Deputy Culture Editor - Art
I have a game I play with my friend when we are looking at line-ups for an art event. It’s called “Spot The Female Artist” and it’s usually a very difficult game. While it is true that the number of writers, comics and performers who are men at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival outnumber the number of ladies, this is not to say the Festival is in short supply of female lead acts. I had a chat with a few of the women who have upcoming shows. Whether it’s theatre, poetry or comedy that you’re into, there is plenty of stuff here that will have you laughing, crying and certainly thinking.
Imogen is a writer, musician and spoken word artist. Her act #Hypocrisy fuses a modern take on poetry with original supporting scores and explores Imogen’s own experiences of white privilege while travelling. It has been long-listed for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award. Dates: Aug 8-12.
Jasmine is an actor. Her play WIRED is an intense personal journey of a young female soldier called Joanna with PTSD. The play is a rollercoaster of emotions, which taps into the traumas taking place in Joanna’s head and her battle to survive. Dates: Aug 10-12, 14-19, 21-25.
Cat Hepburn is a writer and poet who will be performing a specially commissioned spoken word piece for the show "Yer Tea’s Oot". The cabaret evening tells the story of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The show will be playing at the New Town Theatre on Aug 15.
Maddie is the writer and director of "AH DINNAE KEN" which follows the battle of two neighbouring families on opposing sides of a future second Scottish independence referendum. It is unashamedly impartial taking neither the “Yes” or “No” side of the debate. Dates: Aug 8-11, 13-18.
It’s clear from speaking to these women that there are many challenges that come with pursuing a career in the performance arts. Yet, positivity and determination animates their responses to the questions I pose to them. It should come as no surprise that each and every one has experienced sexism and other predictable hurdles over the years. Still, it is apparent that their passion and commitment to their work is little affected by this. In fact, as Cat remarks, it sometimes fuels it:
“I’ve been heckled and abused online, but that is unfortunately a given when you are challenging the status quo or shining a light on problematic issues. In a way, it’s satisfying to know when I’ve hit a nerve.”
The acts and performances of all these women differ greatly but the one thing they share seems to be a desire to evoke emotion in their audiences. With their respective shows tackling contentious and emotive topics, varying from the Scottish Referendum (Ah Dinnae Ken!) to white privilege (#Hypocrisy), and post-traumatic stress disorder (WIRED) to nuclear disarmament (Yer Tea’s Oot), audiences are bound to leave feeling provoked.
Another show that is sure to rile people up this year is Eleanor Morton’s examination of the expectations that come with being a female performer. I discussed the disparity of experience between male and female performers with Imogen, Jasmine, Cat and Maddie. Why do we see less of women in the arts than men? The issue is certainly not a lack of talented and ambitious women. For Maddie, it is attitudes that should today be considered outdated and old-fashioned that are holding women back:
“There seems to be a prejudice whereby men are naturally funny and women are naturally bossy, moany and irritating.”
It is prejudice like this that mask the real cause of the lack of women artists in the public consciousness. The reason that there appears to be less female comics, writers and actors is not because women aren’t funny, smart and talented. Rather, it is a product of misogynist society that systematically supports men and disadvantages women. Put simply, an establishment that is run by men, for men, results in less opportunities and exposure for women.
Is there a solution to this under-representation? Imogen raised the subject of women-specific events, one of the current go-to remedies for this problem. The issue with this, however, is that while they give female artists a much needed platform, they fail to tackle the root of the problem. Imogen wants to prove her merit by competing alongside guys, not in a different league from them:
“My friend and fellow poet, Sarah Grant, wrote a killer article recently discussing the gender injustices she witnessed within the short film industry. Her male colleague sympathetically commented that the answer is to create a short film festival specifically for women, to which Sarah smartly replied: '...I feel he, and potentially others, missed the fundamental point of my argument. I don’t want to have to create a whole new table, I deserve a seat at this one.'”
Separate playing fields for the genders sneakily implies that one group is better than the other. This simply isn’t true. There is, Maddie reminds us, no merit-based reason for us women to be separated from the guys:
“I have grown up with a twin brother. We would relentlessly battle for attention at the dinner table and after years of Sunday roasts I can assure you that I’ve always had the best jokes and the best stories (sorry Josh). There is no part of me that fears the competition in comedy and there never has been.”
Having women-only festivals as the only response to inequality risks perpetuating the misogyny behind the problem rather than solving it. So, what is the answer to improving the success of women then? Well first off, ignore the haters. This was the advice given to Cat by Scottish writer and hip-hop artist Loki (“don’t listen to any of those wee boys” were his exact words):
“At the time, I was at the receiving end of some sexist abuse online for a poetry video that I had released about challenging sexism (ha!) … I always think of it whenever I see keyboard gangsters attacking women.”
Aside from refusing to grant the unworthy and insecure her attention, supporting fellow female artists, for Cat, is another obvious way to improve the situation:
“My good friend Zara Kitson told me that a woman she worked with passed on this advice to her: ‘on your way up, wherever possible, take another woman with you.’ I love this, and do try to live by it.”
Actively and directly supporting fellow female artists is a good start then. Go to female-led shows. Book them at your own. Take your friends. Discuss these shows with people. This is not enough though. A sad feature of misogyny is that it permeates everything, and everyone. As Cat points out, one of the more uncomfortable sources of the sexist culture that we live in is that women, too, can perpetuate it:
“I would argue that misogyny and inverted misogyny is at the root of a lot of negative expectations for women, artists or not.”
Us women need to practice what we preach. It is vital that we ourselves constantly reflect on our attitudes and behaviors toward each other. Why did I put her down? Why did I laugh at that sexist joke? Why am I jealous of her? These questions - and their answers - are uncomfortable, but it is crucial we ask them.
Of course, it’s not only the issue of gender that challenges women pursuing a career in the arts. Understanding and responding to the difficulties faced by women requires us to acknowledge the way gender identity intersects with and is constituted by other social factors such as class, race, sexual orientation etc. Black women, poor women and LGBT+ women will all experience misogyny, but in unique and particular ways. Jasmine spoke about her experience of being from a working-class background navigating a career in the acting world:
“I came from a single parent background where we faced many struggles growing up… The industry is very elite, it's become the norm that the price of auditions and the early stages of access to the industry have become impossible for our young working class actors to be part of… It can be hard if you have no social capital in the industry - we are still very much you need to know someone. But the more we speak out about it, the more changes can happen. I am also a big advocate for community theatre, especially with the younger generation. About breaking down the barriers to these fancy establishments.”
Amongst the injustices and craziness of the industry, the ability to continually focus on the improvement of your craft is vital. As Imogen explains, attention to quality of the work is what is key in all of this:
“My mother has always told me just to trust in the merit of my own work and let everything else figure itself out around this, and that is advice I follow daily.”
All these women spoke of the importance to continually hone your skills. When it comes to playwriting, Maddie points to the Bechdel Test: “To pass the test a story must include at least one moment whereby two female characters are on stage together, talking about something other than a man… I am now on a pursuit to write strong female characters for strong female actors… I refuse to let my actor’s parents sit in the audience to watch their daughters play degrading female characters." Actress Jasmine emphasised the necessity of putting yourself out there: “Know your talent and believe in your ability to share it with the world.”
There is evidence that the landscape is becoming more welcoming and encouraging of women in the arts. It is, however, happening at a frustratingly slow pace. This isn’t going to stop those interviewed here, though. Female writers, poets, comics and directors will continue to refuse to let the inequality of the game get in the way of their determination to play.