Content warning: This article includes references to sexism; and verbal harassment.
Clarifying statement: This article was written by a white cisgendered female juggler from the United States. I would like readers to know that the term female/woman/women is extended to anyone who identifies as such.
I encourage all reading to read the entire article before making judgments or forming opinions; and I ask everyone to truly challenge themselves before challenging the article.
To the juggling community,
Let’s talk. In July 2020, the International Jugglers’ Association (IJA) held their annual festival online. There were fantastic community building and informing panels, however, one of these panels had a sore moment. Juggling History Q&A with David Cain, was composed of three men, who all currently are active in juggling research and historical documenting. A question was posted in the chat stream, “Has juggling always been male dominated?”. David Cain answered by saying “…in a lot of cultures it’s almost exclusively female…the first evidence we have comes from Beni Hasan tombs (…) and that shows 3 women juggling(…) In modern performances, I would say that yes it has been very male dominated. But culturally it certainly has not been male dominated…”. With his answer the conversation appeared to move forward to the next question. However, in the slight pause between questions another panelist commented “[…well look at cruise ships it’s hard work…] it’s a lot of time alone and uh…women deal a little bit less good with that than men.”
The message, for those who heard, was already clear: There are not as many women jugglers in the entertainment sector or the community because they lack the fortitude attributed to men. This is not the first time this type of behavior has happened in the juggling community. While the comment seems innocuous for many women the comment serves as a light version of the sexist ideologies that women in the juggling community face with regularity. That women are:
- Unable to handle their emotions
- Cannot handle difficult work
- Should not be in a position where we have to deal with difficult work or emotions
These three assumptions are common, socially ingrained, sexist microaggressions* applicable to every work situation and community group.
My personal reaction to this comment (anger, frustration, and a lack of surprise) was shared by numerous individuals in the comments of this live stream and the other two panelists.
Once the live stream had concluded and the video was posted to YouTube, the IJA removed the section with the comment, stating “The IJA festival directors have decided to remove the section regarding (…) discussion of female jugglers. This comment does not reflect our organizational values and we have no desire to continue perpetuating the harmful implications of these types of comments.” This is a step in the right direction.
The purpose of this letter is to shine light on misconceptions about women in juggling and the juggling community’s illusion of being welcoming. We will be going over the misconceptions and highlight some ways that anyone and everyone can take action immediately. Even if you feel like this doesn’t apply to you! This letter serves to be a larger conversation starter for the juggling community, ensuring the community thrives and grows to be a safe and inclusive space for all. As this comment was made on an IJA platform; it is fitting that shining light on the behaviors of men both in the IJA community and the juggling community at large be done on an IJA platform as well. Specifically, we are going to address three recurring misconceptions about women in juggling
There Are Fewer Women In Juggling
First, what does ‘fewer women in juggling’ mean? We’ll use the idea that if you do not see women juggling online or at juggling clubs/festivals they do not exist. If people took the time to ask women and truly listened, they would find that the deeper troubling reason is women are repeatedly made to feel uncomfortable, sexualized, and belittled repeatedly when they engage in the juggling community. In short, women do not feel safe in the online juggling community, at juggling clubs, or at festivals as they are consistently dodging a variety of sexisms; examples:
“You’re pretty good for a girl,”
“Wow! You’re pretty good at handling balls…”
“So, are you here because your boyfriend juggles?”
“Her juggling videos only get ‘likes’ because she’s a girl.”
Men touch women without consent, men provide feedback when they are not asked, men correct women who are stronger jugglers than they are, men hoo at women who are performing during gala shows, etc.
These remarks happen in person and online. The online comments are often on a woman’s weight or appearance. In instances where women are sent direct messages, they are often sexually explicit and turn hostile. Women have spoken out regularly against these types of comments only to be continually questioned and belittled.
She’s A Pretty Good Juggler…For A Girl
No. She’s a really good juggler.
