By: Sallie Merkel
“Since you’re not going for a ‘character’ thing it’s important that you make yourself as glamorous-looking as possible and that might mean losing a little weight…”
I had been steadily “mmhmm”-ing along until this point in the conversation. But now I got quiet. I wanted to hear where he was going with this:
“I mean, I don’t know where you are with that right now and it’s not something that I saw in that first set of photos at all, but maybe in that second set a little… maybe it was just bad lighting or something but…”
He was floundering. I decided to help him out.
“I think it would be very unhealthy for me to lose any weight.”
“Well I haven’t seen you enough in person to really say. That’s just my standard advice for all women,” said my soon-to-be-former manager.
I am privileged that this conversation would not be damaging to my health. Privileged that I do not suffer from body dysmorphia. Privileged that I was raised with a positive relationship to food, exercise and my own body. That is almost an impossible level of privilege. There is a problem when healthy survival of the “standard advice to all women” necessitates nearly impossible privilege.
The conversation in which I was given this advice, started out as an “exit meeting” of sorts. A few days earlier, I had received an email from my manager saying that he would no longer be able to represent me after this month because he was heavily cutting back his client list. I was not terribly surprised or saddened. I knew from the beginning that this was a strategic relationship and it had become clear to me that the strategy wasn’t really panning out. Nevertheless, I felt grateful for the year we had spent working together. Having someone, in whose abilities I was confident, focus on the job of “marketing” me had allowed me to focus on other things.
It gave me the time to write and to discover the stories I wanted to tell. To look around and notice that there were few roles in the mainstream media that made me think, “what a great role!” or even “that should/could have been me!” To notice that on the occasions the characters I saw on the screen did resonate with me, they were often in projects generated by the performers themselves.
I always knew I wanted to change culture through storytelling. But for a long time I operated under the delusion that the best path for me would be to first become a famous and successful movie star (I know, DELUSION), and then to use that power to start a low-environmental-impact production company committed to telling stories that hadn’t been told before. Well…
SCREW BECOMING A FAMOUS AND SUCCESSFUL MOVIE STAR! I WANT TO START TELLING MY STORIES TODAY.
Anyway, in his email, my soon-to-be-former manager offered to have a conversation with me about my strategy for the future. This was a generous offer and I welcomed it. I wanted to thank him. I fantasized that I would tell him about the scripts I was working on, the projects I had up my sleeve and get his advice for moving forward with them.
He began by saying “The industry is changing faster than I realized” and ended with “you need to focus on marketability.”
The way in which he characterized the changing industry had to do with a greater emphasis on “diversity” in casting. He wanted to link this emphasis to his inability to get me in the room for the smaller, co-star-level roles with which a working actor starts to build a career. He spoke to me in the coded-language of whiteness: “these roles don’t require that much skill.”
He was trying to sell me on a narrative that pitted my success against the success of people of color. He was also being flat-out racist.
But I didn’t stop him. I “mmhmm”d along. I am ashamed to say that it took him bringing up the absurd topic of my weight for me to stop “mmhmm”ing. But that’s what I had come to accept as necessary in order to “make it” in this industry. A lot of nodding along to attitudes I found horrific.
I am done “mmhmming” along. I still want to work in this industry, but not at the cost of being silently complicit.
I am dubious of progressive narratives. Even as my former manager is having, as he put it, “better success with diverse clients” (yes, he used ‘diverse’ as a descriptor for individuals) in these smaller roles, the roles recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are #oscarssowhite. However, greater (though limited) opportunity for people of color on television is evidence that change is possible. And this change came about because of the hard work of many people who continued to push despite closed doors. It came about because of the choice that some individuals in power made to ignore “marketability.”
What is considered “marketable” is the known. I am, and have always been, interested in the unknown.
There is a marketing take on all of this; one could say that the buyers I am interested in are not the same as the buyers that my former manager was interested in. That is true. But I am over giving away my power. I am no longer trying to sell anything. I am interested in collaborators, not buyers.
So this is a call for collaborators. This is also the reason I started The Garden Party: to establish a space where we could dream of different modes of creation and exchange, modes rooted in storytelling, not “marketability.” But also a place where we can challenge and expand our definitions of story and acknowledge the concerns of the marketplace. A place where we can affirm what is systemic, name what is unnamed and make visible the invisible. Share your story here.
Let’s see if we can help each other. Let’s not sell each other anything.