fear, not having it. It can become the wall we hide behind. I happen to personally think that there is nothing more beautiful that the natural beauty of someone without or very little makeup, that let their soul and their light shine. How does one manages to keep authenticity without compromising privacy? It seems exhausting just thinking about it! It is indeed a double edge sword, where private life can be violated and exposed publicly on social media, yet conversely, communication with the public is now part of the creative process of many shows with instant feedback. Additionally, “the brand” that attracts the public may not be the same one that attract the producers. There may be a very deep disconnect between what the public is looking for and what producers are looking for.  We can hope that valid efforts to control one’s public image will never alter authenticity and genuineness, the spontaneity and the depth of emotions an actress decides to share with others, which are really the qualities that inspire many.

The dissonance between the representation of women on screen and what educated intellectual modern women want is at the core of the quiet revolution happening to become a natural modern feminism. Times simply have changed. Perfection is outdated, it has been revealed for the burden it is, in actuality, especially on young women in search of genuine representation on the screen. Through social media and its creative power, young women are looking for authenticity and the genuine representation of women in their life. They want to see their mothers, their role models, their boss, their girlfriends, and themselves. They want to see their vulnerabilities and their strengths, their empowerment and the obstacles they face as they grow into power. Women want to see actresses, which share their complexity on and off the screen. In a political climate that restrain women’s rights in the USA more than ever, young women are looking for inspiration to face and fight for their rights, their lives and their future. Let’s give them the stories they want to hear and let’s do this with genuineness and authenticity.

 

 

PART II: OF DIVAS, PERSONAL BRANDS AND DIVINE PURPOSES, BY MARÍA TRAVER

 

Many of the topics that Mary McDonnell covered during her talk at SUNY Fredonia last October resonated with me in such a way that figuring out where to begin is proving to be a struggle. Her insightful replies to the questions addressed at her, often wrapped in her trademark sense of humor, set the tone for many of the thoughts and reflections that have been plaguing me since. Comfortably seated among the audience, I found myself naturally responding to most of the topics she covered in deep, meaningful ways. This essay stems from said state of mind and from my need to further explore those topics, to elaborate on them. It is an effort to safely store in my memory everything that was discussed that afternoon (snow-cold outside the theatre, brimming with warm emotion inside) as well as to explain (probably to myself in the first place) my own response to them. Whenever Mary McDonnell speaks, this is what happens to me; she has this uncanny ability to awaken parts of my emotional landscape that I was not aware existed. I am used to it now, and grateful for the way it enriches my life.

 

OF DIVAS, PERSONAL BRANDS AND DIVINE PURPOSES

 

One of the first things that Ms. McDonnell explained during the talk was how she had no ‘attitude’ when she first set foot at Fredonia. Although ‘attitude’ can also have a negative connotation, in this context I understood it as the courage to speak her mind, to go against the current, to stand up for what she believed in; the determination to pursue what she really wanted. Thinking back to my university years, I saw myself reflected in this comment like in a polished mirror. Some of the things that now spill from my lips on a regular basis, often with no filter wanted or required between brain and mouth, would have made my young self blush up to the hairline. The young student I was 20-something years ago (I am feeling tempted to conceal that figure with a fake cough like Ms. McDonnell jokingly did during her talk) had the temper, the determination, deeply-rooted values, consistently brilliant grades, but too many necessary words and actions got stuck in my throat or lost in my fear. I struggled with a volatile self-esteem and lacked a frightful amount of courage.

Those of us who are not naturally born with an attitude, or who do not develop one early, most likely acquire one as our career progresses, and as life starts to hit us hard during rough times. We tap on our inner resources, find our path and our voice, learn to fly and to fight, and there is no going back. Even naturally diplomatic people like me quickly (and happily) reach a point where they realize there is no way their voice will get silenced ever again. Of course, like most things in life, standing up for what you believe in is a decision you make as much as the consequence of your personal and professional growth. It does not quite happen without your conscious intervention. It is a choice. No one becomes courageous without practicing courage.

