The roles we play
In the last few years, I’ve come to realize that we all play roles for each other. I don’t mean this in the sense that your doctor, for example, plays the role of “doctor” in your life. I mean it in that way that one friend can play the role of “nurturer” to you, while another plays “challenger.”
Neither of those roles fully encompass who those friends are as whole people, but that doesn’t matter. The roles we assign aren’t about the people in our lives: they’re about our own filters and needs. They’re a way of simplifying the world so that we can understand it and process it on a daily basis.
And these roles are fascinating to me. They’re the reason I became a portraitist. After all, my preferred way of painting a portrait is by uncovering what roles a person acknowledges that they play for others so that I can portray the subject in those roles.
That said, I also know that these roles can be dangerous to relationships. When someone steps out of the role that you’ve assigned them, they can seem to be acting erratically, but that’s not really a fair evaluation. It’s your expectations for them that have been violated and not necessarily their expectations for themselves.
For this reason and many others, I find it’s useful to try to decipher the roles others have assigned me as well as the roles I’ve assigned to others. It helps me be a more compassionate person, both with myself and with others.
At the moment, I’m especially interested in the roles I play in my professional life. There’s the “feckless art chick” role. That’s what I play to anyone who doesn’t have much respect for art or artists, and there’s little I can do to convince someone who sees artists this way that I’m anything but that, except by keeping on keeping on.
And then there’s the “successful artist who never struggles in any way” role which other artists sometimes cast me in, and, while it’s gratifying to have my hard work recognized, that role is no less confining than any other. Another role that I’m given by some colleagues is that of the sell-out, and I am so done with that notion. Can’t we just all admit that the only person who can tell whether or not they’re selling out is the person themselves?
Still, my least favorite professional role by far is the “prostitute” role. Artists, female and male alike, tend to be viewed as sexually open or adventurous. Where women artists are concerned and especially women who make a living with their art, this translates to “prostitute” with alarming regularity.
I know someone views me this way when they tell me I’m a “cute artist girl.” Or when I arrive at their home for an interview and they answer the door in their bathrobe. Or when they lean in for a kiss during a photo-session. These reactions to me as “prostitute artist” are dangerous to me physically in varying degrees, but they are all dangerous to me emotionally.
Like most people, I sometimes have trouble with the roles that are assigned to me. By design, none of them express fully who I am, and that simplification can be galling. I’ve always wanted to be seen as a whole human. I remember telling boys who liked me in high school that I wanted to be seen as a person by them instead of as a girl. At the time, I viewed the “girl” role as limiting in so many ways—both in a relationship with another person and when connecting with the world more generally.
Recently though, I’ve come to see it’s not possible for us to see each other as whole people for the most part. I’ve also come to the conclusion that’s maybe even okay a lot of the time. After all, it’s not like I’m always completely aware of myself as a whole person all the time either.