“When I Am Weak” is a monthly interview series by Brianne Nettelfield. She talks with people who are woman-identified about exploring weakness and finding inner strength.
Amy Fox is a Vancouver-based producer, actor, writer, and Jill of all trades. She’s also dabbled in nonprofit administration, metal sculpture, and larping. For the last five years, Amy has been working on The Switch, the first transgender sitcom ever created. Creating, producing, writing, and acting in The Switch has been Amy’s main focus, but she has also contributed to short and feature films, web series, and other TV productions.
Amy came over to my home where we drank tea, ate fruit, and discussed some of the difficulties of work-life balance (and the lack thereof) when working in the film industry.
BN: Five years is a long time to be working on a project. Can you highlight some of the milestones you’ve reached in those five years?
AF: We shot a web pilot in December 2012 [for The Switch] and released it in February 2013. We tried to do a Kickstarter then, which failed. OutTV, with the help of Jack Fox of OutlookTV, and Hannah Gordon as executive producer, got a contract for us to shoot a web series and we said no, we’d like to make a TV pilot. We made a TV pilot with, frankly, mixed success. It was good on some levels and had some problems on others.
Now almost two years later, we’re going to shoot the first season of a TV show with a successful Kickstarter, and investors, and a contract for a season.
How has the community been responding to The Switch?
There are people stopping, when they come to something involving The Switch, to say: “I just wanted to let you know how much the show means to me.” Someone came in for an audition and said even though he didn’t get the part, he was just thrilled to see a transgender character being portrayed by a trans person. Then he came and volunteered on set.
Let’s talk about your moment of weakness.
There have been a few. Making The Switch was taxing on my mental health. I was experiencing depression, making it difficult for me to do my job, but I had a lot of support. And it’s been a financial near-disaster at times.
The most consistent “weak feeling” has been my approach to my relationships…
How has working on this show been on your relationships?
Trying to be an entrepreneur first of all, not giving time for romantic relationships especially… I didn’t really have any relationships outside of work.
In the first romantic relationship I had after I graduated, I let my work put a lot of stress on it. That was a big part of why it ended. Then I had my first long-term relationship, like we had significant plans… There’s rarely only one factor that puts strain on a relationship. This was the big one, an imbalance in terms of work and what it meant to be in a relationship with someone else who is also very creative and has her own creative ambitions. And there I was, just watching this project subsume my life and sometimes hers. This is the nature of film and television. It is incredibly taxing on people’s schedules and most people who work in this field get divorced. Especially TV—huge divorce rate!
Now, the romantic relationship I’m in, I’ve set very clear boundaries in terms of how much time we can spend with each other, which is something that seems to be working out well for both of us. She lives in the US and only comes up here on weekends.
What were some of the first signs there was significant strain in your relationship?
When we started dating, I said that if this is a poly relationship then my primary partner is my work…
[laughter] I’m laughing, because a) I can totally relate to that, and b) what a line, you know? It really reflects the struggle between work and relationships.
Yeah, and there was a pattern that developed. Because my company had the financial resources to employ her when she was unemployed, she wound up spending all of her time working on my projects. She was getting paid, but she still wasn’t able to pursue her own creative endeavours. My stuff was taking up all of her time. That’s not emotionally equitable–at least, not to her. That was a major cause of stress in our relationship and it was a factor in souring things toward the end. So all I feel I can do right now is tell my girlfriend I’m not as available as much as she’d like. But it turns out she’s okay with it.
How do you feel when you’re reflecting back on choosing work over these relationships? What does that feel like?
Shitty. It feels really shitty.
It feels like doing an injustice to a person you really care about. It feels like you’re not actually paying attention to this relationship, and this thing that’s supposed to be central to your life. It feels like you’re not a whole human being.
There’s some gender stuff going along with this too. I’m transsexual, and I’m also gender variant. So I’ve changed sex from male to female. And I’m now kind of at the butchy, tomboy end of things. So this is a very typical, traditional pattern you would see in a heteronormative relationship, with class implications. It’s like when people say that no one asks men, “Do you want career or a family?” So, I’m a woman but here I often am as the partner whose work is dominating my relationships, who usually has the financial position to contribute more money – not just now, but going forward indefinitely. How does anyone negotiate that inequity with their partner alongside the other inequities of what their partner is bringing to the relationship that they are not? Can you make it balance? And even if you can, how do you deal with how this asymmetry plays into your own internal doubts that your gender can ever be “real” and not make your psychological business into someone else’s mess? [Edit: section revised at AF’s request.]
