The Break-Up

I. 

I keep thinking and re-thinking about how this part goes, and I really just want to sidestep the preface and the dumb platitudes, like "closing this chapter of my life" or "a bittersweet farewell." There was no single event or interaction that spurred this decision. There were, however, dozens of little things that accumulated over time; death by a thousand cuts is a common phrase in this industry, and it's never felt more apt.

There were actual cuts: Lay-offs and reductions in available freelance work due to budgetary constraints, always. Then there was the feeling of being cut: Every time I sent my work out into the dystopian ether of social media, it felt like committing an act of self-harm—and not the cute cathartic kind from high school. Or maybe it really is just like that. Someday a pretentious Gen Z kid will write a psych thesis equating self-mutilation with sending tweets. 

II. 

I recently started thinking of my exit from film criticism and journalism in terms of leaving a toxic relationship. I realize this analogy is not terribly clever but it is helpful (for me), and as a journalist in the 21st century I've become really good at making reductive comparisons for SEO and headline purposes. You're familiar with this metaphor—the early days were filled with infatuation and lust, but that eventually gave way to complacency and repeated disappointment, et al.—so let's jump to the conclusion: I am tired of caring about this career more than it has ever cared about me. I deserve better. I'm worth more. 

Film journalism as a profession is untenable and unreliable. It's already difficult for most people to envision a future in which they can retire by age 65 and have enough money to live the rest of their days in hard-earned peace and quiet—and those people aren't freelance journalists. These gnawing concerns are collectively known as "The Fear," and it's what drives us to hustle, to feverishly pitch stories and features, to kiss untold numbers of white male ass cheeks to ensure we hit a minimum income target each month. That desperation keeps us pliable and agreeable. It's like a factory-installed self-monitoring system. 

For those of us who are not white men, The Fear is particularly acute. I realize that my problems with and complaints about this industry are valid, while also recognizing that there are undoubtedly people of color—and women of color, especially—and members of the LGBTQ community for whom I am part of the problem, however unintentionally or unwittingly (another problem). I also realize that many members of marginalized communities have had experiences far worse than my own, both in life and in work. 

III. 

If you're reading this in the hopes that I'll name names and blow up some spots, I regret to inform you that this is probably not quite the Film Blogger takedown you were hoping for. There are some names. And some not-names. But this isn't about them.

IV.

There were a few years where I worked seven days a week. In 2012 I was hired as a freelancer for ScreenCrush, a then-upcoming website featuring film and TV reviews, news, and editorial coverage. I was the first freelancer hired, and my initial job was to build a small archive of news stories. Post-launch, my job was to contribute to news reporting and pitch feature ideas. Within a couple of months I was able to quit my day job and I was thrilled. After a few years spent writing for next-to-nothing and too often for nothing at all, I'd made it—this, despite my previous boyfriend's assertion that my writing was worthless and my dreams were stupid. I don't know why I ever listened to someone who could be described as a "former aspiring DJ." 

At the time of my hiring, there were editorial positions open, and I had some editorial experience. I'd served as the managing editor for a horror website for a couple of years, and while the work was unpaid, it was still experience. I also had obvious writing and editing skills and no trouble proving myself as a self-sufficient and reliable freelancer. But there were white dudes with more experience, I guess—or, at the very least, longer resumés. It didn't matter if I was more skilled or better suited for the responsibilities. They had more experience

Here's the problem with white men and experience, particularly as it pertains to jobs: People tend to hire people who look like them. Since this country began, white men have asserted themselves as the majority. White men hold more positions of power and authority and earn more money than people who are not white men. White men hire more white men, and give them more promotions and raises. It's probably some primitive biological thing, like a need to procreate and ensure a legacy, or maybe it's just because literally everything has to revolve around their ding-dongs.

Suffice to say, I was not hired in an editorial position. Those jobs went to white men. One became the weeknight freelance editor. The other became the weekend freelance editor. Within two years, both of those jobs would be given to me because—this might surprise you—I was better qualified for those positions. A full-time position with benefits would not be offered to me until five years in, and only after my editor-in-chief left the company for a better position elsewhere, thus freeing up enough cash to hire me.

For most of the first five years I worked seven days a week. During the day I would work on editorials, listicles, and features for ScreenCrush and other websites where I freelanced, we well as miscellaneous assignments for other sites within the ScreenCrush network. On weeknights and weekends, I worked shifts where I was responsible for publishing news and managing social media. I also worked on holidays, including Christmas and Thanksgiving, while everyone else took the day off. 

