Male directors have been objectifying female characters onscreen since the dawn of cinema. In the age of #MeToo, we’ve begun to reanalyze some of those images as gratuitous at best, exploitative at worst. It’s why intimacy coordination is crucial to creating safer and more equitable sets. But what happens when an industry charged with mitigating the hazards inherent to the male lens is ill-equipped to allay the equally harmful effects of racialized sexualization onscreen?
Though intimacy coordination is a new industry, only slightly predating the Harvey Weinstein story that broke in 2017, it is overwhelmingly led by white people—many of whom don’t have the context to recognize deep-rooted racial stereotypes like hyper-sexualization or trauma. That’s a blind spot that Sasha Smith, an intimacy director for productions such as The T web series who serves on the creative and administrative teams at Intimacy Directors & Coordinators, has made a point to help alleviate.
“On certain shows I’ve worked on, I noticed different tensions and insecurities than working on a show with all white people,” she tells ELLE.com. “No one in the room had the capability to speak to that.”
The lack of diversity on set presents a double bind for the few Black intimacy coordinators working right now: How do you carve space to educate actors as well as filmmakers about racial stereotypes while offering support to everyone involved in intimate scenes? Teniece Divya Johnson, an intimacy coordinator for productions such as Pose and the Lovecraft Country whose pronouns are they/them, has struggled to find an opportunity to make an impact within a “gatekeeping industry.”
“I don’t want to go with the political energy and my history of hurt when I come to an issue,” they say, adding that their approach is to ask questions that encourage a wide range of storytelling options. “Because if you get an individual working from a place of shame and guilt, nothing will happen.”
Greater representation onscreen has compelled Smith and Johnson to facilitate challenging conversations about more honest storytelling that does not rely on racial tropes. “If these are the stories we are going to tell, then we need to be able to protect the people that are telling them,” Smith says. She and Johnson talk to ELLE.com about how their own experiences as actors led to their current career path, the necessity of racial diversity in intimacy coordination, and advocating for “conscious, dangerous stories.”
What brought you to intimacy coordination as a career?
Sasha Smith: I almost didn’t have a choice. I started acting when I was really little. There’s always been this sort of “just do it” attitude around theater and acting. One of my first kisses was in a rehearsal room. There was no malintent, but the person directing was the father of the person I had to kiss, so I understood this weird power dynamic, even though we all loved and trusted one another. As I got older, [there were] more instances [like] that where it was like, I’m making out with a stranger and we’re learning each other’s bodies in a room full of people because our characters have to do this, right?
For me, one of the biggest moments that signified we needed change was [when] I had a moment of nudity on a show I loved. I had a really great relationship with our director, but there was a lost-in-translation moment where she thought I felt comfortable with the nudity and would just do it whenever I wanted. I assumed I would be guided through that in a rehearsal process. The second I was standing there, fully naked, in front of my entire cast and production team, one of our designers called so they could set something on the tech side of the show. And I slowly started to have a panic attack. All the feelings and insecurities you want to leave outside the rehearsal room came bubbling up because I was in this incredibly vulnerable position with no safety net.
At the same time, I was working as a fight choreographer, so there was also this crossover happening where, because I was a woman [and] it was perceived that I could be more sensitive to these situations, I was getting a lot of jobs where I had to choreograph moments of assault or sexual violence. [I was] watching what the actors were going through, having conversations with them about what they were sensing in the moment, realizing that I was the person who had to absorb those large feelings and cut through that energy. It’s where I started to shape how we make people feel comfortable, where we recognize that people are not fully present in the moment, and why.
Teniece Divya Johnson: Everything I’ve done in my life has prepared me for this job. I’m a stunt performer for TV and film. I met another stunt performer and exchanged information. She posted some information [on social media] from Intimacy Directors International. I read all the articles and found myself remembering a lot of the stuff you have to forget in order to keep going. I had never looked at the world through that lens of saying no, especially as an entertainer or an athlete. I don’t know how to say this, but it might be cultural, even. Like, when I first started seeing the articles of intimacy coordinators, they were all white women. The idea of saying no and not seeing pictures of people [who] looked like me, I was like, Is this something meant for me?
