Michelle Threadgould: Amber Tamblyn's NYT op-ed brought back memories of being harassed and being told to get a thicker skin when I complained
It's not thin-skinned to believe that your co-workers shouldn't make sexually suggestive remarks about you and to ask to be believed, she writes
Editor’s Note: Michelle Threadgould is a journalist covering politics, social justice, Latinx issues and arts and culture. Her work has appeared in Pacific Standard, KQED, GOOD, Remezcla and Racked. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Reading Amber Tamblyn’s piece in The New York Times on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the film industry this weekend, I relived an event that happened to me almost 10 years ago.
It was a hot, humid summer, and I was working as an assistant costume designer on a film set in New York City. Every day, sweat poured down my back and legs as I hoisted dozens of garment bags filled with wardrobe changes over my shoulder, and walked up six flights of stairs to the dressing room.
So on this particular day, I chose to wear shorts to set. The guys wore ratty T-shirts, cargo shorts and trucker hats, so I figured I’d be fine dressing casually during a heat wave. I was making my way up to the wardrobe truck, when a very senior male executive began staring at my legs and started following me. I ignored him, because I had work to do.
But I couldn’t get away from his gaze.
And it bothered me. It bothered me that a man in a position of power was objectifying me. I grabbed all the clothes I needed as quickly as possible, and I accidentally dropped a hanger on the floor. I bent over to pick it up, and he said, “Woooooo-eeeeee, you’re lucky you weren’t bent over longer or I would have tapped that.”
I looked up in disgust, to see the entire camera crew by his side, laughing at me. I thought up a million one-liners as my face flushed with embarrassment, but all I could imagine was getting fired for running my mouth off at one of the most powerful men on set. I made my way back to the wardrobe department and held my tongue.
I told one of the female executives I needed to talk to her in private. Then I explained to her what happened, and asked her to speak with him and tell him to knock it off.
Her words still haunt me to this day.
“You’ll never get anywhere in this industry without a thick skin.”
This is how women and men excuse men behaving badly. How they rationalize their own silence and complicity. This is how they keep women out of an industry, because after dozens of experiences like this, how determined do you have to be in order to not let ongoing dehumanization break you?
In this female executive’s eyes, his words were not the problem. His actions were not the problem. His abuse of power was not the problem. I was the problem.
It’s not thin-skinned to believe that your co-workers shouldn’t make sexually suggestive remarks about you. It’s not thin-skinned to believe that your superiors should do whatever they can to help stop harassment in the workplace. It’s not thin-skinned to ask to be believed.
I think of Tamblyn’s words, about what it’s like to constantly ask yourself, am I worth defending? Am I worth feeling safe? Am I worth not feeling scared?
Tamblyn wrote, “Every day, women across the country consider the risks.”
And I wonder, should I be considering these risks, or should the people who condone, cover up, turn the other way, and dismiss women start considering the risks? Should they start considering what their inaction says about them? Should they start to realize the great risk they’re taking; of losing their reputation, credibility and respect?
Because women, we don’t need to carry that burden. We don’t need the self-doubt, and the fear, and the depression, and the panic attacks. We need people to stop telling us that we are the problem.
For years after that day in New York, even when I became a costume designer, and had more feature films under my belt, producers would invite me to industry screenings and events, then ask me to go home with them; I’d sit in daily meetings while the director (who was a man four out of five times) and his team would discuss which of the actresses they “were boning,” and share clips of past sex scenes these women filmed.
I was usually one of two or three women at those meetings, and every time I wondered: do you just not see us? Or do you see us, and we don’t matter?
I started working in film because I believed it was the only medium where you could use all of your senses to tell a story, and take advantage of music, writing, performance and imagery. I left film because I stopped believing that my crew wanted to help me tell stories as best as we could, together. And I returned to writing because I could control my own narrative, and if an editor tried to control my narrative, I could push back – but I wouldn’t have to fight an entire crew into believing I was worth listening to.
It shouldn’t be this way and it doesn’t have to be this way. As Tamblyn and others speak up about their experiences, let’s push the producers and directors to drive the change, so that we don’t have to hear about these experiences as something that won’t go away. Let’s make it go away by realizing that women aren’t the only ones who need to do the work.
Women don’t need thicker skin: we need members of the film industry and beyond to have a conscience.