The question, “Why are there fewer women in juggling?” is paired closely with the mentality that women are not as skilled or as capable at juggling as men. Yet, women take center ring at circuses, perform and tour internationally, and break artistic and technical boundaries in juggling. Women plan and run festivals and juggling clubs; and there are a multitude of us with a variety of styles and skill levels. This list is over Three-hundred women jugglers from around the world, and the list is hosted by a woman. Of course there are countless more, but the belittlement and sexualization of women jugglers prevents them from posting their content online and being active in the juggling community.
The Juggling Community Is Welcoming
As we’ve pointed out, one very clear cut reason women do not attend juggling clubs and festivals is due to an unwelcoming environment, often precipitated by men’s actions. How does the community do better? To start, men need to take on the responsibility for actively changing their behaviors.
Men frequently tell women how they need to change. Too few women juggling videos? Women should post more. Men “cannot” find women jugglers, they want women to give them a list. These are a few recent examples from the juggling community. If we want women in juggling to be the norm, not the exception…start treating them like the norm, not the exception. Change has to come from everyone, women are actively working on change and need men to step up as well. Below are some specifics.
- Respect: Stop commenting on women’s bodies in any fashion ever, not in direct messages, in comments, in person, to others, never. Stop. Additionally, do not touch women without consent.
- Self-Awareness: Do not become defensive if a woman or anyone tells you they are uncomfortable with your behavior. Apologize and then change your behavior.
- Allyship: Men, call out other men. For example, a man comments about the body of a woman. “Hey (insert name here), I don’t like that you’re talking about that person in a sexual way. It makes me and others uncomfortable, please stop.” or “Hey (insert name here), I heard you correcting (insert name here) on their 97531, they were doing the trick correctly and you were not listening to them. In the future ask if they’d like help.” Be ready for the defensive comeback and don’t back down.
- Advocacy: Be a safe person for others to come to if they feel unsafe, for any reason. This involves being an active empathetic listener, and when needed helping advocate for the person feeling unsafe. If a woman is explaining a situation that made them uncomfortable, be supportive, ask them what they need from you. Are they looking for things they could do? Or ways you could help? Asking questions goes a long way to helping the community grow. Try not to explain or defend the offending behavior.
- Environment: Organizers of juggling festivals and clubs, talk about how you are going to create an inclusive and welcoming environment. Make sure you have a variety of voices present, decide how you are going to be an active part of the solution. This includes deciding how you are going to deal with individuals who are not living up to the community’s standards.
- Correction & Growth: Women, people make mistakes. In order to help the community thrive, people need the opportunity to change, which means making them aware of their mistakes and allowing them to improve in the future. This should NEVER interfere with your ability to feel safe. Ever. Take care of yourself first and foremost. Some people may need to leave the community and work on their improvement elsewhere before returning, if they are able to return.
There are plenty of other things the community can do, but these will be the swiftest ways to make an impact. These are applicable for making a safe inclusive space for anyone who does not fit the cisgendered white male persona that seems to be the most visible group of jugglers.
There is a lot of work to do and mistakes will be made, but we all need to work harder to make these changes now to make our community a place where jugglers can grow and thrive.
Lets all get to work,
Special Thanks: To the women who share/shared their experiences, gave feedback, and inspire me on the daily, Madeline Hoak and Aslynne Howes for editing previous drafts, Thom Wall for continued encouragement, and Benjamin Domask-Ruh for providing support, encouragement, and photo concept.
Afton Benson is the Treasurer for the International Jugglers’ Association and the Producer of the MONDO Spectacular with MONDO Juggling & Unicycle Arts in St. Paul, MN. Combining her Master’s Degree in Organizational Behavior and Business Management with over 10 years of management experience, she brings her passion for business and arts to help artistic nonprofit organizations thrive. She manages and works with theatre companies and individual artists including: CLIMB Theatre, Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, Curiosita: A collective, Richard Kennison, and Benjamin Domask-Ruh.