Coming to Terms with the A-Word

ARTICLE BY KATE SUTTON-JOHNSON

 Photo by Amy Anderson

Photo by Amy Anderson

Leading Twin Cities set designer, installation designer, fabricator, and globe-trotter, Kate Sutton-Johnson shares her reflections on her last year in light of the #MeToo movement, her experiences as a woman leading design teams of mostly men, and the subtle, systemic conditioning women (and men) face in society.  In this piece, I found myself recognizing the same secret fear of ‘the A-word,’ and the shame and uncertainty that comes with a secret hunger for base-line acceptance in a field where - consciously done or not - women feel pressured to prove their worth. Regardless as to whether you identify as a woman, man, or neither, Kate offers a compelling, personal perspective to the complicated interplay of identity, power, and leadership in the tech world. -Chava Curland

 

I began writing this essay back in March while on a work trip to Cambodia. I was in the midst of a busy spring of freelance work and felt like my career had turned an interesting corner. I had just finished work on SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION at the Ritz and wrapped filming on a MN Original that would feature SIX DEGREES and some of my other work. I was ending a six year stint as an exhibit designer at the Science Museum of MN. I was also working on a gorgeous production of DIAL M at the Indiana Repertory Theater with a kickass all-female design team, and I was designing the build-out for a commercial business in NE Minneapolis. There I sat, mid-flight on a thirty-plus-hour journey, en route to design a concept for a four-story restaurant in the heart of Siem Reap. Wow, I thought. This is pretty damn cool. I can’t wait to write a charming, feel-good story about all the unexpected twists and turns my career has allowed with only a bachelor’s degree in theater. I smiled a little mischievous smile and felt cozy and self-satisfied. 

Bleh.

So, here we are, and I never finished that essay. The summer flew by and then the fall. And as I circle back now to put the finishing touches on that little piece of literary whatever-that-was, I am not inspired to talk about that stuff anymore. Instead I’d like to talk about the conversation at hand. You know, the one you’re surely having if you know at least one female-identifying human. I’m talking about male dominance. About #metoo. About this week’s slew of outed celebrities and politicians. About rape culture and workplace gender disparities that seem to be forever stuck in a time warp. About women and silence. About men and silence. It’s the work at hand in this country, and thereby it’s the urgent work of our industry as well. I am not an op-ed writer and I can’t imagine that I have anything to say about this topic in any broad sense that hasn’t already been more powerfully articulated by some accredited New York Times writer or, you know, an actual psychologist or sociologist. Their gifts are to sort out for the rest of us what the hell is fundamentally going on. I won’t be doing that. I simply want to talk about what it’s like to be a mid-career female designer in an incredibly male-dominated industry. Because you know what? I’m fucking qualified to share my thoughts on this.

Do you sense some anger right out of the gate? That’s fantastic, because that’s one of the main things I’d like to talk about. If you have detected some rage-like feelings from women  lately, I would guess that this anger is not about the November news. It’s not even about the news of all of 2017 although, of course, raise your hand if you’re female and you haven’t fantasized about a padded room in the last six months. Anyway, I would guess that this anger you’ve sensed from the women in your life is not new, but in fact about the same age as whichever woman you are speaking with. In my case thirty-seven years old. Now, of course, I haven’t been mad for thirty-seven years. No way! I’ve been enjoying a fun, meaningful, joyful existence filled with a whole bunch of amazing people and experiences. But, I’ve also had a secret. And this secret lodged itself in the tender nucleus of my girl-identity at a very young age. It has been there so long I can’t remember a time that I was without it. And that secret is shame. From my lovely parents, from teachers, from other kids, from television shows, cartoons, movies, magazines, from strangers, religious figures, Santa Claus at the mall—from almost everyone that touched my life, I learned to feel shame around a bunch of stuff having to do with my feminine identity. 

An adult might remark with surprise (the tone in their voices signaling veiled criticism) when I would show an interest in something stereotypically male like “tomboy” behaviors, certain school subjects, physical play/sports, leadership roles in groups. I might hear another girl being discussed as troublesome: she’s too young for pierced ears, or lip gloss, or that type of dress. A relative might react with alarm to my unladylike behavior and I would see how this was designed not only to shame me, but to shame my mother. And this echo chamber became a chorus of voices everywhere, in tiny bits, tucked into everything. Policing women through shame. 

