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Dear Sebastian Maniscalco: MTV’s VMAs Were a Safe Space Until You Took the Stage (Guest Column)

Dear Sebastian Maniscalco:

I have been an MTV loyalist to the core since video officially killed the radio star. And I love the VMAs. For as many years as I can remember, my very hip mama and I deconstructed the cutting-edge performances, the “Moon Man” (now “Person”) victories and epic fashion over coffee the next morning. You might even call it one of my safe spaces, a “place” I associate with belonging, inclusivity, being part of the magic, vicariously living a dream.

For you, I trust last night was epic, fulfilling and exceeded your dreams. I really enjoyed your latest special and looked forward to seeing what you would bring to the VMAs. And I laughed. And then I didn’t.

I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about the show, specifically a series of jokes you made about “safe spaces for people feeling triggered,” available backstage “where you can get a stress ball and a blankie” before suggesting that if you had it your way, people would be sent home if they felt unsafe at the show. Your opening monologue blew my phone up; People from all over texting me footage of your comments. Pained messages of how callous and obtuse your words felt. How tone deaf, mocking and unnecessarily unkind. And how damaging, given the amazing platform and reach of the MTV tentpole. This was unsettling for many reasons, not least of which is cheapening of the platform that is the VMA stage.

I love comedy and have been a fan of your work for years, but your words last night felt so out of touch, so insensitive to the impact that recent national events have on people. Taylor Swift had just rocked out to such an inclusive celebration and deliberately wore an outfit as an expression of safety for disenfranchised people. I kept thinking about the mixed messages. From my side of the TV screen, I saw discomfort in the live audience — and not in the so-wrong-it’s-funny vein. It just felt … not okay.

This morning, I reached out to you on Instagram. It was a blind DM, and I’m not expecting to hear back, but I really want to have a conversation with you about safe spaces and what they actually mean — to me personally, to women of color, to the LGBTQ+ community, to kids on college campuses, to vets and survivors of war and mass shootings. Safe spaces aren’t about being fragile or needing a “support horse,” but are designed, especially in cultural spaces, so that events and places that are supposed to be about celebration, freedom and fun for all people can be.

Sebastian, I want to challenge you to be an ally, to help people, to help me help people. I want to talk to you because I am a fan. We are all in this together and all of us have a critical role to play in our collective safety and well-being. We need to have courageous conversations about safe spaces and the VMAs gave us this golden gift of opportunity.

I direct a safe space initiative called soteria., created by women who work within your industry that is strategically designed for large cultural events, festivals and concerts to prevent sexual harassment, misconduct and assault. We offer skilled compassionate care and respite to anyone experiencing distress including PTSD, crowd anxiety, dangerous or threatening behaviors and/or over-consumption. We help folks when they are most vulnerable in public. We develop protocols and training to help decrease incidents of violence. We want people to be able to really have fun and feel safe knowing that we are there when they need us.

Survivors of shootings get triggered. Vets get triggered. Kids get triggered. Assault survivors get triggered in spaces where substance use is high and inhibitions are lowered. Flashbacks and overdoses happen. Queer folx, people of color, people with disabilities and women in general are all at a higher risk than you can ever possibly know.

People of all genders, sizes, colors, nationalities, religions and political values have come to us for help. I’ve spent a lifetime so far doing the research for you and I promise: Safe spaces are necessary.

I am a survivor of a kidnapping at 17 from a music festival that nearly ended my life; I needed a safe space when there wasn’t one. I’ve spent a career working with police chiefs across the country to help prevent youth homicide; these kids need a safe space. I recently attended and oversaw a space at a festival with hundreds of Route 91 survivors; those fans need a safe space.

Your words were unnecessary considering what a success your time onstage had been up until that point, and deeply painful for those of us who work to help people feel safe and included. Your words shamed people who may need care.

Your words also have tremendous power in that you are visible and have incredible reach. But we need you as an ally, not a mocker. You could help us save people. Come have a conversation about what we can do to make the world safer, more inclusive and fun for everyone.

We need you on the team. We will have a stress ball and a blankie ready. You are Safe with Us. And we are all in this together.

Can’t wait to laugh again.

Eleuthera Lisch is the executive director of soteria., a woman. initiative.

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