Here is the paradox I find in all this: when I was attending university, I did not have an attitude, but it seemed out of question that I would get fair chances to develop my full potential along the way. My parents provided me with best-quality education and had a lot of faith in what I could achieve. My two grandmothers (born in the early 20th century) had jobs and one of them (my great-aunt, who was my paternal grandmother to all emotional and practical effects) never married or had children: she provided for herself, she traveled the world on her own. My great-grandmother had a job too and she and her husband moved cities or changed houses following her career progress, not his. I feel both humbled and proud to have such a dumbfounding example in my heritage. My mom had the job she had always dreamed of; my unmarried, childless aunts did, too. Nothing led me to think that I had to fit in some pre-established pattern or that I could not accomplish whatever I envisaged. There was nothing in my background or my upbringing to warn me, to prepare me for glass ceilings, double standards, paternalist stances.

As a woman with a 20 year-long career, I have sadly experienced already the ‘bad if you speak up, bad if you don’t’ dilemma. More often than not, if you do not stand up for your beliefs they will just be ignored; if you do, you will be labeled as ‘negative’ or ‘prone to meltdowns’. Confronted with this alternative, I hereby subscribe what Ms. McDonnell said at Fredonia: if you are starting your career you might need to be a little more diplomatic, but always, always, speak your mind, demand what is fair. Personally, I am done indulging certain attitudes. A few years ago, during an argument at work I realized I had raised my voice a little too much so I softened my tone and added ‘in my humble opinion’. My male manager smiled and commented: ‘Your opinion is anything but humble.’ Although he said so in an amused, friendly way, I doubt he meant it as praise but that is how I decided to take it regardless: this is how far I have gotten from that 20-year-old student with no attitude. Let us not be afraid to become (in Ms. McDonnell’s words) divas.

All this is important also because, like Ms. McDonnell stated, in the end you are alone. This does not mean you will not find nice colleagues and managers, good mentors, the right kind of advice, or people who care; it can happen, it has happened to me, with both men and women. But in the end your way is yours and yours only, and you should not expect anyone else to figure it out in your place and lay it ahead of you. Besides, nobody will stand up for you if you do not do it yourself to begin with.

This whole speaking up idea is closely linked to the advice Ms. McDonnell gave to several students, both male and female: be yourself, stay true to your inner voice, do what you believe in. Then you might find the right kind of people along the way, people with your same set of beliefs, same sensitivity, similar or complementary goals, and then you might design a joint project, start to build up something greater together. But everything starts with staying true to yourself. This is one of my core beliefs and this probably explains why I loved this advice so much. I was raised in a deep respect for diversity, was taught to acknowledge and appreciate it. According to my parents, what matters in people is their values, their actions, and their good hearts; everything else is just different features we must respect and appreciate. The world needs all kinds of kinds to keep going, and each of us has a mission. If the word ‘mission’ sounds too heavy or makes you think of a future where everything is predetermined, replace it by ‘purpose’. I have always believed that each of us has a role to play and that role is intrinsically related to our inner calling. What the world needs from you is that you have the guts to become the person you are meant to be. If it were for me, humanity would have never set foot on the Moon and the first surgical operation would be yet to be performed, just to mention two facts: I would never have chosen to be an astronaut or a surgeon. But the world is a safer and more interesting place thanks to astronauts and surgeons. As for me, I have other ways of influencing the world for the better. And it is my duty and my responsibility (this is how I see it) to figure them out and put them to good use.

Besides, from a purely practical point of view, what you love most is what you will be best at. You just do not get to become the best possible version of yourself by going against the dictates of your heart. Furthermore, it will only turn you bitter. There is nothing in this life worth paying the price of forgetting who you are. This does not mean we cannot change: we can, and we should because no change means no growth. This just means we should never live a lie. Of course, we often have to do things we are not exactly excited about; we take up jobs that do not inspire us because we need to pay the bills… Life happens, we compromise. But we should try to make the choice to develop what matters to us too. We should try and find creative ways to remember who we are, to nurture our souls, and to put out there a little piece of us, of all that we love and do best, for the others’ benefit, enjoyment, and inspiration.