During those five years: I watched editors and freelancers come and go. I was told that I'd have a better chance of promotion if I moved to New York or L.A., despite the fact that this job can be done anywhere and I live in Austin (which is extremely film-friendly; I covered two major film festivals here every year). I watched one editor, who started with us as a film critic, leave for a better job opportunity only to return when that website folded a couple years later and take a position as my superior. At any given time there were only two or three female freelancers, myself included. I was promised repeatedly the opportunity to travel for out-of-state film festivals and conventions; those slots went to my superiors, who were—up until the hiring of another managing editor—all white men. I had assignments taken away from me and given to men because they were more popular and had been in the industry for longer. For his part, my EIC was privately supportive and tried to ensure I was never lacking for work. Although well-meaning, there were many oversights that can only be attributed to sexism, however unintentionally—like the time my EIC called to ask about hiring a male freelancer who had previously harassed and threatened me, extensively. I shared my story, which wasn't easy, especially for someone in my position (lowest on the totem pole, basically). My EIC hired the freelancer anyway, and told me he'd "keep an eye on him." It was only when the freelancer proved unreliable and began exhibiting many of the behaviors I had warned my EIC about that he was let go. My word wasn't enough. 

The fact that they eventually hired an editor who identified as non-binary (and now identifies as a transgender man) was near-miraculous. That person meant a lot to me on a personal level; professionally, he pushed for and achieved more representation on the website, and I admire him greatly. 

During my two years as a full-time editor, I had to give up writing about film and TV for any other outlets due to a non-compete agreement. I could no longer write for Birth.Movies.Death, where I felt more supported and was given more editorial freedom. At ScreenCrush, I was often relegated to the stereotypical role of female critic. Even then, as evidenced by recent digging through some old chat transcripts, my abilities were occasionally questioned. When I asked to write about Under the Skin for my weekly column—Reel Women—my boss was concerned and wanted to make sure I had a strong perspective and take on the material because it was "complex" and "delicate." My column on Under the Skin became one of my most-read articles. 

One summer, after years of struggling with endometriosis—a painful condition in which uterine-like tissue grows outside of the uterus—I was scheduled for a surgical procedure to alleviate the pain. My surgery was, unfortunately, the morning before the first day of Comic-Con. In my position, Comic-Con entailed working 12-14 hour shifts for four or five days straight while the full-time editors attended the con. I would have some help, but usually from another freelancer who was not very well-acquainted with the responsibilities. Instead of taking time off to recuperate from what is an invasive, in-patient procedure, I worked through it. The recovery itself is fairly painful, but I figured fuck it, I can work from bed. I also couldn't afford to not work, and feared I could lose my job if I took the time off. There weren't many options for surgery due to my financial situation, my gynecologist's schedule, and surgical availability at the hospital. 

So I had my surgery that morning at 7 am. I was home around noon. I worked, then went to a screening for a film I had to write about in my weekly column. For the next four days I worked 12-14 hours a day. Not only did I have to write up and publish regular news, but I had to manage social media and write up any breaking news out of Comic-Con (of which, at the time, there was a lot). Editors on the ground at the con would either send notes from the panels or a Word doc with a recap of the panel, and I would have to edit and turn that into a full post. It was a lot for two people, let alone one. 

I never felt appreciated for that work. And I never felt supported after my surgery. 

Over my last year at ScreenCrush, I watched our budget slowly disappear. We stopped using freelancers because we couldn't afford them. There were only three of us: Our EIC, the managing editor, and me—the associate editor. It was only a matter of time. In October 2018, our EIC called: They were letting everyone go, and by everyone I mean me, the female editor, and our non-binary managing editor. Only our EIC would be allowed to keep his job. 

He still has it. 

We were told that if a freelance budget was made available, he'd reach out and give us the work. He never did, and instead hired other freelancers. 

V. 

My professional experience isn't rare, and these issues are not exclusive to this industry. Still, I feel resentful. I've watched countless times as white men failed upward. When they burned a bridge and acted unprofessionally, they simply found work elsewhere. This still happens. I know a male writer who, in the last year or so, lost work for extremely unethical behavior. He was let go from the sites where he freelanced. No public announcement was made. No warnings were given to deter others from hiring him. He just went and found work elsewhere because that's how it happens and keeps happening. 

Harry Knowles, a well-known movie blogger and epic piece of shit, sexually harassed me and I never spoke up about it publicly until #MeToo, when his harassment and abuse of other women became public. I told friends and peers privately, and some of them continued to associate with him. I should've done more. I just didn't want to be seen as That Girl. When I did finally speak up, and Harry's mountain of unearned, entitled bullshit finally started to crumble, his membership in the Austin Film Critics Association—of which I am also a member—came into question. In an email thread, other members—including women—questioned whether his membership should be revoked based on the allegations of sexual harassment and assault. At this point, my allegation was already public and well-documented online in various outlets and trades. Some wondered about the lack of due process, or if a film critic should be ousted professionally for things he did privately—as if abusing your (again, unearned) position of power to harass and assault women has nothing to do with the very power you were leveraging. 

