The tipping point: a case for quotas in the arts

The tipping point comes from a fairly innocuous Instagram post. It’s a group of musicians in a recording studio. A candid, behind-the-scenes shot. They are having fun and smiling. They are all men.

I know some of them. From what I know, they are good men – men who respect the artistic talents of women, who often work with women artists. Some of them may even call themselves feminists. But I’ve also just seen the nominees for the 2016 Helpmann Awards (the peak accolade for members of the Australian performing arts industry), and, as a Facebook friend points out, thirty-eight out of the forty-nine nominations for non-gender-specific awards have gone to men. In the theatre and industry categories, just one female director has been nominated, and there are no women at all in the score, sound design and lighting design sections.

All of the men nominated are no doubt excellent at their craft. For all I know, they too are men who respect the artistic talents of women, often work with women artists and may call themselves feminists. The Instagram photo, however, is yet another sinking, dispiriting reminder of how entrenched the culture of maleness is at so many different levels of artistic endeavour – in particular, within the most elite, well-funded and high-profile arenas of the performing arts in Australia.

Less than twelve months ago, sobering figures illustrated the dogged, consistent lack of parity within the theatre and film industries. In an article for AussieTheatre.Com, author Maryann Wright compiled figures from the proposed 2016 seasons of major performing arts companies. Of the nine companies listed, one had fifty per cent representation of female writers, while the rest only managed between fourteen per cent and forty-six per cent. Sydney’s Griffin Theatre had a standout figure of eighty per cent female directors, but the rest sat between zero per cent and sixty-two per cent. These figures did not take into account other key creative roles such as set design, lighting design or sound design – if the 2016 Helpmann nominations are anything to go by, representation in these areas is even worse.

The men getting these opportunities, jobs and nominations are not bad men. They are talented, and have, I assume, worked hard to get to where they are. It’s not these men who are at fault. It’s the system.

A system that supports men to get these opportunities and high-profile accolades, almost to the complete exclusion of women, is broken. Until there is structural adjustment in who gets what jobs, why and how, this picture will not change.

So, what does the tipping point mean for me? It means quotas. Point blank. And I say this because I, too, am an artist who is talented and has worked hard. On the occasions when I get a well-paid, high-profile opportunity or accolade, I know I deserve it. I don’t want to give it up or pass it on to someone else. Being an artist is tough at the best of times: opportunities are rare, awards scarce, and even basic, regular income is something most artists never experience. It is a very rare human indeed who would willingly refuse an opportunity, step down from a role or opt out of an accolade and say, no, please – give that to someone else who hasn’t yet had the same opportunities as me.

Author and poet Maxine Beneba Clarke recently announced on social media that she will only participate on certain panels if, where possible, a place on that same panel is also offered to a lesser-profile artist who is a woman of colour. This kind of activism is rare in the arts and is to be admired. Not all artists, however, have the will or are in a position to take such a stance. Certainly, not all artistic engagements allow for this level of negotiation: if you’re a male lighting designer with a family to support, you will be unlikely to knock back a job offer from a major theatre company. But if a percentage of jobs within that theatre company are offered only to women, or women of colour, or artists with a disability, then the male artist is not in a position where he has to choose.

It is not incumbent on the individual to shift the culture within an organisation. It is up to organisations to lead and make sure that change – on a significant, long-term, structural basis – takes place.


The complexities of growing up as a girl in a male visual world

The precursor to this tipping point was a visit to ACMI to see the Martin Scorsese exhibition. On display was a remarkable array of art and artefacts from the life and work of a truly gifted artist. I would hazard a guess and say that Marty is also a man who respects the artistic talents of women – after all, one of his longest-standing and perhaps closest collaborators is his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

That Marty mostly makes films about men, male violence and male relationships is not particularly surprising, nor is it essentially ‘bad’. But it got me thinking about the last few exhibitions of this kind I’d seen at ACMI: David Bowie; Tim Burton; those one-of-the-most-influential-artists-of-their-generation retrospectives. And that in turn got me wondering about the impact of visual culture, a world that – from movies to television, music videos to advertising – has been overwhelmingly created, run and dominated by men since the era of mass communications and popular culture began.

