Over the last week or so, two articles from two very different sources caught my attention. The first is the by now famous Tumblr post from electronic musician Grimes – an open letter of sorts, penned with some anger and with some sadness at the end of her tour. The second is a press article from Irish stylish Annemarie O’Connor on The Irish Examiner. Both reflect on the relationship between feminism and femininity in the workplace, and read within a couple of days from each other, they percolated and allowed me to consider my own position with this rather tight space.
O’Connor throws down the gauntlet, proposing that ‘Fashion and feminism traditionally have little in common. Their dialogue is fractious, fraught with sexual stereotypes and, at best, politically incorrect. (…) The idea that one can be both an adherent of matters sartorial and gender equality is counterintuitive. Women can have it all, just not in a pretty Erdem dress. Or can they?’
She proceeds to provide some examples of iconic women (interestingly, all from the music world) who have successfully used fashion to ‘rock the status quo’, such as Grace Jones, Lady Gaga and Beth Ditto. I found it jarring that despite this idealized version of a music world, of ‘non-normative style ideals’, a promised land where women can be whoever they choose to be, the most recent, lonely voice we do hear emerging from the music world is in fact quite sorrowful and depicting a world far from ideal:
I don’t want to have to compromise my morals in order to make a living
i dont want to be molested at shows or on the street by people who perceive me as an object that exists for their personal satisfaction
i dont want to live in a world where im gonna have to start employing body guards because this kind of behavior is so commonplace and accepted and I’m pissed that when I express concern over my own safety it’s often ignored until people see firsthand what happens and then they apologize for not taking me seriously after the fact…
Grimes is a hugely successful musician with a considerable international career and she is 25. I work in a niche area of a relatively minor artistic discipline and I am in my thirties, so our experiences will naturally be different. But we both work within the broad realm of sound, travel abroad (often on our own) and interact with others (mostly male) colleagues on a regular basis due to the nature of what we do. I would be lying if I didn’t say that her post immediately grabbed my attention – and judging by its popularity it did so with many other women working in sound and music. Specifically, this section:
I’m tired of men who aren’t professional or even accomplished musicians continually offering to ‘help me out’ (without being asked), as if i did this by accident and i’m gonna flounder without them. or as if the fact that I’m a woman makes me incapable of using technology. I have never seen this kind of thing happen to any of my male peers
I am a sound artist and a field recordist. Despite some strong female pioneers in my field (see Laurie Anderson, Eliane Radigue, Delia Derbyshire, Pauline Oliveros and so on) and some equally strong contemporary female artists (Christina Kubish, Mira Calix, Annea Lockwood, People Like Us and more) the area has traditionally been considered – and still is – a largely male-dominated environment. This has something to do with both the scientific nature of the material we work with, as well as to the technical aspect of choosing and handling the equipment that is our bread and butter. And that is before we even bring into the picture the hours spent lugging kilos of said equipment up and down muddy fields (in Ireland anyway!) for the reward of sitting in stillness for hours, often in the cold. You get the picture: hardly most women’s idea of a good time. I am of course generalizing here- I am a woman, and I love it all. But I do find that despite having the same amount of experience and achievements under my belt as my male counterpart, if not more in some cases, I often find myself in the position that Grimes describes above: walk into any music or electronics store and let the uphill struggle commence for the right not to be patronized. Then watch the assistant’s expression change as you start reeling off the specs for whatever it is you are looking for, followed by a disconcerted: ‘what do you…do?’ I work with sound actually, like you. And yes, I also wear heels. Amazing.
I can also mention a specific incident that happened to me during an International concert (where I was only one of two female artists performing out of ten). I was looking for a USB cable and asked three of the male colleagues within range, one of whom replies with an ill-judged smile: ‘aw, should we get you a pink cable?…’. Thankfully the other two looked as appalled as I was, and we mostly spent the rest of the workshop actively avoiding this person. But just goes to show, it does happen- even when you wouldn’t expect it.
The connection some people seem to make between women artists and ‘pink’ (see above), or fashion, or superficiality, brings me to another point both Grimes and Annemarie raise. I am deliberately saying ‘people’ here, and not men firstly because – despite the instances above- in my experience with the gender these are a minority, but also because women can be just as guilty of making this connection, and can be far more aggressive in judging and criticising other women.
im tired of being considered vapid for liking pop music or caring about fashion as if these things inherently lack substance or as if the things i enjoy somehow make me a lesser person
Grimes invites us to consider image, clothing and style in the workplace. I don’t work in an office of course, but Annemarie O’Connor makes a useful reference to the iconic movie ‘Working Girl’, pointing back at a time back in the 80s when women felt the need to power-dress as men to be considered as capable. While things have considerably improved since then, I regularly see female artists across all disciplines annihilating their femininity for the sake of ‘being taken seriously’, I see others playfully and cleverly engaging with it, and others exploiting it, or depressingly trading it as a commodity. So where do I stand? (as I write this I can’t help but feeling a male artist doesn’t even have to bother himself with all this, and I am a little bit jealous.)
I have made this decision before of course, but it’s the first time I’ve actually stopped to consider it consciously. I think it happened when I had to go on stage for a live performance for the first time, and didn’t know what to wear. That same evening I went out, came across and bought a short red voile dress, which I wore with the highest heels I could find in my suitcase. I wasn’t trying to make any sort of stand or to be ‘sexy’- what I was doing was celebrating a very special event at a very special time in my life by being the best I could be, in every way. Since then I wore the dress again and again at other gigs and openings, almost as a ‘costume’, and looking back I can see how it took on a certain significance since that first night. Also, I am a woman and I am from the South of Italy – consciously or not, femininity and sexuality play a large role in how I experience the world. Every idea I have, every work I create, organically grows from this body and from its relationship with both the female and the male gaze. The dress (red, bold, fiery and inherently feminine) was bringing all these elements out in the open and tying them all together for me. It felt immediately comfortable, and true, and yes, a little revealing at first- not in terms of hemline, but in the feeling of wearing my heart on my sleeve. All in all, as an artist it felt like a good place to be. I do want to claim my sexuality and my femininity, because they are both an integral part of me- like my experiences, my memories or or my accent- and they affect the ideas that I develop and the works I create. Denying that or de-sexualising an image for the sake of conformity or ‘propriety’ (mostly a female-peddled term, that one) or to blend into a largely male background is tantamount to lying. Having said all that, I am just as proud not to ever have used either femininity of sexuality to get ahead- even when I could have, even in a society that seems to actively warrant it and promote it.
I’m sad that my desire to be treated as an equal and as a human being is interpreted as hatred of men, rather than a request to be included and respected (I have four brothers and many male best friends and a dad and i promise i do not hate men at all, nor do i believe that all men are sexist or that all men behave in the ways described above)
Couldn’t agree more, and I will reiterate that the vast majority of the colleagues I have met and worked with through sound have all, unfailingly been respectful and engaging, fun and inspiring in equal measure, and make up a large part of the reason why I love this field so much: they are the people who make it both pleasant and intellectually challenging. This post is not a critique of the male majority- but of a small (both male and female) minority.
There is a lot more to be said- in fact I jotted a lot of thoughts and experiences down on a pad, and I am only trying to make some sense of these now. I will no doubt come back to these in future posts. For now I’ll close with Grimes herself, to whom I am grateful for her bravery in speaking out her call to be true to ourselves.
I’m done with being passive about any kind of status quo that allows anyone to suffer or to be disrespected.