Why Challenging our Elders should be a Mandatory Lesson for Young Women

by KEISHEL A. WILLIAMS

“You weren’t even born yet when I started doing this,” Mr. Showbiz (fake name of course) snarled at me as I sat editing a script with the intent to make the “talent” happy and still convey the intended message. With pursed lips and a rigid tongue, my grandmother’s words echoed in my head as he walked across the studio to chat with the other men: “Respect your elders.”

Coming from a Caribbean home, it was inconceivable to even think about being disrespectful to one’s elders even in instances where they were outright wrong. After moving to the U.S. I found that there was a murky line between the young and the old, whereby the young found little to no value in their elderly and there was no such thing as respect for the elderly. Everyone was on the same level – in the eyes of the young, that is. Perhaps that’s because everyone goes around calling each other by his or her first names, without any proper salutations. But that’s a story for another time.

I was in a room filled with men, all between the ages of 45 to almost 60. Mr. Showbiz was right, I was nowhere near their ages. But in addition to being young, I was also a woman; a woman daring to tell these older men what to do. Even before I arrived at the studio my authority was being challenged when I received a rather long and unnecessary phone call asking me to change the script and let my partner – a man – handle the talent because he needs to remain happy. We were about to shoot a manifesto I had written for a client and without me being in the room, but obviously being discussed, there was an attempted coup afoot.

As a creative, I love what I do and I’m good at the things I do without thought of race, gender or age. Conversely, I love seeing prominent creative women such as Ava Duvernay directing, working and calling the shots in their space but often wonder how long it took her, and women like her, to command their spaces in industries filled with old men. Did they have to ‘grow up’ first?

Image via Paramount

When faced with certain challenges, stepping back to ascertain the situation is the first rule of thumb. In my case a variety of obstacles could arise because I’m young, I’m black or I’m a woman. In some cases, it could be all three. Maneuvering the challenges of being black and a woman has become second nature, and thus manageable. Since the rise of the Me Too movement late last year, we have seen the narrative around women’s rights and gender equality soar, with women re-evaluating their space in the workplace and their presence valued, even if it’s due to fear of a #metoo takedown. The fight for women in the workplace is vigilant, commendable and is surely making waves for all of us at this point. However, the growing branches of intersectionality are yet to tackle the discrimination against the youth. Young women working in spaces filled with older men face the double-edged challenge of being a woman but also of being young.

Being raised in a culture where the elderly, particularly older men, are given free rein over any situation, it has been a struggle to separate reverence and respect for the seasoned generation, from the moments when it’s time to demand respect from them. At the start of the shoot, Mr. Showbiz exhibited his sexism and ageism as soon as he walked in the door. Not wanting to inadvertently sever the relationship between the talent and my partner’s studio, or be seen as disrespectful to a man who could be my grandfather, I carefully crafted my sentences when explaining to Mr. Showbiz why precise words needed to be used in the manifesto and cannot be changed. To which he responded: “You should be glad to have a famous person like me saying your lines.” Without waiting for a riposte, he swiftly turned and walked over to join the rest of the men. I watched as he spoke vibrantly with the other men in the room, then set up the prompter with my original script, determined that he was not going to ruin our work. My work. Throughout, I noted how he refused to address me directly instead, speaking with my cameraman who would, in turn, reference him back to me. After a few instances of me having him redo his shots until it was done right, he gave in, telling my partner “That’s how she wants it done, that’s how I will do it.” (Notice he still did not say my name.)

Suffice to say by the end of the shoot Mr. Showbiz was noticeably less aggressive and even gave me a “you’ll make a great director” compliment on my way out. It was an affirmation I did not need from someone who attempted to laud his age and experience over me, but it was a moment to appreciate when he conceded and gave in to my directions. In the end, I was able to accomplish the project goals by not letting him or the other of the men in the room disregard or railroad me. There was a task to achieve and my age nor my gender prevented me from getting it done right.

Challenging older people especially older men is an important step in carving out a place for yourself as a young woman in the working world – principally in the creative space. At any age earning the respect one deserves especially in the workplace is imperative. However, as a young woman, it is even more crucial to understand these challenges lay ahead and mentally prepare for the inevitable pushback that comes with being young and a woman when working with older men. As much as I keep my grandmother’s words in mind of respecting my elders, I understand that my elders also need to respect me.

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