Girly voices: women as cultural producers

I would like to share with you, loyal and legion blog readers, some scribblings from my diary. I have been reflecting on the role of women as producers of texts, of music, of art. Realistically, do the voices of women ring out as authoritatively as those of men?  We live in a society which recognises all people as equal, with the important caveat that some are more ‘equal’ than others. This society often renders the contributions of women as ultimately ineffectual, and reinforces their consciousness of themselves as intellectual lightweights.

The sad thing is that I could count on one hand the number of women writers that have made an impression on me. My bookshelves, the stack of books next to my bed, the book I’m reading right now: all authored by men. Well, this isn’t entirely true. As a little experiment, I surveyed the bookshelves of my bedroom (including both fiction and non-fiction volumes) and found the male-female split was 103 to 69. I was going to represent this as a pie chart. But that would involve an excel spreadsheet, and I can’t be bothered.

Anyway, back to my diary entry. My favourite band is a group of five men from Oxford… It doesn’t feel right to start clearing space on the shelves for token female singers, musicians, writers. That would be a deliberate act of political correctness, and not necessarily sincere. In fact, if I’m honest, the music of female singer-songwriters usually fails to inspire. (Don’t get me started on Sarah Blasko. Because if I do, I fear I may lose a number of friends. )

On an evening shift recently, a colleague and I were taking a meal break in front of the TV. When an ad for Birdy came on, she asked if I liked her music. At the time, I’d never heard of this ‘Birdy’, but I’ve since done some research (read: Wikipedia). ‘Birdy’ is 16-year-old Jasmine van den Bogaerde. Although she grew up playing the piano, and began writing her own music at the age of eight, her debut album is of covers (although one track is an original). Her parents gave her the nickname as a baby because she opened her mouth like a little bird when fed. Awwwww. She’s just so damn CUTE.

(In her defence, when I compared her take on “Skinny Love” with Bon Iver’s original, I didn’t notice a dramatic difference in tone. Perhaps the song was already ‘feminine’ to start with (whatever that might mean). On All Music Guide, Bon Iver and Birdy attract the same ‘artist moods’, or descriptors of their music: ‘Wintry’, ‘Wistful’, ‘Plaintive’, ‘Sentimental’, ‘Intimate’.)

A few weeks before my introduction to Birdy, I had one of those ‘waiting in the car’ moments when you discover an interesting piece of music on the radio. What got my ear about this song was the wonky guitar sound, which was soon joined by a dreamy, but arguably hyper-feminine vocal. I’ll admit that I was a bit disappointed to learn that Melody herself was not riffing on the track, but had called in her friend Kevin Parker, of Tame Impala fame.

Here’s the self-effacing Melody Prochet in a recent interview:

I have the vision, but I need magic hands to do it for me. This record was my dream sound. I’ve tried for years to get it but finally found the right hands to sculpt it. I tend to write pretty and dreamy songs — I studied classical music for 12 years — but I was boring myself so Kevin helped destroy everything and put it back together, find the right balance.

It seems that Melody would be doomed to write yet another “pretty and dreamy song” without the “magic hands” of Kevin Parker. In my opinion, Parker’s arrangements rescue “I Follow You” from boring limpness. I’m tempted to conclude, they give the song some balls.

Having planted my bum in front of my bookshelves, I had occasion to revisit a favourite author of a few years back, Siri Hustvedt. In her essay ‘Eight Days in a Corset’, Siri reflected on her experience of being a man, of sorts. For a Halloween party, she borrowed a suit, hid her hair under a hat, and eschewed makeup, and the resulting ‘high’ was wholly unexpected: “I felt manly. My stride lengthened. My manner changed…the suit unleashed a fantasy of maleness I heartily enjoyed.” This was a fantasy she carried over into her fiction – “the heroine of my first novel, The Blindfold…cuts her hair, takes on the name of a boy in a story she has translated, and wanders the streets of New York dressed in a man’s suit…as “Klaus” she also speaks differently, uses profanity, and adopts a confident swagger she associates with men.” Siri explains that “by pretending to be a man she loses some vulnerability and gains some power, which she desperately needs.” (The protagonist is a graduate student of Columbia University, and why she so desperately needs to gain some power, is beyond me. Surely, at a university, she would have been exposed to some alternative ways in which women are validated, that don’t involve subjugation?)

Siri’s words are a bit of a disappointment. In highlighting the transcendent appeal of a male persona, she has – perhaps inadvertently – cast womanhood, both her own and her characters’, in a problematic light. Is being a woman really as mundane/vulnerable/bereft as Siri’s comments might suggest? Perhaps with a slight tweaking – “the suit unleashed a fantasy of androgyny I heartily enjoyed” – Siri would have handled the matter a touch more sensitively.

When I began flicking through Feminist Theorists: Three centuries of women’s intellectual traditions, my eyes came to rest on this passage:

If we live in a society where women’s knowledge and theories are notable by their absence, in which women’s ideas are neither respected nor preserved, it is not because women have not produced valuable cultural forms but because what they have produced has been perceived as dangerous by those who have the power to suppress and remove evidence.

It seems that the empowered, potentially revolutionary voices of women do not ring out because they’re the ones that are continually suppressed or ignored.

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