In my life, I have also found a very comforting truth: when you fail, when your trust is betrayed, when things go wrong, if your behavior was shaped after your heart’s demands and your beliefs, it never was a mistake. If this makes you hesitate, just imagine for a second how that same failure would taste if you did not have the consolation of knowing that, at least, you were trying to make life count: you were trying to pursue your dreams, or to do the right thing. It might sting less (since you would not care about or believe in what you were doing), but it would be meaningless: the wasted outcome of a wasted process. However, when we act out of love everything has an intrinsic meaning because it was true and heartfelt, even when the outcome is not what you expected. When we act out of love (for other people, for our dreams, or for what we do) nothing is ever wasted.

Another topic that Ms. McDonnell addressed during her talk and that is, in part, related to this, is the need to be or to become a ‘brand’. She mentioned this to several students in the context of acting: it is no longer just about the art, it is about selling yourself as a product, about managing your image and the expectations of those you would like to be cast or hired by. I am no expert in the performing arts business but I believe that this works in a similar way in other professions as well. A good friend of mine, who is a physiotherapist, explained to me once how she had delegated all the business-related tasks (advertising, appointments, invoicing…) to a good friend of hers because she only wanted to focus on providing care to her patients. Diverting from the brand topic for a second, this is just an example of how the core of any profession is mingled with a business-like side which is not always welcome yet absolutely necessary if we are to make a living out of it.

Each and every time that any of us tries to get hired for any job, part, or project, we are trying to sell ourselves as a product. As we gradually become better known in our company, industry, or sector, we are attached a ‘brand’ which is made by the perceptions others have on us based on everything we said and did so far, as well as on the information they gathered about us from other sources. We are seen as a product with distinct features, more or less fit for a specific purpose or project. This is going to happen whether we like it or not, so we better be aware of it and start to actively manage our personal brand.

In job interviews, conversations with our managers and many other situations, we try to please the person who is interviewing us or who has the power to grant us what we pursue. We all try to come across as distinct, interesting; and to tell our interlocutors what we think they expect to hear. We intend to give them what they want. However, this should never happen in detriment of our true self. Authenticity is more engaging and sells better than any impersonation (and ultimately, you do not want to be hired or cast as someone you are not; this kind of experiment usually does not end up well). Managing your personal brand, your trademark, is very different from selling a fake image. It is about enhancing what you are, not about pretending to be someone else. This is marketing, and there is nothing wrong about wanting to cast a nice image and deciding what features, personality traits or personal strengths you want to highlight for others to notice and focus on. We also put on make-up and dress up when we want to seduce someone or cause a nice impression, don’t we? But it does not mean we are willing to lie: all we want is to be found attractive and appealing while still ourselves. There must be very few things sadder than suspecting you are not liked or loved just for who you are, but for the person you pretend to be; and consequently, attracting the wrong kind of people, those who are not a good match for the real you.

A particularly interesting aspect of this whole personal brand and image issue is the social media: that wonderful world where anything is possible, where we can become anything or anyone we want. We tend to project our nicest, wittiest, funniest occurrences, more attractive selves on them as on a huge window display. Again, I see nothing wrong in the social media as long as our interactions remain based on our authenticity; as long as we do not lie about who we are. Like in our face to face interactions, you do not need to give away every detail of yourself, but what you say must be true. It should reflect who you are. I also do believe that liars are going to lie (like haters are going to hate) both in the social media and anywhere else, and that they get caught sooner or later anyway. The social media are not good or bad per se: what is good or bad is how we use them.

All of this can get trickier if you are a well-known person or a celebrity; the need to project a clear, well-defined, attractive personal brand; the need to let yourself be seen while preserving your privacy. Pretty much all of us try to find a balance between what we say in public and what we keep for us (or what we reveal to our close friends only): however, those of us who are not famous can, to some extent, be more carefree (although we should at least be mindful of how checking the social media profiles of candidates has become common practice among HR managers and recruiters). Properly balancing these public and private aspects is paramount for public personalities, and they also need to be more careful since the implications for their careers, or even their safety if things get out of hand, can also be bigger. Anyway, from my point of view, it is okay, even advisable, to be genuine, to interact naturally and from your true self. This and being ready to sell your private life are radically different things.

