Intended to be a safe-space for all womxn-identifying creatives, BOSSY seemed like a long overdue and perfect solution. But amidst accusations of bullying, the forum was forced to close down. What went wrong? Alice Flynn discusses.

“Are you on BOSSY?” Up until January this year, if you were a womxn in the very early stages of your arts career, it was almost impossible to have a peer conversation without being asked this question. For many early-career artists who also happen to be womxn, forums such as BOSSY appeared as a refuge from the wider issues within the arts.

Describing itself as ‘a feminist forum for women/non-binary people in film/theatre/performing arts’, BOSSY was a Facebook group which sought to be an inclusive space for posting opportunities within the creative industries. Although the founders had good intentions, it ultimately failed to create a safe space, and left many former members feeling disillusioned. The group was suspended following controversial posts targeting disabled and trans people (to name a few). BOSSY was problematic, frustrating, and at times downright irritating, but it was also a step in the right direction. If we want to see a positive change in the arts, we need to learn from what went wrong.

Managed by just four well-meaning but vastly outnumbered admins, the scale of membership was simply too large for such a small team to catch every instance of discrimination lurking in the comments. While promising to be a safe space from bullying and hate speech, the admin team simply weren’t present enough to regulate this. For a group designed to include every womxn in the Arts, relying on just four volunteers to moderate 33K people was never going to end well. Granted, the team likely never expected BOSSY to grow to such a size, but surely, they could have grown with it? The admins have acknowledged this in their final statement, which you can find pinned to the Facebook page.

For a group of 33K members, it would be impossible to expect everyone to agree on everything, however, BOSSY’s lack of moderation and simplistic approach to feminism did little to prevent discussion turning into harassment. BOSSY’s gargantuan membership is made up entirely of womxn and non-binary creatives, with every single one having a slightly different definition of what a ‘feminist forum’ should be. Excluding men does not inherently make it a safe space for everyone as womxn are just as capable of bigotry, bullying and exploitation as men. While the absence of men did provide some respite from the everyday sexism womxn constantly deal with in other arts forums, it ultimately didn’t protect the many who are vulnerable to other types of discrimination such as racism, homophobia, transphobia etc… ‘Feminist’ is a complex word which has no singular, agreed-upon definition, and saying something is inherently feminist simply because there’s no men is reductive of a whole political movement.

BOSSY never gave a clear manifesto as to what feminism means in the context of their space, meaning that anyone can interpret the term to fit their personal take. This becomes problematic when people start using that to justify excluding other members of the group who ‘don’t belong’. Trans and non-binary people were particularly likely to be targeted in the comments sections by ‘gender-critical feminists’ in the group, based on their visual presentation alone. A series of non-arts related posts explicitly directed towards people with vaginas also further undermined the group’s supposed commitment to including non-binary people and trans womxn. While the admins had group rules about gender-inclusive language and banning slurs, other incidents of trans and non-binary erasure were left unchecked. If a space is to be proclaimed safe, then it needs to have defined boundaries explaining what it is safe from, and if it is to be given a political label such as ‘feminist’, it needs to be clearly defined beyond ‘no boys allowed’. If neither of these definitions are in place, then those who harbor resentful views against other members can wander in unchecked.

BOSSY was used by many as an alternative to sites like Mandy and Spotlight and there were definite benefits. Mandy has a prevalence of ‘castings’ that demand nude tapes or up-front payments, Spotlight is costly, at £158 per year, whereas BOSSY, by contrast, was free and had the benefit of being able to check a producer’s personal Facebook to make sure that they were legit. However, there were still plenty of sketchy casting calls which took advantage of the abundance of naive newcomers. Calls with no specific dates or location other than ‘London’ meant that actors couldn’t plan their day jobs, childcare or personal finances around commute costs, creating a barrier for working class actors and working mothers. Plenty of producers promised ‘profit-share’ castings, rather than being transparent about the fact the company was unable to pay an actual wage. Misleading actors to work for less than Equity minimum isn’t any more ‘feminist’ if a womxn producer is doing it. Of course, many young companies don’t necessarily have the funding to pay artists fully, but in these cases, transparency on the job description is the bare minimum these casting calls can do. Financial barriers are an issue within the arts generally, but if a forum poses as a ‘safe space’ to escape from that, then strict vetting for misleading castings needs to be in place.

So, what now? The UK Arts Industry has ground to a halt under COVID-19, BOSSY is suspended for the foreseeable future, and the admins are trying to figure out what the next steps will be. Due to the ongoing pandemic and looming global recession, a total overhaul of the Arts as we know it is inevitable, and spaces for unrepresented artists, freelancers and small companies to support one another are going to be more crucial than ever.

Personally, in BOSSY’s vacancy, I’d like to see a forum like LinkedIn for artists, with mandatory fields for casting calls (such as specific locations, dates and pay/lack of pay) to fill out when posting opportunities. I’d like to see actively moderated discussion boards where everyone, including people from minority backgrounds, can speak about how better to create an inclusive arts sector. I’d like to see these forums being open to all, rather than on a subscription basis. I’d like to see more theatre companies and collectives writing detailed, thought-out feminist manifestos beyond ‘we are feminist by default because we are all womxn’. Whether these things are possible in the post-coronavirus world, I can’t say for certain, but we can learn from BOSSY’s failure to be the inclusive space it wanted. BOSSY had significant problems, but as a prototype for an anti-patriarchal space in the arts, it was a step in the right direction.