Did you see what she was wearing?     
Cross your legs and sit like a pretty girl.
Is she trying to look like a tramp? 


You get the idea. In short, there is just a tremendous pressure on girls from a very early age, through every stage of their development into adulthood, about how they look. So many people comment first on your physical appearance that you learn how much this is valued over other aspects of self if you’re female. A major source of my personal story of shame is about secrecy and the things “we don’t talk about” in our culture. This is an even more insidious part of policing women and embedding feelings shame. This unspoken cultural pressure is primarily about sexuality. American culture is positively riddled with anxieties about sex and it is a stew of contradictions and deeply unhealthy, confusing messages for women. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia and the policy of sex education there was, at the time, abstinence only. I still have my little booklet from my sixth grade sex ed class which has a purple and pink cover. It’s called Changing and it’s all about getting your period. When I think back about what I really took away from sex education, it wasn’t learning about my period. It wasn’t a bunch of healthy messages about my changing body. This is what I heard: Girls, puberty is an extremely dangerous time in your life as you take on the characteristics of a woman’s body. Boys will be aroused by your titillating new curves and they won’t be able to control themselves. This is understandable because they are hitting puberty too, but it’s up to girls to be on defense against the boys. Girls, be on the lookout at all times for horny boys trying to touch your tempting bodies. Police them. You are now the police.

Just like other things I’d been policed on as off-limits for girls, I learned then that sex wasn’t for me. I learned that it was for men. I learned that women are responsible for managing not only their behaviors but the behaviors of men and boys. This is rape culture at its foundation. 
So, yeah, shame. That’s where it started for me in a nutshell. The thing about shame is that it doesn’t really modify the behaviors it’s trying to quell. It simply causes the person being shamed deep psychological distress, leaving them to feel immense amounts of guilt about their buried desires and instincts. I had no idea that I’d been carrying this kind of shame around with me until I hit my thirties, and looking back on what this past decade has been like for me, I really can’t believe what it’s meant to wrestle with this new information. As Gloria Steinem has said many times: the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off. Um, yeah…
    
About five or six years ago I was having a phone conversation with a close friend of mine. This friend is a white, gay male who is, and was at the time, a successful costume designer. He was based in New York, and he was going through a painful experience, thinking of leaving the industry entirely and moving out of the city. He had graduated from a top program some years earlier, clearly a rising star, and he had aspirations to break into the elite echelon of Broadway costume designers. Of course this is what so many designers dream of, but it wasn’t like this was that far-fetched for where he was in his career. He had risen quickly through the ranks; he was getting major regional gigs, designing high-profile world-premiere operas, working in film, and on and on. But he felt like he couldn’t bust through a certain ceiling and attain the kind of success he wanted. I listened closely and kept thinking, yes, of course. God, I know, I know. It’s so hard. You can never break through. He said he felt ashamed that he and his boyfriend were living like paupers, barely able to afford rent. He felt like he had been hiding their financial situation from their friends and family because he needed to portray an outward appearance of success. He described how he had finally had the courage to talk with some of his friends about his feelings of shame around this. I told him I understood how difficult this must have been. And then I asked, “Did you also talk with your friends about the other shame you must be feeling? The shame you feel about being so ambitious?” And he paused, confused, and said, “What? What do you mean? Why would I feel ashamed about being ambitious?” 

Long, silent beat. 

So, that was, shall we say, eye opening. I realized then that this shame stuff was not just a little compartmentalized corner of my identity, but a tangled mess woven into my whole life, even my career. I felt so much shame about being ambitious that I had never been able to even say the A-word. I’m ambitious. Even the thought of it now threatens to make my skin warm in an uncomfortable blush. It’s a descriptor that clangs a big ole negative gong somewhere deep inside me, and I find myself frantically looking around, worried that other people may have heard it. Did they catch a glimpse of my ambition? I might as well grab a megaphone and announce, Hello, everyone! (thump, thump) Is this thing on? Great! Just wanted to announce that I’m incredibly greedy and will stop at nothing to gain status! Sounds ridiculous, I know. But I learned somewhere that ambitious girls are bad girls. 

