Feminism and Art – Discussion Group
Feminism and Art – Discussion Group
This discussion was a sequel to the event which took place in April, a discussion on Feminism in Art with artist Hellen Burrough and the STRYX residency artists Demi Nandhra and Lucy Hutchinson.
Part two took place on 31st May at Home for Waifs and Strays space at Minerva Works and was open to all. In the future the idea would be to make it as a recurring event, which carries through the topic of feminism and art. The event is organised by the Home For Waifs and Strays as well.
During this cold and rainy Sunday afternoon six ladies joined for an intriguing discussion, which was freely led, but the flow of the topics were all around the feminism and art. Following is the overview of the discussion, which I structuralised with subheadings. The documentation is anonymous and none of the participant names are mentioned.
We started the discussion with film and literature, underlining The Bechdel Test. It is the way to discover if a film or a book represents men and women in an equal way, as women tend to be heavily underrepresented. If two women have a conversation between themselves about anything other than a man, then this scenario passes The Bechdel Test. But most Hollywood movies fail this test, e.g. Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Avatar and yes, even the Harry Potter films. Curiously it was noted that Sweden is the only country which introduced a new rating highlighting the gender bias next to the age rating. Obviously this will alter what people expect from the movies and will avoid chauvinist thinking.
Gender question and children
It is interesting to note how children perceive different genders, freedom to desire anything and dream to be whoever they want. But once they grow up all the limitations are set in place. It is challenging to grow a child gender neutrally if the environment creates gender specific toys, games, music videos etc. and where all children have been being sexualised since their birth. But at the same time, why is it so important to distinguish men and women at all? E.g. if you see a doctor, you might find out if they are a man or a women only when you actually see them. Of course there are some roles, where you need to be gender specific, but in general gender comes as a first distinguishing mark.
Gender and language
In some languages there is no word for ‘he’ or ‘she’, which means that has to make the difference from the context of the discussion to make a distinction or recognise female or a male name. For example in my native language, Estonian: TA or TEMA, which means both HE or SHE or even IT. So it is really tricky to recognise if the person is a female or male, especially if they have an androgynous name, like Alex or Sam. For me it is absolutely natural and I do not question it but only when I learn other languages I start to realise that it is actually not common like in Russian, English or German.
The use of titles miss and missis has also changed through time and the perception towards the distinction between them as well. Society oversimplifies the use of he and she, but then there is the question about how transgender people are referred to. Of course we cannot change the language, which we have inherited overnight, but we could become more flexible in terms how we use it.
Women changing their surnames once they get married
In some countries women choose not to take their husband’s name and keep their own name, but it seems that in the UK the tendency is for women to take their husband’s name once they get married. It seems like a convention to legally do that, otherwise the society might not approve. Surname of the child is another matter though.
Changing the name half way through one´s life seems like changing one´s identity. Why don’t men change their name? Is it just because they have a penis, they automatically can keep their name? The choice should be free, men and women should compromise. The option is to take both names though and just hyphen in the middle. Especially when you already have made your name and people know you for that name. But there are some exceptions where men do take their wife’s name, especially if they get along with the wife’s family more that with their own, so for them it is rather a symbolic act.
I consider this rather as a matter of choice. My mother kept her name when she got married, but I got my father´s name. Once I will get married, I would like to keep my name, maybe add a hyphen, but I would do this only because I want it rather than I have to.
Gender and sexuality
Gender and sexuality are not always the same thing. People in the art world are more open about who they are and not afraid of judgement. Why is it necessary to suffer just because this is how one is expected to act?
At this point I would like to refer back to the film industry and bring out an interesting observation from my own experience of movies which I have seen. Female actors tend to take a serious male roles, but male actors play humorous female characters. Their role is originally to be a man and then they camouflage themselves as a woman: Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Martin Lawrence in Big Momma’s House (2000), Shawn and Marlon Wayans in White Chicks (2004). But women playing male roles are quite a contrast to the latter: Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Tilda Swinton in Constantine (2005).
Being judgmental is something that one cannot just turn off. Majority of our discussion group had really bad experiences regarding corporate world and people in it. People tend to treat each other based on stereotypes, depending which background they are from (arty and bohemian or corporate). Some of our group members confessed that they unconsciously take the role, which is expected from them: from changing the voice to wearing clothes. Also there is a different acting amongst same sex and mixed groups. Females feel unconsciously threaten by others females in a mixed group.
Being judgmental depends on one´s confidence, experience and level of intelligence (I refer to the general knowledge). I remember being super judgmental on a lot of things about 10 years ago, including how people walk and talk, but in time, these thoughts sound really ridiculous. Being open minded is extremely important, in rational levels of course, because you will never know what opportunities might arise.
Do you understand that you make me feel really uncomfortable?
The group discussed difficulties in communication during networking events. It is necessary to keep good communication but sometimes people tend to take advantage and misunderstand of what the intentions are. Couple of the people in the discussion group have had a really bad experience when they try to do their job but some people are interested in them not in a professional way. The conversations tend to become really uncomfortable, people feel violated and more influential person takes full position of power. It has usually been woman-man power relationship, man being in the power position. The line between professional and personal conversation gets blurred out by more powerful party, usually the man and some people do think that it is ok to do that. Most depressive is that at that moment we freeze and where we should say something, we don’t. Being smart afterwards does not help…
Why do we need to be pleasant and smile during those events? It is not about our smile, it is about we do and say. But it is always easier to say than to do at that moment. At that particular moment we become too stunned to react properly. Of course majority networking events are not like this, they are really interesting and broaden one´s horizon. Just those rare incidents were brought out at our discussion.
During school time, it is quite common that boys playfully lift girl’s skirt and girls have to just put up with it, because this is sort of ok action from boys. This way of acting might also indicate that the boy likes the girl and this is the way they express themselves in certain age. And once they grow up this line of thoughts follow (some) them.
Gender and power
Being so powerless that the only power is the beauty and sexuality, therefore a woman has been a muse for man for such a long time. Even in the live art the view towards nudity tends to be sexualised. The best example here would be Guerrilla Girls and their poster from 1989. The group base their posters on pure facts and mix them with the humour and clarity to address all and not just creative people. They wear gorilla masks to hide their identity and to emphasise the gender neutrality and take the names of dead female artists.
Then we discussed different art projects and performances about mixed gender relations, which the creative people in the group are currently involved in. Also about creating intense emotions, love, which is important in a relationship, being a woman, taking a man’s role and owning space like a man.
A lot of above mentioned is connected to the culture we are hailing from and what are the general conventions. These subtopics were not rehearsed but formed a very nice narrative and a line of thoughts that were important to all participants of the discussion group. We all had our own creative practice and we all had our own views on the topic of feminism and art. We showed how different issues and personal experiences have influenced our creative practice and formed understanding. The discussion was very subjective and personal, but I hope that we touched several issues that do translate to wider audience.
I am a cultural producer and do not position myself as a feminist, but regardless of that I am interested in the topic and therefore decided to take part of the discussion group and document it.
 http://bechdeltest.com/ [18-06-2015]
 http://filmschoolrejects.com/features/10-famous-films-that-surprisingly-fail-the-bechdel-test.php [4.06.2015]
 All film references from http://www.imdb.com/
 http://www.guerrillagirls.com/posters/getnaked.shtml [17-06-2015]