Mirror Game Premier

Cybil, Olivia and Melody play a video game with real-life consequences. “Playing With The Big Boys” is a multi-player game designed to teach women how to “make it in a man’s world.” The “man’s world” is a Silicon Valley gaming company. It rewards toxic masculinity while challenging the women with an onslaught of casual and overt misogyny through Tony, the manager and Rohm, the CEO. Cybil, inspired by disgraced Theranos CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, is determined to win at any cost. She constructs an elaborate lie to win the game, but finds it comes at great cost.

Overtly, you could view the women’s journey as a cautionary tale warning women to beware ambition. Yet, beneath the surface lies an allegory that aims to indict the systems that oppress and objectify women and celebrate toxic masculinity.

Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Washington D.C., corporate America–each system fails our culture. The media they produce and the ways they function, strangle innovation and imagination in favor of a brutal and cruel kind of capitalism.

In terms of Mirror Game and the central theme, the phrase, “It’s not personal, it’s capitalism,” is no more than an excuse for bad behavior that negatively impacts both the worker and the consumer, and eventually the one at the top.

As an aside, I encourage everyone, if you haven’t, to check out The 1619 Project. It draws a direct link from slavery to our modern economic systems.

Ultimately, one hopes a piece can speak for itself and that the ideas don’t weigh too heavily on it. Any artistic endeavor, particularly one as collaborative as new opera, must offer the very talented artists it assembles space to articulate their experience. Above all else, this piece must allow the audience member the freedom to discover it and perhaps enjoy it on the way. 

A Rorschach Test

Who do you see in this photo? A female superhero strong enough to kick a whole army of men in the teeth? A descendant of Amazons, female warriors so self-sufficient they don’t need men? To many, Wonder Woman is a symbol of female empowerment–a shining star of feminism in the pantheon of hyper-masculine alpha greats.

To me, Wonder Woman subverts true femininity. Super sexy, gorgeous, daughter of a father god and warrior woman, Wonder Woman has as much to do with actual womanhood as Barbie in a suit. She’s an object of desire, an archetype of cis-male fantasy. Literally a gorgeous Lesbian from Lesbos, she awakens to her true nature (the need of a man) when she meets Pilot Steve Trevor. Aside from her brawn, which I’ll get to in a moment, her greatest power against him is a lasso of truth. Why is this a thing? Men lie, you see, but a virtuous woman tells the truth, something the Lesbians of Lesbos hammer home quite a bit in the film. “The World of Men is evil. It will destroy us all.”

Captain Sexy Names finds he’s utterly powerless against her UNTIL he realizes she’s never had sex–with a man—the only kind that offers one carnal knowledge, right? Her child-like innocence yet another quality of fantasy femininity.

As for her brawn, it’s something every true superhero needs, yes? That’s what makes her a superhero. Yet, unlike Batman, Ironman, Spiderman, to scratch the surface, she was never human. She fell from the heavens, a perfect specimen of purity and sexual potency. Sure, one could argue that Superman is also a god, but it’s a false equivalent. He’s just one of many male figures in this world. Cis-boys of all psyches and shapes can find themselves in DC comics. Wonder Woman is tokenism, and tokenism takes an underrepresented demographic and distills it down to one unattainable ideal–ultimately more harmful than helpful.

Of course I loved her as a child. Of course the thought of her made me feel strong. Maybe she’s a step in the right direction, but as she remains the dominant representation of femininity in the superhero world, she reinforces sexist tropes that infect the DNA of social discourse.

A friend of mine, I’ll call her Tanya, is the new CEO of an arts-related non-profit. She asked a colleague, and frequent art donor, for help. He generously obliged. He wrote her a blank check to cover the cost of their first fundraiser. They’d never discussed her relationship status. It had never come up. Grateful for the support, she thought she’d take their friendship to the next level. She invited him to her wedding. Then things got weird. He was cold, distant and dismissive in their phone calls. He attended the wedding, but went out of his way to blow her off. He walked away when she approached and left having barely greeted her or her new husband.

Another friend, Julie, let’s say, is a Marketing consultant. A CEO brought her in to help him take his company to the next level. He was excited by her work, complimented her on her intelligence and enthusiastically talked of their future together–until he asked her for coffee. She mentioned she and her partner had plans at that time and suggested an alternative day. She never heard from him again.