The internet era and the social media pose a challenge in that they make the information others have on us harder to control. They make it more complex to balance these public-private elements. However, they also provide us with a much better platform to manage and sell our brand, to be seen as we want to be seen, to share the information we want to share and get our messages across directly to the public; all of this while enabling a world of enriching interactions in all directions that would not be possible otherwise. In my opinion, your personal brand is not some made-up impersonation, a wall of sorts for your true self and your private life to hide behind. Your personal brand is made of what you really are (just not everything you are), and it will shine bright if you let your true self shine through.

Another aspect of Ms. McDonnell’s talk that I found particularly insightful was the discussion about the feminine and masculine elements. By nature, I love the idea of balance between different energies; I like the notion of forces that complement and enrich one another. This crazy world we live in goes round through the expression and the integration of different realities, through the acknowledgement of diversity. This is where I am coming from and why this part of the talk was so compelling to me. Let me divert for a second just to say that diversity does not mean everybody gets a pass for their beliefs and actions: not everything is right as long as we invoke diversity. To me, whenever respect for human rights (and for the other in general) is lost, it is no longer about diversity but about fairness (or lack thereof).

When it comes to gender, historically men have been taught to apologize for their weaknesses and women for their strengths: I subscribe every word of this statement by the US writer Lois Wyse. While we women are still struggling to be treated and recognized under the same conditions and parameters (and in the same numbers) as our male colleagues and counterparts, oppression for them has come by means of not being allowed to freely express their emotions or to pursue roles, goals and dreams traditionally considered as ‘too feminine’ (by the way, as if there was something wrong with the feminine). If for us women the path to equality mostly looks like a fight, for our men it is a lot about letting go. Personally, I have no problems with the notion of ‘strong women’ since I have also had the chance to meet quite a few ‘weak men’ too. There is weak and strong, nurturing and distant, fight and calm, masculine and feminine, everywhere in different proportions. To me, the best sign of true equality in the world would be that we no longer talk about feminine or masculine qualities but just about qualities that are present in different measures in each individual, whether it is a man or a woman (way to go, I know). I have encountered very motherly dads (if I am allowed to use this expression) and ruthless, cruel female managers, just to give two examples. We will all be free when expectations on our personality or behavior based just on our gender no longer hang over our heads.

Equality, to me, it not sameness; equality happens when we all, men and women, have the same chances to pursue whatever our dreams are made of; when everyone is allowed to fully express their true nature without being judged on gendered preconceptions, and to define their success on their own terms, not on social standards. Also, I believe it is wrong to demonize extremely feminine stances and behaviors in girls (or masculine in boys): for instance, not every girl will want to become a successful business woman or the next renowned scientist. Some will be genuinely happy taking care of their families. Let us allow that too. Let us just create the conditions so that every person expresses their true selves freely, and let us respect the outcome. This can only be achieved through the right education for both men and women. Similarly, I do not need to see equal numbers of men and women in all professions: real life is not math. What I need is that every woman who wants to pursue a traditionally male career is not discouraged but encouraged, and has the same chances as her male colleagues every step of the way. This said, we women are still so dramatically outnumbered by men in most of the positions that matter that I am more than eager to see those numbers grow. All I am saying is that equality, to me, is in getting rid of prejudices and in having the proper set of conditions in place for everyone to benefit from. In this ideal situation, I can trust that the outcome would be the one it was meant to be by every individual’s free choice, regardless it reflects a 50/50 proportion everywhere or not. After all, as they say, there is nothing more unfair than treating everyone the same way.

