From behind the screen

Tuesday, February 4, 2020 - 4:35pm

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Design by Elizabeth Bigham

In the 1970s and ’80s, most major United States orchestras changed their audition policies in an attempt to eliminate their bias toward hiring male candidates. The new procedures included advertising the positions more widely, restructuring admissions committees to also include members of the orchestra and most importantly, the introduction of “blind” or “screen” auditions in which the identity of the player was hidden from the jury.

By doing this, they increased female representation from 10 percent in the early 1970s to 35 percent in the mid-1990s. The screen, meant to address gender discrimination within the hiring process of orchestras, had allegedly achieved its purpose. But as they gained representation, women musicians who were auditioning for orchestras also lost something: their right to perform gender and to own and show their bodies in the ways they pleased.

Anne Phillips, London School of Economics Gender and Theory professor, argues in her book, The Politics of the Human, that women had to become “disembodied abstractions” in order to be considered as musicians of equal merit to their male counterparts. 

Phillips’s notion of disembodied abstractions stuck with me, because it suggests that women need to surrender their bodies to claim their equal place in the world. To be considered as humans, we would need to give up the gendered particularities that make us women. 

As I paged through The Politics of the Human, all I could think about was my body: my brown hair, flexible legs, uncoordinated arms and face. It looks different from any other body I’ve ever seen. It shapes how I see and experience the world, and also affects how others see me. It is a woman’s body. It is an immigrant’s body. It is a body that carries stress and grief, but also happiness.

In a lot of ways, my body makes me who I am. Was it possible for me to think of myself, a human and a woman, without considering the particularities of my body?

For me, the answer was no. 

The more I read, the more I came to understand that Phillips’s feminist argument was based on something much deeper than equal gender representation for musicians in orchestras. Although representation is an important step in achieving equality, Phillips was attempting to attack the problem at its root. In her view, the origin of gender inequality does not come from simply from genitalia. 

It can be explained, at its core, by the essence of personhood. 

“We make up people,” she writes in “The Politics of the Human”. “When we decide that the crucial distinction is that between a man and a woman, or human and animal, or heterosexual and gay, we settle on definitions and boundaries that then mark our ways of thinking and living.”

So, if women musicians auditioning for orchestras in the U.S. were forced to surrender their bodies to be considered worthy of a position, then what does that say about their status as people?

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The United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 aiming to protect the universal human rights of all people on Earth. It was, according to them, a groundbreaking moment that marked a milestone in the fight for human rights. 

For the first time, they say, all people were recognized as having a personhood worth protecting, no matter what their nationality was. For the first time, there was a governing body whose goal was to see everyone and prevent them from being acted against, no matter their societal status.

Article 2 of the UDHR reads like this:

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”

All is well and good, until one realizes that the word gender does not make the cut for the “distinctions of any kind” protected by the UDHR. Sex is there, but the contrast between the two is an important one. Sex is a biological state, it is a non-binary designation of male or female based on sex organs. Gender is the attributes and behaviors that are socially assigned to sex categories. It is also non-binary, and there is no assumed correspondence between gender and sex. The two are undeniably linked for some people, but irrevocably disjointed for others. 

***

In her book, Inventing Human Rights, University of California, Los Angeles history professor Lynn Hunt argues that human rights are given under three distinctions only.

“Human rights require three interlocking qualities: rights must be natural (inherent in human beings); equal (the same for everyone); and universal (applicable everywhere),” Hunt writes.

But as the women musicians showed, our categorical human looks a very specific way and not everyone is protected equally within their societies, or by the UDHR. In fact, I would argue people are placed into categories based on the particularities of their bodies, and this affects the degree of protection they receive.

The women auditioning behind the screen became “disembodied abstractions” because their bodies looked different than those of the male players. Their bodies were different, and the attributes and behaviors associated with their female bodies — their gender — clearly showed. For example, despite knowing they would play behind a screen, women musicians who auditioned for orchestras still dressed for the occasion and often wore heels.

Phillips writes that representation of women rose further when a carpet was added to disguise the sound of women players walking across the stage. She further states blind selection and screen auditions as “an indictment of the nature of our prejudices.”