I had to forgive myself because that’s what I have control over. When we gain new information, sometimes we want to go to the past and rectify things, and that’s not always an option. I took hope knowing that things could be done in a different way.
What were some of the things you hoped to mitigate in your work, specifically when it comes to the vulnerability of Black stars and the tropes we see with Black characters?
Smith: If you look at the roles usually given to Black people, it’s usually a narrative surrounded around trauma. That is something that already lives in our bodies based on the society we are in. [It’s about] understanding the way our muscles hold emotions and how sometimes putting ourselves in these positions for these narratives can either re-traumatize or bring up heavy emotions that we haven’t even processed. Having the tools and language to be able to cut through that energy and recognize where the tension is being held [helps] redirect how we’re crafting the scene, so [that] we don’t have to live in the heaviness of it. The potential harm for [the sake of] our mental and physical health is something I really try to prioritize when I’m in a space. It’s that extra push of care our industry so desperately needs.
Johnson: One of the biggest things I want to bring to productions is that the possibilities are endless. We’ve got a bunch of talented individuals and there are a bunch of ways we can tell this story. Because we’re also advocates for the story while keeping everyone safe, no one has to go home and do homework. That in itself is such a humongous task.
I hope when individuals work with intimacy coordinators, they find a sense of freedom and empowerment so they can stay embodied, versus going dark and not feeling anything. That’s not the kind of work we want to create. We want to create conscious, dangerous stories we can tell from a safe spot. But we want to investigate some interesting things. That’s why we’re watching TV: We want uncomfortable things. So, how do we tell these uncomfortable stories in a way that everyone will be really proud of their work and their choices and their contributions?
And how they can be told in a way that doesn’t inordinately hyper-sexualize Black bodies like they have been many times before onscreen, which also produces a sense of discomfort.
Smith: Absolutely. There’s so much there. Like, what is the ideal Black femme body? I feel like there’s always a curated type of sexuality that’s promoted or else it’s hyper-sexual. It is very important that we recognize every individual as an individual. However, we are crafting an intimate language between these characters [that] is specific to the story and the wants and needs of the characters. So, that helps break that down a bit.
And talking through and empowering the people who are vulnerable, in positions of intimacy, to speak to how they want to be viewed [and] how they perceive their characters should be viewed, and individualizing it for these characters so we get different stories. We see the reality of intimacy and breaking down those stereotypes that are so enmeshed in our brain because of this constant narrative of hyper-sexualization of Black femme and male bodies. So, what are we trying to say here? Do we need this shot that is the exact same shot we’ve seen in countless movies that perpetuates the same stereotypes?
Johnson: I think it’s important that intimacy coordinators have their lane of advocacy, because there will be opportunity to help people create and move through trauma and into healing. Hyper-sexualization of Black bodies is one. If we think about the intimate stories we tell onscreen, our experiences are monolithic. We could do a lot more there.
When people have an advocate in the space, there’s a way to navigate to a better solution or a different option. The other challenge with that is, how do we deal with one another with curiosity and wonder, without the expectation that they can heal all our trauma and hurt? We might not be able to solve that whole issue. But if someone speaks out and talks about something that feels a certain way, then we can start to loosen up that soil. Now we have an opportunity, but a lot of the things you’re talking about are systemic. How can we solve this today? We’ve got to keep everybody safe in the room.
How has the dearth of Black intimacy coordinators affected how you do your job?
Johnson: It was challenging for me to be a part of such a groundbreaking movement with such a homogenous group. Like, [I was] terrified almost. Here we’re breaking new ground and me and people who look like me are being left out of the conversation. But what does it go back to? It’s our history. It’s inequities that run through. People are like, we want more Black coordinators. You know how hard this job is and all that it entails?
It’s one thing to know a craft, another thing to be in entertainment. Especially in this kind of work where nothing is standardized yet. All these best practices are just suggested. That means that you have to have good relationships with people in order for them to want to learn, versus giving a quick solution to whatever their problem is on set.