Finally, to me, the way towards equality is not an ‘us against them’ where we women must now prevail as in some sort of reprisal or revenge; it is about building a fairer world together. This is why I think it is important to include men, to count on them, to listen to them, to integrate their vision in our fight. Of course, I am not talking about lending an ear to the patriarchy: they have already been listened to way too much in the last couple of centuries. But we all know men who support us, who dedicate to their children the same time (sometimes more) than their female partners; we have husbands and friends who encourage us and celebrate our successes; who are caring and thoughtful, who are as committed as we are to every aspect of life, and not just to their careers. Maybe I am lucky, but I know a bunch of them. And it is vital for me to know what those men think and feel who have the right attitude and behavior. I feel that ignoring their point of view could backfire: the smart move is to include them, not to make them feel rejected through those ‘all men are to be blamed’ attitudes we encounter sometimes. As I said before, we are not doing this without or against the men of the world: we are doing this against what is unfair.

The last of the ideas that Ms. McDonnell mentioned that I would like to address here is the notion of ‘divine purpose’. My understanding of her usage of this term was some sort of guiding force that brought her the right kind of chances, the right people in the right moment at different points over the course of her career. Chances and people that shaped her path in meaningful ways. While I have some trouble imagining ‘someone’ throwing us events or opportunities as baits of sorts, I am a very spiritual person and I have sometimes experienced the certainty that something or someone had come to me at a specific moment for a reason. I cannot, will not and do not want to turn my back to this feeling of causality, of ‘meant to be’.

Over the course of both my personal and professional life, some people and events have touched me in deep, meaningful ways; have tapped on the specific resources I needed to discover or develop in that period of my life with the precision of a clockmaker. They have created both a catharsis and an epiphany; an awakening of my own self to a new reality or level of consciousness; they have started a new path for growth and opened my heart and mind to a world of possibilities. Everything and everyone is connected and there is too much we do not know on how the universe operates for me to deny the possibility of having come across some people for more than just pure chance. I would find that pretension arrogant of me, apart from the fact that I simply need to acknowledge these events, the influence of such people in my life and how they showed up at exactly the right moment. I must do them justice. In some cases, it might have been me who discovered them because my intuition (this funny companion I always seem to be carrying with me) told me where to search for what I needed (both the need and the search happened without any conscious intervention on my part at all). It is also possible that my mind is just conferring a common meaning or ‘intention’ to otherwise disconnected elements. In other situations, however, there is no way I could have known or anticipated it. The concurrence of different factors clearly oriented to the same purpose in my life has sometimes been uncanny.

Years ago, I fell sick in one of my lowest moments as a human being in general and as a woman in particular. It happened as I had just been accepted to a Master in Business program for women only, specifically tailored to encourage the female presence in decision-making jobs and positions. I managed to keep up with my studies during my long sick leave and my treatments (with no little help from my mom and the two most extraordinary men of my life: my husband and my dad). This business program which I went through in such a fragile situation opened my eyes to the beauty and the strength of women’s sisterhood. At the same time, I started to watch Battlestar Galactica and I found Laura Roslin. I have no idea why I chose to do so in that moment when it had been repeatedly recommended to me by a friend for years. I recovered physically while my soul was awakened, my strength came back to me; I started to find meaning in the wreckage. I found my voice as a woman and my purpose as a human being once again. The rest is history. Both Laura Roslin (and BSG in general) and this women-only business program were catalysts to my recovery, my awakening, the levers I needed to become a new kind of woman: the one my own personal story had set me out to be, the one I was probably ready and meant to become. But before all this happened I was too weak to make the change, let alone to consciously figure it out. How these two elements concurred in this point of my life to turn me into a truly awakened woman and set me back on track is beyond me. I do not have it in me to question it. I cannot explain why or how any of this happened but I know it did, I know it was true and I feel grateful for it. Several years have passed since and I still find myself (my new self) firmly planted on my feet with the sense of purpose these events imbued me with. They truly changed me, or maybe they just found me. Either way, they made me who I am today. This was not the first time that I experienced this kind of awakening in my life, and I know it will not be the last.

I am going through a fragile period now but sometimes, during my low moments, I find myself looking back and then I realize I need to trust whatever comes. I need to get through this one day at a time and believe there are invaluable gifts in store for me in the future (just like there were gifts for me in the past) if I am willing to take what life is throwing at me with patience, a sense of humor and the wish to learn to let go. Whatever will surprise me and warm my heart in the future is, maybe, starting today.

All this has happened before, all this will happen again.

