Untouchable: The Male Gaze, ASU Jazz, and the Phoenix Community

When I was an undergrad running with the jazz boys, no one wanted to sleep with me.

…Yeah, I didn’t know how to start this one, either. For all my work addressing sexual assault, I actually don’t spend all that much time dealing with sex. (I tend to leave that creative artistry to Rebecca Drapkin, the sex-positive to my sex-negative.) While I love my body and everything it can do, I’ve grown accustomed to keeping my sexual side to myself. I’m still figuring out how much of it belongs in my artistic life. And though that answer is nonzero, part of why I keep my sex life (and body, and sexuality, and . . .) separate from the rest of my artistic discourse is just because I don’t share all of me with all of you. But part of it isn’t, and there are reasons for that—reasons I can trace back to a very specific time and place—and though I’d rather not discuss any of this, I think it’s time.

In the two years I ran with ASU Jazz, I was untouchable. This worked in my favor in a lot of ways. I dealt with less sexual harassment on the bandstand; my peers were more likely to listen to me the first time I said something; my outfit choices generally didn’t affect my day-to-day treatment. (My directors, in both the jazz and classical communities, did make that an issue—more on this in the coming months.) I dealt with the dark side of gendered affection, but I almost never felt like my looks and sexuality were being exploited. (At the time, I wasn’t out as queer, which does complicate this discussion, but we’ll get to that another time.)

While I was allowed to focus on my work when I wasn’t being expected to explain feminism to literally everyone, literally every other woman in the program was at some point valued for her beauty and attractiveness, often (but not necessarily) alongside her kickass musicianship, work ethic, and all those other great professional things. This frequently wasn’t pretty. At that time, I was the only woman who wasn’t subjected to this treatment.

This difference wasn’t because of my lack of interest. I was frequently in the company of brilliant students, talented musicians, and good friends I trusted completely. Nineteen-year-old me had her share of crushes and what-ifs. I spent nontrivial amounts of time one-on-one with a whole host of people who were important to me in ways that at times extended beyond the platonic. I’m still processing some of those loose ends and could-have-beens. That process has taken years—not because those connections were so potent that they stretched across time zones and seasons, but because I was too busy dealing with the more garden-variety sexism that ran rampant. My personal emotional processing was not a priority.

And while I do not speak for my peers or know exactly what was in their heads and hearts at the time, the whirlwind of emotions seemed very one-sided. All around me, my male friends were chasing my female friends with varying degrees of success, but it was like I was in the eye of the storm. The chaos swirled around me but never made contact, never got too close. That had its advantages, as I mentioned, but on days where I took the professional mask off and was just a nineteen-year-old trying to find her way (and maybe a romantic relationship) in a new community, it sucked.

(Yeah, yeah. Poor you. Get to the point, please, Eris.)

There are two things I could illuminate from here. First: even at nineteen years old, I was so frequently expected to speak and contribute on behalf of White Women In Jazz™ that I didn’t have the time or emotional bandwidth to sort through a lot of what was actually happening to me. Second: the presentation of White Womanhood in Jazz as a single, ubiquitous experience and my subsequent excessive self-comparison to my female peers not only weakened my female friendships but destroyed how I see myself in our mostly male community. The lack of racial diversity within the studio (we had one woman of color, period) further complicated this, making it easier for the men around us to further hammer home the idea of one single experience; the intersection of race and gender was largely swept under the carpet. As we venture through time and space together, please keep that in mind—I can really only speak to my own experience, and I’m still coming at all this from a place of privilege. In the future, I hope to dive deeper into the specifics of intersectionality within our community, but I don’t have all the right words for it yet. Bear with me.

While it’s messy to dive back into the emotions of nineteen- and twenty-year-old me, who blended into the background so well it was like she didn’t exist, it’s also necessary. The ghosts from that time in my life accompany me every night I’m out with the guys. To explain this, I need to weave together a bunch of different things from my past; thankfully, the vast majority of them are well-documented on here, so this may actually be one long, somewhat-continuous journey across the blog. As we venture in, though, please note this is my best attempt at piecing together my experiences; as always, your mileage may vary. For now, though, let’s go back to when I was still in the thick of things.