Smith: Oppression lives everywhere. However, [at] Intimacy Directors and Coordinators, we are looking to pilot a program specifically rooted in bringing in more intimacy directors that are Black and PoC and creating a direct mentorship that brings more inclusivity into our industry. Offhand, I can only think of three Black intimacy coordinators. We can’t do all the work. That barrier in and of itself limits our ability to be able to be on set and advocate for people and consent in these situations based on our lived experience and our knowledge of how we walk through the world, which is different than how other people walk through the world. Having eyes in the room that specifically understand that experience while navigating all these other power dynamics is so important.
Johnson: Another part of this work is asking people that do have the privilege to look at it. Should you be in that room? Are you the best coordinator for this job? We’re in an industry that is based in entertainment and intertwined with ego. We all have a lot of work to do here. Just because you’re good at coordinating themes or choreographing action-reaction dialogue doesn’t mean you’re a student of anti-racism. Not to fault individuals in any situation, but I think everything happened really fast. We’re [now] holding these industry leaders accountable. We’re like, you don’t represent all people. Of course they don’t. But I think if we say, my goals are staying connected and invested in my community and building relationships so that we can help one another, what does that look like? Accountability.
What’s something you realized when you became an intimacy coordinator that you weren’t cognizant of as an actor?
Smith: I think as actors, we’re always told you don’t have much agency. You want to want to keep your job [and] be agreeable. [It’s about] recognizing that you can be a good teammate and a cooperative castmate, and still have the ability to say no and speak your truth of being uncomfortable with something. That has to be respected. As an actor, I fought through that a lot and pushed myself more than I needed to. There were times I could have stepped back and said, “I actually don’t feel comfortable with this. Can we look at it a different way?” I wish that was something every actor knew they have the power to do. And if you get pushback on it, then that tells you maybe that’s someone you don’t want to work with in the future. As we build this industry that’s trying to mitigate harm, the more we speak about how we feel uncomfortable and might be perpetuating stereotypes, the more it’s going to be illuminated who it is that’s perpetrating them.
I feel like more people are starting to realize that now. For a long while it seemed like nudity was often considered a way for actresses to be taken more seriously or advance their careers. I imagine there was even more pressure for Black women who can barely get into the room.
Smith: The moment that really sticks out to me is Halle Berry and Monster’s Ball. I was just 11 years old at the time, but the whole conversation around that movie was the sex scene and it ended up earning her an Oscar. She did a brilliant, beautiful job. But she had always been a beautiful actor. There have always been moments where she should have had an Oscar. I don’t know if that moment was what signified to whomever that this was the moment she deserved an Oscar, but it sure felt that way. I did feel like [nudity] was going to grow me as an artist, and it did. But it should never be equated with our value as artists. It should just be another thing we are willing to add to our resume, like learning another language. it should not be a direct line to more success. Because that narrative is coercive.
Johnson: I don’t think [nudity] is the only way. I also think there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s the why we’re doing it that’s important. There’s a lot around conversation to navigate and a lot of healing to do in a lot of places. I find writers to be interesting because they write the narrative. When they write something on the page, I can ask a bunch of questions: “Why are you doing that?” A lot of times, it’s like one of the six nudity play cards we see everywhere. Once you start asking questions about what they want to accomplish, [you can go], “What about this or this?” That’s going to help inform us on how you can tell the story and expand your intimacy vocabulary.
Has today’s Black Lives Matter era helped make these conversations a little easier to have?
Smith: I think we’ve come to a place where we realize we don’t have a choice. Thankfully, there’s been a line drawn in the sand, where we’re not going back to this place of exclusion and our voices not being heard. We’re seeing it in theater with the We See You movement. And in Hollywood there’s a push for more representation behind the camera.
I feel I am not doing my job if I am not advocating for all voices in the space and speaking to the direct oppression and harm that has been done before. That’s not to say I’m coming into every space making sure everyone is at the forefront of a movement. But we all have to be aware of the people we are bringing into our spaces and make sure they are safe and protected and taken care of. Otherwise, we’re just taking advantage of them. I think there is a willingness to have these conversations right now because we can’t not have them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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