The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Committing cultural femicide

Posted by Nic Heath on May 6, 2010

In The Guardian recently, writer and broadcaster Bidisha expressed her frustration at the continuing gender skew in the arts. Triggered by men outnumbering women in a recent edition of the London Review of Books by 12 to four, Bidisha wrote,

‘We no longer live in an age where female thinkers, writers, philosophers, academics, artists, theorists, activists or politicians are rare. The discrimination is obvious. All you have to do is count.’

Bidisha dubbed this ‘erasure of women from public life’ as ‘cultural femicide’.

If we do as Bidisha says and count, it becomes clear that women are underrepresented in Australian cultural circles as well. The Miles Franklin Award, established in 1954 with a bequest by Miles Franklin, ‘celebrates Australian character and creativity and nurtures the continuing life of literature about Australia’. This year the books of two women, Sonya Hartnett and Deborah Forster, have made the shortlist, with four male writers rounding out the shortlist of six. Since 2000, three of the eleven winners (two books won in 2000) of the Miles Franklin Award have been women.

Last year three women writers were longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, along with seven men. None of the books written by women were selected in the shortlist, leading Crikey blogger Angela Meyer to dub the all-male shortlist a ‘sausage fest’. Literary critic and blogger Kerryn Goldsworthy highlighted the depth of female talent left out of the longlist, including novels as well-crafted and undoubtedly Australian in character as Helen Garner’s The Spare Room and The Lieutenant by Kate Granville.  

Another sausage fest was Triple J’s Hottest 100 of all time, broadcast in 2009, which I’ve written about before. The only female musicans to feature in the list were Kim Deal of the Pixies, Meg White of the White Stripes, D’Arcy Wretzky of the Smashing Pumpkins’ and Zia McCabe from The Dandy Warhols, while two Massive Attack tracks, Tear Drop and Unfinished Symphony featured female vocals.

While the results of a poll of popular music may seem frivolous, as Mel Campbell wrote for The Enthusiast, this result ‘legitimises radio industry strategies that ignore women.’

Consider the film industry. This year Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director, and only the fourth to be nominated in 82 years. Females are outnumbered on screen as well – an organisation founded by Geena Davis found that in the 100 top-grossing G-rated films from 1990 to 2005 the ratio of male to female characters was three to one, while 87  per cent of narrators were male. 

Another study reported in The Brisbane Times found that female characters are still tied to stereotype in mainstream film: 

‘A review of more than 100 of the most popular, highest-grossing action films featuring heroines in the US between 1991 and 2005 found that almost two-thirds of them still conformed to submissive gender roles.’

Despite this endemic cultural gender skew, I don’t suggest that we succumb to ‘cultural femicide’, or that it can not be overcome. There are positives at every turn worth considering in this discussion. The Orange Prize, awarded to ‘a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English’, is an international focal point of female success in the literary world. This year Hilary Mantel, winner of the 2009 Man Booker, has been shortlisted for the award along with six other female writers.

Last week First Love, a film about three teenagers and pro-circuit hopefuls preparing for a surfing competition in Hawaii alongside some of the world’s best young women surfers, screened at ACMI in Melbourne. First Love was made by three women, Fran Derham, Claire Gorman and Clare Plueckhahn, and according to Denham, “It’s not sexualised at all … there’s no sex, no drugs, there’s no rock and roll. It’s just all about girls pursuing their dreams.”

Solutions?

Estelle Tang, writing about the gender skew frequently found in literary magazines for the Kill Your Darlings blog, suggests that women are unlikely to be published more often until those responsible for selection, who have historically favoured male writing, are prepared to interrogate ‘the standards by which the individual pieces are valued’.

Bidisha proposes shunning a path of compromise,

‘It does not matter what sexist men or apolitical women think about this. The solution to discrimination is female solidarity and the deliberate concentration of women’s power.’

I’ll throw it to you – what are your thoughts on how we can increase the number of women getting published, or exhibited, or in film? And importantly, what are your positive stories about women succeeding in their artistic practice?

8 Responses to “Committing cultural femicide”

  1. iorarua said

    Great post, Nic.

    Last December, I put up an online discussion on ABC TV’s First Tuesday Book Club forum regarding what I consider to be an overwhelming bias towards male authors when choosing books to review on the show.

    Here are the male-to-female author selection statistics since the show began: 2010 (so far) 6/1; 2009 – 9/3; 2008 – 14/3; 2007 – 16/4; 2006 – 9/1.