Since we’re starting from the beginning, let’s talk about my early friendships at and around ASU Jazz. The year was 2015. I was nineteen going on twenty. Hamilton hadn’t made it to the Tonys yet. From some of my first interactions with the young men in the Jazz Studies program, it was clear the studio had a sexual harassment problem. Years later, I posted an entry I’d written at the time, documenting how my peers reduced women to Likely To Sleep With The Professor For A Grade and how I was at one point introduced to someone who shook my hand and said, “I like sexually harassing my friends.” With that introduction to the program combined with the subsequent sexism and dismissals of women I recounted further into that post, I expected treatment similar to what my female friends and colleagues experienced. I figured I’d be in the thick of it, navigating unwanted attention and having to quickly differentiate it from the bonds and connections I did appreciate creating. This was the environment the students created and the professors accepted, and it implied two things: one, that women being hypersexualized against their will was standard within the studio, and two, that this was part of a singular, batch-applicable experience of White Womanhood in Jazz they both espoused and encouraged.

While I could tell from the end of my first semester that somehow I didn’t quite fit whatever mold caused the constant skirt-chasing my female peers endured, I received enough tangential mistreatment designed mostly to scare me and keep me in my place that I bought into White Womanhood in Jazz as a single, ubiquitous experience. Because some of these experiences were deeply unsettling and still affect me years later, I’m not going to relive them as I write them for you. I’m certainly not going to name names. However, if you want to understand the kind of thing I was up against, go back and read (or reread) The Men in the Gray Area.

The thing is, some of these experiences kicked my triggers in a big way. I knew from day one in the Phoenix jazz community that I was likely different from the vast majority of the people around me. I carried a sexual assault history with me, and though I can’t speak to what my peers and colleagues carry with them, I never managed to find anyone whose history mirrored mine with any consistency, or else they existed and never disclosed to me. I knew my own risk tolerance was going to be different than every other person’s, including those with their own histories of trauma, because no two assaults are the same. For awhile, I figured the Othering and harassment that aggravated my triggers was keeping me safe from more involved, targeted behaviors; if my trauma response acted up, I got out of the situation and made different decisions than I would have otherwise. I knew, and know to this day, that those choices necessitate different outcomes (see my thoughts on Cerulean Foreplay) and frequently require me to miss out on experiences, conversations, and relationships I might otherwise be able to enjoy. I assumed the problem was me and my trauma, even when it likely wasn’t. That cost me in the long run, but in the short term, it held up the monolith, the singular experience. My trauma made me different, I reasoned, and without it, I would feel a lot more like everyone else.

Because we, both as a larger musical community and the ASU Jazz Studies program in particular, didn’t do a lot of talking about the specific and diverse experiences of gender-marginalized people in jazz, and because the women in my community were indiscriminately shoved together like being female was the only personality trait we had or needed, I was led to believe that this was all part of one normal, ubiquitous experience. I absorbed and internalized the negatives I did receive and explained away the ones I didn’t. The behemoth of White Womanhood in Jazz stood, bolstered and maintained by the men around me.

I didn’t publish my post on jazz and isolation until March of 2017, but as I mentioned at the time, I’d written it in the spring of 2016, when things had gotten bad. I was twenty years old at the time, but even after just one semester full-time in the Jazz Studies program, I was already shouldering the burden of representing and engaging on behalf of White Womanhood in Jazz (or, as I put it at the time, Femaleness Around The World). I wasn’t old enough to drink, but I was already supposed to be able to speak not only to my own experience but the experiences of everyone in my gender. And, as a result, I was already frustrated with being expected to do so, because while I had to carry a massive banner and somehow speak on behalf of a multitude of people I’ve never met, the men I spoke those words to were not likewise obligated to use their critical thinking skills to separate my own experiences from the rest of my gender’s and ask questions to ensure they understood which was which. Further, I don’t know that most of them, including some of my professors, considered that the experiences of women and gender-marginalized people in jazz weren’t all the same—I was frequently asked to explain why another woman’s thoughts and experiences contradicted or conflicted with my own. Because I’m not her, I wanted to tell them. But I’d already been sold the idea that our experiences were supposed to be the same, and by standing by my own perspective, I was made to feel like something was wrong with me.