Jen, another friend, attended a recent conference. During a panel discussion between several men and women, one of the men stopped the conversation to tell the women, “Can I just say, I have a crush on all of you!” Don’t be so sensitive, you may say. He was complimenting them! What’s wrong with that? Because it makes women objects of desire in a space where we seek to engage with our minds. This hurts our bottom line. Men’s desire can literally take the food out of our mouths. They have the luxury to determine when it’s sexy time and when it’s work time. And if women don’t play ball, men take it and go home.

This is the pernicious problem with a figure like Wonder Woman. There are many examples of toxic femininity that get tangled up in the muck and madness of good-intentioned media. I would love to think that movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp might move the needle, but as long as gender disparity is measured in wages lost and careers stalled, I’m dubious.

Mirror Game, An Opera

MIRROR GAME

IN SILICON VALLEY, THE GAME Will COST YOU EVERYTHING

Mirror Game is a new opera by Composer Celka Ojakangas with story and libretto by me, Amy Punt premiering November 29th at Portland State University. 

Gaming programmers, Cybil, Olivia and Melody get transported into a video game called, “Playing With The Big Boys,” the game that teaches you how to make it in a man’s world. In order to escape, they must win. In order to win they must eliminate one another from the game entirely as they compete for the same promotion in a Silicon Valley company. However, Cybil and Olivia are in love. Each must choose between power and wealth and their relationship. 

It is about the silent messages that influence bedrock values driving gender bias.

Overtly the story explores the consequences of internalizing a masculine narrative and subverting the feminine. Cybil, (inspired by disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes) creates a lie that sky-rockets her to fame and success. Yet, it metastasizes within her, perverting the woman she once was. While it first appears she wins the game, once the lie is exposed, she loses everything.

Why this story now?

I saw an opportunity to explore themes that, just a few years ago, didn’t feel culturally relevant to most people. This, despite the personal and individual costs many women pay for ambition, drive and achievement. While pursuing full time careers, women largely remain the primary domestic caregivers. Studies have shown that this decreases their chances at promotion over men and keeps their salaries a full 19.3% lower.

Our culture values men over women by a considerable margin.

A year or so ago I began seeing “Take Time To Be a Dad Today” billboards all over Los Angeles. It was a public service campaign created by World Wrestling Entertainment and the Ad Council. To be sure, Vince McMahon, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of the WWE, is well known for his bigotry and misogyny. In fact, it’s his brand. So, if you want to discount this campaign as you consider the source, consider this. The Ad Council developed it on behalf of you and me, the tax-payers. Fatherhood.gov, run by The National Fatherhood Clearinghouse, is a “funded national resource for fathers, practitioners, programs/Federal grantees, states, and the public at-large who are serving or interested in supporting strong fathers and families.”

I appreciate that at one time society may have needed it–in 1962. However, right now, it sends the wrong message. Through it we further the regressive values of Leave It To Beaver-style parenting that continues to place the domestic burden squarely on women. What does this mean? All women, not just the women who have children, pay a price in lost wages and stalled careers. This, in effect, incentivizes women to stay home with the children. I can’t believe this is an accident.

BECAUSE DADS MUST BE REMINDED TO PARENT

To be clear, Mirror Game is not about a woman trying to find balance between domesticity and her career.

Instead it’s about the impact these silent messages have on us all. They influence bedrock values driving gender bias. Our culture values men over women by a considerable margin. Do I spell it out? Money = Value.

Why Silicon Valley?

In Silicon Valley, masculinity reigns in a way that’s somewhat unique. It’s widely felt that young, nerdy, introverted males make the best programmers. The degree to which one reflects that narrative determines the level of her success. The traditional alpha male bombast and frat boy hijinks of say, Wall Street or even Hollywood, doesn’t exist. I’m hoping that placing the story in Silicon Valley offers a fresh and modern take on the misogyny influencing every aspect of one of the most powerful industries in the world.

 

 

 

USC, You Have A Problem

Due to a back injury, I started physical therapy at the USC Verdugo Hills Hospital on August 28th at 1:15 p.m. In a large hospital room designed to serve a number of patients simultaneously, each bed is separated from the others by a curtain. Following my first session, my therapist turned off the light while I lay on an ice pack and relaxed. Across the way, behind another curtain, a therapist, a man, worked with his patient, a woman and senior citizen.  His tone was friendly and professional. They discussed her progress, her heart, and he asked her whether or not she felt any numbness in various parts of her body as, I assumed from her responses, he touched her. It all seemed above board. Then the conversation turned from the professional, to well, something else.

“So, every year to a year-and-a-half or I go with my patients to get a massage,” he said.

“Oh, that sounds wonderful,” she said.

