self portrait, acrylic on paper, 2007, www.carolineallen.com
I have a good friend named Lisa. She doesn’t watch movies much; she’s often seeing blockbusters three years after they come out and commenting on them in conversation as if they were just released. It’s very funny. I’d like to create a fiction character who does this. It’s very endearing. It’s something I love about her, this disconnect from popular culture.
She saw Million Dollar Baby recently and sent me an outraged email. Have you seen this awful film? she asked. I hated it too, and wrote back: Yes. Dey done took my leg, baws — I quoted that line to my friends who loved the film until they were nearly out of their mind with annoyance. I hated Million Dollar Baby because I thought it was poorly written; I thought it was one long cliche. But Lisa had a different gripe.
You get these films about men boxers, she wrote, and they overcome all these friggin’ obstacles to win big, fist up in the air, everyone chanting hooray hoorah and a woman makes it and what happens to her?
I wrote back: She loses her leg!
No, Lisa responded. She loses her whole friggin’ body!
Right now I have a lot of outraged women friends. Outraged women seem to be buzzing around me like bees. I’m an outraged woman, so go figure. I’m glad they’re outraged. If you’re a woman and you’re not outraged, at least every once in a while, you’re frankly not paying attention.
All week, I’ve been thinking about how writing is a feminist issue. I’ve been thinking that a woman who expresses her voice, a woman who writes honest prose, a woman who uses her voice to sing the poetry of her soul, that this is revolutionary and that this is a feminist issue.
After Lisa’s email, I kept thinking of my last boyfriend. I remember after we broke up, I won the same writing award he did in a regional journalism contest. I was at a BBQ telling a friend about the award, about seeing my name right next to his on the poster. I said to her: I couldn’t have won it if I had stayed with him. It was like he was always cutting me off at the knees.
Then last night, I dreamt about an old friend who’s having trouble with her boyfriend and even more trouble with her art; I dreamt she was wearing a frock and I commented on how pretty it was and she said, Yes, but, and pointed down. She was cut off at the knees.
So, what is this all about? I’m certainly not suggesting all men do this. It’s not individual men or women who are the problem, anyway. It’s a system that perpetuates the notion that the woman sits quietly and supports the man’s endeavors. It’s a system that doesn’t support the more feminine nurturing side of men. We both lose in this kind of environment.
Let’s say a woman does decide to follow her artistic path. She doesn’t allow anyone to stand in her way. She writes. She does her visual art. She sings. She becomes a fashionista. Do these women artists get the same support that men have enjoyed for years?
If you don’t know the answer to this, look at any major international museum/gallery’s ledger of artists. I did this as a journalist at the Tate in London. They handed me this thick black ledger, listing all the artists on the walls, as well as those in storage. Out of the 300 or so artists, less than a dozen were women. Since that time, the Tate Modern has opened in London, and it does show more women, but still the imbalance is mind boggling, the imbalance makes it hard for me to breathe.
I can hear a couple of people I know quickly pulling two names out of a hat of women who had supportive spouses. Yes and yes, of course, there are some women who have been deeply supported (and with that support became wildly successful artists and writers, that’s the glory of support), but I always feel these knee jerk responses come from fear. Fear of the truth.
So, what’s a gal to do?
Don’t fear the truth about women and art/writing. Be honest about what’s going on around you, not just for yourself, but for all women. We as women can be so unsupportive of other women artists. We’re jealous (and damn right, we’ve not been given one tiny bit of support, why should we support HER). What I’m trying to say is I get it. I get the jealousy. It’s deep and primal and true. It’s the crazy desire of that crazy ranting woman beside us to manifest the glory of her soul. And when she sees you doing it, the rage of her unfulfilled desires spits forth. My god, that anger is an honest honest thing.
But we need to be honest with ourselves about this jealousy, so we can stop subtly and not so subtly helping to hold that saw as it goes for the legs of our sisters. And if we’re artists/writers, and we’re not doing our art, we need to DO OUR ART. It’s the only antidote for jealousy.
Also, the male/female paradigm, like any entrenched belief system, will take a long time to shift. All we can do is be our best selves. Keep our eyes on due north, the expression of the soul. Keep exploring our artistic voice. Keep writing. Work hard. Be honest in our work; for god sake be honest. Be a woman. Be real. Tell the truth. Publish. Show. Show off. Send a ranting email to a friend. Don’t keep quiet.
Speak up! Stand tall! Stand. Up.