Rules for Women

Rules for Women | Nupu Press | nupupress.com

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” — Maria Robinson

I

This past year my film life has been full of stops and starts. Interesting projects percolated up only to soon evaporate. Filmmakers committed then flaked. Distributors outlined enthusiastic dreams then vanished. Supporters expressed interest until they too faded.

With each “failure” I got a little bit more depressed, more weary and, finally, panicky. I felt alone, stranded, bereft. I was used to working freelance in an unstable industry, but maybe a full-time alliance with a bigger company was the safer way to proceed.

I met many people and received several offers. One was from an established television production house that wanted to set up a sister venture dedicated to creating film and streaming content. I was introduced through a mutual friend, who was also an investor in the new company. I was asked to be its new business head, production head and creative head in one. I was to be the face of the new entity, and make all the deals with international studios and talent. The two investors had never produced features before – I was to lead the way.

My investor friend rang me to discuss the offer they had in mind. I had done my research and was prepared for a few rounds of negotiations. Except their starting offer was what I got paid at the start of my career – more than 20 years ago. This shortfall was going to be made up by giving me a share in the company – at a token 1%.

How is this fair? I asked.

We need to keep the overheads low, my friend said, so we can pay the American writers.

II

There are few moments in my life that I would describe as “defining”. You know, those times when we take a stand and decide to change what we believe and how we act. When we realise how far we can be pushed, and what we are really made of.

One such moment for me was a little over ten years ago. I had just flown into Dhaka from Bombay following a work assignment. My husband called me from London – it was our wedding anniversary. I was ebullient from my trip. I love Bombay! I want to go live there.

I can’t wait to go live there with you, my husband said.

And right there, in Dhaka airport, waiting at the squeaky, dirty carousel for my suitcase, I crumpled. I can’t do this any more, I said as I started crying.

We had been married for six years by that point and he had not worked for the last four. Every time we did anything together, I had to organise it, whether I wanted to or not. Like on our trips to France where I had to handle everything (in French) even though he spoke the language better than I did. He spent half a year in Bangladesh, living partly with my parents, where I managed everything for him. Even in the UK, where he was born and raised, I felt the onus was on me to take care of our joint life. The thought of going to a new place yet nothing really changing made me break down.

He thought I was tired from my trip, and said I needed a good night’s sleep and that he’d call me the next morning.

No, I said, snot running down my face though I was suddenly calmer than I’d been in a long time. I watched my suitcase go round and round the carousel, the only one left. No, I can’t carry you any more. This is over.

III

Social conditioning as a lot to answer for, I know. As women we’re often trained to be polite, put others’ needs first, seek approval, wait for permission.

It may have taken me long (in the general scheme of things) to get out of the marriage, but I’d sometimes wonder – weren’t there signs at the beginning that could have warned me where we’d land up? Didn’t I clock his volatility, his unpredictable rage, his entitlement?

When we married, we were both a little uncertain about the ground beneath our feet. He said he wanted to go back to school, but didn’t. He switched jobs a few times then stopped working completely. His mother said the more I soared, the more paralysed he became.

It’s not as though I was doing anything exceptional. I carried on working in films – moving from production coordinator to production manager to line producer. This was hardly A Star is Born.

I’ve said about relationships that if the guy’s not feeling so hot about himself, don’t be surprised if he doesn’t quite feel like standing on the sidelines applauding you on; he’d rather claw you down to his level.

And so it was with him. It felt as if he was on a long-standing campaign to undermine me. Every time I got a promotion, he snorted – they’re exploiting you and you’re a sucker to fall for it.

There was the time I’d met a very famous Hollywood actress who was visiting London and invited me for dinner. The following day she was on BBC Radio 4. My husband and I listened to the interview and afterwards he said, huh, she never once mentioned you.

When I was on a ginormous film and got paid extremely well, he sneered that the pay package could have been higher. While he continued to ask me to lend him money.

For the record, I wasn’t easy to live with either. No doubt there was a part of me that controlled everything because, huff, sigh, only I would do it right. I was not just the adult in the relationship, I was the martyr too. I’m sure he hated feeling like a constant disappointment. We fell into roles we each despised – when did I become such a nag? – yet became more and more entrenched in them.

