Last week I stumbled upon this article from The Guardian where 2013 Man Booker-prize winner Eleanor Catton speaks briefly about the unfair treatment of female writers.
Note: it’s quick read for those interested in Catton, literature and women writers, but you can probably skip it. I’m going to quote the relevant part. Catton says:
“I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel. In my experience, and that of a lot of other women writers, all of the questions coming at them from interviewers tend to be about how lucky they are to be where they are – about luck and identity and how the idea struck them. The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime.”
Reading this reminded me of a recent(ish) quote from Mindy Kaling about how interviewers are always eager to present her as a token marginalized person who has anomalously experienced success:
“But while I’m talking about why I’m so different, white male show runners get to talk about their art.”
I agree with Catton and Kaling that female artists’ success and bodies of work are frequently showcased in such limited and surface manners, often highlighting luck, coincidence, or the inexplicable ‘magic’ of talent or natural ability. It so often seems like a fairy tale, where fate happened to them and somehow it all worked out happily ever after, but probably not primarily through their own agency. A story highlighting that these women work really hard, manage/lead incredible projects, and are serious thinkers, as Catton puts it, putting the work, thought, intelligence and skill into their art (just like men) never seems to make it into the forefront of these stories and articles.
When I was reading the profile of Alexa Chung in the October issue of Nylon, I was again struck by this idea. Nylon seems progressive enough that between the lines of the article, they at least subtly showcase that this is a woman frustrated by her success and career being reduced to something magic like “It” or natural talent or beauty,which discounts her effort, struggles, skills, and intelligence. However, even in this article, the standard quotes they used from Chung’s colleagues, friends and mentors were still bland comments about her beauty, geniality, crazy talent, and ability to wear clothes well. (Karl Lagerfeld eventually calls her a hard worker.)
SO MANY magazine stories like this constantly compliment their subjects in this backhanded way— nicely pointing out their excellence in female gender performance and docility: beauty, good-naturedness, and it-don’t-know-where-it-all-comes-from talent that suggest naivety, lack of intelligence/skill, and most importantly is non-threatening. They so rarely take the person’s work seriously.
I think this puts women as a whole at a great disadvantage because it is intimidating that even these women (some of the most successful, famous, rich, talented, and powerful women in the world) can’t really seem to stand up for themselves, or even their work. It also encourages women to keep treating their success in this undermining, apologetic manner while focusing them on oppressive and sexist standards (beauty, niceness, conceding behavior, conformism, being non-threatening-to-men).
But most importantly, it denies us access to the brilliance of craftmanship, management, precision, and skill behind their art. So many times I have read a magazine piece or article about a woman whose work I admire and want to learn more about, but have been completely disappointed to find it only tells me that she seems nice and polite, ordered a spinach salad, and likes Revlon (who pays her to say this because she is a brand ambassador, so I already knew that). I think the women who write for these mainstream publications (and these female artists themselves) need to step it up and give us something deeper and meatier! I can’t imagine journalists treating Wes Anderson or Kanye West or Tom Woolf in this manner.
Perhaps these women I’ve mentioned above are indicating a trend in women getting more comfortable with standing up for themselves a bit more.
And perhaps I should just find better publications to read!