A few weeks ago I came across something on Twitter (that unfortunately I haven't been able to find since) that said something like "Culture changes and suddenly everyone acts like they were there the whole time."
Our culture is changing. The further into the process we go, the more true that statement looks.
The Harvey Weinstein story was the catalyst for an avalanche of stories of high profile sexual abusers in entertainment and politics that doesn’t seem to be slowing any time soon. Improv has had a number of cases of abuse of its own this year. UCB banned at least two instructors for sexual assault. DSI shut down soon after its owner was accused of rape. As I write this, the Reckless Theatre is in the middle of a heated scandal regarding its artistic director's inappropriate behavior toward students.
Often when these stories emerge they seem so far away – like it has nothing to do with us. We watch as the news or social media unveils the most egregious offenders and act shocked and dismayed that these men have been allowed to exist for so long. We call them predators and monsters and cheer as their lives and careers crumble. We feel like spectators to something foreign and unrelated to our everyday lives. We create a moral distance between ourselves and the accused. We can’t imagine doing anything like what they have done. We condemn and shun and feel good about ourselves for not being like them.
This other-ization is a natural response, but it’s also part of the problem. It absolves us of all guilt. It puts the responsibility for the actions solely on the actor when in reality they existed in an environment that allowed them to flourish. Harvey Weinstein couldn’t have done what he did for three decades without help. It took a lot of people keeping quiet. It took a lot of people looking the other way. It took a culture of reluctant acceptance for him to survive for so long. More importantly, it took an entire society continually willing to appease powerful men and expect subservient women, including ignoring and even punishing them when they tried to speak out.
The culture is us and we are it.
This is not a sex problem. It is a power problem where sex is used as a weapon.
Men have been the main custodians of power for essentially all of history and have constructed a robust and pervasive sexist culture in order to maintain it. That culture manifests itself in a spectrum of ways. The most active and obvious is the creation and preservation of men like Weinstein. The most passive and subtle is the disregard for female voices and the rejection of female ideas (until they are claimed by men). The biggest mistake any of us can make is assuming we are free from its influence.
As painful as these stories can be, as dismayed as they make us feel, they present an opportunity for change. The big question is will we, as a society, do the work necessary to actually solve this problem? Will we commit to actual change or will we simply remove the most obviously bad symptoms and hope that’s enough? Do we really want to be better?
I believe we do. I believe we can. But it’s going to take all of us doing important individual work in order to happen. So what work do I have to do, as an individual, to change the culture?
First, I have to acknowledge my role.
This is an inherently unpleasant process. It doesn’t feel good to reflect on all the ways I have contributed to a toxic culture. I don’t particularly want to relive those moments, but I realize how important it is. Here’s a metaphor I like that applies to difficult but necessary change at both the macro and individual level:
The big takeaway here is that discomfort and vulnerability are requisite steps for growth. If I want to grow, I first have to let myself feel uncomfortable.
I recognize now that as a man I have acted as a symptom of a sexist culture. While I’ve never done anything as outright abusive and violent and horrible as the men in the news, I have contributed to the culture that allowed them to thrive by doing all the little things that add up to make life difficult for women, keep them living in fear, and silence their voices.
I have contributed to this culture in comedy as well.
In my first attempt at live comedy, I attempted a joke at a standup open mic that I thought was edgy but in retrospect was very sexist. In my second improv class I made a reference to spiking a woman's drink in a scene with the intention of that being a funny thing. In an early audition I did a scene where I repeatedly alluded to oral sex. I played female characters in stereotypical ways. I assumed female scene partners are wives or mothers or girlfriends. I steamrolled women's offers.
Reliving all these moments in my memory is extremely uncomfortable for me. The open mic one literally makes me shudder. But I know that running from these memories won’t help me learn from them. I know I was learning and had to make some mistakes to get to where I am now. Honestly though, the hardest part about thinking of all these examples is that they are the ones I know about because someone told me afterward that they were sexist. I'm sure there are more moments I have totally forgotten because no one was there to correct me. As much as I am sorry for doing all these things and immensely regretful for the pain and discomfort they caused, I am much more sorry about the sexist things I have done that I don’t know about because I never got that feedback. I’m disappointed that I was previously so clueless; that it was so easy for me to hurt people that I didn’t even bother to remember it.
