A Woman Under the Influence

words Liz Drew
editor James Cooper

My dog’s red fur glows in a halo around his body, and he crouches over a growing dust cloud as he kicks and paws madly into loose dirt. The dust glows too, swirling and sparkling over sparse patches of grass. The dirt is confounded by scratch marks, knobbles silhouettes over the roots between two trees. Overhead, the trees sway to their own weight, all over springing clusters of flower-structure, petals glowing. It’s only a few hours left now with this sun.

I tell people offhandedly that my home life is in shambles from the work that I do now. I fell in love with making light, and movies, and I lost touch with who I was in the domestic realm. I’m forever trying to understand this shift, and it’s such a weird puzzle. It’s completely engrossing, shooting 12 hour days and using my body to bring the sun or its artifice to life. I’m a set electrician - we roll out a fake sun or moon any given day and roll it up all at the end of the shift. This has been unremittingly damaging and deeply rewarding. It’s never straightforward.

I’d like to feel like a paragon of progress for women in industry. But I wouldn’t like to feel that way, either, ‘cause that singularity seems like bullshit. We badly need women in places they aren’t, and we certainly need men to be okay with that. In any system, diversity is strength. But any time I hear praise, the underlying theme tends to be in a man’s world. And I feel like I’m being lied to, and that they relegate my intentions as a worker to martyrdom. I don’t want to be some damn hero; they die in the end, man. They’re fools for popping their heads up. I just want to enjoy this romance I’m having with the light! I just want to work!

It’s tremendously important to me that I push myself, see if I can meet the challenge. I’ve done a lot of work, but I have yet to run a day of 4/0 (“4 Ott”) cable - the thickest copper we use in the movie business, about an inch in diameter with insulation. That shit is just under 1 pound per foot. Most 4/0 5-wire runs would total at least 1000 feet of cable, about 1000 pounds - half a ton. Some set electricians move twice this amount (one ton!) of cable in a day. Their backs begin to grind, disks squashing each other in succession, and they develop a hitch in their gait. In theaters, I wait to see the grip and electric (g&e) department roll by in the credits - any sister out there doing the same thing? Has she traveled further, seen greater heights? Can I point to her and say, she can do it, so can I? Where the hell is she?! Am I barking up the wrong tree all this time? Can I even lift that? And am I any goddamn use at all to you boys if I can’t lift that?

A paragon of progress would, I theorize, bring more women in to this field. I try to. In fact, though the person I ultimately hired was more qualified for the job and made the show flow smoothly and peacefully - to my mind, kind of the ultimate in job performance - my first choice on this last show was for a woman who’s been indicating her interest in doing g&e work for awhile now without making a lot of headway in that direction. She’s been taken in by other departments, who consume her time. I’m sure I scared her off with the prospect of heaping new information and new duties and new rhythms all at once - and here’s the rub. It scares a lot of women off (it won’t scare her off forever, I think), and three weeks deep into my first show as an electric, I was scared too. Maybe I only stuck it out because they called me back, and I’d never seen that kind of money. Now I love it. But would they love it?

Sometimes I ask out-of-town lighting people about women in their crews. It can be tough to make friends among these guys - they’re all salts, ten years deep or more. One guy rolled his eyes and called out the “prove-it” factor - an attitude he’d experienced from females specifically that came off as snippy and isolating - “I don’t need your help, I can lift that all by myself, thank you very much.” I don’t know what they were feeling, but I know what I’ve felt in those moments: “if I can’t do it this time, you might not call me back on the next one. And then I’m useless, and I don’t get to be this close to what I love anymore. One false move and I’m fucked, aren’t I? No, thank you, I’ve got this. Please. Give me a chance.” It’s not intended to be uncooperative, but it does stem from fear. The end result could be divisive if neither party understands each other.

I got to speak with this fellow at length on an end-of-day car ride. He had a beer, I drove. He was very straightforward, and reported that he didn’t really like working with women. Troublingly, he said that producers like women too much - that in crews with a woman, they tend to run circles around men, looking for something to do and trying to prove themselves, and the men look like jerks if they don’t put forth more effort than can be wise. Things can get unsafe because they’re in a hurry. People could throw their backs out just to prove a point - and then that person is fucked, too.

He also had a pretty disappointing perspective on women’s sexuality in the workplace - he boiled it down to sluts and saints, basically. It felt a bit like the American military’s insistence that women in combat would be a distraction. He even suggested I wear a sports bra if I wanted to be taken seriously. So I took his advice and ran with it - I wear spandex all over now - screw pants, man. My job is so much easier without physical restraints.

I’m grateful he talked to me so honestly - not only because now I know where I really stand with him and many other men in the field, but because I don’t think it’s all horseshit. What he said needed to be interpreted, weighed against a woman’s reality. I see the producers-love-us stuff in action - I don’t think I’ve had a poor working relationship with any producer, but I don’t think this has overall been to our detriment. It helps to have that going for me when I step to bat on collective bargaining. I do indeed take greater care now not to suck up all the work or rush - sometimes people stop me to say that I run circles around these boys, and that’s just the kind of shit that makes me feel like I’m doing it all wrong. I want to pull them aside and illustrate the ways in which all the other dudes I work with are essential, and why singling me or any woman out isn’t going to do women or humans any good in the long run, but I haven’t taken this opportunity yet. I just defer to being busy.

Thank goodness, some guys know how essential it is to bring women into the mix, and keep them there. One gaffer - less salty, more lonely - said he’d only met three women who’d stuck it out long enough to make it a career. Before writing this, I re-watched The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, a documentary that I originally saw before embarking on working life a good 15 years ago. It regards the women ushered into skilled industries in droves for wartime labor, who thrived, and then found there was no room for them at the end of the day once the soldiers were home. It’s one of the more heartbreaking and encouraging films I can think of, and it’s had a lot to do with the path I take as a wage earner. I also grew up with a mother who graduated from medical school in a class that was approximately 1.5% women, so I’ve had some steely resolve all my life to be a part of making the working world just that - a place for all workers, period.

It’s likely that this perspective in my day-to-day life, though well-intentioned, is misguided. Some say movies are dead - I’m getting work now, but yes, they’re probably dying. Gods come, and gods go. The moving image is still under-explored. And LED technology may change the landscape of set electric work completely. I’ve always harbored notions that this might make the field more inclusive to women. It’s exciting, seeing it change. And its confusing, considering the twists and turns my working life will definitely take. I think sometimes of going deeper, into the circuitry level. Then I think of how powerfully I’d miss the hustle and flow of set life. It’s taken me over. And it’s all about the light.
I wanna be the one to walk in the sun!
Oh girls, they wanna have fun.
Oh girls! Just wanna have -