LeAnn Erickson: Films and Feminism

LeAnn Erickson

This week’s Portrait, teacher, filmmaker and fierce feminist LeAnn Erickson, has said “Telling stories is an impulse unique to humans. Animals exist and survive on instinct while humans use storytelling as a way to teach lessons, share experiences, organize thoughts, relive memories and make sense of desires. Maybe this impulse goes back to our earliest childhood, when the adults in our lives first shared their stories with us.” 

Erickson is a professor of film and video production at Temple University in the Department of Film and Media Arts and has been an independent videographer/filmmaker for over 35 years. Her work has appeared on public and cable television, in media and art galleries and has won national and international recognition in film festivals. Her charming short film, “I (heart) Jack LaLanne: A Cartoon Memoir” will be screening this Sunday, October 30, as part of the 31st Philadelphia Film Festival. 

LeAnn Erickson, this is your life. Where do you come from?

I was born in Minnesota and grew up in Iowa. I lived there through graduate school up until my early 30’s. That’s when I moved to Massachusetts and began my academic career. 

There’s a comedienne named Georgia Ragsdale who had a video called, “Sporty Girls,” where she used that as a euphonism for lesbian. “Yeah, she’s one of those ‘sporty girls.’” From what I read, you would fit that title as well. 

Yes, I was very much a sporty girl. In fact, a funny episode, I was at my 20th high school reunion, and one of the cheerleaders from back in the day slunk up to the bar where I was sitting. She was drunk and said, “What does it take to get somebody to buy you a drink around here?” I said, “Hey, I’ll buy you a drink” and she looked at me and said, “You’re one of those sporty girls” to which I replied, “Yeah, I was!” and she said, “Okay then, buy me a drink!” 

Georgia had it right! 

Yes, though for me growing up, the understood word was Tomboy. Which basically meant girls who liked to do things that supposedly only boys were doing. 

What were some of the sports that you were involved with?

Oh gosh, my parents were both born in 1932 and I think there was an element of growing up as children of the depression; their families were very poor. So by the time the 60’s came about and they were both educators and had a little money, I think they thought, okay, this is what you do if you have money, you give your kids all these lessons. So anytime one of us kids showed the slightest bit of interest in something, all of a sudden we were taking lessons! So I had many music lessons and many lessons in things like gymnastics, tennis, swimming, diving, golf, you name it. And of course I did love sports, so I played team sports like softball, soccer and field hockey and I threw javelin on the track team. I even qualified for nationals in judo when I was 27! So I stayed in the sports loop for a very long time, and loved every minute of it. 

What was a ‘best of’ moment and the worst ‘agony of defeat’ moment?

One of the best moments was a small thing, considering I had lots of really great moments, but it was a time when we were underestimated and then ended up besting those who said so. I went to the University of Northern Iowa and none of us had ever played field hockey because it was not a midwestern sport, but the University of Iowa was a Big Ten sports school and they recruited players from the East coast for their team. We wanted them to come play us, but they refused saying that we weren’t good enough. They sent their junior varsity team instead, and we beat them, so it was a sweet moment of comeuppance if you will. We rose to the occasion, and that’s the beautiful thing about sports, as our Phillies are proving right now: anyone can win on any day. It’s a psychological thing as well as physical. 

Worst moment? That ties into the psychological and emotional aspect as well. In my junior year of high school I was riding my bike and was hit by a car. I was thrown 20 feet and shattered my left kneecap. That took me out of school and out of action for quite a while. When it came time for my senior year, I came back out to compete and I was not that person anymore… to see the look on my teammates faces who had known me one way and now saw me differently, that was really hard. 

I’m sure. Talk a little about the importance of sports and how Title IX has made an impact for girls and women. 

I actually filed a grievance against my undergraduate college for violating Title IX. A number of us on the track team noticed that the boys had brand new matching sneakers and we were like, “Wow, where did you get those?” This was 1978 when it was unheard of for someone to spend $200 on shoes. They said, “Our coach gave them to us.” and we were furious because none of the women had been offered sneakers. So, it being a publicly funded school I demanded to see the school budget and I found out that the ENTIRE budget for women’s athletics, for all the sports combined, was less than the amount of money they were spending on athletic tape for the football team! That’s how out of whack it was. 

So I started organizing a group, and many people were afraid. None of the female coaches and professors wanted to get involved. I was afraid too; I was there on an athletic scholarship, but I always operated from the standpoint of ‘make it public.’ If you slink around in the shadows asking questions you’re gonna be shut down, but it’s harder to shut someone down in a public forum. Our complaint was investigated and found to be ‘without merit’ so I made a complaint to the Department of Education. Every 6 months for the next 3 years I’d check in to see if there was any movement. After I graduated I got a letter from my old coach saying, “Thank you, for persevering. The athletic director just took me out to lunch to ask what we needed for the women’s teams” It took a while but that’s what you have to do. As you know, no one gives up their power willingly. You have to hold them to it.

Where do you think you got your chutzpah?

Probably my dad, who was an unusual man for the day. He was raised by a single mother; his father had abandoned them during the depression. His mom struggled to raise 3 children, and he was a feminist before anyone even used the word, as was my mother. She worked and put him through school and then he worked and put her through school. 

When he was a teacher he saw that the women were being paid less than the men and he made a complaint about it. He was told, “So? The men have families to support” and he said, “Well, that’s wrong, my mother had to support our family.” The response? To laughingly say, “Well then become the president of the union and change it.” So he did. And this was the early ‘60s so yeah, we were taught, if you see something that’s wrong, don’t wait around for someone else to do something. They instilled that, “If not me, then who?” philosophy, that if you’re not part of the solution then you are part of the problem. I feel that I was given the tools to believe in myself, even through the harder times. 