I could see all of these replies. People cannot fucking resist a "reply all" button.  My fellow professional peers, in an organization I had revered and felt grateful to be a part of, were questioning my credibility and signaling that they did not respect me on a personal or professional level. 

Harry's stupid website still exists and he still writes about movies. He just can't get free DVDs in the mail during awards season anymore. Devastating, truly.

Another well-known film critic and blogger spent an entire day—at least 12 hours—privately berating and harassing me because I cast doubt on an article he wrote. He claimed he had sources to validate his story, but refused to so much as reference "an anonymous source" in his reporting. His reporting read as speculation, and given that he was speculating about misogynistic behavior where he could not prove there had been any, I felt it was an offensive piece—a bit of white knight moral posturing to earn woke cookies. He threatened my career. He demanded I publicize a retraction and take down my post (which, by the way, did not name him and instead took a more generalized view of the speculation by various men on Film Twitter). I did, however, link to his piece, and in an effort to calm him, my boss and I decided to remove the link. 

He attacked my integrity. He relentlessly messaged me over DM on Twitter all day and well into the evening. When I expressed discomfort with continuing the conversation due to the volatile and persistent nature of his messages, he exploded. He started a separate DM thread that included my then-boss, and said that he would only speak to me in that thread "so you do not accuse me of harassing you or making you unsafe"—the insinuation being that any accusation about his behavior I made would be false; a cover-my-ass move, basically.

One time, at a New Year's Eve party hosted by friends, a local filmmaker sexually assaulted me. I immediately told a couple of close friends about it but did not share the story publicly until #MeToo (and even then, I declined to name him). One of those friends went on to make a couple of short films with my rapist and proudly showed them to me, knowing that this man had assaulted me. For the second project, my rapist's role was voiceover only, and my friend decided to screen the short for a theater full of friends. I had no idea he was going to screen it, nor was I aware that my rapist was involved. When I heard his voice and saw his name in the credits, I felt violated. 

But who cares, right? That guy still has a wife and a career and success and friends. All these guys still have their livelihoods, to varying degrees. I tell my male friends about these experiences and, privately, they largely agree that these men are fucking awful. In public, they keep up social media relationships so as not to ruffle any feathers. In private, some of them maintain friendships. These things don't matter because these men aren't famous or wealthy, and neither am I. 

I know a former film critic accused of assault by at least one woman, but there are other stories. Like the time he slapped me. Or how he persistently inserted himself into the personal sexual/romantic lives of me and, as I understand it, other female friends—a sick effort to exert control over us. But there are worse stories, and they are not mine to tell. I didn't know those stories when I fucking defended that guy. In public. People still give him money and support him on this very platform. More than they support me. 

I know another writer who is well-known offline as a narcissist and pathological liar. A lot of people support him financially; he has over 10 times as many supporters as I have. When I ask our mutual male friends why they put up with his shit, they call it harmless. I have a female friend or two that would vehemently disagree. 

Sorry, I know you were expecting names. The Fear is hard to shake. But so is the anger. Last week, a peer and former coworker (we'll call him A) publicly called out another peer and former coworker (we'll call him B) for "shitty" behavior that allegedly took place many years ago, when we all worked together. He alluded to abusive private exchanges—empowered, I guess, by other peers coming forward to oust toxic work environments. Also it's really easy to "cancel" people on Twitter these days (please note: I do not confuse what we call "cancel culture" with holding people accountable, as the former tends to happen in a social media microcosm and undermines/distracts from the legitimacy of the latter). Having actually witnessed B's so-called "shitty" behavior to A, and having listened to A vent at length about B, I knew for a fact that the only thing B was guilty of in this instance was sending dispassionate emails. 

That's it. That was the extent of the "abuse." I pulled up our old chat transcripts to see if I had missed or forgotten something. I hadn't. A's only grievance was that B was never friendly. 

If you are a white man and your most upsetting professional experience is another white man sending you unfriendly emails, I envy the privilege to which you are clearly oblivious. I envy your regular paycheck and reliable employment, especially during a pandemic. I envy your ability to get other white men to publicly apologize to you for hurting your feelings (and allowing your feelings to be hurt) via emails that contained not one (1) happy face emoji or exclamation point. As women we're taught to be so grateful and empathetic and permissive. When one of my rapists reached out to apologize via email, I felt I had no choice but to absolve him—I should be appreciative that at least one of these assholes apologized, right? Some women don't get an apology at all. 

VI. 