IV

I felt personally responsible as well as shame for the miserable state of my marriage. I’ve heard this from other women too: we take on the weight of the world. The flip side was that when I did the work to overcome the damage, emerging on the other side made me feel massively triumphant. The victory felt deeply personal. I was reborn.

However, these hard-earned lessons faded after the divorce and I found myself back again and again in that weirdly familiar place of feeling, oh they wish I was smaller. They wish I was less than. It felt like they wanted to restrict me, restrain me, contain me, keep me under control.

And when they did, it was a struggle to not absorb their vibrations and react in kind. I’d hesitate, second guess myself, be insecure. I’d become less than.

It happened again with my last boss, who notoriously brought out the worst in people. When I left that job, I swore I’d never put myself in that position again. And yet here I was – feeling like I needed the work, and was willing to bite my tongue in order to contort myself around their requirements.

I talked for months to a filmmaker all my friends warned me to never, ever work with. I went through an interview process that was as preposterously self-congratulatory as the company – one of the biggest in the world – was. I was offered an interesting job that promptly and unfortunately got indefinitely delayed.

So by the time it came to this company that my friend and his friend were starting, I felt relieved. The job seemed exciting. And I felt, well, validated.

I had been nurturing projects I had not dared to even say out loud, so great was the ambition behind them. But now, with the might of a structure and other people behind me, I thought I could be bold. I could go ahead and option rights for my beloved books, partner with my favourite directors and crack good deals with studios. This role demanded being front and centre, and I felt ready for it.

Then my friend offered me his paltry deal.

My very initial thought, if I’m being honest, was to question myself. Was I being difficult? Was I being too demanding?

My second thought was – hang on. So the scriptwriters are worth paying well, but not the person supervising them (and everyone else) and creating the slate and making all the deals? Something in me finally snapped.

Maybe he was counting (subconsciously or consciously) on my feeling too embarrassed, too polite, or too docile to protest. But now I saw the signs. It would be death by a thousand cuts. You don’t deserve big money. Pow. You’re not doing anything special. Pow. Who do you think you are? Pow.

If I wasn’t your friend, would you have done this? I said. And if I were a man with my experience, would you have dared to offer me this deal?

I knew he was angry by the accusations but I didn’t care. We have not spoken since but I now feel I owe him a huge thank you. After all, if he hadn’t been such a scammy stingy bastard, I wouldn’t have reached my breaking point.

Thankfully, I hadn’t shared my projects with them. It’s sobering to realise that I had come very close to giving my ideas, my contacts and my experience away to a random company in exchange for a salary. Now I have perspective, I see that no salary would be worth it for these long-nurtured projects I’d been incubating.

Instead, I needed the push and the courage to tell myself – leap. I can do it on my own. I’ll get the rights, I’ll get the directors, I’ll make the films.

Of course I’m terrified. And I certainly don’t know the end to this story yet, and whether this will become one of those Defining Moments, but I do know this:

I don’t have to wait for anyone’s permission.

I don’t need a job to legitimise me.

I don’t need two inexperienced men to dictate or approve what I do.

I don’t want to minimise myself because of someone’s fragile ego.

I don’t want to be restricted by someone else’s fear.

It’s better to be shit scared while trying something new than to be “safe” and watch my soul die a little every day.

Sometimes it takes a big jolt to really and truly learn: enough.

Sometimes it takes a giant shake by the shoulders to at last believe: I got this.

Power is a funny thing. It’s not always apparent who has it. And the most important thing to keep in mind is that even she who’s given her power away can always decide to take it back. It is never, ever too late.

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” — Marcus Aurelius

Although I am no longer active on social media, I’m more than thrilled if you choose to share this post on your end, thanks!

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2 thoughts on “Rules for Women

  1. Wow. Just wow.
    Thanks for the ringside seats as you talk us through how realization dawns on you on both personal and professional levels.
    Why and how do we let people (read men and all the institutions surrounding us) do this to us? When does this social conditioning begin? How do we stop the cycle with our sons and daughters?

    1. I grew up with a feminist father and in multiple cultures so it feels like I obsorbed this through osmosis almost. I think it’s the constant drip feed from every corner in every arena. As to how to stop the cycle, I say – let’s be the change! Would love to hear your thoughts.

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