I'M DOING THIS FOR ATTENTION: Making art in the new gender landscape

“How and why do the conventional definitions of “power” (or for that matter ‘knowledge’, ‘expertise’ and ‘authority’) that we carry around in our heads exclude women? If women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?”
— Mary Beard, Women and Power

Last year we witnessed an unprecedented shift in the relationship between genders. As the waves of the MeToo movement started to break one question kept cresting: “What should men be doing differently now?”

Understandably one response from self-identified women was, ‘go figure it out for yourself!’. A few years ago my response would have been similar. I was tired of pulling people up on their casual sexism, of having to speak ‘for all women’ and continually fighting for equal representation in the theatre world where I’d worked for a decade. But instead, this question coincided with three new things in my life: a panel discussion, a personal reckoning about what I wanted in my life/relationships/artistic career and a piece of Buddhist wisdom. Yes: I was 29 turning 30.

So instead of dismissing this question about what men should be doing differently, I held onto it. Something in me knew the answer would act as the key to a much larger idea. Not only was this an opportunity to define what I wanted as a woman in society, but also as an artist because the two suddenly felt inextricably linked.

Let me unpack the three personal catalysts that crashed in with the seismic MeToo movement and led me to my answer.

THE FIRST CATALYST

Earlier this year I was invited to sit on a panel with a line-up of my (highly-successful) peers. The topic up for discussion was the term ‘female director’. The audience was chock full of eager young women looking to begin their career in theatre. Though we panelists were all very different practitioners, and at varying stages of our careers, we all alighted on the same sticking point: what we really hated about being seen as ‘female’ directors was that no matter the years we’d been working, the amount of times we’d proven ourselves or the quality of our art, it seemed we were still not regarded as serious artists. What do I mean by ‘serious artists’? For me, a serious artist is someone who has embarked on a long-term creative journey that society deems important enough to pay attention to for more than five minutes. A serious artist would pass through ‘blue periods’, they’d waste a few years in a seemingly bizarre experimental phase, they’d create masterpieces––and duds!––but no matter what, the mirror they held up to society, via their art, would be seen as vital and necessary for the common good. Ultimately a serious artist is someone who has something to say about what it means to be alive, and we, as a critical society, are prepared to listen. Many of my male peers are regarded in this way.

Yet, countless times I have seen women artists (actors, writers, directors) live or die based on their latest show, rather than the five other shows they’d created previously. Too often, a successful show made by a woman is regarded bemusedly by critics as an unexpected surprise, while male counterparts are given space to create mediocre or downright under-baked work, work which is then construed compassionately as a necessary stepping stone towards ‘finding their voice’. And more often than not, these male artists are given another go. And another go, and another go. To use John Berger’s famous quote in another way; it seems that male artists are allowed to act (with a continuous, ever-growing arch of creativity) and women artists only appear (as sparks that, while thrilling, ultimately returns to nothing). And then there’s the fact that female actors are still frequently lauded for their appearances in reviews far ahead of their talents. By this metric it would seem women actors ‘appear’ in shows, they don’t ‘act’ in them. If it sounds like I am being reductive and extreme in my observations, it is because the patterns of experience that I’ve heard from women, again and again, in my industry leave little space for nuance.

THE SECOND CATALYST

I will return to the artistic side of all this but the next catalyst was a personal reckoning. During the MeToo quakes I looked around at my close male relationships (lovers, peers, friends) and realised that a lot of the interactions I had with them followed a similar pattern: me asking them about their lives, interests, ideas and then starting to share excitedly about things that were inside me: new philosophies, influences, explorations. At which point a silence would enter. A calm but heavy opening of space I’d become so used to. In my head, after a few seconds of awful quiet, I’d hear myself, half teasing, half impatient: ‘Why aren’t you asking me questions? Are you not interested in what I have to say? I often ask you about your past, about how you feel, about how one idea links to another in your head … why do you so seldom do that for me?’ I cringe even now feeling the desperation in asking for interest: no one wants to be seen as nagging or attention-seeking. If I ever intimated what I felt out loud, what I got back was always the same: a slightly amused, slightly irritated and slightly condescending look followed by a shrug and usually ‘I don’t know, what do you want me to ask?’ Usually I'd brush it away and dismiss my desire for curiosity as needy or coming from a lack of confidence. But this year I was 29 turning 30 and I’d stopped excusing myself.

