By Leigh Tabrett
Our cultural products — visual arts, books, theatre, music, dance and films are an extraordinary map of who we are. (ABC RN: Fiona Pepper)
When my kids were quite little, one holiday afternoon we happened to catch a movie on ABC television called Danny’s Egg. It was a delightful story about a young boy in small, dusty, western town in New South Wales, and it was about the trials of growing up, finding yourself, and fitting in with family, school and neighbourhood.
My girls responded to that film in a way that amazed me. Of course, Danny’s life challenges were very like theirs. But the real thing that galvanised their attention was that the film was utterly and completely Australian, and that they knew this place, these people, this school as if it were their own.
At a time cultural imports dominated their viewing, they had experienced the magic of having their own story come to life on the screen. It was clearly a profoundly validating experience.
This is how cultural icons are made — they give expression to something in our own lives, something we know about ourselves — why else do we love The Castle and Muriel’s Wedding?
We’re reflected in our art
Our cultural products — visual arts, books, theatre, music, dance and films — are an extraordinary map of who we are, what we think is significant, what we value and admire, our heroes and villains and the length and breadth of our ideas and imagination. It’s a remarkable record when you think of it like that.
But it’s also remarkable for what is missing. The terrain that is uncharted also tells us a great deal about ourselves.
We will never know the whole map, because the architects of our historical record and the people who created our sense of what history is, were men of the colonising culture.
The consequences for the record, the privileging of conquest and taming of country, the one-dimensional depiction of women and the obliteration of Indigenous history, culture and stories, are just some of the consequences.
And the fact is, that even today, decisions in our country about whose stories are told, what is worthy of recognition and preservation, what has creative merit, have been and continue to be made predominantly by men — in fact, white, tertiary educated, English-as-a-first-language men.
Gender stereotypes deeply embedded in our culture
In the past few years, there has been a rush of reporting from peak bodies and researchers on how women are represented across the arts — visual arts, publishing, theatre-making, dance, film and television management and production, and the dominant place of men in the decision-making about what gets encouraged, financed, made, promoted, shown to the public and honoured with awards and prizes, and the consequences.
In case you’ve missed it, here are some random facts:
How does this happen? It’s nothing simple: our culture, like all others on the globe, has deeply embedded gender stereotypes and expectations which are transmitted and reinforced from one generation to the next.
Our concept of leadership is gendered, as are our ideas about what characteristics are noble in leading characters, who has agency in our society, appropriate subjects and colours for painting, and so on.
Of course they are evolving over time, and as cultures mix and women make inroads into what were formerly exclusively male domains.
So people in power select people to work with and mentor who share background and experiences with them, who have a familiar communications style, and who are perceived to be “easy to work with”, and they choose projects and define excellence to fit a familiar mould: that is not unique to the arts.
Cultural leadership not about replicating the past
But cultural leadership is not just replicating the past — it is about trying to imagine and create something new.
And it’s the scale of what we are missing as a consequence that is so breathtaking.
Yes, it’s the talent, experience, sensibilities and the insights of half the population. It’s also the creation of characters and narratives that fail to resonate with half the audience.
And above all, it’s the chance to turn that map of our identity into something where we can all see something of ourselves, to capture more of the texture and variety of who we are as a people, and how that is changing and being enhanced constantly.