Sisyphus and feminist burn out

// 28 October 2010

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rocks.jpgWe all get it: the dreaded burnout. Those Sisyphus moments, where you feel like all the energy and effort that has been poured into making change is just not producing anything.

Earlier this year, Bidisha wrote a rabble rousing piece on the erasure of women in the arts. She follows up on her own blog with a piece on the frustrating lack of progress:

I have been working for nearly twenty years and have made no difference to anything. It is difficult to describe the sheer alienation one feels to participate in – even to chair and moderate – a discussion about arts, politics, culture, the world, in which no woman or her achievements is mentioned once, by anyone, at any time. I can’t keep sitting in a studio feeding flattering questions to a guy who’s written an average book and is busy namechecking 20 other ‘great’ men, while a female producer and female PR gape like groupies and ten works of actual genius by women fester in the bin. It is difficult to describe the surge of pain as one mentions a woman, any woman, in any context, only to see one’s companion automatically roll their eyes, then wait their way through the rest of the anecdote. It is devastating to begin pitching an item about an excellent book/play/film, “It’s about this woman who….” and see that your boss has already lost interest. Should you complain outright, there is always a moment when they look at you with open dislike and you realise you will never work for them again, and that part of your career is over.


I have been in too many meetings, in this so-called liberal artsy world, where anything a woman says is shot down or simply ignored. I have watched as women who are senior in years, rank and experience are talked over after saying only four or five words. I have smiled my way through countless apparently playful but actually sexually harassing remarks in the workplace. I have been the token woman on countless panels where, on the rare occasions when a work by a woman is reviewed, it is brazenly set upon and ripped to shreds, pettily, brutally, jeeringly, right down to its last fibres, with disgusting zeal. I am ready to abandon a career which I loved because I have finally seen its hatred and (worse) its hypocrisy up close. I no longer have any expectation of success, because the game is rigged. I have seen, in nearly twenty years, that at every literary event, the audience is full of women and the stage is full of men – a telling image.

Part of me wants to follow up with links to how to support women artists, writers, musicians (because I clearly can’t resist, here is a link to Ladyfest Ten for starters). But perhaps it’s actually more productive to talk a bit about what to do in these moments? Where do we go to recharge our batteries? Is it, in fact, an extra and unnecessary obligation to always feel positive about the prospects for change? How can we support each other in these times, as Bidisha so accurately puts it, “of despair”?

Image from jakedobkin, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Hannah // Posted 29 October 2010 at 11:26 am

Bidisha’s comments, especially the last sentence, chimed a lot with an experience I had the other week.

I was at a literary festival and sat in a mostly female crowd to hear one of my (male) literary heroes speak. And to tell the truth, he was pretty disappointing. I mean, Terry Eagleton is a great speaker but the nonsense he was actually saying – and the embarrassed silence with my friends afterwards, too scared to mention what we were all thinking until I just said it, that his talk was disordered, irrelevant and said nothing at all about the twin elephants in the room, gender and postcolonialism.

I’m not saying we should criticise men in the same derogatory and personal way people tend to talk about women artists, but that we shouldn’t let ourselves be shamed into agreeing that male artists are any good, just because everyone else has decided so. I was glad I spoke to my friends about it, but I was disappointed in myself I couldn’t formulate a question to ask Eagleton at the time that wasn’t rude or unanswerable. Then I went and listened to The Slits and felt better.

Please don’t be disheartened Bidisha, even if Guardian comments seem to indicate otherwise, there are still lots of people who appreciate your work and attempts to give women a voice in popular culture. Believing in the possibility of change in the face of so many obstacles might feel – as you say, Jess – an extra obligation, but there’s no way anyone could be an activist without hoping that one day the change could be realised. In the meantime, feminist spaces like the F Word where we can get some release from our stupid culture are so important.

sianushka // Posted 29 October 2010 at 12:18 pm

is it CIF?

i for one rarely read or comment on cif pieces precisely because the commenters are so bloody rude and misogynistic. so it can often look like no one agrees with you or is on your side, because all the people who are are having their own conversations and, you know, actually getting something done!

the last few months have been very hard for me as a feminist in that over the hooters campaign i have been called endless names and even had nasty things written about my family. i have often thought ‘f*** this, i’m outta here’. this isn’t the first time i have had nasty things written about me either. but i have to keep going, because i think feminism is like taking the red pill in the matrix. once your eyes are open, you have to keep fighting. you have to keep going because to turn back, to ignore it, would almost be too painful, too hard. so long as i know that there is so much injustice, so much violence done to my sisters, i can’t sit down and ignore it. there are days when i wish i could!

but when i was stewarding the front of the bristol rtn march, and looked behind me and saw all those people, i thought, this is worth it. when we sold out the cube with our reps of women presentation – sold out so that people were sitting on the floor and queuing down the street – and saw the tears in their eyes, i knew it was worth it. when i sat in the audience at fil 2010 on saturday and felt the surge of energy and love and inspiration, it is worth it. when you see someone click to injustice (my male friend and my boyfriend having a v serious talk about why lad’s mags were problematic, the same friend having a go at his father in law for laughing at feminism) it is worth it.

it is hard. it is knackering. it makes me cry. it makes me want to shout and scream and do nasty things to my local newspaper’s office. but i could not live without feminism. i could not live without the sisters i have met, and i could not be happy if i didn’t fight against injustice.

spiralsheep // Posted 29 October 2010 at 12:24 pm

I watched an hour-long programme about sculpture and human heads on BBC4 last night. All the sculptors featured except one, Maggi Hambling (who is awesome) who appeared last of all the artists, were male. All the experts featured were male except one, who appeared mostly to have been included for a scene where she was filmed emoting over a death mask of a former lover. None of the male experts were rendered subjectively emotive in a similar way. Most of the females in the programme were vox pop interviews with non-experts and most (I think?) of those were little girls (three?). While I very much enjoyed hearing the opinions of the little girls on the sculpture Dream, near St Helens, the male/female demographics of adult/child and artist/expert/model/voxpop were extremely telling.