“Usually, I take my patients downstairs to the spa. You know, I wait until the spa has a deal– 20% off or so.”

“I know, they’re so expensive, otherwise I’d get them all the time.”

“Good. So, we go and get a couple’s massage in the evening. How does that sound?”

“That sounds fine,” she said.

“And then we can grab some dinner,” he said cheerfully.

I could barely contain my shock and mouthed, “OH MY GOD!” Two other female colleagues of his were milling about the room. One of them saw my face, looked away and exited the room.

In the spirit of “If you see something say something,” I’d like to say I said something. I did not. Honestly, I’m not exactly sure what I heard. I could be missing something. Perhaps they know one another well. Perhaps there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation. Perhaps…

Here’s the thing, it’s not my determination to make. I will say something, and when I do, it’s in his supervisor’s hands. And therein lies their biggest problem. USC school officials ignored and suppressed evidence of the sexual misconduct and criminal behavior of two powerful campus medical figures for decades.

Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito, disgraced dean of the Keck School of Medicine and renowned eye surgeon, resigned his $1.1-million-a-year post in March 2016 following the drug overdose of a young woman in his presence, in his Pasadena hotel room. After nearly a decade of overseeing “hundreds of medical students, thousands of professors and clinicians, and research grants totaling more than $200 million,” he said he wanted to, “explore other opportunities,” The Los Angeles Times reported July 17, 2017.

It was just the tip of the iceberg. The Times uncovered video footage and photos of Puliafito using methamphetamines and other drugs with criminals and drug dealers spanning his decade as Dean. Times reporters also discovered evidence indicating that the school knew about it all along.

It’s hard to imagine anything more egregious than Puliafito’s behavior, or the school’s aiding and abetting of it. That is until this spring, when The Times published a bombshell revelation that Dr. George Tyndall, a campus gynecologist, had been sexually abusing his patients and harassing fellow employees for nearly 30 years, and, again, the school knew about it. In spite of their public denials of wrong doing and obfuscations, paper trails, discovered by The Times, don’t lie.

USC might want to consider a rebranding campaign: “USC, A Safe Space.”

Which would be a hard sell considering the number of Tyndall’s alleged victims could reach into the thousands. Jon Manly, a lawyer well-versed in mass litigation for sex abuse victims, told The Times, “I have never seen anything like the volume of calls we are getting.”

The details are harrowing in both cases, the coverups worse.

You’d expect then, that the medical professionals at USC might be more vigilant about identifying and rooting out those who behave inappropriately with patients. You might even think that the predatory medical professionals themselves might reserve their questionable comments and suggestions for a time when they are actually alone with their patients. However, Dr. George Tyndall received a large payout after decades of sexually abusing his patients in full view of countless other staff members. If he wasn’t hiding, well, why would anyone else?

What I overheard pales in comparison, but in light of these things, it’s speaks to a troubling pattern at USC. Whatever this physical therapist’s intent, it sounds like he’s taking advantage of his patient’s trust for his own benefit. Let’s be clear. He suggested a patient share an intimate evening with him as if it were medical therapy. I once managed a spa. Psychologists frequently recommended couples try a couple’s massage to remedy sexual dry spells. Follow that with a dinner date and you have the makings of something far outside current models of patient care. You have the makings of a lawsuit.

It makes me wonder if this kind of thing isn’t endemic at USC. Predators seek out professions that offer them easy access to vulnerable populations. I’m beginning to wonder if they don’t also seek out employers that offer them protection as they offend with impunity.

Your move, USC.

Louis C.K. Returns, But Where Are the Women?

Louis C.K. showed up for a surprise gig at the at the Comedy Cellar in New York City on Sunday night. According to the New York Times, he received an ovation before he even began. According to Vulture, there were at least two women who were not having it. And they felt they weren’t the only dismayed members of the audience, but it sounds like they were the minority. One of them reported seeing only four other women in the front row sitting stone-faced throughout his 15-minute set.

It was classic Louis. Surprise visit and 15 minutes of working out new material. He’s one of the hardest working comedians in his industry–and well respected for it. That is, until his fall from grace last year. Following the release of a short statement in the New York Times copping to masturbating in front of at least five women and coercing them into silence, he was dropped by Netflix, Amazon, shut out from the box office and dropped by his manager and previously devoted agent. The very agent who had threatened to ruin the first two women to call C.K. out if they came forward.  And he did. They received death threats, were blackballed from auditions and clubs and lost television opportunities that were all but a sure thing.

