“That’s a mighty nice dream you have there little girl. It’d be a shame if something patriarchal happened to it.” – Curtis Stuehrenberg

I’m angry about the Microsoft ad. You know, the one that tells us that little girls don’t have a chance and should stay in STEM fields and keep fighting the good fight but forgets to tell little boys to change their behavior to not be little assholes who then become big assholes. Just click the link if you want details, because this is a different story.

It’s a related story, a tale as old as time…and, as far as I know, has never been written.

The San Francisco Girls Chorus was founded in the late 1970’s by the incredible Elizabeth Appling as a training ground for young singers, a way to provide the San Francisco Opera with highly trained girls to sing onstage. This was a gap that needed to be filled, and Elizabeth was the woman to do it. By the time I joined the chorus in 1983, they were performing all over the place, and the opera was not the bulk of their performance schedule. When I reached the professional (top of five) level in 1988, I was too tall to participate onstage as a child in the opera, but I could sing in the backstage chorus. I only ever got to do Parsifal, which put me off Wagner for over 20 years.

This arrangement went on for years, and my [shorter] friends got to be onstage with Pavarotti, who apparently wasn’t great with kids and, during Boheme rehearsals, if they were in his way would yell “Move your ass! Move your ass!” Occasionally, my friends would get to do amazing, amazing work. Like singing the challenging roles of the Three Spirits from the Magic Flute. These parts were often shared with boys from the San Francisco Boys Chorus, and splitting performances made things easier from a child labor perspective. It was a rare opportunity for this amazing group of award-winning girls to show their stuff. Until 1991. You see, boys at this age “have trouble concentrating” and “don’t learn as quickly” as girls. So it was suggested to Elizabeth that the girls do the first three performances, so the boys could watch, and learn from them, and then do the final three performances. I’m not certain whether it was the boys chorus or the opera or someone else who suggested this.

Do you know Elizabeth? No? Go back and read that Living Eulogy. I can wait. Got it? Ok.

It was my final year in the chorus and I wanted nothing more to do with singing. And there was no way I was going to be onstage anyway – I was already 5’7″, and the cutoff was either 5′ or 5’2″.

My friends had been working for weeks or months on these roles. We also had conflicts on two of the first three performances, so the boys were supposed to take the first three. Also, there was no way they Elizabeth would allow her girls to be used as a training ground for boys who couldn’t learn their music or blocking. We were busy, we were in demand, and if those boys wanted the credit they could take all of the performances.

And so they did.

I am not certain how messily this went down, nor how the relationship with SFO went from there. I know it has been reestablished and everything seems fine and the girls sound, from when I last saw them at their Highlands Holiday concert in December, better than they ever have.

I learned a lot from my eight years in the Girls Chorus. I learned that talent is irrelevant without hard work, and that hard work and talent are irrelevant without teamwork and good showmanship. I learned that the show must, will, always, go on, even if you faint and the girls around you close ranks to hide you. I learned advanced music theory, and that friendships formed between girls without boys around are strong, and unsullied, and that we can have a healthy competition and still, whoever wins, say “your solo was amazing” at the end, and mean it.

But the other lessons come more strongly now, maybe because of my industry, maybe because of this increased conversation around these things, these micro-aggressions, maybe because I am weary about commercials like those made by giants of the industry in which I work. Lessons like, if we do not accept being taken advantage of, we will make room for better things, but it will be scary at first as we turn down what we know. That the status quo is some seriously unacceptable bullshit and that women will be called bitches for calling it out. That calling out unfairness will come as a shock to those who have relied on this unfairness for their own success. That I have never lost a colleague or a friendship that I missed by calling this out.

I obviously admire Elizabeth for many, many reasons. But I have not credited her enough with making me the Nasty Woman I am today. Her powerhouse feminism and work ethic informed a generation of young women of which I am lucky to consider myself a part. She and my father are big parts of why, at ten years old, when my G.A.T.E. teacher asked us to write which roles we wanted in Macbeth, I wrote “Macbeth”, not considering that that was strange (I ended up getting Lady Macbeth, and in retrospect she is a far superior character). She’s part of why it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t do the things I’m doing… and she’s part of why I find myself confused at the battles to which I’m subjected simply by setting foot in my industry, having a strong opinion, or being on the internet.