Because although it’s painful now to realize and dwell on some of the things I’ve done that have contributed to that culture, it’s a pain that I can experience in private. It’s a pain that I can escape from whenever I want to stop thinking about it. The pain I caused women through my behavior was much more powerful. They couldn’t escape from it. They weren’t protected by the buffer of time.
I also recognize that acknowledging my actions and feeling remorseful years later is too little too late. My actions created consequences that I can’t undo by feeling sorry about them. For example, I never saw the woman from my audition scene ever again. I don’t know if she kept doing improv or not. I don’t even know who she is, so I can’t look her up to find out. If she quit improv, it’s entirely possible it was because she didn’t like the culture. If she didn’t like the culture, it’s very likely that I played a major role in that opinion. As someone who truly loves improvisation, who truly believes it can be a force for positive personal change, who thinks everyone can benefit from studying it, the fact that I was potentially responsible, even if only a little, for pushing someone away from it is troubling.
I’m disappointed in myself. I never intended to hurt anyone. But as I’ve said before in the context of improv, intention doesn't matter. If something hurts, it hurts. If I unintentionally stab someone, it doesn’t change the fact that they got stabbed. The problem with what I did is I didn't see the wound so I didn’t know it was there.
If I could go back and undo the things I did I absolutely would. I’ve spent the last several weeks reflecting heavily on my actions and noting moments where I could have made better choices. I’m trying to learn from these mistakes so I can be better myself and so I can help other men be better too.
I also recognize how difficult it can be to actually take responsibility for this behavior. I understand the instinct to deflect. As I initially started reviewing my behavior I felt myself trying to blame everyone but myself. I wanted to blame my education. I wanted to blame my peers. I wanted to blame my entertainment. I wanted to blame my environment. All of these things may have truly influenced me, but when it comes down to it, despite the circumstances of my situation or my influences, these are things that I did. These are ways I was wrong. Blaming anyone or anything but myself only functions to make me not wrong when I clearly was.
I can’t change the past, but I can make a commitment to behavioral change moving forward.
This is not something I can brush off and assume everything is going to be easy moving forward. This is something I will always need to work to be hyper aware of. I was raised in a society where significantly sexist behavior was not just okay; it was often celebrated.
This is where we see the influence of power again. Men, as custodians of power, have also been the keepers of the culture. One of the reasons beyond celebrity that entertainment yields a high rate of the worst abusers is because it also has a lot of social influence. When you control the microphone you get to decide what gets said into it. You can decide to limit those messages to things that make you look good, or at the very least, don’t make you look bad. Historically, in a vast number of ways that won’t fit in this already-long piece, male-produced entertainment has promoted maleness as positive and femaleness as negative. It has highlighted positive male behavior and shown extreme leniency to negative male behavior. At the same time it has essentially ignored female behavior altogether unless it is in service of men.
Again, this is not an attempt to deflect from the fact that I’ve made poor choices. It’s to say that our entire society was trained to see that certain negative behavior was okay and even expected. So when men are put into situations where they can make a bad choice, like soft or passive sexism, they might not recognize that it’s bad. If they do know it’s bad, in the cases of the hard or active sexism like harassment and abuse, they’ll feel relatively safe in following through on those actions because they they’re surrounded by people who will protect them by excusing or diminishing their behavior.
The good news, despite how bad it might seem right now, is there are a lot of cracks in the shell. We’re discussing these issues in public forums. We’re highlighting the problems in our society in order to finally address them properly. Women are less afraid of sharing their stories. Men are more willing to listen. There are still good people in power and good people continue to take it. We’re making progress.
But consistent progress requires consistent vigilance and dedicated effort. You can’t change a whole culture overnight. We need to continue to hold people in power accountable. We need to hold them to an even higher standard of behavior than average. People in power need to be hyper aware of their authority and sway. They need to recognize that they aren’t safe from its influence, no matter how good they think they are. No matter how good their intentions may be.
No one is safe from being corrupted.
