Event: Melbourne Writers Festival—Notes on Women in Culture.

The panel was chaired by the director of feminist publishing house, Spinifex Press, Susan Hawthorne, and the speakers were Tamil writer CS Lakshmi, and feminist fiction and non-fiction writers Emily Maguire and Sophie Cunningham.

I saw Cunningham speak at last year’s festival, and some of her comments on third and/or fourth wave feminism really rubbed me the wrong way. This year she spoke again about the discrepancies between the pay rates of men and women and where that money goes. While only $0.40 for every dollar earned of men’s income goes to the family, $0.90 of women’s money goes to the family. Therefore, “women need to work or our culture falls apart.”

Cunningham also spoke about her pet project, women in literature. As the chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council and of the Stella Prize, she knows her stuff. Apparently when the representation of women in literature hits 30%, people think it’s about half. (I believe she mentioned it’s at about that percentage currently, in terms of how many books by women are reviewed and how many books are reviewed by women in major publications.) This reminds me of the 33%–66% division of labour rule in male–female households: that women will do up to 66% of housework before they start to think they’re doing too much, while men will do 33% before they start to think they’re doing too much.

I think both of the following quotes came from a piece Lakshmi read to the audience. They’re poignant no matter who wrote them and where they appeared:

“Women pretend to conform whilst they’re breaking the rules.”

“Sit still otherwise you’ll rock the boat.”

That last quote reminds me of 50 Shades of Grey, in which Christian makes Anastasia “sit still” and not move when he’s performing sexual acts on her. I don’t know many men who prefer a woman to be physically non-responsive to their touch, but there are a lot of things about the book I don’t understand.

Speaking of 50 Shades (at this point in time, when it’s the highest selling book ever, who isn’t?!), in another panel I attended on Saturday about writing about sex (featuring Susan Johnson, Chris Flynn and another appearance by Maguire) it was brought up. Nothing of note was added to the discussion really (sex and gender roles are conservative, defined; the sex is clinical, etc.), but Johnson did, it’s worth noting, spoil the ending for me! Not that I was planning on reading the next two installments (one’s enough!), but there were a few audible groans from the audience when she revealed that *spoiler alert* Christian married Anastasia in the end.

Johnson has a piece on the trend of the trilogy in this weekend’s Q Weekend magazine, for which she is the senior features writer. She mentioned how she finds the book like a sexed up version of Beauty & the Beast, which made my heart yearn for a simpler time, when feminism and Stockholm syndrome and abusive relationships were not at the forefront of my mind when examining my favourite Disney movie. Sigh… I’ll never be able to enjoy it like I once did thinking about the Beast forcing Belle to eat and suspending her from the ceiling of his Red Room of Pain if she doesn’t do as she’s told!

But back to the panel at hand.

The notion of positive female representation in science fiction and fantasy came up, an issue about which I’m quite passionate, but which I’d like to know more about, too. Maguire says it’s easier to write a “strong female character” in sci-fi because you “don’t have to have the rules of this world” posed onto the character. I think it was Cunningham who then mentioned that that’s why a lot of sci-fi is set in post-apocalyptic worlds where the restraints of our current notions of society and culture are abolished so writers can explore different aspects of the characters that they might not have should they exist in this world.

Author John Banville was brought up, who has said he’s “never understood women… Don’t want to… I’m in love with all of them, always have been fascinated by them… They always do the unexpected—at least I don’t expect what they do. They say: ‘We’re ordinary, we’re just like you.’ I say: ‘You’re not. You’re magical creatures.’”

While that’s a lovely gesture on the surface, do we really want to be seen as otherworldly? At the end of the day, everyone’s just a person. And, at the end of the panel, Lakshmi told a story with the theme that gender has “no specific qualities”. So how can one be “ordinary” and one be “magical”? Reverse sexism on Banville’s part, perhaps?!

Related: Melbourne Writers Festival 2011: A Long, Long Way to Go—Why We Still Need Feminism.

Bendigo Writers Festival.

Sexism in Fantasy.

Image via TheVine.

2 thoughts on “Event: Melbourne Writers Festival—Notes on Women in Culture.

  1. Pingback: Welcome to Monday ~ 10 September 2012 | feminaust ~ for australian feminism

  2. Pingback: Book Review: 50 Shades of Grey by EL James. « The Early Bird Catches the Worm

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