On June 4, monologist Mike Daisey announced his latest endeavor: a piece of solo theater entitled “Yes All Women.” But is Yes All Women Mike Daisey’s rallying cry to use?
According to Daisey, the show sold out quickly. But yesterday, negative responses to Daisey’s show, specifically his choice of title, started to flare up on Twitter. This about sums up the gist of the anger:
Yes All Women started as a response to the deeply ingrained misogyny that fueled Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage at Santa Barbara University. It is also, in rhetorical structure, a response to “Not all men,” a popular and infuriating response by certain men to stories of violence men commit against women (“not all men rape” — typical #notallmen reply). #Yesallwomen overflowed with female voices sharing personal stories of the rampant harassment and objectification they face in daily life.
I spoke with Daisey by phone this morning. He told me the original working title for this monologue was “Feminism.” “I knew [that] was not the right title,” he said. “And Yes All Women happened, and I started reading the flow of people’s incredibly short but incredibly moving stories, and they’re really something… I found it very powerful to read the stories of women as they came in. So I was like, ‘Oh! I know, I’ll call it ‘Yes All Women.’ I expected it to be provocative, but I thought, well, I’m not using the hashtag, and I certainly won’t use the hashtag on Twitter. I don’t want to pollute the conversation.”
Because the purpose of Yes All Women was to create a banner under which women could tell their own stories, the idea of a man borrowing the banner and using it to tell his own stories did not go over well.
Kelly Hills, a Philadelphia-based writer and editor, had the following exchange with Daisey:
For some, Daisey would be a polarizing figure no matter, regardless of the title of his show. He could announce a show called, “My Little Pony: Where The Sparkles Meet The Road” and still incite some backlash, because the last time he made this much news was when a key passage from his monologue “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” was found to have been fabricated. This may have never become an issue (theater, as Daisey says very often, does not operate by the same rules as journalism) had he not taken the show off the stage an onto the radio. Daisey went on WBEZ’s “This American Life” to perform excerpts from the monologue, he lied to fact-checkers about his experiences at the Foxconn factory. “This American Life” issued a full retraction. Daisey responded on his blog: “What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue.” You can read his full apology here.
The collision of Mike Daisey and Yes All Women is an explosive one. For one thing, there is so much misinformation masquerading as fact already around the very issues he plans to highlight in his show (per Daisey’s announcement, the work will explore “how our world is built on the subjugation and ownership of women, and how men perpetuate that violence every day”). On top of that, when women and girls report instances of harassment or assault, they are often doubted or accused of having made the whole thing up, the idea of Daisey performing a monologue under the marquee of “Yes All Women” is a problematic, possibly unnerving image.
Last night, around 6:30 p.m., Daisey posted a letter on his personal blog announcing that he would be changing the title of his show to YES THIS MAN. He wrote:
“I was always aware that it’s a provocative title — I get that. I want it to be provocative, because I want to get under people’s skins… I was leery of the title, but you learn in theater to be even more leery of silence and having the world ignore your work. So I pulled the trigger.
Three hours ago Twitter blew up about the show. People were outraged and furious, and as I read their responses I saw that some people were genuinely hurt. And that felt terrible — I had thought that since I never used the actual hashtag, I would be commenting on and exploring the space opened up by #yesallwomen, but I never wanted people to feel their voices were being co-opted and silenced… I am sorry for anyone who felt hurt or betrayed. I’m especially sorry for anyone who felt like this was belittling #yesallwomen, which I think is a fantastic and necessary hashtag and conversation.
So, effective immediately, I’m changing the name of the show from YES ALL WOMEN to YES THIS MAN.
“I was really surprised, actually, that he did go for it,” said Hills, who spoke with me by phone this morning. “But I’m glad, selfishly, because I agree with him: Yes This Man is a better title.”
“I didn’t think it would affect people as much as it did,” Daisey said of the “Yes All Women” title. “I didn’t think that people would feel hurt, that it would make people feel wounded. And I really felt that as I was reading people’s responses.”
“Women’s voices get taken away so often and appropriated so often,” he said. The reaction to using “Yes All Women” as his title “was the opposite of what I originally intended. I was hoping to provoke things more like, ‘a man is actually talking about these issues, why don’t more men speak about these issues?’ But it didn’t.”
