The latest season of Barry has given me some perspective on my emotions. Good and Bad.
[spoilers for Barry Season 2]
The first time I experienced true creative jealousy, I was in Primary 5 (4th grade in the American school system). In my small Scottish village, my class of 25 was invited to enter into an art competition by a large aeromechanics company to have the winning painting from our class displayed next to the winning entries from every other school in the area. My painting was a combination of different elements of aeroplanes combined with idyllic scenery from our rural village. The poster paints we used required several layers and I was very particular about my mixing of colours.
I sat at the small table furiously causing bubbles in the thick paint blocks in order to get the perfect shade I needed.
There was another girl in the class who had painted a very similar arrangement. She was praised repeatedly by the teacher.
“Wow, that is amazing,” The teacher would say. It didn’t help that she was also called Rachel.
When we were told the results of who won, I was furious. My stomach curdled, my eyebrows creased, and I thought about destroying her painting for at least a couple of days.
Luckily, I didn’t do that.
Barry is a dark comedy…
Barry is a dark comedy which follows the strange journey of hitman and veteran, Barry, who decides to pursue acting and leave his days of killing people behind him. Through this decision, he meets Sally, a driven and ambitious actor who is talented and, unlike the majority of the class, has an agent. You can probably guess that Barry becomes infatuated with Sally. Sally is blonde, beautiful and slim. She has struggled to get her big break.
The acting class is led by Gene Cousineau, a somewhat successful actor who seems to be clinging to his glory days, but I don’t know when those were. We also have Barry’s former manager, Monroe Fuches, who is quite rightly annoyed that his cash cow has decided to opt out.
I could summarise this plot all day but what I can’t summarise is the way relationships are held and valued in this show. For a long time, I haven’t seen a show that values character development and relatability so greatly.
Writing is frustrating
I attended an extra-special writing class at university. It was an elite class for the best writers to receive feedback from an American poet that no one really knew — we just knew he was a big deal because he was American… Clearly, we’ve been watching too much Friends in the UK.
He was our writer in residence for the creative writing department and was old. Not very old. But old. He was one of many lecturers and tutors I had that were old and male. He was not kind, and he was not objective. However, can you be objective in evaluating writing?
“Well done, Rebecca,” He clasped his hands over the manuscript on his lap. He was looking directly into the eyes of the writer of the week (the class looked at different student’s work and workshopped them). “It is so classic, so well-written. It is genius.”
I struggled the whole time not to let my mouth drop open. I even looked down at the draft story and tried to see if I was reading a different story from everyone else. Was I the only one who was tired of this subject matter?
“Writing about affairs is very difficult and very intricate,” He smiled and somehow it accentuated his tan. “How did you research for this piece?”
“I watched a lot of Sex and the City,” came the reply.
I rolled my eyes and hoped the poet didn’t take note.
He looked at her as if the sun had blessed her with a gift. Then in my stomach, I felt that uncomfortable twisting. The rage that threatened to turn my skin green.
Let’s talk about Sally
Sally is ambitious. She is driven. She is talented. She is devoted to getting to her goal. She is confronted with lecherous agents, horrific roles that fail to represent women and men who seem to forget that women are people too — and no, you cannot use a period pun on your poster.
After dealing with a rather idiotic producer who appeared to have never met a woman in his life, she finds out that Barry who doesn’t have an agent and was sitting waiting for her in the reception has been offered an audition for a lead role based solely on his height.
She is understandably furious. She is jealous. She is guilty about being jealous. She is confused and distraught over her conflicting emotions.
When she calls Barry out and lets the truth be spewed from her mouth, he can only stand and take it.
I can’t help but protest!
I recently got back in touch with an acquaintance who I met at university. I was asking for his advice when we started to discuss what we are currently doing in our lives. I explained that I was freelancing and trying to keep writing.
When I asked what he was doing, I was surprised.
After working in journalism for a number of years, he told me he had ended up in television. More specifically he had ended up as an assistant producer, had written and contributed to scripts and hoped to be an assistant director within a couple of years.
Later that night, I reread his message.
That fury returned. The blind hatred descended, and I felt like screaming.
For months, I have been turned down for jobs I was not only qualified for but had experience and training in. There are literally people putting themselves into debt to learn to write stories, and there are people who are studying scriptwriting and media then been forced into the low-paid customer service jobs.
I am a trained storyteller (and journalist) and I can’t even get a job in communications.
Acting isn’t writing
For a brief time, I took acting classes. I was one of 8 being intensively trained to act for television. The reason I quit and didn’t return, I didn’t explain to the other people I had met.
But on my last week attending, I was handed a script.
It was a dialogue between two people and the instructor proclaimed that these roles were genderless. I would have believed him if one of the roles hadn’t been called Liz… The dialogue was stunted, and the same tropes came up again and again.
Leaving the class, I looked for voluntary acting opportunities. I read page after page of student productions where women acted like they were out of their minds, or vengeful harpies, or innocent easily-manipulated lambs for slaughter.
I fell back in my chair after reading yet another script where the woman decides to go into the countryside with a man she doesn’t know. He displays all the signs of someone who wants to harm her, yet she follows him anyway.
Then it turns out he’s actually a good guy. Bleh.
I looked at my own scripts that I had created over the years and stuffed into a folder in a bookshelf. I had written characters who were diverse, honest, flawed, and real. I always write women who I want to see on screen not who are already there.
Women are easily pigeon-holed.
They are easily seen as characters who don’t need any form of character development except a traumatic event.
It is revealed that Sally was abused by her ex-partner. When trying to cannibalise herself for a self-written scene for the class, she constructs a memory of leaving him that never happened. Her imagined-self confronts her abuser, and she believes the memory is real until she checks what happened with a friend who saw her that night she left. When confronted by her need to rewrite her own memory, Sally is upset and feels weak.
Sally constructed the confrontation from what she wished she’d said and done, not what actually happened. She never confronted her abuser and she sneaked away during the night to escape him. For this she feels shame and guilt.
She should have stood up for herself, she should have fought him, she should have seen her value, she should have called him out.
The complexity of survivor shame is so well-told that I believed Sally was real. She came from a real place. A real understanding. She was flawed and authentic.
When she then comes to tell her true story, people are shocked, but they commend her. Instead of urging her to write the story herself, her agents introduce her to a producer who is out-of-touch. They keep saying with #metoo and movements like it, abuse is “really relevant right now”.
The producer tells her the idea he has for a series about women who have experienced domestic abuse: three women are living with abusive partners, together they decide to turn on their husbands and the women murder them.
Disgusted, she tells the producer she’s not interested and questions the actions of her agents. They refuse to view her as an artist, yet Barry is offered an audition for a lead role despite a lack of experience and knowledge of the industry.
Within one minute, Barry skips ahead of Sally on the career ladder.
It isn’t fair.
I understand that my acquaintance probably does deserve the role and I don’t know how he managed to land a job. I know that he is talented.
From my bed after a month of repeated rejections, I couldn’t see any farther than the injustice of it. I felt I deserved that opportunity despite never breaking into the industry and not even applying.
Before Barry, I had never seen a woman express her jealousy of a man’s career on screen and point out the inequality of it. I had never seen a non-successful woman express fury at her obstacles that were infuriating and not linked to her work ethic but were linked to some greater structural problem.
It feels nice to be understood finally.
Credit to HBO and Isabella Vosmikova for the image. This photo has been used for promotional purposes and in response to the show.