There was one male artist who wasn’t white and one male expert who wasn’t white and both were excellent. Non-white women and girls didn’t exist at all in this version of reality, however, not as artists or experts or vox pop interviewees with valuable opinions or even as models for art.

Juliet // Posted 29 October 2010 at 2:16 pm

Bidisha’s feelings are totally understandable. I am so tired of all the programmes with the ‘token woman’, and the way men dominate the literary/art/ANY scene, and then if a few women appear in it, it’s ‘Oh, women are taking over!’ Or women are, as Bidisha says, only allowed to be there on men’s terms. The literary world/reading is my thing, and I have had enough of all the overhyped rubbish books by male authors I’ve read, and then stumbling across (you have to stumble across, because they’re usually not given the publicity) great books by women authors which have been largely ignored. If men read a woman’s books, she’s supposed to be flattered.

But before I make myself and anyone reading this more depressed, I would like to say that despairing and giving up is always the worst thing to do. I love what Bidisha writes, she is the archetypal candle in the darkness for me and, I’m sure, lots of other people. I’m glad she’s there and I want her to go on doing her thing. It is vital. It is worth it. Don’t give up.

Now for some inspirational quotes, for which I’m a sucker. But they help me. (I know, most are by fellas! Sorry in advance:)

‘The trouble with a pity party is that no one comes and you don’t get any presents’. (Zig Zigler)

‘If you’re going through hell, keep going!’ (Churchill)

‘Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it’.

(Chinese proverb).

‘You must be proud, bold, pleasant, resolute,

And now and then stab when the occasion serves’ (Marlowe).

‘Don’t be so fast, you’re all you’ve got’.

(Rita Dove).

annifrangipani // Posted 29 October 2010 at 9:21 pm

How can we support each other in these times, as Bidisha so accurately puts it, “of despair”?

I just always try to remember that whatever action I’m taking, however small it is, it is doing *something* which is better than sitting on my bum complaining. It’s important to remind ourselves, and each other, that we are making a difference, supporting other women, somehow forcing change to happen. It does feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall, it is tiring and thankless work sometimes, but once consciousness is there, I just can’t sit down and not do anything.

We just have to celebrate each other and take heart from the ever expanding network of feminists out there.

Mercy // Posted 29 October 2010 at 10:03 pm

I like the token woman (ideally she wouldn’t be token) but the alternative is no woman, which reinforces the view that women are invisible and it’s not worth the effort.

I spent 15 years reviewing music – mostly live gigs – but gave up when the demands of a family got in the way of mostly late nights out watching bands and was beginning to run out of ways of describing yet another male four piece. Yes, it was male dominated and not unusual for me to be the only woman in the venue but I had as much right to be there as any of the men and readers were seeing reviews written by a woman and seeing a woman’s name in a magazine otherwise full of men.

At least my presence at local ‘zines also meant women musicians got reviewed and mentioned. Musicians that would otherwise be overlooked by male writers who’d fail to be embarrassed by not being able to name any women musicians and fail to acknowledge that by only featuring male musicians, they were turning off half their potential audience and failing to reach potential audiences for their favourite new bands. I had to build a reputation first, but was not afraid to challenge an editor if he cut my piece (but didn’t cut another’s) or gave me less space than another (male) reviewer.

I used to have to insist (male) editors give me a press pass or badge to show when I turned up at gigs otherwise I’d get written off and treated as a groupie, but you keep going because if you don’t, who will?

We all need to recharge sometimes, but we also need to keep going, keep challenging all-male panels, keep asking men why they don’t read books by women or cite women as influences or why they aren’t even embarrassed when they confess to not being familiar with women’s work.

It does depress me at times when I realise my daughter will grow up fighting the same battles I did, but then I think the best I can do for her is to keep providing a good example and equip her with the skills and stamina to keep battling.

j7sue // Posted 30 October 2010 at 8:58 pm

It’s tough, Bidisha, I know. I’ve wept over some of the hateful remarks on CIF about trans women – but I’ve kept commenting, and arguing, and putting my lived experience against somebody’s (often Julie Bindel’s) unrealistic theories…. and now there are above the line articles from trans women, and not so many transphobic ones. Progress is desperately slow, I know.

Laura Vivanco // Posted 30 October 2010 at 10:07 pm

“at every literary event, the audience is full of women and the stage is full of men – a telling image.”

I’ve been to one session at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2006 at which all the people on stage were women, and I know there was a debate at the 2008 Oxford Literary Festival at which the speakers were three women and one man. What these events had in common was that they were about romantic fiction.

Romantic fiction isn’t generally held in high esteem, so it usually discussed much at literary events. I don’t know if that has anything to do with the fact that the vast majority of the authors writing romantic fiction are women.

Laura Vivanco // Posted 30 October 2010 at 10:56 pm

Sorry, I missed out a word. That should have read “it isn’t usually discussed much at literary events.”

Valerie // Posted 31 October 2010 at 5:39 pm

Hi Laura- You make an excellent point. If a man wrote a romantic novel and it got to be famous, then suddenly the genre would have weight and be taken seriously. Isn’t romance a part of everyone’s life?

It is very frustrating for women artists. I’ve often been very tempted to write under a male name or just write about male characters because I know that’s what will sell. But then I remember Ripley from Aliens and I just keep on going.

That Chinese proverb above is great too. I’ll remember that one. Thanks.

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