 

 

PART III: DIVAS, DOUBLE STANDARDS AND FANDOMS, BY JULIA KRASSNIK

 

One of the most encouraging, most helpful experiences as a student is, without a doubt, when you have the opportunity to talk to a successful person in your desired future profession. Students at Fredonia College of Visual and Performing Arts were in the lucky position to do exactly that when actress Mary McDonnell stopped by for a visit. McDonnell did not only explore acting techniques with them but also provided answers to their burning questions on how to deal with the business side of acting that can undisputedly be ruthless and overwhelming at times. Unlike others probably would in her position, McDonnell did not offer them a romantic view of being an artist. She made it clear that it is a constant struggle to survive in the business. “You are a soldier,” she said. “Do not expect help from anyone.” I really appreciated her honesty and I believe so did the students. Knowing what is ahead of them and what to expect, the good as well as the bad, is essential not only for their success in the business but also for their own mental health. McDonnell’s mission was not to recruit anyone nor to tell them to take another, a simpler, career path. She was there to genuinely offer advice, to encourage and to tell the truth about a profession that is a double-edged sword. The talk was a combination of a professional interview (questions asked by the moderator) and a Q&A session (questions asked by the audience). At this point, I always get a little nervous as, in my experience, Q&A sessions often turn into embarrassing compilations of superficial questions such as “what’s your favorite scene in this movie?” or “did you like working with that person?” The students at SUNY Fredonia, though, are not familiar with the word “superfluous”. They had actual questions. Smart questions. Questions with substance. And they wanted actual, honest answers. Mary McDonnell provided them.

Often McDonnell’s advice to the students was to trust their gut feeling and to find people who have similar interests and intentions. Even though I am not an actress and do not plan on becoming one, this piece of advice resonated with me on many levels. I often hesitate to trust my gut feeling. Can we really make a smart choice just by relying on what our body tells us? After all, my body often demands 3am pizza or an 8am Red Bull. However, thinking back on all the times I trusted my gut feeling, I cannot remember a single instance where I truly regretted following what it told me. Without ever sounding omniscient or patronizing, she tried to use her experiences as best as she could to help the future artists in the room get one step closer to achieving their dreams. Her honesty and sincerity created a comfortable, safe and intimate environment without which such an open and rich discussion would not have been possible. For me, this conversation in its entirety was uncontestedly the best talk with Mary McDonnell I ever attended. Not only because of the serene atmosphere but in particular due to the depth of McDonnell´s answers and the quality of the students’ questions.

My personal highlight was probably when McDonnell talked about the word “diva” and its negative connotation in our western society. She recounted an incident where she was accused of being difficult, of being said “diva” during contract negotiations. When she pointed out a mistake in the contract and asked to have it fixed her request was ignored repeatedly. Yet, she did not soften her stance on the issue, which did not sit well with the presumably male people in charge. Therefore, she was called a diva, meaning they accused her of being demanding and difficult to work with. Guess what they would have called a man in that very same situation? If you are now looking for a male version of the word “diva” let me stop you right there. That word does not exist. There never was the need to create such a term since the very same behavior that labels a woman a diva is seen as admirable in a man. If men request changes in their contracts they are usually seen as tough, competent and skillful negotiators. Once women ask for the exact same thing they are immediately put back into their “place” below that thick, gray glass ceiling. The very same characteristics that are admired in men are despised in women. This is textbook sexism. McDonnell though was not impressed by their intimidation techniques. She easily crashed the glass ceiling they tried to build above her and walked away with her head held high. I applaud her for making that decision. I applaud her for embracing the word “diva” and for turning its definition into what it always should have been: a kickass woman who knows what she wants and has no time for anyone’s BS.

