This has been a quietly eventful week for feminism. A review of the V&A’s new exhibition, ‘Quilts 1700-2010’, in the Sunday Times today confirmed it for me.
An exhibition about solely quilts could be twee, bland, overwhelming, boring, sexist, inspirational or a combination of all of these things. I won’t make any judgement on this particular exhibition, but the reviewer seemed conflicted about having an overall opinion, which is enough to make me want to go see it and make my own confllcted opinion.
The interesting thing about the review, though, is that it posits that quilts cannot be great art, and then goes on to state that the reviewer (Waldemar Januszczak) was in tears reading about one of the exhibits. This seems a pretty strong reaction to a subject area that you feel cannot produce anything up there with Michelangelo. I’d disagree: I’d say that perhaps there isn’t a quilt in existence on a par with great art, but one day there might be. It’s entirely possible, especially considering the talented and prolific female artists and designers around these days, allowed to work and flourish as much as, and apply for the same grants as, any of their male counterparts.
Warning: the next statement may annoy, but I have considered it and think it’s fair.
One of the reasons that quilting isn’t currently considered an area of artistry on the same level as oil painting, say, is because quilting is the preserve of women. Worse than that, it’s the preserve of groups of women, enjoying their own company.
This isn’t a rabid feminist rant; there are enough of those on the internet already. It’s just a gentle reminder that women in design are always just that: “women in design”, a special category. In the same way that there’s a Womens’ Hour on Radio 4 (which is admittedly usually a great listen), making the rest of Radio 4 effectively Mens’ Hour, special features and articles on “women in design” just serve to hammer home the point that most of design is still about men.
During the final year of my degree, a housemate borrowed a book from the library on women in design, and knowing my strong views (to put it politely), showed it to me in the hope that it would placate me, “Look, this book is just about women, and it’s a celebration. Good, yes?” Well, yes, in theory, but no, in practice. The designers covered talked about nature being their inspiration, and wanting to make things that women could put in their kitchen to make it look nice. Plates. Aprons. Vases. The occasional light or shelf or table, but made ‘feminine’, often involving florals and chintz. The objection I have is that it has to be made feminine, it can’t just be made well and with good reason.
My view on this is that if you don’t know if it’s made by a woman or by a man, by the English or the German or the Japanese, you just know that you like it and it’s well-made and it works, then that is when an object succeeds.
Vitriol over, and then to the second, more mainstream, sliver of feminism this week.
Drew Barrymore has directed a film called Whip It, released soon, the plot of which revolves around women. It stars Ellen Page, that brilliant actor from Juno. Every single article featuring this film centres on the fact that it’s Drew Barrymore being feminist, Ellen Page being feminist, a film being feminist. I know that’s newsworthy, and I’m glad that both Barrymore and Page speak openly and loudly about being feminists, it just makes me a bit sad that it really is still newsworthy that a woman does something, and it might be good, and it might be interesting. It warmed my heart immensely, however, to read Page talking fiercely about being pro-choice, and that not meaning being pro-death, and also mentioning coat hangers and DIY abortions in that same breath.
When was the last time a female star even alluded to abortion, let alone had an opinion on it, let alone talked about backstreet abortions? Answer: probably the 1980s, and probably somebody already a megastar and therefore untouchable, like Susan Sarandon.
All in all, encouraging stuff but not enough.
There are women out there working hard to make great things happen and to make great things exist, and there are women out there who will one day make all the difference. But that difference still isn’t in sight, and it’s still pretty hard to believe in.