I tell you these stories not to make you feel sorry for me, but to help illustrate some of the many reasons why I am happy to leave this industry behind. These examples are much darker and more severe than the every day stuff—like how a dumb, thoughtless joke on Twitter nets thousands of likes and retweets, but when I share a piece of personal writing or a Patreon post, I'm lucky to get even a few likes. By and large, time and time again, this career has proven that it does not give a shit about me. After 10+ years, I'm tired. 

My therapist asked me once, "Why do you remain in situations that hurt you?" He said that there were instances where I could extricate myself from a situation—professional or personal—and I chose not to. He suggested that perhaps I feel I have something to prove. I have this need to stick around in bad relationships to prove that I'm resilient, or that I can hack it. I have a tendency to diminish my own trauma and painful experiences, to shrug my shoulders and act as though these are just normal parts of life. I don't want to be perceived as weak.

I don't want people to think I'm a quitter. 

You could chalk this up to good old-fashioned American work ethic. Being born into a capitalist death cult will do that to you. 

But it also comes from a history of abuse. My father, my boyfriends, my rapists and abusers, the harassers and the users. All men. And they all taught me, in their own ways, that my feelings do not matter. My complaints are invalid. My concerns, unwarranted. My sadness is silly and frivolous. My hopes and dreams are stupid. My ambitions are ridiculous. 

Even now, I read back over all of this and feel like maybe I have no right to complain. These experiences aren't that bad, compared to what others have been through. I just don't think I've suffered enough. 

—An Aside—

There's a movie scene I think about all the time. It's during the third act of Almost Famous. Kate Hudson is Penny Lane, a self-described "band aid" whose devotion to and love of a rock band extends far beyond the reductive and superficial label of "fan." Throughout the film, Penny commits so much of her time, love, and emotional labor to this band—and in particular the lead singer, who will never care for her the way she cares for him. (He is the proto-Soft Boy.) Her love is one-sided, and it doesn't matter what she says or does or gives up; that love will never be returned. 

Penny has to part ways with the band because the lead singer's girlfriend is joining the tour at the next stop. But during a poker game, Penny and her band-aid friends are callously gambled away to another band. Aspiring rock journalist William (Patrick Fugit) finds Penny and, while trying to explain that she deserves so much more than the way she's been treated, reveals that she was gambled off in a bet along with a case of beer—proof of how little she means to this band. Tears slowly stream down her cheeks. Her impossibly resilient exterior finally cracks. But instead of giving in to this heartbreak, Penny carefully wipes the tears from under her eyes and, in one seemingly fluid motion, tosses her hair back, turns her face toward the sunlight, gives a little shrug, and smiles. "What kind of beer?" she asks. 

I've rarely related to a single cinematic moment so deeply. 

VII. 

This wasn't a hasty decision. I've spent the better part of two years, since I was laid off from ScreenCrush, considering a way out—a life beyond this. A job that's meaningful and that actually helps people, something that could make a difference. I considered the talents that served me in this career—empathy and writing, the only real skills I have—and how they might be better applied elsewhere. I struggled with what it means to walk away from film journalism. Am I a quitter? Did I give up? Maybe I'm just not cut out for this. Maybe I just can't hack it. But I think about what my therapist said that time, and realize that my most pressing obligation is to myself. This job no longer serves me, and maybe it never did. I know that I cannot remain in an industry—in a relationship—that has become so actively harmful to my well-being. Besides, you've seen the state of things. There's no future to be had here. 

If you were reading this just to find out what I'm doing next, I'm sorry it took this long to get to it: This fall, I'll be going back to college to start an associate's degree program in applied health and sciences. Ultimately, my goal is to obtain a bachelor's degree in dietetics. For the unfamiliar, this means that when I grow up I'm going to be a registered dietitian. This may seem surprising to those of you who read my essay on fatphobia in quarantine, but I assure you, my intentions are good. I want to specialize in eating disorder recovery and use my personal experience and (eventually) scientific knowledge to help other people heal. As a society, we treat eating disorders as something that's socially acceptable, patting fat people on the back when they starve themselves and engage in harmful, unhealthy behaviors to obtain an unrealistic, dishonest, and narrow ideal of beauty. 

I will continue to work as a part-time freelancer while attending college, and I will continue to publish writing through this Patreon. My hope is to increasingly use this space to share knowledge about eating disorders, diets, and fatphobia, and to use my talents and platforms to reach a wider audience. 

Now, more than ever, I want to thank you for your continued support. School is not cheap, and although both of my biological parents are dead, financial aid is absurd and I'm probably going to be eyeballs-deep in student loan debt for the rest of my natural life. In addition, my roommate is moving out in less than two weeks. I'm hoping to obtain enough cash from student loans to cover that half of rent, but if I can't, I'll need to find a roommate. During a pandemic. On the spectrum of bullshit in 2020, this is obviously pretty low. Still, I am grateful for your financial and emotional support, and it's going to be more helpful to me than you might know.

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