I needed to check out a camera for an assignment. I was in the small equipment room looking at equipment I clearly did not know how to use yet. But, I was required to check out a camera and start. I was excited to begin.
I turned around to ask a question of the guy who helped us check out equipment. I was surprised, and then stunned to see him close the door behind him. I don’t know if he locked it, but he stood in front of it, blocking my exit, and asked me, “How bad do you want that camera?”
I was a radical lesbian separatist who wore “ACT-UP FIGHT AIDS” T-shirts regularly to school. I stared at him and said the first thing that came to my mind, “I am not the person you want to do this to. Trust me.” We stared at each other. He laughed and slowly moved away from the door. I left, with the camera (I think), I finished that assignment and somehow passed the camera class. What I do know for sure is that I never checked out a camera again, and somehow convinced myself that the “equipment” part of film making was somehow too technical for me.
I had come out to LA from Colorado and was extremely proud to get into one of the best theater and film schools in the US. However, I was completely not “used to” the level of casual and cruel sexism women in the industry were subjected to. There was an unwritten code that if you wanted to make it as a woman—well, you better toughen up and get used to what the industry looked like for women.
I had applied for enrollment to an important program. I was told by the professor in that program that I was admitted. I went forward and subsequently declined a fellowship I had been accepted to, at another program in the Midwest. I then went back to the professor’s office to talk with him about the needed requirements for the program. He said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I couldn’t really offer that to you at that time. It’s already gone.” I started to protest that in the two week since he’d offered it to me; I had given up a different fellowship. He reached over and ran his hand through my dark hair that had one full gray streak in it and said to me, “Some men like women with gray hair.”
I said, “I’m going to the Dean,” and walked out of his office.
I did go to the Dean and explained what happened—sort of. I got enrolled into the program. However, I did not report him for his advances towards me. Nor did I report the tech guy. Why? Well, there wasn’t such a thing as reporting sexual harassment then, not really, not back in 1989.
I remember distinctly being at an ACT-UP rally in Sacramento to increase AIDS funding and in the morning before we left to protest, watching in 1991 the Senate hearings on Clarence Thomas, where Anita Hill was trying to showcase his sexual harassment and get his appointment denied. She was not supposed to be the one on trial – but she was the one on trial. It was excruciating to watch her in front of a completely male panel of senators who did not think her testimony credible enough.
In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex harassment was also unlawful at work. It is well accepted now that gender and sexual orientation do not determine whether one is the perpetrator or victim of harassment. But, in spite of legal victories and the impact of well-known cases like Anita Hill’s, sexual harassment remains a problem today.
We’ve seen in these past two weeks the reality of how much sexual harassment is still a problem. For most women, they are not only saying “#metoo,” they are also saying “I don’t know any woman who has not experienced this.” That’s how much of a problem it still is.
I was in a theater class and the teacher claimed that there were no good female comedy writers. He “jokingly” said, “I guess either Robin Williams or Richard Pryor would need to rape Lilly Tomlin in order to create some female comedy writers.” I just stared at him, while some in the class laughed, and others were uncomfortable. When I went to his office to complain, I was told that he didn’t know whether he was supposed to be “scared of me or to teach me.” I said I had moved to LA from Colorado and he better figure out how to teach me. I was made to feel that I was “scary” in my feminism and my demands to be treated with respect.
I was having a play I had written produced. It included a scene of a woman reliving a rape. In my script the scene is a monologue and she recounts it from behind a scrim, or see-through screen. Her rapist is in shadow, frozen at a pool table in darkness.
When the play was assigned to a male director he chose to re-enact the rape scene, and to have a man “imitating” a rape by having him lie on top of the female actress and “pretend” to rape her. This happened repeatedly as he “rehearsed” the scene. I was confronted with this information—since I was not invited to rehearsals—by a friend who was in the play. The actress playing the role was justifiably upset, and it was not the script I wrote. I went to the male faculty member who oversaw this play. I complained I wanted to pull the play, that this was not what I wrote. He said he “couldn’t do anything about it,” and he gave me a low grade for not being “participatory” with my director.
And I was not alone in this treatment. I was told by a friend of mine not to give my phone number to another professor, as he had her number and was repeatedly calling her. He was, ultimately I believe, reprimanded by the university regarding subsequent harassment charges—but that would come years later.
What I must stress is that these examples did not even seem egregious to me at the time. They eventually seemed par for the course for a woman trying to enter Hollywood and they were treated as such. No one seemed surprised or upset that these things were happening. I was supposed to “toughen up” and move on.
I remember my partner at the time telling me I had to decide if all I was going to do in school was fight, which was making me sick—or if maybe the best revenge would be to make my own work, write my own scripts. I tried to do that.
I began writing scripts I wanted to see- which had no hope of being made in the early 1990s- lesbian prostitutes in an 1890 gold mine camp in Colorado; lesbian French poets and writers in the age of France’s magical time in the early 1920s with Natalie Barney, and Renee Vivien; a woman killing her abuser and getting away with it; etc. I wrote what I wanted to write and said I didn’t care about “making it”—I think I knew I was not going to “make it,” whether I cared or not.
After I made the decision to not be the only one protesting stuff like this in classes, I was in a feedback session for another writer and someone in the audience said women have “rape fantasies.” I held my tongue. I was just going to not engage and was going to let someone else handle it for a change. I reasoned that this was so overboard—someone else must feel the way I felt. In the courtyard, a man in my class came up to me and asked why I hadn’t responded to that comment? I said “Well, I thought someone else might do that.” And he said, “We said it specifically so that you would say something.” and he laughed saying he wanted to give me an opportunity to say something about feminism.
I could go on—but you get the idea. And the reality is that I was always thought “nothing horrible” happened to me in film school because I was not raped, or molested by anyone in my school. I was approached and I was confronted, and I fought back.
And all the while I was an activist going to rallies, fighting for AIDS funding, laying down in front of abortion clinics, and marching for my rights. I had wanted to make a Hollywood movie. I had come to LA to do that — I ended up doing one woman shows about my abusive childhood and starting a movement for incest survivors.
I ended up fighting back.
The truth is, I never even realized until this blast of #metoo hit my social media feed and I was talking about this with my students—that yes, I never checked out another camera after that time. I felt lucky to get out of that room without something happening to me. (And I was.) But what did it cost me?
Did I want to make a movie? Did I want to go into the equipment room and be greeted by a woman (or man) who was excited to help me? To help me figure out how to do it, so that I could make a movie?
How bad do you want that camera?
How bad do you want – fill in the blank—your career?
It hurts remembering that excited 30-something who thought one of Hollywood’s elite film schools would embrace her.
Who would I have been if I had not been sexually harassed in film school? I don’t know.
And yes, I hear the echoes. #metoo, #metoo, #metoo…
Marie Cartier has a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University. She is the author of the critically acclaimed book Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall (Routledge 2013). She is a senior lecturer in Gender and Women’s Studies and Queer Studies at California State University Northridge, and in Film Studies at Univ. of CA Irvine.