*TW: Article contains stories of sexual assault and harassment*
“Don’t you dare take a photo. Any pictures you take in this theatre is my property” is a sentence I wish I could forget. This was yelled at me by a 60 something white male director after he caressed an 18-year-old actress’ ass. At the young age of 15, this was not the first or the last time I would witness or experience sexual misconduct first-hand inside the walls of a theatre. But it was the first time I felt a ball of fire ignite in my chest, one that made me want to scream until my voice was hoarse from lack of air in my lungs.
There seems to be a narrative in the musical theatre industry, and the performing arts industry as a whole, where young women are continuously being exploited by men in positions of power. It should be no surprise that the #MeToo movement has come to light in recent years when so many power-hungry and abusive men are in positions of authority.
I am here to say #MeToo.
I have been a professional singer, songwriter and occasional musical theatre performer for the past 10 years of my life. I have performed at the Much Music Video Awards in Toronto as Lorde’s backup singer, Theatre Aquarius, the Air Canada Centre, the Burlington Arts Centre, and I work as a choir director in Kingston. I have performed and won international competitions from Chicago to Nashville to New York City. Even with these miles I have travelled, it did not take long into my career to discover that almost every woman I talk to has a story like mine.
A story where a woman is told she is being too sexual, or not sexual enough. Where she is inappropriately touched by a man in power -“it’s only a demonstration!” -or is told to show off her body in ways that make her uncomfortable – “we don’t have to do it in the show, just try it”. This is not to say I have never met any male victims in this field, because of course I have, and no discredit is intended. The one difference is that it is constant for women. Almost a guarantee, written off as part of the industry, an implied requirement.
Since I was a little girl I was told to never walk alone at night, to hold keys in between my knuckles when I walked home, and to never smile at male strangers. To fear all men at all costs, and to protect myself. But that didn’t stop me from experiencing sexual assault or harassment in a place where I was told I was safe.
My 50 something white male vocal coach for a theatre production (whom I admired deeply) saw me wearing a t-shirt that said “Garage” in pink cursive across my chest and waist. I saw him take a little too long of a look and then he promptly stopped the entire session. In front of five of my fellow performers, he berated me with questions both about my singing abilities and my choice of shirt. “Why would you wear that? Do you want everyone to stare at your chest? C’mon your tone sounds terrible! From the top, only you… AGAIN!” After rehearsal was over, my fifteen-year-old self went and cried in the bathroom out of embarrassment. Tears flowed down my cheeks as I vowed to never wear that shirt again and to cover up more.
As my break ended, I wiped my tears, stared at myself in the mirror and told myself to get back out there. Stereotypically this would be a part of the movie where the best friend comes in to give a pep talk, dramatically adding that the “show must go on”. Despite how colloquial this cliché is, how can the show go on when millions of women are experiencing sexual misconduct behind the curtain? This experience made me cynical about the performing arts industry. It made me distrustful of men. It made me more depressed and anxious than I already was. My vocal coach’s words were a huge hit to my confidence, thus causing an ever-present voice of doubt nagging my subconscious. The experience forced me to change my perspective on femininity and my own sexuality. I think it is a part of the reason it took me so long to come to terms with my queerness. Because I thought I had to hold it in. My expression of sexuality had to fit this perfect void of sexualspecimen that I was seen as in those moments. Sometimes I wonder if it may have played a part in why I chose to come to Queen’s for History rather than continue my dream as a singer. But now this experience has just become a lesson that I never expected.
Now I see that this teacher had a different lesson for me than he intended. He taught me to be a feminist. I learned to never ignore the tightness in my chest whenever a man commented on my “lack of ass”, but rather scream for my rights. Scream for all women’s rights no matter their religious identity, sexuality, race, class, or ability. Although my story is one of privilege, I just need you to know that you can say #MeToo whenever you feel comfortable and ready, on YOUR terms.
Featured Image by @curious_lauren