As someone who is very much interested in gender studies, this incident lead me to dig a little bit deeper into the issue. I looked up several definitions of the word “diva” online. Unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority of online dictionaries explained the term in a very negative, dismissive way (eg: A self-important person who is temperamental and difficult to please (typically used of a woman)). However, the Urban Dictionary actually offers a definition that resembles the one McDonnell described in her talk. I hereby propose to make this the official definition of the word “diva”:

imagen3Source: Urban Dictionary

 

Writing those last few paragraphs about how very differently actions of men and women are perceived, I could not stop myself from thinking of the insanity Prof. Christine Blasey Ford had to deal with in the last few months. After her courageous testimonial against her abuser Justice Brett Kavanaugh, she got buried under hate mail and death threats. Even now, over three months after the hearing, she was still not able to resume living her “normal” life. Kavanaugh, on the other hand, faced no consequences whatsoever. Not even his political career took a hit. He was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice only a month later. Cases like this one almost make it seem like we are as far away from equality as we have ever been. At least in certain areas of life.

Three days after McDonnell’s talk at SUNY Fredonia I ditched my connecting flight back home to make a stop in London and attended an event with Jane Fonda. I had the chance to ask her about how she perceived the changes over the last forty years when it comes to sexism and ageism. Her answer only confirmed my suspicion that in many sectors (eg: politics, Hollywood) nothing really big had altered over the last few decades. Yes, there are now a few more women directing films and there are some more women holding political offices. In the end, though, they still have to work twice as hard than men to get half the recognition. Every single one of their actions will be observed, documented and judged harshly. A misstep will not be excused nor forgotten while neither society nor the media mind to occasionally turn a blind eye to mistakes men make. The most obvious example has to be the 2016 presidential race. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both imperfect human beings. Hillary made mistakes. So did Bernie Sanders. And so did President Obama. They are humans, they fuck up. However, Clinton’s missteps were exaggerated and media-hyped to an extent it bordered on sheer insanity. Trump on the other hand, publicly said he would assault women, that he just “grabs them by the pussy”, yet it was a way smaller scandal than the story about Clinton’s emails. While the fact that Clinton used a private email server was portrayed as if it were the crime of the century, Trump’s suggestion to his supporters to assassinate his opponent hardly was even talked about. There cannot be found a more representative example of double standards if one tried. Just like in Prof. Blasey-Ford’s case, the guy got away with the crime while the woman had to face ALL the consequences.

I now would like to go back to Fonda’s response about sexism and ageism in her line of work. She mentioned a branch that actually has changed for the better in regards to both these issues over the past ten years: Television. Especially cable TV like HBO and streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon have created a new form of television. What was considered a niche program only a few years ago is now what the audience prefers over watching the same young, perfect characters looking for love or solving crimes. This development created several new opportunities for actors and actresses of all ages, genders and ethnicities. It also is what made it possible to produce successful shows like “Grace and Frankie“, “One Day at a Time” and “Transparent“. In general, when listening to Jane Fonda as well as when listening to Mary McDonnell, I perceived that they both favor television over movies. Not only because TV offers more opportunities but in particular because of the serial format. McDonnell mentioned that she feels somewhat detached from her audience when doing movies whereas with television she almost feels like she co-creates the show with the viewers. Through social media, one immediately gets the unfiltered reaction of the audience. While this is the case for movies as well it is different as a film already has finished production when the viewers get to watch and react to it. Usually, several months or even an entire year passes between filming a movie and the moment where it is released. At that point, actors are usually already involved in new projects. A TV show, however typically runs for several years. The reaction of the audience can determine entire storylines. As an actor/director/producer one can observe what works for the viewers and what does not and then act accordingly. With the “What Would Sharon Raydor Do” podcast McDonnell took the viewer/actor interaction even a step further. She gave the audience the opportunity to ask questions about Sharon Raydor, her character on Major Crimes, and provided thorough answers, making up for the lack of information the show shared about her character.