Like all women, I’ve grown up as a girl in a male visual world. Without even being conscious of it, I have internalised all kinds of male visual and aesthetic values. These range from how I look, to how other women look; from what looks good on a screen, to what makes a good TV show; from what works as story structure within a performative medium, to what constitutes greatness in the art of cinematic storytelling.

For the most part, this didn’t particularly bother me when I was growing up. I was a reader, and thus avidly devoured books by women about girl characters like Anne of Green Gables, Pippi Longstocking, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew and the protagonists of Sweet Valley High and its spin-offs. I watched TV shows with female protagonists like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. (The awareness that these programs were made by men and had a strong element of male fantasy did not occur to me until much later in life. I found it somewhat disturbing then. Having said that, I would agree with an observation made at a Doctor Who reading I was once part of, when I expressed some reservations about these childhood tastes: many girls who were into Jeannie and Samantha as kids, it was pointed out, have turned out to be kick-arse feminists as adults.)

Entering adulthood, things began to shift. As my awareness of the male-dominated visual and pop cultural world I lived in became stronger, I became increasingly uncomfortable and pissed off. I remember watching Easy Rider with a boyfriend when I was in my early thirties. He liked the film, and it certainly has a reputation as a great piece of cinematic art; but, as I watched it, I couldn’t believe the horrific misogyny that is so accepted by the men and women in the film. I pointed it out to my boyfriend who, like the good man he is, saw the film in a new light and agreed with me that it was disturbing. But it had to be pointed out.

This is not to criticise him or men in general. It’s just to point out that when your world view – white and male – is dominant, you get to consume pop culture from the inside. You can focus on the cinematography and the script and the action sequences because you’re not constantly thinking, where am I in this story? Where is my experience being represented? Why does this make me so uncomfortable? Why is there only ever one woman in an ensemble action movie? Why is the woman nearly always the girlfriend? Why, even in two of my very favourite TV shows ever – Northern Exposure and Six Feet Under – is the lead character male, while all those fabulous women characters only exist in relation to him?


It will be good … once you find the dramatic action

Once I began to seek out a professional career, another confusing factor emerged. As a writer, I had many, many female authors I could look to as role models. But my early leanings were towards theatre. Where were the great female playwrights I could learn from? I loved Beckett and Pinter, Sam Shepard and Tennessee Williams, Chekhov and Shakespeare. I learned so much about craft and art and story and character from these great writers. (The balance has, in recent years, slightly shifted: a conversation about great playwrights is now likely to include women like Caryl Churchill and María Irene Fornés. But these names have come very late to the canonical table.)

When my writing started to feel different – like it didn’t naturally follow a linear narrative or, as I was told on more than one occasion, it lacked dramatic action – I felt like I was being told off in a foreign language. I knew I had done something wrong. But I couldn’t quite figure out what it was or how to fix it – let alone, god forbid, that I might not want to fix it. Even though theatre has a much longer history than mass visual/pop culture, I was still operating within a system of aesthetic value created, run and dominated by men.

I would bet that nearly every female artist who misses out on an opportunity, well-paid gig or accolade has asked herself, is it that my work is not good enough? Or is it that my work is not male enough? It’s not that I have tickets on myself, or my talents (I probably should have more). I believe in working hard to improve my craft and learning from others. But what if the people who can support me in discovering a new way of telling stories, or making pictures, or developing narrative structures, cannot be found because they cannot make their way into positions of influence?


The great and mendacious myth of merit

The most tried and true (and truly tired) argument that gets trotted out in opposition to the question of quotas is that of ‘merit’. What, exactly, is ‘merit’? What does it look like? How do we know it when we see it? As you can see by my trail of artistic consumption and development above, I – like most artists – have only ever really been exposed to one kind of merit; one kind of artistic worthiness. It’s dominant. It’s pervasive. It’s well known, well taught and well understood. But do any of these qualities make it inherently or exclusively valuable?

