A quick note on gender and scrutiny in art

In the last half hour of International Women’s Day, I thought I’d try to articulate something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. This is definitely part of a larger web of issues and there is so much to be said about gender and scrutiny but for the sake of my own wellbeing and some kind of focus for this blog I’m keen to keep this mainly on track - to do with photography, making art, being an artist. That’s my disclaimer for why this is brief (although let’s be honest this is my website I can write what I like) and I should also say this based on conversations I’ve had over a series of years with my particular peer group. 

One of the ways in which gender inhibits women is in a total disparity in levels of scrutiny, even before the work is on the wall. I over-think everything before I share it with the world, often to the point of abandoning a picture or a piece of writing altogether because I manage to imagine it seen from a certain perspective where the meat of it is contorted to mean something hateful, cruel or unfair. Sometimes so much energy simply goes into predicting ways in which I could be vilified for something that I run out of steam in pursuing that something altogether. Perhaps men also go through this, but choose to ignore it? Or are men just not cautious about visibility in the same way, as something which invites a level of personal, professional and ethical scrutiny, with the power to ruin their reputation or career? 

Speaking to other female artists, I don’t think I’m alone. If you were particularly resistant to the possibility that perhaps experiences for men and women are different you might argue that I’m just part of a particularly self-conscious cluster of female makers - but let’s be honest, isn’t it more likely that for women criticism is more commonplace, the repercussions more severe? If you think about the many ways in which women are policed in society - wear this, don’t wear that, don’t go out after dark, don’t drink too much, don’t show too much, be coy, be clever, be charming, be skinny, be curvy, stick up for yourself, don’t cause a fuss; is it difficult to imagine that this might translate, somewhere in the subconscious, into a similar sort of rigorous self-criticism, even before the thing is thrown out into the world? We tend to celebrate ‘art’ as the freedom of self expression, a blank canvas, a way of revealing ourselves - but for women, there seems to exist a cycle of wringing your creative impulses through an elaborate series of tests: potential receptions, imagined challenges, accusations of being false, accusations of generalisation, the never-ending curtain of condescension, an effort always to put yourself in others’ shoes first to imagine how one could disagree or disapprove. We prepare to justify every single coherent decision that has gone into the making and presentation of an idea because we’re very familiar with being criticised and because a lot is done to make women unsure of themselves. 

The need to justify yourself is a peculiar space to begin a piece of art. Sometimes though I think these processes can do great good. Doubt can cause you to push yourself, to reconsider, to be aware of problems, to be empathetic, to work harder than a lot of men do. But something I’m coming to realise is that is hard work isn’t necessarily the same as ‘good art’. This is a peculiar industry where visions of ‘creative genius’ and effortlessness are rewarded just as often as hard graft. The other thing is that all this self-regulation takes time, the initial spark of an idea often compromised for something less disruptive. Often I wonder how many seeds of insight have been quashed at any one of these various interventions. How many women have stepped back to reconfigure, to regulate their initial idea, and not stepped back forward? How many women have spent an afternoon meticulously justifying their reasoning to an imagined jury, and decided just not to comment the next time? It requires so much energy. It takes time to be rigorous and when that’s teamed with the rest of life’s compromises it can mean nothing left for making or sharing. The urge to assert your perfectly natural right to say something about anything battles with an acute sense of being an imposter. 

I’m yet to meet a man who encounters this same series of hoops, and it’s not for lack of trying. Even when men say they’re unsure about something or not 100% happy it’s usually when brandishing a completed body of work, a thing buoyed by enough self-believe and peer or familial support for it at least to exist. I’m aware also that as much as I tell my peers that there is worth in their perspective and that inviting someone else to share that is in itself a generous thing, I don’t often extend this support to myself.  Why is that? Why am I so enthusiastic to support the men I see making work and less ready to encourage my own desire to say something? Very often - and perhaps it’s just in art - men are excited to share their opinion, ready to be heard, they do things just because they want to, play devil’s advocate, platform real problems as artistic ‘provocations’ and see what they can get away with. Because they can. And it bothers me to admit that I’m jealous of blind self belief - because I so wish that I had that - and at the same time I don’t think that it’s clever at all.

If you’re interested in this topic, I talk about some of these ideas (kind of) with Erin Semple in this episode of Finding Focus.

Using Format