White Feminists Attacking Tanya Burr: You Played Yourselves

Last week I found myself online, defending someone I’ve never met to the point I thought I might have actually found the hill I’m willing to die on. Tanya Burr, a YouTube sensation who began blogging from her Norwich bedroom ten years ago, and who now boasts a channel with nearly 3.7 million subscribers, was cast in a revival of Judy Upton’s ‘Confidence’ at Southwark Playhouse. The social media backlash was deafening: disgruntled white women - almost exclusively aspiring actors themselves - were furious at the casting of a YouTuber, and so they set about trying to tear her down.

Now, the irony isn’t lost on me that I, a Turkish Cypriot woman who’s written almost exclusively about race and representation am now fighting for the right of a heterosexual white woman to have the lead part in a play, but that’s what allyship is, and that’s the conversation we need to be having. As Audre Lorde said, ‘I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.’

Allyship demands we fight for the bigger picture. When we fight for more diversity in the arts we are also fighting for an equal society in which opportunity is there for us all, and we are all seen in all artistic articulations of our world. When white women have supported me in this fight (they know I appreciate them, they know this isn’t about all white women) they’re saying ‘you can sit with us’ and sometimes, depending on what’s required, they say ‘actually, here — have my seat’. When privileged allies give up a bit of their space to someone else, it’s wrapped up in a commitment to what we all stand to gain, rather than what we can all individually hoard.

So what are all these white women fighting for when they tweet abuse at another white woman, claiming that her casting is unfair? It can’t be a discussion about talent since we have little to no idea how Tanya will fare in her role. She could very easily be a total gem. Nor is it a discussion about representation — I haven’t heard any of these women chime in half as loud, if at all, in response to racist castings.

What it seems to be about is her lack of drama school education, which apparently demonstrates that she doesn’t “want it” in the same way that these other women do. Firstly, how do any of us know what the other really dreams of? And secondly, a gripe like this doesn’t take into account the various reasons people don’t go to drama school — in particular, the financial strain of it. Essentially, the ‘debate’ boils down to individual disappointment at not having got the part, bolstered by the elitist dependency on drama school attendance as the ultimate marker of worth. For these women, drama schools - which should be for self-expression, experimentation, learning and for EVERYONE - are about establishing a hierarchy.

Burr's unconventional path dismantles that hierarchy, and at the same time represents a rare moment where the consumer/audience are put first. Boundless Theatre (the production company behind ‘Confidence’) make work for young people — this is the audience Burr has spent the last 10 years speaking to in her vlogs and who will form a whole new wave of theatregoers. If her performance is good, her casting could inspire a generation of young people to take an interest in theatre, and isn’t that what we all want? Instead of waking up and questioning a hierarchical system which hasn’t delivered for them, these women are seeing only one thing: they're saying ’this Youtube star has come along and taken my job.’ Now, they might be able to hurl abuse at her free from fear of being labelled a racist or a homophobe, but I recognise the language some of them are using, and I think you do too. 

The situation would be funny if it wasn’t so terrifying. If these women gain more power (even within the industry) who will they spotlight when it’s every woman for themselves, and what will the knock on effect of that be on wider society? We’re in the midst of a moment where meritocracy is actually in action -  Black Panther is out, Daniel Kaluuya is winning awards, Jessica Chastain fought with Octavia Spencer to multiply her salary by 5  - and as a result, a greater, more diverse range of people are glowing than ever before. It’s taken hundreds of years to get us here and any enemy to that progress - no matter how small - is an enemy nonetheless.

This casting decision shone a light on two things. The first is that art remains a place where small acts of dissent trigger massive discussions about society. The second? White feminism will eat itself for the simple reason that the rampant individualism of white feminists prevents them from supporting one another. If you were one of the women on Twitter or in the Facebook comments contesting Tanya Burr’s right to success, and bonding with other women who felt the same, ask yourself this: what do you think will happen when you find yourself in the same audition room? Good luck with that one.

Follow Tutku on Twitter @tutkubarbaros