In the film, you talk about that moment when you were outed and the struggle your mother had accepting it. I’m guessing that was one of the harder times. 

Yes, when I had my accident, they had to cut off my jeans and in the hospital, they gave them to my dad in a paper bag. When he got home he looked in the pockets and found a note from my then girlfriend. It did not go well at first.

How did you manage to figure out who you were and find a girlfriend? At that time there were no GSA’s in schools. 

No, there definitely were not. With the high school girlfriend, I think we convinced ourselves, ‘we just love each other as a person, it wouldn’t matter if we were men or women.’ And that’s how we justified it, though we knew enough to keep it to ourselves. Also, I always paid attention to things. My mom was offered a free magazine subscription and I ordered Ms. magazine. No one else bothered with it so I would read it and it really helped me keep informed on all sorts of things, certainly more worldly things than most teenagers in Iowa were aware of. One of the things my mother said later was that I’d never be able to go into politics, something that I was interested in. But because of Ms. magazine, I was able to retort, “Oh yeah? I can name two gay politicians, Harvey Milk and Tammy Baldwin.” What I later found out, almost as a death bed confession as she was dying from cancer, was that Harvey Milk being murdered was one of the reasons she was upset about me being gay, she was afraid for me. 

From sports to politics, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I had three lines of interest: politics, art, and sports, and I ended up being able to do all three in some way or another. And happily my mother did come around in terms of the gay issue. It’s been a gift to live out dreams that you had as a child and in some ways the dreams your parents had for you as a child. That, ‘yes you can’ from your parents carries a lot of weight. I feel lucky that my parents thought big for me and therefore I thought big for myself. 

And you’ve been teaching for a long time. That must have been hard at first. Being gay and being around kids was a touchy business. 

My first teaching job was as a high school art teacher. I was 22, and some of my students were 18. Kids are always looking for adults they can have a camaraderie with, they want you to be a friend and sometimes they develop crushes. I certainly had crushes on teachers when I was a kid, so I understood all that, but this was the Reagan ‘80s with an exploding AIDS crisis and shit was hitting the fan. I was very careful to insist on always having a counselor in the room if a kid wanted to meet with me, if they tried to call or come to my house I’d let them know that it was inappropriate and they had to wait until we were on school grounds to talk. But people can tell on certain levels.

I had a senior boy who started stalking me because I’d given him a bad grade. He learned my schedule and started following me and would mutter, “Fucking dyke” and things like that. As he became more bold, I went to the principal and said, “I have a problem here. I think this kid is dangerous. He’s now following me home and everywhere I go. I’ve become his reason for existence” and to their credit, they took it seriously and called in the police. The cops were on it, and back then we didn’t even have a word for stalking. They said they could bring him in right away and talk to him, but he was underage so it probably wouldn’t do much. He was about to turn 18, so they waited to arrest him so that it would actually have an effect on him. As soon as he turned 18, the cops nailed him and told him if he did one more thing to me, just one more word and charges would be pressed. It was all pretty progressive in little old Iowa. He backed off, but I was afraid the rest of the year until he graduated. 

Wow. Let me throw in a lighter question: fast forward to what you’re doing now. 

Sure! I’m a professor of film and video production at Temple University in the Department of Film and Media Arts. We are a Research 1 institution, so it’s where the PhD people publish books and articles and where the media and arts people make films or create other media work. Temple has always given me support to do my own work, and I’ve done a number of projects including a feature documentary called, “Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII” which was and is being distributed by PBS.

Exciting! What are the Rosies?

During WWII we had the blue-collar Rosies, which were the Rosie the Riveter types, but what people don’t know is that there were secret Rosies doing ballistics calculations for the US Army. They were female engineers, mathematicians and scientists doing STEM work. Because it was top secret, people don’t know that all across the United States, women were doing these crucial calculations, very much like “Hidden Figures.” I’m currently working to make it into a fictional series based on the true story, kind of like how “A League of Their Own” is a fictional account based on a true story. It’s a uniquely Philadelphia story and I hope it will be produced here especially because so many of the physical places involved are still here. The UPenn quad and the Moore School, the Horn and Hardart building, we even still have trolleys running, it would be great for the city. I have a pitch, a script for the pilot — you can check it out at www.topsecretrosies.com/. 

And you also have your film being screened on Sunday. The marketing materials describe the film as “Combining animation with the written memoir, ‘I (heart) Jack LaLanne’ pushes the conventions of documentary film. This LGBTQ coming of age story also addresses a little explored area of the medium, the ramifications of female aging in a society obsessed with youth.” I really loved the way it combined archival footage with animation under your storytelling. It was really effective. What was the reception at the premier last week?

Oh my gosh, it was so much fun! It’s a really great shorts program. We had a wonderful crowd as well. Six short films, three docs and three fiction pieces, and each of the docs have a little humor woven in, so we’re a nice buffer to the more serious fictional films. But the audience responded to all six of the films. When you’re sitting alone doing your thing with a film, you wonder if people are going to get the jokes or understand it, will it make them think? Laugh? Cry? You never know. But they got it, and it was thrilling.

Cool. And one final question. Looking back, what was your earliest indication that you were headed down a “different” life path?

I remember when I was 9, watching the Miss America competition with the family and when they crowned the new Miss A, I turned to my mom and said, “Someday I’m going to marry a Miss America”. She responded, “No, you can’t marry a Miss America, you can maybe be one, but you can’t marry one.” And I was like, “Why not? They’re the most beautiful women in the world!” [Laughing] So even back then, I knew where my interests lay. 

‘I (heart) Jack LaLanne’ screens on Sunday, October 30, 5:30 PM, at PFS East.

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