The two women in the Comedy Cellar audience reported feeling a similar kind of silencing as the men in the room boomed out their approval. “If someone had heckled him, I think they would’ve been heckled out,” one of them said.”It felt like there were a lot of aggressive men in the audience and very quiet women. It’s the kind of vibe that doesn’t allow for a dissenting voice. You’re just expected to be a good audience member.”

Yes, be a good girl and agree with the men. If you’ve ever been in a room throbbing with testosterone, you know better than to disagree.

The club’s owner, Noam Dworman, told the New York Times, “there can’t be a permanent life sentence on someone who does something wrong.” The social standards about how to respond to errant behavior are inconsistent, he said, and now shifting ever faster, and audiences should have the leeway to decide what to watch themselves. “I think we’ll be better off as a society if we stop looking to the bottlenecks of distribution — Twitter, Netflix, Facebook or comedy clubs — to filter the world for us.”

Dworman’s argument seems logical. Nevertheless, the audience’s response shows how little so many men understand about the MeToo movement, how dominant their voices are and how the needle on predatory sexual behavior hasn’t moved. Sure, men like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey are gone forever, perhaps leading us to conclude that overtly criminal and predatory behavior has been curtailed. Please. Consider Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and our Predator In Chief. Nobody talks about Thomas’ well-documented sins against Anita Hill. Why even talk about C.K.? Really, when there are predatory men setting laws that will impact women for generations. Aren’t they the very ones who should be shamed out of office? If anyone?

But I digress.

But do I?

What does C.K.’s comeback mean?

Many of C.K.’s fans and supporters argue that C.K.’s offenses didn’t rise to Weinstein’s level. Yet, that argument fails to address the real issue–that when victims come forward, they face swift and immediate retribution. They face losing everything. The problem with C.K.’s return is that the women involved don’t get one.

As a one time fan of C.K.’s, I always felt there was room in his comedy for me, for women. However, I predict that may no longer be the case. I fear his comeback will widen the gender divide as he pulls away from more inclusive topics. If Twitter offers any insight today, those most vocal against his comeback are women and those for it, are men.  This tweet first Screenshot at Aug 29 16-08-51Screenshot at Aug 29 16-08-17

Screenshot at Aug 29 16-07-56

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SNL’s Michael Che, comedians Marlon Wayans and Mo Amer were the first of his colleagues to speak in his defense, but I doubt they’ll be the last. Men are angry and confused. They identify with the public figures who’ve been called out. Even those who say they support the MeToo movement, fail to get what it’s about. An interview last year on MTP Daily with Chuck Todd encapsulated this perfectly for me. Jeff Daniels and Peter Sarsgaard say they fully support the MeToo movement and believe the women who speak out. When asked about Woody Allen and whether the two would do another film with him, Sarsgaard levies a decisive no.  Daniels, however hesitates, yet quickly says he believes Dylan Farrow. Then, this happens: Sarsgaard says, “Throughout history there have been so many artists that had bad behavior. Picasso, I mean my god, it’s just been one after another, right? In all professions, but a lot of artists, right?”

And he was doing so well.

Then he adds, a bit defensively, “I would continue to watch Woody Allen movies, I’ll tell you that. I would go back and watch those movies. He’s a fantastic filmmaker.”

Uh huh. Woody Allen’s films demonstrate the various ways in which women exist to serve men’s needs and desires–something that has existed so long in the arts, we don’t even question it. His female characters succumb to his sexual desire as soon as he arrives. When they don’t they are portrayed as devious, manipulative and untrustworthy. Manhattan, for instance, is about a 44-year old guy who dates a swooning 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway.

That’s exactly the point of the MeToo movement. TimesUp on that behavior. Someone’s genius does not excuse his predatory and misogynist point of view or artwork. It does not give him a free pass to continue to undermine women, while his career soars. His talent or ability should not trump a worldview that feeds a narrative that disempowers half the population.

That said, I don’t believe people should be tried, convicted and destroyed in the court of public opinion. I don’t believe that Louis C.K. should go away forever. Instead, let’s stop talking about him and the men like him. If we’re ever going to move the needle, we need to hear from the women.

Let’s give them the opportunities they lost. Let’s showcase their work and their voices. Let’s find their genius. If we are ever to strike a balance, the Entertainment Industry power brokers, the same ones who vanquished the worst offenders in the MeToo movement, should seek out the women who were wronged and give them their lost platforms. Offer them the same opportunities to prove themselves. If they really believe them as they say they do, put their money where their mouths are.