Before I went to seminary, I spent three years as a professional actress. In that time, I spent three seasons working at a Renaissance Faire.
A couple of my costumes during that time included a corset, which are, let me tell you, a completely counter-intuitive item of clothing for someone working in outdoor theater. Try projecting for 13 hours a day in 90 degree heat and 95% humidity in an item of clothing that prevents your diaphragm from fully expanding.
But that was an expected effect of wearing a corset. What I didn’t expect? That it would actually reshape my bone structure over mere weeks. For reals. After several weekends of wearing that corset, it actually became too big for me, because my ribcage reshaped itself against the pressure of tight-laced boning.
It wasn’t until I left the Faire, and left acting, and went to seminary, that I learned that my ribcage wasn’t the only thing reshaped during those summers.
I don’t know how to tell you this story, which is about an incident of sexism. Which is probably why I started with corsets. It’s a story that still embarrasses me and makes me ashamed, because I feel like I should have known better, that I should have known enough to keep it from happening. That I should have known enough to recognize the kind of people I was working for, and should have been wise enough to walk away. I keep wondering what good posting a story like this could possibly do. I still don’t have a great answer.
But I’m hoping that maybe, if I just tell it, the reason for needing to speak it will come.
It was my first season at the Faire. We were a few weeks into the rehearsal process. I had been cast into a few of the company-produced shows, which I would perform in when I wasn’t walking the grounds doing street-theater. My artistic director approached me and asked if I wanted to be in another show. It was improv-based, he said, and he thought I’d be a good fit.
I was excited. I was a new member, and the artistic director was hand-picking me for a show. And improv show, even, which is a type of theater I get really stoked about. I said “yes” right away.
It turned out that the show was a dunking show. The premise was that an authority figure (played by the artistic director) would called up various character from around the town. He would accuse them of crimes, punny double-entendres like “stuffing the butcher’s sausages.” (What scathing wit we had.) The accused would sit on a seat above a pool of water, and would try to defend themselves using similarly sexualized puns, and then the audience would vote on whether they would be dunked or not. (Hint: everyone got dunked. Usually several times.) While the dunkees were of both genders, the majority were always women. And now I was one of them.
Things went fine until about halfway through the season. My character was called up and accused, found guilty, and dunked. I usually spent those frantic seconds underwater coming up with a snappy retort to deliver to the artistic director’s character and preventing water from going up my nose. I was pulled up out of the water, gasped, sputtered, and triumphantly delivered my double-entendre.
The audience went silent.
“That’s weird,” I thought. “Maybe they didn’t hear? Did I say something worse than I meant? What’s happening?”
I was considering whether to try shouting my line again, when I heard the voice of my artistic director ask the audience, “Shall I dunk her again?”
More silence. Then, a few male voices, “Yeah!” And then a few more. “Huzzah!”
I felt the rope go slack, and as I started to head toward the water, I looked down, and time seemed to slow, as I saw that one of my breasts was partially exposed.
I came up with no snappy retort underwater, but frantically tried to readjust my costume while not letting go of the rope. I came out of the water, more lines were said, and somehow, the show ended.
To this day, I still have no idea exactly how much the audience saw, because I’m not even sure how much I saw. I asked one of my fellow actors afterward, but he’d been standing behind me and couldn’t be totally sure either. He tried to be reassuring: “Don’t worry, it couldn’t have been bad. If it was bad, we’d have gotten you out of there.”
Empty words. It was bad, and the person who should have been looking out for me, the person who was running the show, and the person who, incidentally, was my boss, had done the one thing that could have made it worse: he’d attempted to complete my exposure.
What leaves me incredulous about this memory isn’t even the abominable behavior of that person, who abdicated both responsibility and humanity in a single instant, but my own: I accepted what happened as unfortunate, but normal. After all, those people had come to an adult show to see adult things, and by gum, I was an adult, and I was going to handle it like one–i.e.: not make a fuss out being exposed without my consent in front of a couple hundred people by my boss.
That decision–to remain silent–was rewarded and reinforced by the culture of the Faire, which I only realized later had deep issues with misogyny. At the time, I thought everything was normal.
I think maybe that’s the reason this story has been weighing on me this week. Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs is still a topic of conversation (for crying out loud), and I find myself reacting with strange sympathy to her. Look, her performance can most kindly be described as tasteless, but those lambasting her for it seem all too willing to completely overlook the experiences of young women like me, who are routinely sexualized through every conceivable form of media, and who receive plenty of positive feedback for conforming to those stereotypes, and for remaining silent when they are violated.
I still feel shame over what, in reality I had no control over. The person who had control abused it, and abused me along with it. It took me years to be able to say that that was not OK.
So before picking on Miley (again), before retorting that women who get sexually harassed shouldn’t dress so provocatively, before telling me that I should have checked my costume before I dangled over that dunk tank, before telling a victim that she should have done something differently…
…remember that my very bones were reshaped by the pressure of a stupid corset, and my entire perspective was constrained by an environment that encouraged silence in response to crossed boundaries, sexualized performances, and acquiescence to discomfort.
And then ask what kind of world you’d like your retort to build.