This is an exhausting place. We have these utterly blind advertisements by organizations with so much power making things so much worse. We have white dudes thinking that being aware of these issues is enough, so comfortable in their own behavior that it doesn’t occur to them that they are the problem, white dudes thinking they can make advertisements and health care decisions for women. And so we, simply by standing our ground, are “feminazis”, inconveniencing white dudes with conversations they find exhausting, calling them out on their shit, until they tell us that we should be nicer because we’d be better off with them on our side and that we’re alienating them.

Dudes. Have you seen our side? It is glorious and hot and big and small and kind and angry and amenable and pitchfork-carrying and smart and giggly. It pole dances, and it wears baggy men’s clothing with short haircuts. It has thigh gap and no gap. It has conversations with you to try to get you to understand, and it tells you to fuck off if it’s just lost patience with you. It has been raped, and it has healed, and it is catcalled, and called an ugly bitch, and it is stronger than anything you have experienced on your side because our side has had to work, to really think about it, to band together despite our minute differences in ideologies and appearances. We band together for the right to be a pole dancer and not be called a whore, the right to wear men’s clothing and not be called a dyke, the right to control over our own bodies, whether we want to sell them to the highest bidders or use them to nurture tiny little vacation-fund-sapping parasites. We don’t need you on our side if you want us to compromise. That’s your side. We’ve seen it, and it sucks. We gave birth to you, we raised you, and we know you can do better. You’re welcome to our side, but it’s on our terms, not yours. That’s what that means. So stop playing “devil’s advocate” with us on the internet, stop trying to explain why you’re a feminist when someone has called you out on not being one. Stop making shitty advertisements that focus on the wrong behavior. Look in the mirror, look at your sons, and know that it’s up to you whether they turn into rapists or help solve climate change, and that the former is much more likely so you have a lot of work to do. You are qualified to make an accurate commercial with Brock Turner in a P.S.A. about how to not be a rapist. If you can’t be on our side but still want to call yourself a feminist then just sit this one out. It’s easy. Just don’t do anything; we got this. The women I know could make a better advertisement than this while drunk and shooting pellet guns at beer bottles on a post.

4 thoughts on ““That’s a mighty nice dream you have there little girl. It’d be a shame if something patriarchal happened to it.” – Curtis Stuehrenberg

  1. Very well written. My only criticisms are irrelevant as they are more to do with specific phrases you used that are a sore point for me when taken partially or completely out of context.

    Thank you for writing this.

      • This one in particular is one that hit me as it’s part of my current efforts to woke people about their own racism and such.

        ” it’s up to you whether they turn into rapists or help solve climate change”

        I read this as falling into the “nice people aren’t [fill in the blank]” fallacy. I’ve seen lot of people excuse themselves and others for awful behavior because they lump “racists” or “bigots” or even “rapists” into a very specific and extreme archetype. I suppose I first ran into this one when dealing with friends who were sexually abused by a family member or family friend and weren’t believed because “Uncle Ted” didn’t fit into the panel van driving pedophile image. There are a lot of men who are very accomplished and do good work who also rape women. Dennis Rader was a devoted family man, active in his local community, had been elected to the board of his local church, and sexually tortured and killed at least ten women and girls. It’s an extreme example, sure. I still think it’s a good lesson to ingest. If only bad people did bad things then the world would be a really safe place for everyone.

      • This is such a good point. I believe the equivalent is “I’ve never called someone a racial slur nor been a member of the KKK, so I’m not a racist”. I challenge that even members of the KKK don’t ant to be called racist. I don’t know any personally that I know of, but they’d probably use some other term, and everyone is so busy trying to dissociate themselves from these names that they can’t look at their own shit behavior.

        I have two dear friends who, in the past year, have admitted to me that they have persuaded women to sleep with them… either by plying them with liquor, or “just for a moment”-ing them. And I love them so much more for it. They are, as we all are, flawed, and them admitting it in the face of potential backlash is strikingly humbling. We can’t move past this until we admit when we see it in the mirror.

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