When did asking for attention become a selfish, weak or unsexy thing to do? ‘Can I have your attention please?’ is the hallmark phrase introducing authoritative announcements, safety instructions, great speeches. Why then, when women ask for attention is it seen as akin to a dirty desire––something she shouldn’t want or need, revealing a terrible and patchy self-esteem that needs to be remedied by a male counterpart? Is it not, in fact, a fundamental human need to have real intimacy, equality and connection in the form of listening? Attention for human beings is like light for plants. We need it so that we can see ourselves reflected in the eyes and minds of others and to exchange lessons, ideas, body heat, energy, breath. Children are dismissed when they are seen as ‘just doing [x] for attention’ as if that is an insignificant, annoying thing to want. We know that in quantum physics the simple application of our attention can affect the molecular levels of the physical world. Why then would we treat attention as anything less than a magical, transformative act when it happens between two (or more) people?

THE THIRD CATALYST

Catalyst number three, a quote, was embedded in a Buddhist talk about what it means to truly listen to another human being: “To listen is to lean in softly with a willingness to be changed by what we hear”.

I realised, as these three catalysts combusted, just how much I’d come to hate, fear and mistrust this kind of silence from men because it holds something more insidious than simply a different idea about communication: it means they aren’t really listening and aren’t really paying attention. When we don’t listen to someone, we render them invisible. When we don’t pay attention, we willingly block ourselves from other people. We make ourselves separate, individual, special, right. We have a unique value, we are going places fast, we don’t have time for the intimacy of listening because we can’t predict what the messiness of another person’s feelings and experiences will do to our sense of self. If what the Buddhists believe is correct––that true listening can indeed change us––it’s hardly surprising that some fear it. Why? Because change is risky, and risk is what institutionalized power fears the most. We could apply this to race, to class, to ability, to sexuality. The dominant power does not relate equally to those stamped by society as ‘different’. Instead it sees itself occupying a ‘neutral’ position, as a core that powers the world. Difference is thus seen as outlier, exotic, foreign, and potentially as a threat to this seemingly comfortable nucleus. 

In the case of gender, why do we see so many shallow, side-kick female roles in mainstream stories? Or, if women do occupy lead roles, why do they ultimately have to have something broken or ‘wrong’ with them? This is because we’ve been taught that we can’t learn anything fundamental through the life experience of a woman-human (or for that matter a queer human, or a human of colour or a differently abled human). A woman cannot be the neutral ‘every person’ that we learn truths and tropes and themes and archetypes from. Instead she exists on the periphery; a broken half-person forever struggling to become whole, to get back to ‘neutral’ (male). ‘Bildungsroman’ is the term used for a generic coming of age story, a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood in which character change is important. As women we grow up understanding what it means to be a person through the psychological and moral journey of men, who have always acted, and been regarded as, the ‘every-human’.

If ‘knowledge is power’, then it follows that to admit to learning something new would be to concede power. It would mean admitting that there is no neutral position to begin with. It would mean accepting that power and knowledge aren’t inherent but are learnt and forged. And, dangerously, anyone (regardless of your race, class, gender) can learn and forge. To pay attention to others is to position ourselves as equal to every other human being, and it is a willingness for that person’s ideas to fundamentally change who we are.

This is the action I want from an art industry dominated by years of patriarchal ways of thinking and operating. I want to be properly paid attention to, not as a ‘woman’ but as a human being, an artist with something important to say about what it means to be a person in the world today. And I want the men I love in my life to regularly take ideas of mine seriously, to try them out, to test them in their lives, and report back on what they find. This would feel like equal exchange, which for me, equals real change.

The MeToo movement, and what can follow the vital, revolutionary moment it has created, is not about outing one or two bad apples and then getting back to what we’ve always known. Instead, as Ella Hickson perfectly articulates it, in her searing new play The Writer, “I want the shape of the world to change”. If we start paying attention, humans-who-happen-to-be-women, might have some interesting ideas about how we can get there.

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