This supposedly monolithic experience of White Womanhood in Jazz, stacked alongside the sexualized ways I didn’t measure up, was insidiously supported by a concept I wrote about last semester that’s also affected my male peers: Paying Your Dues. In the post, I talk for a quick minute about the parameters placed on success (read: Making It) that disproportionately disadvantage gender-marginalized people and primary caregivers. These arbitrary litmus tests and discriminations shape our ideas of who qualifies as an “Emerging Artist” or a “Rising Star,” limit the list of “acceptable” career choices, and perpetuate disparate sets of sacrifices that must be made to achieve success. At the time, I wrote that one of the ways Paying Your Dues manifests is through a continuing obligation to take bad gigs and generally accept being miserable until a gatekeeper decides you’re worthy of better. What I didn’t say, though I absolutely should have, was that for women, people of color, gender-diverse folks, disabled people, and the rest of the LGBTQIA2+ community, the Paying Your Dues process also involves an inherent wilingness to accept, minimize, and tolerate systemic sexual harassment and other dangerous discrimination.

I touched on this in January, when Monica Shriver interviewed me for her podcast Brave Musician. At one point, we ended up discussing the difficulty of responding professionally to sexist and sexually predatory comments made on or near the bandstand, and we agreed that every woman we know views it as a necessary evil—just part of the job. This intertwining of sexual harassment, White Womanhood in Jazz, and the Paying Your Dues process not only sets back people who aren’t men, it creates and perpetuates a link between performative femme sexuality and success in the field.

When that’s the standard for success (though as with all things beauty- and sexuality-related, those yard markers are always shifting) and none of the people around you acknowledge or respond to your sexuality or attempts to build a romantic relationship, the world starts feeling really isolating really fast. If you do manage to come out the other side as passably sexualized, if you manage to wear the right things and say the right things and allow yourself to be molded by older and more powerful men, you’re sometimes rewarded—with the token hire.

I wrote my first post on tokenism last year, but it was a long time coming. I actually first touched on the idea in the 2017 Isolation of Women post:

“I am consoled with empty responses about how I can take advantage of those who see me as a gimmick and use it to further my own career. Sure, that’s undoubtedly true, but I can only do that if I’m okay not only with people continuing to see me as a sexualized object on a stage but also with that sentiment being passed on to the next generation of women in jazz or women in music or maybe just women in general, if all the world really is a stage.”

A lot of tokenism hinges on a willingness to be who the people hiring you want you to be: a passive, compliant, smiling face who’s Just Happy To Be Here and unfailingly optimistic about the improved treatment of gender-marginalized people in jazz. (For more on this, check out this Gillian Flynn monologue.) We are groomed from a young age to take up the mantle of representing and defending the ubiquity of White Womanhood in Jazz, and many of us end up either succeeding at the expense of every femme person around us or rebelling against the system and removing ourselves from it. I saw systemic misogyny early on, so I opted out—and in doing so, I cost myself several major opportunities I can name and an unknown number of chances I’ll never know I missed. On paper, the requirements for these opportunities usually reduce down to technical proficiency and dedication to the scene and the art form, but in the end, it all came down to two things: my willingness to go directly against the artist I was becoming and my continued participation in parts of ASU Jazz that perpetuated my Othering and forced self-hypersexualization.

Let’s pause and talk about that.

When you propagate the narrative that there is a single definition of White Womanhood in Jazz, you create a model. While this model demonstrates personality and musicianship, it also shows you physical appearance and gender presentation. The White Woman in Jazz is one of the guys, but there’s still no doubt she’s a girl. She might wear dresses or jumpsuits with plunging necklines or suit jackets that emphasize her skinny-but-not-masculine frame, but she’s svelte, coy, self-assured, and sexy. She always has an answer for anything thrown her way. Her banter is casually flirtatious. She’s always Happy To Be Here. She is everything the men around her have ever wanted a woman to be, professionally and sexually.

You’ll also find, if you look around you at the women who are happily and confidently being themselves, that she doesn’t really exist.

This fictional woman’s existence is one of the jazz canon’s (and the world’s) great fallacies. She is paid tribute to in songs written by men. She is heralded in speeches about progress and gender diversity. She lives in the imaginations of the men who shape our pedagogy and our creative direction. She is the first (and sometimes only) female role model many of us have, and the convoluted standards she sets are utterly unattainable. She is the woman defined by the male gaze: consumable, compliant, and two-dimensional.

In 2016, like so many who have come before me, I tried to make myself be her.