It is — the forced distinction between gendered bodies places us on a balance that often tips toward cisgender men. The screen may have increased representation, but it also enhanced gender as an innate difference and did little to address the root problem of gender discrimination.

Being placed behind a screen forces people to assert their humanity through factors other than their bodies, which play a key part on how they view themselves.

The screen demonstrates that the fullness of women, their gender performance, identities and physical attributes — their humanity — could not be on the stage. They had to be considered only on one aspect, their musical abilities, but they could not be accepted on their assertion of personhood. 

In other words, the women who played behind a curtain were not being considered as people because of the way they showed up in the world and how they chose to adorn and portray their bodies. 

***

The way our society categorizes personhood is ascribed in these so-called solutions to inequality and discrimination. “Blind” or “screen” auditions inadvertently categorized women as “lesser than” by forcing them to hide their bodies and identities in the same way Article 2 of the UDHR completely ignored gender and failed to protect those whose sex organs don’t necessarily dictate their identities.

Liv Naimi (they/them), an LSA senior studying social theory and practice commented on the potential harmful nature of these exclusions.

“When it is women being discriminated against in (orchestras), that is interesting, because they are being discriminated against for the way they are showing up in the world,” they said.

“There is a lot of beauty in (their identities), and a lot of parts of themselves that they don’t get to show when they have to hide behind a curtain. They could still (play), and it could be really good, but I think that it says a lot to take away the outside of yourself. It says a lot about how other people can’t take all of you in and about why you can’t be yourself, and it can be really harmful.”

Naimi argued that the way we show up and present ourselves matters because it is a choice.

“My queer and also, at times, gender identity are things that I could hide if I wanted to,” they said. “But the opportunity to show them matters a lot to me, because they change the way that I can show up and be understood in space, and they change the way that I feel authentic.”

They also stated that language matters in recognizing someone’s personhood.

“When someone looks at me and uses ‘she’ pronouns, I get why. The culture we live in automatically genders the shape of my body. But being misunderstood in this way is harmful, because I am not being seen as how I feel,” they said. 

“I do enjoy femininity somedays, and looking like I would like to involves many steps. What I want changes. It’s not that I am not human when people see me as a woman, but it is that I am not the specific and unique human that I am. I am not me to them,” Naimi added.

The metaphorical screen being built around people whose gender identities do not conform to our normative idea of personhood can be harmful and, despite increasing representation, it can lead to the vindication of difference and to a lack of understanding and empathy across gender.

Andrew Miller (he/him), an LSA senior studying film, television, and media had a similar opinion.

“(Being put behind a curtain) sounds like a scary proposition,” he said. “It is hard, because when it comes to art, you want the best product to be shown; but when it comes to humans, you want people to like you and for there to not be that much hidden about you.”

Miller said the ability to be recognized holistically matters and that compartmentalizing the self could lead to ingenuine interaction.

“I want people to like me for everything about me. I want people to see me. In an ideal world, I would like to think that my character would really speak for itself, but I’d like everything I can to be upfront and present.”

Miller also said he believes that if art is left to what he called a “free market ideology,” gender and race discrepancies in terms or representation and acceptance will always exist.

“There’s a whole movement in Hollywood that put more minorities and women into films,” he said. “I don’t know if (representation) would fix the problem. I think if you gave people who are different and who have different experiences a chance to tell their own stories, instead of just inserting them like paste into films, that would be very interesting.”

Both Naimi and Miller agreed in saying that the UDHR’s exclusion of gender is important and can lead to misunderstanding about the difference between gender and sex. They also agreed in believing that the right to express gender freely should be protected as its own entity.

***

Whenever I walk into a room, I am aware of the particularities of my body. I know that the makeup on my face and my long hair are the normative symbols recognizable to others as femininity. “I feel like a woman,” these features say. “This is who I am.”

I know that one day, I will inevitably be asked to go behind a metaphorical screen to attain equal status to my male counterparts. I know that every day, even now, as I write this, people are forced to go behind a screen because of their gender. 

It is not representation that we need, it is empathy. We need to recognize gender performance as a human right, and all gendered bodies as people first.

Andrea Pérez Balderrama is a senior studying Communications and International Studies and is the former Managing Statement Editor. She can be reached at andreapb@umich.edu.