If She Can Do It, So Can I (Or Why Representation Matters)
While watching the Golden Globes a few weeks ago, I was reminded of The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, a book I read for a college course. It’s a good read for pretty much anyone who has ever tried to be good at anything. The book digs deep into all the processes that take place in our brains when we’re developing a skill, and asks what we can do to maximize those processes. The book also investigates a number of “talent hotbeds”: those particular places (Brazil, for example, or the Meadowmount School of Music) that seem to produce a disproportionate number of people who are really, really good at a particular thing (soccer and classical music, respectively). Much of the book focuses on effective “deep practice” as one of the keys to building talent, but the part that came to my mind recently was about what Coyle calls “ignition.”
As he describes it, ignition is “a hot, mysterious burst, an awakening [...] the set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity, the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be.” Most everyone can probably recall at least one of those moments in their lives. It’s no surprise that I thought of ignition while watching the Golden Globes; growing up, I was one of the millions of kids who would breathlessly watch awards shows thinking about what I would say in my Best Actress acceptance speech.
My Best Actress acceptance speech. Not, say, my Best Director acceptance speech.
The Talent Code goes on to discuss the example of a female South Korean golfer named Se Ri Pak, who won the LPGA championship in 1998 and inspired a legion of South Korean women who would go on to follow in her footsteps, basically taking over the LPGA. Another example is Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova. In the years immediately following her appearance in the Wimbledon semifinals, the number of Russian women occupying the top tennis rankings dramatically increased. The book also takes note of a fascinating study in which students who were led to believe they shared the same birthday as a successful mathematician showed greater enjoyment and aptitude for math.
What I took from this is that ignition is most powerful when people see themselves represented in the world around them. South Korean women golfers were not inspired by seeing Tiger Woods excel; they were inspired by Se Ri Pak. I saw myself as an actress, not a director, because I saw no female directors receiving awards. It may not even occur to people that certain careers or skills are a possibility for them, until they see someone like them succeeding.
Isa, you’re supposed to be writing about music. I’m getting there!
Here’s an embarrassing-but-hopefully-illuminating story: When I was 10, my mom took me to the movie theater to see Freaky Friday. Not the original; the remake with Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis. In the movie, Lohan’s character is in a rock band with two other young women. All of them are playing guitar. The movie ends with Lohan’s character taking an electric guitar solo at her mom’s wedding. Even I could tell that it wasn’t actually Lohan playing the solo, but I didn’t care. That was a moment of ignition for me. (I was 10, okay?)
I thought of my Freaky Friday ignition moment again a couple of summers ago, when I was teaching at a music camp. In the final camp concert, a young woman took a guitar solo in her ensemble class’s performance. I cheered like a maniac. She later told me that I had inspired her to play that guitar solo. I still think about that moment all the time; it was honestly one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received. Later on, another young girl at the camp told me that because of me, she wanted to play lead guitar too. Since then I’ve been saying that my mission in life is to increase the number of guitar solos played by women.
In my life as a singer and multi-instrumentalist, I’ve often taken note of how my various skills are perceived differently. I’m a good guitarist, but I’m not flashy or technically impressive. I go for vibe over precision. But my guitar playing consistently gets more comments than my singing or fiddle playing, and I think a big part of this is that people are used to seeing women sing and play the fiddle. They’re not expecting to see a woman playing lead guitar in a band. I’ve done a number of gigs singing background vocals, and although it’s one of my favorite musical roles to play, I always feel a deep discomfort being the only woman onstage and the only person without an instrument. I feel like I’m reinforcing the very perceptions of gender in music that I want to shatter.
But things are changing (look at my friend Molly Tuttle, who just won IBMA Guitarist of the Year), and I’m so glad about that. Knowing that I’m able to create those moments of ignition for someone else is one of the most meaningful parts of what I do. “If she can do it, so can I.” That’s what I want a young woman to think when she sees me play.
The research I’ve seen, as well as my personal experience, leads me to believe quite strongly that this is why representation matters. I’ve been focusing mostly on representation for women because that is what I have personal experience with, but this holds equally true for people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups.
People sometimes recoil at discussions of identity-based representation in public life. They ask, why should we focus on “divisive” things like race and gender? Shouldn’t we just focus on whether the gigs and the awards and the recognition are going to the most deserving people? Absolutely. Most of us would love to live in a world where we don’t have to talk about identity. But we’re not there yet. And it just seems unlikely that the people who are most deserving of success are almost always white men.
I believe there’s room for everyone. Everyone deserves to have those magical lightning-bolt moments of recognition and ignition. In fact, it’s better for society as a whole when more people see more avenues for success. Representation is not just about filling some kind of arbitrary quota. It’s about the “Hey, I could do that” moment. The next president, the next Best Director winner, the next great music producer, the next great drummer or banjo player could be out there somewhere watching us. We just need her to believe she can do it.