No. There are multiple modes of making stories, telling stories, sharing stories and making art. The fact that the white, male model is the primary one we all know means that it is automatically associated with merit. But what about all the young women who want to see images of other young women that are not projected through a male lens? What of audiences of colour who yearn to experience the same kinds of complexity and nuance in their art as they must live every day, in a culture that constantly pushes their experiences away to the fringes? What about people who are seeking a bit of doubt, a bit of uncertainty, a new way of lighting a show or developing a script or directing actors that is not tried and true; that does not yet have ‘merit’ because it is ‘other’; that is, simply, outside the dominant paradigm? If ‘merit’ is what we rely on to change the picture of who gets the opportunities, the well-paid gigs and the accolades, then nothing will never change.

This is a personal tipping point, and a specific point of view. But it comes from more than twenty years of lived experience as a female artist in a male-dominated industry. I am also aware of my own position of privilege, in that I am allowed spaces to articulate my concerns, and that my life circumstances have already afforded me many opportunities as an artist. I put all of these things together. I balance my own development as a writer – the fierce obsessions and small joys and great frustrations and deep insecurities and desire to get better – with what I observe about how different kinds of artists are supported through their development.

I think again of that innocuous Instagram image, and how so many male artists I know personally, professionally and culturally were, like Scorsese, nurtured from an early age, introduced to influential networks, encouraged and allowed the space to develop their art or their craft – and how, for the most part, what they were doing fitted male aesthetic paradigms. And I think about how many women I know, and artists from other cultures, and Indigenous artists, and artists with disabilities, who at best have worked from a place of doubt and uncertainty and at worst have been shut out, refused access and told they simply do not belong.

This is why quotas are necessary: because new spaces need to be created where all artists, within all spheres of culture, do not have to force their way in or mould themselves to fit a pre-existing, most likely irrelevant artistic paradigm.

Make more space. Let artists in. Then see how rich, varied, dynamic and layered all of our artistic practices, aesthetics, storytelling and cultural sharing can become.


Image: On the film “The Battle of Stalingrad”: the operator of combined shooting GD Eisenberg with the artist Semenov’/Wikimedia Commons

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Emilie Collyer writes plays, poetry and prose. Her newest play Contest – a sweaty play about the petty and the profound set on a suburban netball court – has its world premiere as part of Darebin Arts’ Speakeasy from 25 July–4 August at Northcote Town Hall: www.darebinarts.com.au/contest  The project has been assisted by the Australian government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body, and the Besen Family Foundation.

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  1. Well said, Emily!
    I am constantly frustrated that the mirror held up to the world by the dominant male culture dismisses and distorts my experience as a woman.

    The film Anomalisa is a case in point.


    Seeing films like this feted and awarded makes me doubt the validity of the stories that I want to tell.

    As an old emerging artist, I also feel locked out, as writing awards and opportunities seem to directly and indirectly favour young emerging artists.

    Bring on the quotas!

  2. A very powerful, articulate & persuasive challenge to male hegemony in the Australian theatre world. Let’s hope those who can make changes happen are listening…

  3. Thanks for the comment Jane. I feel like it is important to challenge those ‘invisible’ standards as often as we can. As you do in your effective dismantling of Anomalisa. Questioning the status quo is always a good thing.

  4. Couldn’t agree more, Emilie. The sad thing is we’ve been hearing this for generations. It’s beyond time for quotas. At this point I’d argue that if you are not using quotas you’ve lost any credibility to be taken seriously on this issue.

    And if you’re still looking for a role model you can’t go past the most popular playwright of the last 400 years & one of the most prolific. Her works were in production from the time of her death in 1689 until the late 1800s. Also a leading poet of her time, targetted by Pope, Dryden et al she stood up for herself in her writing. Arguably she wrote the first novel in English – anti-slavery and one of the first people to make a living by writing.

    Aphra Behn has been championed (& directed by) Gale Edwards & others. Her works are strikingly modern, dealing with gender, sex, race & class. But your point is again underscored by the fact that she is mostly ignored in the 21st Century.

    All power to your pen!!

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