Trae Harris, an actor and performance artist, hasn’t experienced the “casting couch” phenomenon herself within the film and TV industry. “However, I’ve always had women in positions of power within the industry try to tell me that was a necessary part of me getting to where I needed to be,” she says.
Harris wears oversize, baggy clothing intentionally, she says. But those women would advise, “Make sure you wear your padded bra, make sure you wear your leggings and high heels and always have your makeup done, your hair done in a certain way.”
To get ahead in that business, “it’s almost mandatory that you have to hyper-sexualize yourself, even if that’s not what the role requires,” Harris says. “I’ve gotten auditions for roles that specifically said ‘androgynous identity/persona/aesthetic,’ whatever, and I walk into the place and bitches got their titties all the way to up here, super made-up, and I’m looking at myself and questioning if I’m looking OK.”
She describes herself as typically “super secure” in her self-image and her skill set, but those pressures made her doubt herself. Harris, who was raised in Baltimore but has worked a lot in New York, believes that she has not gotten certain roles because she stayed true to herself and wasn’t willing to bow to those expectations.
Shannon Wallace, an artist who works closely with the communities and people she photographs, says men sometimes seem confounded by her androgynous style and identity as a queer person. When she’s out in public or out photographing people and someone says something to her, she often turns it into a “teaching moment.”
Once when Wallace was at Lexington Market, a man came up to her—she’d taken a photo of him before but she didn’t know him. They chatted briefly and then he asked her rather pointedly about her sexual preferences. She assured him that she’s not into men; she prefers women.
“He said this to me: ‘Damn, it’s a shame because I know you got a gushy pussy from the back, and a camel toe,’” she says. “And so I looked at him like, ‘You like camel toe? Ew!’ Because I don’t take this shit seriously. I try to make a joke out of it. I try to not take it personal because I think it’s like—you don’t know any better. And I just feel like most men don’t give a f— for real… I’m like yo, I told you my sexual preference and what I was into and what I wasn’t into very vividly and you still decided to say those things to me. I said that’s a part of sexual violence. You can’t do that type of shit.”
The man went on about women wearing “little skirts,” so Wallace interjected: “A woman’s not supposed to wear something because you can’t control yourself? Because you don’t have any f—-n’ decency or respect? She’s supposed to look through her closet and think about you today?”
Wallace has experienced men challenging her sexuality or otherwise trying to assert dominance over her. “There’s this challenge or competition thing that happens,” she says. “I think about all the women that are speaking up now and how this male dominance and sexual violence is so intertwined. All these men just want power. They want power over you, your decisions, they want to tell you what to do and make you feel like that they matter more, and what they say goes. And I’m just not with that shit.”
Much of this male dominance and toxic masculinity can be traced back to how we were raised—all of the seemingly small but overall constricting ways we reinforce gender roles and “normative” behavior.
Recently, Harris was coloring with one of her cousins’ sons, and he told her that his favorite color was pink. “And then his father shot a look at him, and then he said, ‘I mean it’s blue.’”
“I was so shook,” Harris continues. “We have to stop gendering clothing, we have to stop gendering toys and colors. Hella dudes wear pink. Cam’ron had—”
“Pink Polos never hurt the Roc!” Wallace interjects.
“Yo! Cam wore a pink mink coat for a whole summer,” Harris says. “We gotta stop with those little teeny things. They make a difference.”
Hearing so many women speak up more publicly about sexual harassment and assault has been a bit of a shock, Wallace says. But it helps to look back at her own community and know that she’s not alone. “It’s this kind of congregation that we make through our experiences and being survivors,” she says.
“I think it’s important for us to speak out but there’s so much pressure to not speak out,” Wallace continues, noting that speaking out as a black woman compounds the complexity. “We are told to not speak out because we don’t want to contribute to another black man being in jail… ‘Liberation is based on race and not sex’—shit like that.”
But that conversation has been going on for years, Harris adds.
“Black men talking about walking out of the house: ‘I don’t know if I’m going to get killed by the police or what,’ and I’m like, I feel you bruh, but you’re not walking out of your house thinking about being killed by the police, killed by another black person or getting raped,” Harris says.
Wallace says she’s hopeful about the paradigm shifting but she’s “not banking on it”—the conversations need to move toward actual accountability.
And speaking about these issues—and all of their complexities—is only one step. The media has focused on power and celebrity in Hollywood but there are still people it hasn’t reached. “If you’re about that life and you’re interested in this, speak out for all the women who really just f—-n’ can’t because they really don’t have access,” Harris says.
Nothing will change unless the systems—capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy—that oppress most people (people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, poor people) break down. These systems were not created for people who can be seen as “an other,” Harris says, and therefore the systems will not work for those people. “We need to come into agreement about that. This does not work for the vast majority of us; break it the f— down. Time to change and evolve. That’s the only way we gonna get free.”