How do you think playing the breadwinner relates to the issue of making time for your projects and work? I’m just going to go right out and ask if this is something you reinforce? Can you talk a bit about that?
It’s a pattern, which our society often defaults to. Like most relationship structures, if it is informed and genuinely what both people want, that’s great. Good for them.
It’s not what you want, but it’s a pattern you see yourself in. What does that mean?
It means I either have to find relationships where we can build something that is not that structure. Or I need to fucking deal with it and figure out how it affects me. Or I need to change my work. Those are the only options I see.
I also come at film from a social organizing background. I think what you go through in your adolescence defines you. And transition is kind of a second adolescence. When I transitioned, I had a job working for a student union pursuing a controversial project that was extremely taxing for everyone. This was a period in my life when I redefined myself, and so now I find it intuitive to sacrifice a lot for a project I believe is for the greater good. It’s not fair to keep expecting people to make these sacrifices to do good; it makes it hard for people to do good.
I think that’s a really important thought.
I have a big plan in my head, but it’s not under my control. I know what I’d like. I’d like for the projects I’m working on to become more commercially viable. I was on a panel with Sean Maher from Firefly and he was taking a couple of years off to raise his children. He is a sufficiently established actor, and he can do that. That sounds great.
Can you tell me about where you find, either internally or externally, the support for the challenges you’re having around balance?
Most people who are not involved in film think setting boundaries is a really good idea. But for a lot of people working in film, there is no limit to the work hours. There must something we can do as a culture, encouraging people more. People know it’s a good idea and they will provide words of validation if you are setting boundaries. But beyond that, I don’t know what to ask for, I don’t know what to suggest. Film sure as hell doesn’t support it.
In the context of your current relationship, it seems to be working. Do you have a cheer that you tell yourself? You’re going to do this! You’ve learned from things in the past!
Don’t fuck up this relationship!
I don’t know, focus on all the good parts of my relationship and recognize this is a thing worth nurturing. I feel really enthusiastic about it, in a way that I’m not used to. On the other hand, I really, really, really want to make a life where I feel like I’ve done something meaningful… and I know that relationships can be meaningful.
I want to do something that creates that society-wide impact. I don’t know if I’m going to do politics or not, people keep wanting me to do it. I realize it might not be the best way to make an impact. But I can do this. And since media does affect people, it seems to me like a bit of a cop-out to say it sometimes. But I think this is a good way of making some forms of change.
Moving forward, what do you want to do differently in terms of your personal relationships?
I don’t want to make promises I can’t keep. I want to make sure that whoever I’m dating is on board—actually, emotionally on board. I’m going to date people who don’t see it as a compromise.
Are you ever worried about ending up old and alone with an amazing body of work?
Yes, constantly. Constantly.
What advice would you give to other people struggling with a similar weakness to yours, in terms of work-life balance?
Check in with people, read this interview [laughter], I don’t know.
Share advice, share stories, create a common narrative around balancing work and family.
Actually, the curious thing you’ll find is there are a lot of movies about a guy who works too much and has to recognize the value of his family. Now, these were made by people in the film industry–that’s their narrative. Except these were made by people in the film industry who have a lot of money. The reason why there is never a discussion of, “Oh my god can I afford to pay rent if I do this”? In this movie, the character’s job isn’t that good. It’s just he’s really emotionally attached to it for no particular reason. We’ve got to understand that’s bullshit—it’s not that easy. You do care about your work, and you usually do need the money, so what do you do? It’s hard, and it’s okay that it’s hard. You’re not weak for feeling uncomfortable for making sacrifices. You’re realistic, you’re paying attention. Talk to other people who are in a similar boat and understand you’re not alone. But also set realistic expectations about what compromises you make.
Also we need personal innovation. We need people to be mindful about how they treat each other but also how that relates to a larger social context. And to spread that option, practically and emotionally.