Sex & Sexability: The Misogynistic Arts
By writer, critic and presenter Bidisha.
I wonder when exactly I lost my faith.
Maybe it was the night I discovered a friend of mine, an artist I’d worshipped for his talent, integrity, politics and productiveness, was a total ‘Tiger Woods,’ a pathological cheat, liar and backstabber, an abusive man.
I saw that it made no difference to his outer success: abusing women is not serious enough to make other men turn away from you.
Maybe it was when I was introduced to a big cheese management guy, and watched as he stepped back and slowly looked me up and down like a piece of meat.
Or when, at a party, another boss came up, looked deep in my eyes and hissed, “You’re trading on your appearance. You’re trading on it.” (It’s weird because believe me, when it comes to traditional physical beauty, there ain’t nothing to see here.)
Or maybe I lost faith when I realised I’ve been repeating myself forever, for nothing.
In April 2010, I wrote an article entitled “Tired of Being The Token Woman” about the erasure of women from cultural life. It sparked a round of events and activism among women, as well as some hilariously defensive chits from the perpetrators. The editors of everything from Roman Artifact Review to Nosepickers’ Weekly wrote in to give their excuses and do some victim blaming.
They ought not to have fretted. The article made no difference. The act of typing it soaked up my nervous energy but changed nothing.
I can’t be bothered to give any more statistics. Okay, just some quickies: at the Waterstones on New Row in Covent Garden are two tables labelled Books We Can’t Put Down. A fortnight ago one table had 42 authors, of whom 4 were women. The other had 45 authors, of whom 4 were women. There was a wall display of Philosophical Fiction featuring novels by 21 different men and 0 women. The big Waterstones on Piccadilly’s even worse.
Let’s scroll back. Since the beginning of 2008 I’ve conducted author interviews with 49 men and only 23 women. In the Evening Standard’s summer reading round-up on 2nd July David Sexton recommended 16 books by men and only 5 by women.
In June, the World Literature Weekend organised by the London Review Bookshop: 26 writers, of which only 4 were women. Of those, 2 were faithful translators of men’s work and one was talking about her late, ‘great’ writer father. This year’s Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction – a genre utterly dominated by brilliant women – shortlisted two women and five men. The Dolman prize for travel writing shortlisted one woman.
I have been working for nearly twenty years and have made no difference to anything. It is difficult to describe the sheer alienation one feels to participate in – even to chair and moderate – a discussion about arts, politics, culture, the world, in which no woman or her achievements are mentioned once, by anyone, at any time.
I can no longer sit in a studio feeding flattering questions to some guy who’s written an average book and is busy namechecking 20 other ‘great’ men, while a female producer and female PR gape like groupies, and ten works of actual genius by women fester in the bin.
It is difficult to describe the surge of pain as one mentions a woman, any woman, in any context, only to see one’s companion automatically roll their eyes, then wait their way through the rest of the anecdote.
It is devastating to begin pitching an item about an excellent book/play/film, “It’s about this woman who....” and see that your boss has already lost interest. Should you complain outright? There is always a moment when they look at you with open dislike, and you realise you will never work for them again, and that part of your career is over.
I have become one of the countless women standing at the edges, pleasant, elegant, mutedly smiling as men pass the prizes and job offers amongst themselves, and competent geisha-minded women crawl all over each other to help. I have been unable to convince producers to have more women on the shows with which I have been involved.
Instead, the few female artists on the roster are pushed onto my shows to shut me up. No more women are employed or featured thank before, they’re just shuffled around like so many peas in a shell game.
I have used my time, energy and intellect working alongside, publicising and aiding the careers of powerful/rich/famous men who are open philanderers, lechers, johns, liars, bullies, harassers. Neither I, nor other women, nor my many other wonderful male colleagues and friends has been able to do anything about this at all, although the issue is understood by 'everyone'.
I have been offered great jobs by great sleazebags and wondered what to do. I have been polite to their leering, lying, hypocritical, sexist, pathetic faces and listened, wanting to laugh outright, if only to divert myself from being sick, as they two-facedly pay pseudo tribute to their much-deceived wives, partners and daughters.
I have dutifully watched their films and read their novels, in which women are either totally absent or nothing more than insulting age-old misogynist stereotypes. We women have helped make these men famous, and they have used their fame to help other men. I have become, to use an ancient phrase, a handmaiden of the patriarchy.
It is no longer a fresh challenge, as it was when I was fourteen and beginning my career. It is no longer baffling and frustrating, as it was when I grew older. It now makes my skin crawl with claustrophobia, despair and crackling pain.
There is a horrible sense of the realness and depth of cultural femicide as women continue to be simply ignored. There is a terrifying frustration as I encounter so many powerful women’s own misogyny and submissiveness.
There is a deep dread as I contemplate two more decades of this bullshit. I think of my former friend, the one I’d so admired, and see just how ably the boys’ club works to aid and protect its abusive brothers, showering them with perks – and in many cases with heaps of help from the ladies!
One of the most painful things is the realisation that many of the devoted pillars, the dutiful stalwarts who faithfully keep inequality firmly in place, are women.
Quote from the (female) lead producer on a flagship arts show: “It’s all blokes today so it’d be good to get a female.” Quote from the same producer a month later: “It’s all men so if you want to sandwich a female artist in between, you can, if you want.”
It is hard to witness discrimination up close, in realtime, and realise that these institutionalised women will never do anything at all to change things.
Comment from a female commissioner at the Arts Council to a renowned female theatre director: “Oh, Sue! Women aren’t artists. Women are mothers.” Excuse me?
I listened in on the planning meeting for a flagship arts show. There were six women and no men and all they did, for half an hour, was slavishly dribble and coo over men: “I though he was good but now I think he’s great.” “He’s such a genius.” “He’s a clever, clever man. He is such a clever man.” Poor little masochists, dutifully scrubbing the steps of the boys’ club forever.
I chided a colleague who snatched up the latest book by a famous misogynist. She simpered, “I know he hates women but, you know, I don’t need to be his friend or anything.” Another colleague said of a young American writer, “He came in, he wasn’t particularly nice, wasn’t particularly friendly, wasn’t particularly respectful. But I kind of like what he’s about.” What!?
These women's labour is used. But their love, deference and worship are not reciprocated. I have never, ever, ever, in my life, ever heard a group of men praise any woman artist in any discipline in any way, even once, let alone exclusively worship women and our work.
I have been in too many meetings, in this so-called liberal artsy world, where anything a woman says is shot down or simply ignored. I have watched as women who are senior in years, rank and experience are talked over after saying only four or five words.
I have smiled my way through countless apparently playful but actually sexually harassing remarks in the workplace. I have been the token woman on countless panels where, on the rare occasions when a work by a woman is reviewed, it is brazenly set upon and ripped to shreds, pettily, brutally, jeeringly, right down to its last fibres, with disgusting zeal.
I am ready to abandon a career which I once loved because I have finally seen its hatred and (worse) its hypocrisy up close. I no longer have any expectation of success, because the game is rigged. I have seen, in nearly twenty years, that at every literary event, the audience is full of women and the stage is full of men – a telling image.
Bidisha is writer, critic and presenter. She launched an art fanzine at 14, began writing for established arts magazines at 15, and signed her first book deal, with HarperCollins, at 16. Her first novel, Seahorses, was published when she was 18. She has lectured in political theory, and was a contributing editor at Sibyl and 2nd Generation. Her third book, Venetian Masters, was published in February 2008. She currently writes features, columns and reviews for The Guardian, the Financial Times, Mslexia, The Observer, New Statesman and The List. She is also a BBC presenter. Read more of her insightful work on her personal blog.