McDonnell generally is not afraid to reach out to her audience. She has a rather open and sincere relationship with her fan community. There is a lot of appreciation and respect on both sides. This is rarely the case with people of public interest as most of them seem deterred by the bad reputation people belonging to fandoms have been labeled with by society. Similar to the word “diva”, the expression “fan” has an incredibly negative connotation. It is an umbrella term that collectively refers to every single person that supports a TV show, an actor, a singer, a sports team etc. Meaning this includes the good and the bad, the crazies as well as the people being embarrassed by them. It includes young or older women, students and established professionals. The woman who creates outstanding fan art and has never crossed a line in her life is referred to as a “fan” just as much as the stalker who follows a singer to their lunch date. Like in many other communities (in particular in minorities) fan communities tend to get judged by their worst examples. Just take a look at the episode “Cutting Loose” (season 3, episode 8) of Major Crimes. It is about a completely crazy hardcore fan who is found dead in the storage container of the actor she was stalking. This episode might have been funny on a superficial level but as a fan, as someone who supported the show, it made me feel uncomfortable because I felt it stigmatized our community in ways that are not really representing us. Especially due to such misrepresentations, stereotypes get reinforced and the fact that about 98% of all fans are well-adjusted, intelligent, classy, respectful and talented people often gets lost.

imagen4

Portrayal of a fan in Major Crimes episode “Cutting Loose” 3×8

 

To give a more recent example I encourage you to listen (or re-listen) to Stephanie Miller’s Happy Hour Podcast with Mary McDonnell. Stephanie Miller is a bold person, she speaks her mind and does not try to sugarcoat anything. She hosts a well-respected, popular podcast and delivers a well-needed commentary in times of political darkness and uncertainty. However, when she referred to several “sexy” videos fans apparently have created about McDonnell and then proceeded by calling these fans “creepy”, it once again can be seen as a situation that borderlines on stigmatization. In contrast to the Major Crimes example, I am absolutely aware that this is not something Miller intended to do; she was likely making a joke and showing how McDonnell is “drop dead gorgeous” as a compliment, since she made it clear that McDonnell is very attractive and that she was under the charm of her charisma. Not that I can blame her (or anyone else) for that. I actually encourage people to just go ahead and tell others that they find them wonderful. However, my issue is that after listening to the podcast, the one and only thing known about Mary McDonnell‘s fans is that they are “creepy” because they publish sexy videos of McDonnell. A clarification that these particular fans are merely three out of hundreds of people is missing, which is what any YouTube search would return. With such mischaracterization, even in a joke, a reputation of the fan community gets created that is neither particularly pleasant for the fans nor for McDonnell. However, it was obvious that it was not done on purpose or with any ill intentions whatsoever. It just provided a very fitting and recent example that portrays perfectly how society‘s view of “fandom” at times even infects the most open-minded people. I sometimes notice it in myself as well, especially when looking at fan communities I am not a part of. These prejudices are issues supporters face on an almost daily basis. For some fans out there it, therefore, has become difficult to continue to identify with the word “fan”. Several people, me included, switched to the word “supporter” instead, hoping it would help them get a new, a better reputation. Though, I would like to make it unmistakably clear that McDonnell has never given any reason to make her supporters feel unwanted. I cannot think of another person who respects and accepts their community of supporters as much as McDonnell does.

During her talk in Fredonia, she specifically mentioned her supporters and emphasized that she enjoys to have the possibility to interact with them. It really warmed my heart when she talked about how her fans have made her aware of the fact that she had a voice a lot of people listen too. It inspired her to use her influence to raise awareness to certain issues in the world that need fixing. At this point, I would like to mention the amazing ladies from the fundraising community Mary Cares who sure played a crucial role in that. They started the tradition of raising money for Sinte Gleska University, a Native American College, in honor of McDonnell’s birthday. This fundraiser has been carried out every single year ever since.

As she was talking about her community of fans, McDonnell asked her supporters to stand up and the audience to give them a hand. It was her way to honor them, to show appreciation. It was a rather surreal but entirely positive experience. In the back of your mind, you always sort of expect to be seen as a nuisance, as a burden. These insecurities are simply part of the fan-package. Whether you are a confident person or not, society’s negative view of fandoms eventually will end up unnerving you. When the person you support is sincere, humble and non-judgemental it is much easier to bear the negative aspects of this particular part of your life.

McDonnell is one of these incredibly rare people. She encounters her supporters with respect and patience. The students at SUNY Fredonia noticed that as well and were rather charmed, not only by McDonnell’s expertise but also by her personality. Whatever the number of Mary McDonnell supporters that attended the event, it sure was twice as high afterward.

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