I abandoned the comfy, looser-fitting clothes I used to wear. My favorite dance pants, then only a semester old, got shoved to the back of the closet. I bought a cream contour kit I did not need, which I haven’t used in years but for whatever reason still own. I learned to do elaborate smoky eyes while staring longingly at the bright, colorful makeup I would rather have been using. I started wearing dresses and heels more, even when I didn’t feel up to it. I learned to literally suck it up and deal with the constriction of shapewear. I agonized over my decision to cut (and, later, color) my hair, because it was at odds with everything I was supposed to be. I practiced saying things I didn’t mean about gender representation I didn’t think we had, because I’d come from a high school with six girls in the top jazz ensemble but sure, one or two in an ASU big band was a great improvement, right? I learned to be gracious in the face of comments I should never have had to dignify with a reply—comments I still get—about eye candy and being as pretty as I sound and things that say nothing about my music but everything about whichever dress I’m wearing at the time. I learned to prioritize the sexualized parts of my body that I was repeatedly shown paved the only path to true success in Phoenix jazz. Some of these decisions led me to things I liked, and others led me to things I didn’t, but each and every one seemed necessary, a skill set gained or a sacrifice made in order to be taken seriously.

And I came home from hangs and jams and classes crying more and more. The prize my peers and superiors tried, perhaps unknowingly, to sell me had never been the same kind of success my male friends had access to. It was tangential access to power through sex, or at least what you could get in a community with sexual harassment problems and multiple Title IX reports. The lucky ones could be part of a power couple—which, in these cases, was usually the insidious, dehumanizing “validation” of being arm candy for someone who would pretend that he saw women as his equals. While I was fortunate my instincts drew me toward the men who truly understood my abilities rivaled theirs, it didn’t matter that I had learned to look beautiful in shoes that ran my feet raw and dresses and shapewear so tight I developed poor breathing habits. Somewhere along the way, the algorithm failed. I ended up untouchable, and as such, the gigs didn’t come. The support stopped.

In short, nobody wanted to sleep with me.

When I realized what I was doing to myself, back in 2016, when I decided I was only going to participate in jazz music and culture on my own terms, when I opted out of a system I could never possibly hope to beat, my upward mobility within the community ended. It has not returned.

I’ve recently come to realize that in Phoenix, there are no opportunities for gender-marginalized people to occupy seats of power and be seen as equal to a man holding that same seat. Maybe upward mobility was always a smoke screen.

In the end, none of it mattered. I have more friends than I can count who have found themselves on the other end of the spectrum. They checked all the right boxes; they looked the right way and said the right things. They became the arm candy they were told they should be and discovered the carrot dangling from the stick had only moved further away. I have held these friends, have sat with them and listened as they told me about their heartbreaks and their assaults and their own realizations that even working within the system as designed didn’t yield results. I have heard stories (some of them, anyway) of how they continued pushing their boundaries to appease men. I have seen the disappointment and defeat in their eyes, put there by the empty promises of the men around us. And despite the trauma and the ways in which we were purposely homogenized and pitted against each other, most of us still ended up sitting opposite each other in the same coffee shops, swapping stories and perspectives, secrets and hugs. It’s been four years, and despite our different paths, many of us have arrived back in the same place. It still feels a lot like square one.

There is no way to “win” gender discrimination. I have to acknowledge that many of the women whose external experiences I envied do not have positive memories of that time; they can tell you horror stories of being on the other side. While the worst objectification I received was self-imposed, they spent a long time grappling with different variations on the theme of lust and expendability. Just because the boys chase you doesn’t mean they’ll be nice when they catch you, and I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the pain and sacrifice my sisters in the studio were subjected to and often coerced into. They have weathered storms I couldn’t hope to outlast, tempests of knowing they got a gig because of how they looked or who they slept with. They carry scars that illuminate the insidious connections between tokenism and grooming. Often, they’re in even less of a position to name names than I am. The price of our careers (anywhere, but specifically in Phoenix and at ASU) is both variable and steep, and I don’t think it’s a toll my male colleagues would be willing to pay.

While some men certainly see women as equals, odds are we’re also keeping the company of some rapists and assailants. Actually, I know we are. But those names aren’t mine to share.

When I realized I couldn’t try to be that idealized woman anymore, that it was going to kill me artistically and physiologically to be that woman, I didn’t drop everything and go back to who I was at nineteen. Instead, the journey from there has been gradual, shifting a little at a time and moving me forward and through. I’m not a hundred percent slacks-and-dress-shirts, but I need a good pep talk to convince myself hyperfeminine anything is a good choice for a performance. (this does not feel good.) It’s a journey marked by growing pains, because the one thing a system like this hates more than anything is someone who’s decided not to play the hand they’ve been dealt.