So, let’s fast forward. This good girl grew up, graduated college and moved to Minneapolis. For fifteen years now I’ve spent my time working with directors, other designers, and shops. I have been the only female on many of these teams, although sometimes there has been another woman or two, often a costume designer or a stage manager. With the fabrication shops, particularly, it’s always been an overwhelmingly male world. It’s construction after all, and there certainly exists a full-on boys club in many of these shops and on house crews in theaters throughout the country. In the role of young-ish female designer, I’ve not only been wildly outnumbered, I’ve also been in a leadership position. My work has required that I provide direction and building specifications to large groups of men and then that I check in often, monitoring the outcomes and critiquing their work along the way. Yeah, really, it’s been as fun as it sounds. They love it too.

And the fun doesn’t stop there, because I am outnumbered by men on artistic teams too. My fellow designers are sometimes the most challenging. Maybe it’s a lighting designer on a project. Or a sound designer. I brace myself for another man making sure I understand how infuriating it is to them when I get too close to their turf. Those moments are particularly humiliating, being chastised by an angry man in front of your collaborators. I’ve shed many tears over those excruciating experiences, and for years I placed the blame squarely on my own shoulders for these encounters. And, I was partly to blame, of course. However, it is always a man exploding, while I stand there shaking, trying to act calm. And the exploding man is always a hetero male. Always.

Recently I have found myself on some all-female design teams, even working with some female carpenters and welders here and there, and the contrast with these experiences to what I’ve come to think of as “normal” is startling. For example, women don’t interrupt me incessantly mid-sentence. They don’t act aggressive and threatened. They don’t pick fights with me. They don’t criticize me in front of large groups of my peers in a humiliating fashion. They don’t blatantly exert power over me by speaking condescendingly. They don’t explain things to me that I already know, or if they do, they do so by first asking me if I know about the subject. From women, I never sense that they are holding back an avalanche of impatience and disgust. They aren’t tolerating me. Women aren’t looking for me to make mistakes so that they can point them out. Women are not gruff or short with me; rather, they often show an interest in my design work and ask about my experience on the project. They often identify something unique about my job that differs from their role and they remark on how they find that interesting. Women are professional. They don’t make odd, uncomfortable jokes. Women don’t say inappropriate sexual things to me or about other people we are working with. Women are highly productive almost all of the time. Women are incredibly resourceful and unafraid to ask for information when they don’t know something.

In short, women in our industry usually come with a heaping helping of emotional intelligence, an incredible work ethic, and a lovely sense of curiosity that is wildly refreshing when you’ve been dealing with only men for so long.

I realize that there’s a lot I’m putting out here that’s broadly negative about men, depicted in contrast to a rosy, glowing view of women. There are nuances to all of this of course. There certainly isn’t always friction with men. I have found lots of these partnerships to be really healthy and genuinely fun. It’s extremely important to point out that developed, confident men who respect women in leadership positions are out there. But I don’t think we can overestimate the baked-in misogyny that leads to very biased behaviors in our industry. When it comes to unpleasant encounters with men, what have all of these micro or macro misogyny-aggressions triggered in me? Well, for years, it certainly wasn’t anger. For years, it was simply humiliation and guilt. And there are other ways that my feelings of feminine shame have intersected with my career. It’s pervaded everything, actually. I used to feel shame when I negotiated for more money. I used to be secretive about how much I was working. I knew that I didn’t have the work/life balance I was supposed to, but I wasn’t often focused on chores, grocery shopping, and making meals. I was intensely focused on my work. But it was hard to shake the feeling that I was failing as a woman in my disinterest with domestic affairs. While I actively sought success in my career, I also felt ashamed of it and for my insatiable desire for more. And until very recently, I never would have made any of this stuff about gender, because I was afraid that framing interactions in the workplace in this way would anger men.

This is my personal experience, but for all of us in this industry, where do we sit with this right now? We wonder about all of the news lately. How can so many men have done these things? Where are the good guys? And I would say that men are misogynistic and committing violence against women because they learned these behaviors. It’s the same soup of crap that bestowed on me the skills for behaving like a “good girl.” Our culture taught them that they are entitled to women’s bodies and so they are taking what they believe to be rightfully theirs. Maybe they themselves aren’t physically grabbing women’s bodies as they walk by in bars. Perhaps they’re the guys on the sidelines chuckling good-humoredly about the escapades of their male friends. My point is that these men are “normal men.” It’s men that we all know. I would posit that it’s men who are deeply insecure with extremely limited emotional skills. And I really hate to be negative, but that is an absolutely staggering number of men. Just as women are being taught a bunch of negative bullshit they don’t need, men are not being taught emotional skills beyond a very narrow sliver of the full spectrum. Our culture is equally failing men and women. I really believe that.

