Hollywood, and more specifically the entertainment industry, is a battlefield of a very specific sort. There is a logic to the business and corresponding social life here, but it is a logic that would be illogical anywhere else-- except for maybe that other famed ‘company town,' Washington DC. It's a terrain filled with very unusual freedoms, restrictions and advantages, and I wrote 100,000 words about them all in my debut novel, The Art of Social War (HarperCollins). I saw a satire based on Sun Tzu's military masterwork, The Art of War, and it is essentially about (I like to say) Very Bad Behavior in Hollywood & Girl-on-Girl Crime.
The Art of Social War is a dark comedy about a New York couple that relocates to Hollywood and lands in a high stakes social war with a hardcore film industry Overlord and his equally hardcore Hollywood-Wife-with-Tenure, a daunting creature indeed. The social, emotional, and professional obstacles that our heroine, Stacey, and her husband Jamey (Overlord's nemesis) encounter are high drama, and (I'd like to think) high comedy too.
Nonetheless, a curious thing happened on the way to publishing said fictitious, debut novel:
Readers-- especially girls and women, of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds, by the by, started writing to me through my website www.theartofsocialwar.com, to tell me how the book and its storyline resonated with them in a decidedly non-fictional manner: for while the details are satiric and Hollywood-specific, these enervating tales of interpersonal woe are all-too universally relatable. Readers proceeded to tell me their real life ‘War Stories,' as reported from their own ‘front lines of battle,' issues that occurred in their everyday lives. And then, they'd ask my advice on how to resolve these conflicts, Sun-Tzu style http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Tzu. I very quickly discovered that by having employed The Art of War in the context of one modern woman's life (my own), I was really writing about how to overcome Very Bad Behavior, how to resolve conflict, especially in what I call Girl World 2.0 (all the changeable emotions and drama that we thought we were done with in middle school, which is what I refer to as Girl World 1.0.)
Not so much, it would seem.
These widespread issues of Bad Behavior are everywhere—from reality TV to Facebook to Twitter and too much in our every day lives, so much so that I am exploring them further. Using these War Stories—as well as humor and defragmented fairy tale expectation so hard-wired into us-- the question I ask is, can we, as girls and women, overcome our social conditioning and benefit from the pertinent and actionable wisdom of Sun Tzu, especially regarding how to handle interpersonal conflict, confrontation and negotiation, to make effective, winning decisions?
I believe we can.
Now, women are pretty much of two minds re other women: on one hand, we have an expectation of sisterhood and unity; on the other, we are extremely wary due to past negative experiences. It was at just such an emotional crossroads (that tricky and all-too-familiar intersection of dread and excitement, I mean) that I attended an industry luncheon, the theme of which was ‘The Power of Women.'
To my great delight, the event turned out to be a uniquely inspiring experience. As Sun Tzu might say, out of chaos (even the emotional, anxiety-ridden kind) can come opportunity: I had the great fortune to be seated next to Carla Sanger and Catherine Stringer, executives at LA's BEST, the premier after-school enrichment program for at-risk children.
Catherine, Carla and I hit it off and Catherine told of me of a very progressive program that they had just instituted, called the Young Authors Club. She invited me to visit one of the schools, meet the kids and possibly get involved in mentoring the children as a visiting author.
That was almost three years ago.
On my first full afternoon, as luck would have it, the class I visited was comprised of twenty 8 – 12 year-old children, all girls. The experience was inspiring, overwhelming, wonderful, and so so humbling, all at once. I got a thousand hugs when I left.
It was a study in contrasts for me, leaving the bubble-world of Hollywood and my usual stomping grounds of fieldwork re social conflict in Girl World 2.0. This school—less than seven miles from my home and yet a seeming world away, zeroed in right to the heart of my particular social study: fieldwork pre-Girl World 1.0.
After all, as Sun Tzu would say, it is essential to understand the true nature of any conflict to even begin to resolve it, and so for me, where better to begin studying the whys and hows of Girl World behaviors then right at the very beginning?
On first look, all seemed fairly typical: the classroom was covered in multicolored-paper, alphabet letters and numbers and positivity-enforced messaging were everywhere. I mean: 9 is 9 is 9, right? The very young, soon-to-be Authors were seated at desks circled around the ‘Author's Chair,' a beaten up yet highly coveted director's chair, in which a girl will sit and read her self-illustrated and bound-with-a-ribbon assignment aloud to the others, who then comment in a pre-determined, star-and-a-wish, positivity-framed way: ‘I liked when you said' that you liked pizza/were a good sister/could do your own hair,' for example, or ‘I wished that you had spoken louder,' etc. Their pride of accomplishment was palpable.
After applauding through the cycle, Catherine and I addressed the girls, who were thrilled to have such an appreciative audience.