I didn’t start posting about jazz and gender until the spring of 2017, by which point I was certain my chances of getting what I wanted musically was near zero. I still had a couple things going, but it was clear the community, particularly at and around ASU, didn’t want me for who I was. I had still remained somewhat enmeshed within the scene, and over the intervening year, that changed, too. Since I had begun to wear what made me feel comfortable and happy, I found I didn’t have the hyperfeminine wall of confidence and gender conformity to fall back on. Those moments were defeating: I hadn’t found real love, and I hadn’t attained power through strategic partnering; hell, I’d barely attained consistent affection. Over time, that coalesced into the long-lurking feeling I’d worked so hard to avoid: something’s wrong with me. I started being afraid of being seen sitting with the same people or hugging someone more than once. I pushed people away or refrained from sitting with my best friends in the hopes of avoiding the lingering questions from others. Pretty soon, it became nearly impossible to cultivate and maintain any kind of intimate relationships—platonic, romantic, sexual—within the community. Out of necessity, my best friends were the ones who weren’t around. As I started talking publicly about my experiences, more of my friendships withered. It was not a happy time.

On the one hand, I was told (usually nonverbally) that I was incredibly lucky to escape unwanted attentions from my male peers; on the other hand, I was told that who I was, in all my brassy glory, was too much, which is really just another way of saying wrong. This was upheld by gatekeepers within our community who both encouraged me to go it alone and continually tokenized and rewarded women who followed their rules. At times, it was upheld by the tokenized women themselves, who hid the systems they were unintentionally upholding under platitudes and disingenuous reasoning: “oh, maybe if you were just a little less this, you could have more, too.” This is part of why consistently tokenized women can be so difficult to critique—they have an easier time garnering support because their superficial, surface-level decisions uphold patriarchal structures. Like many of the gatekeepers enabling them, they benefit from the patriarchy’s design. Intentionally or not, their complicity perpetuates their status. In exemplifying White Womanhood in Jazz to get ahead, they maintain and sign off on the same structures that keep the rest of us down.

So where does all this leave us? Where did it leave me? With a lot of bullying and intimidation I couldn’t put a finger on because so little of it was clearly stated. I couldn’t win when I was doing my best imitation of what the men wanted, and I ran out of options when I realized I didn’t want to fill that role. I was at an impasse—so I left. I put jazz behind me and hoped for better.

Unfortunately, the universe had other plans, so here we are, still spinning in circles.

Until [an ex]’s ASU acceptance, I had no intention of ever returning to the desert. I’d been pretty thoroughly convinced the first time around that my voice and indignation would never matter, but there are very few things I won’t do for a partner, so I’m back. This time, my voice and indignation matters to at least a few people. The work continues, but I find myself looking back to before.

Here’s who I should have been allowed to be in 2015 and 2016: a young adult who was figuring herself out. I should have been allowed to explore different ways of self-actualizing to see what worked. I should have been playing with the colorful makeup I forced myself to put aside, deciding exactly when I wanted to wear the dresses and the heels. I should have been letting myself fall in love if I wanted to, not using romance as a bargaining chip for my career. I should have been playing originals and standards alike so I could decide how much of each tradition and style I wanted to carry with me. I should have been supported by my mentors instead of having to explain my oppression to them (more on that later this year). I should not have been shouldering the emotional workload of the men around me who expected me to both educate them and lead the change. I should have never become someone who feels obligated to create and maintain a list of resources to give those men the introductions to intersectional feminism and trauma-informed practices they’re perfectly capable of discovering themselves. If activism was going to be my path all along, I should have been allowed to choose it. Then again, most people don’t become activists because nothing bad happens to them.

I shouldn’t have become someone who has to spend quantifiable, easily-trackable years laying out the frameworks of these problems to tie them up in this thousands-of-words-too-long post years after I should have been allowed to take a fucking break.

But I am that person, because it’s even more complicated now. (But that’s another post. Stay tuned.)

This blog was beta read by: Vince Thiefain, Natalie Gallatin, Kaili Otsuka, Keith Kelly, and Ashley Killam, none of whom raised a single complaint prior to publication. I am indebted to Leila Jay, the editor of the millennium; and to Nick St. Croix, who listens to me work all this stuff out when the words aren’t in the right order yet.

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