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.”
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?