This brought me back to last summer, when Justin Timberlake released a song called “Take Back The Night.” His camp claimed to have never heard of the sexual assault awareness foundation of the same name, which is famous for the rallies they’ve been holding on college campuses since the 1970s. I wasn’t actually that surprised or bothered to hear that Timberlake, who never went to college and has been living in a vacuum-sealed pop star bubble since he joined the Mickey Mouse Club as a kid, had never heard of the real Take Back The Night. But what that song really said to me was: literally no one in Timberlake’s universe knew about Take Back The Night. How is that possible? Does he not work with any women, at all? Or men who care about women? Or does he work with those people but not value their opinions? Were there people on his team who were, in fact, troubled by Timberlake’s co-opting of the title, but didn’t feel like they could speak out against it? These high-profile mistakes, both Timberlake’s and Daisey’s, are rarely the result of just one person’s ignorance. Pop music and theater (even monologues) are collaborative endeavors. So to see “Yes All Women” or “Take Back The Night” misused in these ways is to see huge groups of people oblivious to, or dismissive of, what those causes are really about, and to whom they truly belong.
Timberlake’s response — “It is my hope that this coincidence will bring more awareness to this cause” — did not actually make sense, given the lyrics of the chorus are “we won’t let them take back the night.” Instead of raising awareness, he stole it, splitting Google search results and the Wikipedia entry for “Take Back The Night” in two. Take Back The Night decided against legal action versus Timberlake, on the grounds that “fighting this in court probably isn’t the best use of anyone’s time. It’s best to focus on the mission.” As this excellent Pitchfork piece put it, one would hope that Timberlake’s misstep would be a cautionary tale, except that it isn’t one, because he got away with it.
Daisey’s is proving to be a different case; after all, he quickly and thoughtfully responded to valid criticisms of his work. Rose Eveleth, whose early tweet Hills cites as her inspiration for responding publicly to Daisey in the first place, was heartened by Daisey’s response:
That said, a title is just a title. You may remember an atrocious Washington Post story from earlier this month that claimed the key to ending violence against women was for ladies to get hitched; PostEverything swapped out the so-offensive-I-can’t-believe-it-made-it-past-the-copy-desk headline “One way to end violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married” to a still no good, very bad “One way to end violence against women? Married dads.” But the text of the story remained unaltered, and the text of the story was just as problematic as the headline it had been given.
I asked Daisey if the feedback about his use of “Yes All Women” was making him rethink the content of the monologue, too. But Daisey’s monologues aren’t “written,” so he says to ask him what the monologue will say is “like talking to a jazz musician the day before his gig.” But “it does affect the atmosphere in which the monologue will be performed… It’s quite possible the story of this series of events will find its way into the monologue.”
As for whether he is consulting with any women’s organizations so as to avoid these accidental appropriations in the future — I specifically inquired about Take Back The Night and Planned Parenthood — Daisey said no. “You reach a certain point where the artist can’t do anything, if you have enough organizations that you need to check in with. But I am talking to a lot of women and reading a huge amount of women’s writing.”
So where do men’s voices belong in conversations about violence against women? “I think that it is possible for a man to participate in Yes All Women as an ally, and allies are really important in feminism,” Hills said. “But you have to make sure you’re making it about the women and not yourself. Where Daisey went wrong is, he used Yes All Women for himself. That’s not being an ally. That’s being an opportunist… And Daisey should probably be concerned that there’s nobody in his sphere of influence who stood up and said, that’s a bad idea. In this particular instance, Mike Daisey is a white man, so far as American privilege goes that basically puts him at the top of the heap. Yes All Women was about women and what they experience at the hands of men, and often white men, so in many ways, his theory of being okay using that hashtag is an example of the privilege that he has.” (Hills wrote about her back-and-forth with Daisey and “a redemption of chances” on her personal blog.)
“We’ve come up with this phrase: allies,” said Daisey. “Men should be allies. Sounds good! But the problem is, the people who are supposed to be allies, let’s be clear, are most of the problem…At the end of the day, the issue, at its heart, is that men oppress women… So the problem becomes, one of the ways men have dominance in this issue is we never need to talk about it… It’s a “women’s issue,” and so women will talk about it. It becomes the prerogative power of men that they don’t need to engage with it. I think that’s fucked, that’s totally fucked. That makes me incredibly angry. And I feel really strongly that I’m implicated deeply in this. I’m part of this problem.”
The idea of the monologue, then, is not to tell women’s stories, but “to give an accounting for my life,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that if I don’t think about it, I oppress women all the time. And when I do think about it, it sneaks in from the edges — everything I do, everything I say. And it’s very hard to wrestle with the fact that if you live an authentic life, it’s possible… that it’s probably oppressing women. Not just women in general but specific women in my life. So what the fuck am I going to do about that?”
“I really want to emphasize: my job is not to tell women’s stories,” he said. “Not only do I understand that, I do not want that job.”