 These cultural issues facing all genders are, of course, manifesting themselves inside our industry. The tentacles of rape culture are vast and, even if there isn’t actual violence, there is certainly male dominance and aggression in many work settings. These abuses of power relating to sex that we see on the news are connected to far more subtle workplace power dynamics. The stuff is woven into the patterns of so many other, more benign interactions. It’s sometimes hard to see, because it doesn’t look like sexual attraction. It actually looks like repulsion. But it’s two sides of the same thing. It’s misogyny. When it comes to the fabrication end of our business, I have been treated as an intruder in my work world since the day I stepped into the room. If you think I might be harboring some anger about this after fifteen years, you would be right. However, I have really learned to listen to rageful Kate because she knows some shit.

 Interestingly, I started working with a new shop recently. Another thirty or so men to win over. (Excuse me real quick while I crack my knuckles and count to ten.) But, you know, this time it’s been a piece of cake. I mean it, really. Easy peasy. I felt like I resolved all the issues in the first design presentation. They talked over me. I internally rolled my eyes. They mansplained. I waited patiently. We did the whole ritual. But in the end, they acquiesced to my I’ve-been-dealing-with-this-BS-for-long-enough precision tactics. The fact is, I’m damn good at my job and I’m no longer waiting for a jury of men to come to some other conclusion. And this time, it doesn’t feel like these guys are just tolerating me. I think they actually respect me, perhaps even look up to me. 

So, have I simply done this so long that I’ve mastered being “male enough” to earn the respect of men? No, I don’t think that’s it, although over the years I’ve learned so much about construction, management, finances, leadership etc. that I think men can’t help but notice my expertise at this point. There’s more to it than that, though. Working with lots of women lately really has had a huge impact on me. It has revealed a work dynamic that I didn’t even know I was missing. I think the greatest takeaway from these experiences is probably the simple knowledge that there is a better way than the all-male way. There’s a way that centers women in the process that’s better. Period. I used to come to a project with a posture of, oh boy, here we go. What is this group all about? What’s the male culture and how can I be accepted? I saw myself as the outsider and I anxiously tested the waters to find out how to be palatable to the group. I thought that was what good leaders do: they read their group and then lead accordingly. That’s not really what I do anymore. I lead differently. I come into the room and in how I talk about the project, the subtext is this: Hello colleagues. I’ve come into this room today with an offering of community. It is a gift easily given and easily accepted. I will show you by example what this community is like because it’s mine. I am not an outsider, but rather, I’m resting comfortably with no effort in a position of strength. In this community, we listen to one another, we aren’t defensive, we make amazing things together as a team, we celebrate each other’s different skills, and we have lots of fun even when there are challenges. It appears that men sense my change in attitude. Maybe I just seem less needy. Or maybe it’s more like a form of reverse psychology. Of playing hard to get. I suppose I don’t know precisely what’s happening on their end because I’m not a man. I just know I’m more authentic than ever and the results are positive. 

So, is that a wrap? Have I beaten all of my shame demons? Good god, no. I am only at the beginning of this journey, I think. But I have figured out ways to bring my real feminine humanity and its power into my work-world with men, and I am very proud of this. 
Feeling like an insider rather than an outsider is allowing me to focus on new things. Having that bit of brain space back is glorious. I’ve spent so much energy on this stuff for so many years that I’m grateful to have the experience under my belt that allows me to finally command—if not admiration—at least some across-the-board courtesy from my male peers. I’m looking forward to channeling some of that extra energy I’ve spent trying to earn respect into simply doing my job well. I can also use the headspace for whatever is on the horizon in 2018. Unfortunately I think I’ll still be resorting to my knuckle-cracking-and-counting-to-ten ritual here and there. I do feel optimistic, however. Some men are really working to understand what women like me are talking about. Meanwhile, women are amplifying each other’s voices like never before. And I think--I hope--that men will begin to do more of this too. 

So as we move to amplify women, let me just say... 

Ahem. Hey, guys. (thump, thump) Is this thing on? Awesome. My name is Kate, and I’m unapologetically ambitious. I’m a dream-chasing, wild thing. 

 

To learn more about Kate Sutton-Johnson, visit her website by clicking here.