    The post generated some stimulating, but highly exasperating, discussion. A very (!) small number of commenters agreed that the situation was unacceptable. A couple of people checked their own bookshelves and were actually surprised to find that the gender balance was about 50/50 (expecting to see far more male authors).

    Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of responses could be summarised as:

    • If you want more female authors on the show, then request some. Or do you just want to vent and whinge?
    • You really seem to be angry at the literary world.
    • A 50/50 split for the sake of being PC, actually does a disservice to women.
    • I don’t think there’s any conspiracy against women going on.
    • I’d never thought about it before.
    • Who cares?

    Since putting up that post, I’ve also been checking the current and all-time best seller sections in bookstores like Dymocks, Angus & Robertson etc. Women authors are every bit as popular and prolific as men. It’s not at all unusual to see as many as 8 out of the 10 top books being written by women.

    For anyone interested, the discussion is here: http://www2b.abc.net.au/tmb/Client/Message.aspx?b=51&t=3&a=0&ps=50&dm=1&m=6723&pd=1&p=1

    I’d also recommend the website ‘Women & Hollywood’, which passionately advocates an end to women’s cultural invisibility: http://womenandhollywood.com/

  2. iorarua said

    Just a quick correction to my previous post. I put the FTBC post up in August not December, and the 2009 statistic should have been 12/6 (as my cut and paste did not include the remaining shows for 2009).

    • Marian said

      I really enjoyed this post, can relate to it strongly. Thank you. Great to hear about First Love. We’re testing one way that we think may help more women’s features get made, based on Women Make Movies’ and early Sally Potter ideas: http://www.development.the.movie.com, and would love to know more about what Australian women filmmakers are doing, as you’re nearby, and most of our connections are in the States and Europe. We’ve taken Jane Campion’s advice, when she said last year that women directors should put on their armour and get going, but we’re very happy for any support we can get, love getting new Facebook friends and posts to our Facebook page…

  3. Leah said

    I think one intiative that sounds really promising is the ‘No Chicks No Excuse’ website mentioned by Catherine Deveny in ‘The Age':

    ‘Leslie Cannold and Jane Caro and I have decided to address the common refrain of ”We couldn’t find any women to speak” by setting up a website called No Chicks No Excuse, with a list of women speakers on diverse topics.’

    http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/atheism-is-a-broad-church-20100316-qclu.html

  4. Marian said

    PS Just tried to join your Facebook page, got told that it doesn’t exist, and can’t find it immediately through the FB search function–

  5. Mel Campbell said

    Re: the First Tuesday Book Club issue, it’s arguable that it has positioned itself as a show about ‘literature’ rather than ‘fiction’ and that (at least partially) explains the absence of female authors.

    So it’s not just about female authors being ‘bestsellers’, because bestselling books are often categorised as as potboilers whereas books by men are considered serious literature on Big Topics. Young adult author Lili Wilkinson recently ranted on her blog about this.

    in a recent interview, terracotta-skinned chick-lit douchebag Nicholas Sparks was at pains to deny that his novels are womanly ‘romances’, instead comparing himself to Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare and even Ernest Hemingway. “There are no authors in my genre. No one is doing what I do,” he says.

    And, Australia’s leading literary award is named after Miles Franklin, a woman author who went by a man’s name in order to get her work published. Of the 52 prizes so far awarded, only 12 have been to women… and four of those went to Thea Astley alone.

  6. Nic Heath said

    I have just come across this at ABC Arts:

    http://www2b.abc.net.au/EventCentral/View/Event.aspx?e=2423539&p=2

    “The World of Women – WOW Film Festival is a short film festival that promotes and awards the talents of women directors, producers, writers, editors and cinematographers in the Australian film industry and internationally.”

    WOW Film Festival runs May 12 – 15 in Yamba, NSW, so anyone on NSW’s north coast should get along.

  7. iorarua said

    Mel

    First Tuesday Book Club has not positioned itself as a show about literature. In fact, it goes to a lot of trouble to balance the genres (although sci-fi and romance genres get overlooked), to feature both high-brow and low-brow books, and to balance best sellers with low-to-moderate sellers. It also consistently evens up the gender balance amongst its guest presenters.

    So, despite trying to achieve balance in so many other ways, the FTBC selection panel has never tried to achieve any form of realistic balance between male and female authors featured. As both current best-seller lists and all-time much-loved book lists in all the major book chains attest, women authors are every bit as prolific as males and rake in just as much profit – often much more so.

    And just as a general note, the book publishing industry (which I work in) is overwhelmingly made up of women. However, about 95% of upper management and about 80% of middle management are men.

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