Even in my short stint with limited power as an improv coach I’ve seen the windows for abuse. I know what they look like. I know how common they are. I know how easy it would be to cross a line. All of these things start small. None of these things happen right away. The line gets pushed slowly over time. People who abuse their power start with little things that no one will call them on because people are afraid of their status. Then, years later, everyone looks around and wonders how it got so bad. That powerful person, who may have started out with good intentions, tries to take a shortcut or push a boundary for a thrill or makes a mistake and tries to hide it, and gets a ball rolling that they can’t stop that runs them over in the end. Sell your soul to the devil and he eventually comes to claim it.
As hard as it will be, positive change will come with a combination of Vigilance, Patience, and Courage.
We need Vigilance because sexist behavior can occur any time and anywhere by anyone. Our biggest enemy will be bystander effect – when we’ll think we won’t have to address a specific incident, no matter how small, because we think someone else will. When we see behavior that crosses a line, we need to find a way to call it out.
We need Patience because it’s difficult to change. It can be frustrating that decency can seem so obvious yet so many people are incapable of it, but our obsolete sexist culture has improperly trained a lot of men and women. Of course we should be strict with violent and serial offenders, but I do believe that most sexism stems from ignorance more than malice. Education and forgiveness, rather than punishment, is the way forward. We’re not doing anyone any favors by punishing people for simple mistakes. It only creates more pain. One of the biggest things I’ve learned from coaching improv is that yelling at someone for messing up doesn’t help them grow. It only makes them defensive, cements them in their ways, and creates a rift between us that makes them less likely to listen and less willing to change.
Perhaps most difficult will be Courage. It can be truly intimidating to give negative feedback to people, especially when they hold power over us. What if they don’t take it well? What if they retaliate? These are risks we need to be willing to take in order to create change. A good leader knows how to handle criticism. A bad leader can be molded if behavior is corrected early enough. But it was a culture of fear of leadership that allowed so many of our bad leaders to grow and harden in their ways. If we truly recognize that abuse is a power problem, we need to take a stand against power. Often that will mean being willing to make ourselves vulnerable. Sometimes that will mean letting ourselves get punished.
Abusive leaders use fear as a tool of control.
They divide and isolate. They make you feel like you’re the only person who thinks how you think or feels how you feel. They make you feel wrong about everything. They threaten your job or withhold opportunities. Be willing to lose opportunities in toxic environments. Refuse to be divided and we’ll be less afraid. Refuse to fear and they lose their control.
Clearly changing the culture of an entire society is a monumental task. I can’t do that all on my own. But if everyone makes an effort to better the places they do have influence, it will all come together.
If my sphere of influence is improv,
What can I do as a performer and instructor to contribute to positive cultural change?
- I can recognize the role I have played in the sexist culture. I can reflect on any of the poor choices I have made, see how I was wrong, and commit to learning from them.*
- I can accept that on the path of change I will probably make another mistake. I can be open to being corrected. I can apologize. I can learn from it.
- As a performer, I can be constantly aware of my words and actions on and offstage and how they affect people. I can avoid using sexist language or playing sexist characters, even if it seems funny in the moment. As an instructor, I can make sure I correct sexist choices early and often, instead of assuming some other instructor will.
- I can be patient with young improvisers who will make these mistakes. I can explain why their choices were wrong and show them ways to avoid making those same mistakes in the future. I can understand that they probably didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I can accept their apology and forgive them.
- I can speak out against those in improv who abuse their power. I can be willing to be punished for doing so.
*Important disclaimer - I don’t believe #1 is a public step. I have listed a few of mine above as an example of my process, but I don’t think every improviser publicizing their history of sexist choices would be helpful. At best it brings bad moments back to the spotlight. At worst it’s an attempt to get some positive attention. Really go over those moments so you can learn from them, but keep them to yourself. Commit to change because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s trendy. I know I messed up. If you were there, you know I messed up too. Now let’s heal.
Cultural transition is a scary and confusing time. It may seem like everything is crumbling around us, but it just means we’re finally addressing our serious problems. It signals better things ahead. Who knows how long it will take or what else will change with it, but one thing that’s certain is there’s no turning back. We can either adapt or we can get left behind, and I’m confident that we’ll adapt.
Improv will survive this. Society will survive this. Both will come out stronger because of it.
I will come out stronger because of these changes too, but only if I let myself grow. In order to do that, I must shed my old shell and start working on a new one.