Us: what's the best part about being a girl?
Universal, immediate agreement: The clothes, hair accessories, sparkly things.
Us: what's the worst part about being a girl?
A long pause, and then Robin, age 9, said:
Having to raise your baby all by yourself.
It was heartbreaking.
Like she was very simply stating her inevitable fate; it was a foregone conclusion. And all the other girls nodded solemnly along with her.
Right here, this is where 9 is not 9. These girls have so little expectation of anything, and yet there is a knowingness to them, like they ‘get' the condition of ‘woman.' Their eyes belie their years. They are internalizing the oppressive and confusing messaging they witness and ‘consume' from the media, their communities, in their lives. It's as if they are teetering on a precipice—and they absolutely are: the precipice of adolescence. And increasingly limited choices. And boys and knives and drugs.
I was awe-struck. I wanted to rush in and pull them back, catch them one by one, before the cycle of statistics, attrition, and oppression could begin anew.
I was activated at that very moment, and an idea took shape in my mind. What was needed here is something I call Emotional Literacy, essentially life and resiliency skills. I wanted to create a very specific, reality-based program that would help to connect the dots between what is learned in school and what they glean from our culture-- to educate and teach children to express themselves through words, to learn to be able to write and say what they think and know, what they can imagine and dream. It would be liberating, powerful, and empowering. Tools for transcending their circumstances and to help in making better choices. To learn how to use their VOICES—to advocate for themselves, to understand that they do indeed have choices, to stay in school at the very least and not join gangs. Most importantly, they need to learn about personal boundaries, and that they can in fact have ultimate control over their destinies, over their own bodies…
I couldn't help but think of Hans Andersen's Little Mermaid, Ariel, who at too young an age sets her sights on a human prince and the earthly world and resolves to do anything just to be with him. She strikes a brutal deal with Ursula, the evil Sea Witch:
"But you must first pay me my dues," said the witch. "You have the loveliest voice of all of the inhabitants of the deep, and you think to enchant him (the human prince) with it; but you must give over that voice to me. I must have the best of all you possess in exchange for my powerful potion."
"But if you take away my voice," said the Little Mermaid, "what shall I have left?"
"Your lovely form," replied the witch. "Come put out your little tongue and let me cut it off for payment; then you shall be given the valuable potion."
Essentially, the Little Mermaid gives up the very best of herself, that which made her unique and special: her tail and her voice, her SELF— in exchange for a false vision of adulthood that was premature and ultimately self-destructive.
R is for ‘Rude'
Robin had taken her turn in the Author's Chair. The assignment was an acrostic exercise based on the girls' names: R is for ‘resilient,' O is for ‘observant.'
At the end of the day she told me, very upset, that a girl in a pink-striped skirt whispered snidely to her, ‘R is for Rude.' And two nearby cohorts giggled along in delight. I had indeed witnessed what the girls fondly call a ‘hairy eyeball' volley during the rest of the session. Robin was simmering, all right. Hostile nations have nothing on het-up pink-and-lavender, bedazzled little girls in escalation mode! We did in fact have a very calm and productive chat with Pink-stripe et al, and together we managed to think of about twenty positive adjectives that start with R…
Which cemented an idea: The Art of Peace Club was born.
Because the opposite of Conflict is Peace. And Peace of Mind.
With LA's BEST's fantastic support and beginning with this very special group of girls, this work has evolved into an interactive curriculum, an upbeat, inclusive ‘drama circle,' where we focus on combining literacy/vocabulary and on-point discussion with role-play and conflict resolution techniques. It has become so much more than an anti-bullying program; it is a solution-based, empowering call-to-action.
We workshop The Art of War, and so we study the ‘Art' of Peace. Much of the content is generated by the girls themselves (they have an awful lot to say, as one would imagine!) In a revolving way, we dissect and debate mean girl/victim socially aggressive behavior, and we practice goal-setting, and assertion and strategic thinking skills necessary to resolve these interpersonal—and internal, conflicts the girls experience in their everyday lives. And then, we write about the empowering lessons learned: empathy, courage, compassion, and authenticity; we learn the ‘how tos' of negotiation and positive confrontation.
I'm extremely honored and enthused by the opportunity to help make a difference in young girls' lives—and in my own, too-- through sharing this actionable and empowering information. It is a ‘real' Art of War Experiment, taking place right here on the ground in Los Angeles. Sun Tzu would be proud, I am sure. More than that, for me this ongoing experience has proven to be a true Return on Passion.
I will continue to post here at myFOXparents on my and the girls' progress. We are preparing to Triumph & Become Invincible!
For more information on LA's BEST, visit www.lasbest.org
Children are individuals to be developed, not problems to be solved.