INVESTIGATION – Appointments, quotas, parity: women’s place in culture continues to be a red-hot topic. Conductors, theatre managers, stage directors, whether partisan or not, all join in the debate.
“We’ve moved from an absurd situation to a still-unjust one,” Catherine Marnas sums up the situation of women being named to lead national or regional theatre centres. Head of the Théâtre national de Bordeaux (TnBA) for the past few months, she is one of ten women managers of 39 public establishments.
For a long time, there were only three of them… “The new appointments by the Culture Minister made a lot of noise. In Avignon this past summer, we heard comments like ‘I’ve got a meeting at the ministry, can you lend me your skirt?’ Let’s be clear: five women and six men were appointed in 2013. Listening to those comments, you’d think all the guys had been fired!”
Aurélie Filippetti’s arrival at the Ministry of Culture, and that of Najat Vallaud-Belkacem for Women’s Rights, shunted the lines. Ever since 2006 and Reine Prat’s Senate-commissioned study, the subject has become increasingly important. “One could have the impression that the cultural world is more enlightened, more open, more righteous,” explains Aline César, president of HF collective in Île de France, an organisation fighting for gender equality in the arts and culture, “but it’s even more reactionary. There are more women in positions of responsibility in the army than in culture.”
Laurence Equilbey is the most active French woman conductor on the subject. Yet the founder of the Accentus choir and Insula Orchestra admits that for a long time, the topic was not one of her priorities: “Of course, like many people I noticed inequalities. In 2001, some of my interns did a study on the place of women in positions of artistic and administrative responsibility, for live performances. On the administrative side, women made up 12%… equal to the national average. But when it came to the numbers on the artistic side, I was floored.”
The country of the rights… of men
These numbers, that “speak for themselves” are the deadly weapon of the cultural “amazons”. It must be said that they do little to polish the halo of the country of the rights of… men. The brochure Where are the women? published in 2012 by the SACD (The Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers) landed like a bomb. It counted up the artists involved in dance, theatre and musical performances. Here’s the tally: 96% of operas were conducted by men, 97% of performed musical works were composed by men, and 85% of texts were written by men; 78% of them were staged by men.
The 2013-14 edition showed a meager 3% of concerts conducted by women, enough to grieve Laurence Equilbey: “I’m saddened by all these women artists who can’t express themselves. A position of authority – whether it’s for a choreographer, author, conductor, stage director or instrumental soloist – is a way of speaking out, a way of taking a public, even a political position.”
The numbers are particularly clear on the fact that the fate of women in culture is not equal everywhere. Dancers, for instance, seem to have trouble becoming managers of centres for Choreography. Although media, cinema and science are the ministry’s new priorities for action, the circus, street arts and contemporary music have yet to have their figures increased.
“Opera remains a closed door for women,” Laurence Equilbey notes. “Luckily, orchestras are more and more mixed, most likely thanks to the practice of hiring ‘from behind a screen’. Musicians are hired based on objective criteria. But let’s look at women composers: it’s dreadful. We have to help talented women make their way, not by achieving absolute parity but by incentives that will bring this lack of balance to an end. One objective would be to bring the number of opera houses and centres for theatre and choreography managed by women up to 30%.”
That’s the threshold recommended by the Reine Prat report that will allow women to no longer be considered a “minority group”. “By nature,” adds Catherine Marnas, “I wouldn’t appreciate such humiliating accounting, but we can’t wait any longer.”
The evaporation phenomenon
Once the situation is acknowledged the question “why?” remains the most painful. “The theatrical world is schizophrenic,” in stage director Catherine Marnas’s analysis. “No-one will dare to recognise the difficulties in sharing power, the misogyny… and all this in perfectly good faith. Yet you quickly notice the difference between how men and women are treated. If he shows up at the same moment as a woman, a man will progress faster, be more trusted to run a larger structure. She’ll have fewer resources and will have to make a much greater effort to prove herself.”
There are few women writers for the theatre, and few performances of texts written by women, even though the theatre public is largely feminine, readers are mostly women and numerous women write.
Why are there so few women conductors, composers or choreographers when, at the Conservatoire National de Musique et de Danse de Paris, there’s absolute equality in numbers among the students? Faced with this phenomenon of evaporation, the clumsy answers of the Conservatoire’s director, composer Bruno Mantovani, generated quite a buzz on social media, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Evoking “different ambitions for men and women,” he explained on air to France Musique that the job of conductor can be “complicated” for a woman, especially when faced with “the problem of maternity. A woman who’s going to have children will have trouble having a career as a conductor when it’s interrupted from one day to the next for a few months. And after that, to speak vulgarly, ensuring the maternity post-sales service, rearing a child from a distance, that’s not simple.”
For or against, the reactions demonstrated that this irony was not welcome in the debate on male/female equality in culture, as can be seen from the aggressiveness that meets the acts of the La Barbe militant collective, who disrupt season launches while wearing long fake beards.
Maternity and power: can’t they dance together? Conductor Emmanuelle Haïm laughs as she brings up her experience. The founder of Baroque ensemble Le Concert d’Astrée was one of the first women to conduct the very discriminating Berlin Philharmonic, invited by its musical director, Simon Rattle, whose assistant she was.
“Back then, I didn’t at all feel held back by being a woman,” she recalls. “The first critical gaze I felt was when I conducted while pregnant: the taboo! I kept being told ‘Sit down, Madam, stop being so animated. It’s not done!’ I feel that when a singer decides to sing while pregnant, people don’t make such a kerfuffle. When I hear someone say that a woman can’t conduct, I answer: Don’t worry, the opera will make it from one end to the other!”
“Women question their own legitimacy more than men do,” argues Catherine Marnas. “I would never have had the courage to pursue the career I have if I hadn’t taken an irreproachable path: university, stage experience, assistant to Antoine Vitez and Georges Lavaudant. And I fought a lot. The first barrier is the one we internalise, that we have internalised. I was brought up in a humble environment, but one where culture was a sign of progress. »
“For a long time, there was no training to become a stage director,” remembers Aline César, herself a director. “The first certificate course dates from the end of the 1990s; the ‘dramaturgy’ degrees date from the early 2000s. But that’s one of the key points of the debate: at equal levels of competence, men feel more legitimate. Some women refuse to apply to a position if they don’t fulfil 100% of the criteria. It’s one of the strong points of the 28th January 2014 bill for equality, which plans to heighten awareness of these issues at the elite art schools.”
From symbol to quota
The Cannes festival will open this month, with a rarity: a woman presiding the jury, director Jane Campion. The symbolism of the choice is brushed aside by the general delegate of the festival, Thierry Frémaux, who insists that she is “above all a great artist”. “As models, symbols are essential, but it is also crucial to give women responsibilities and real resources for the clichés to evolve,” Aline César replies. “Quotas are scary because they seem to be another word for out-of-control egalitarianism. Yet when it comes to the French language or to songs on the radio, quotas are accepted. Equality doesn’t fall from the skies. Quotas are a way to get there, one of many, but one thing’s sure: good will isn’t enough!”
While remaining watchful, Catherine Marnas seems fairly optimistic: “Forcing movement has already altered the front lines. I can see that with a lot of young women stage directors. There’s already another way of listening, a new type of attention given to these thirty-year-olds, and the same is true with writers. We’re much more solidary. Of course, no-one wants to lose their privileges, but a plurality of points of view is indispensable.”
“Civil society seems to me to be much more advanced than political or opinion leaders,” analyses philosopher Fabienne Brugère (see below). “The proof may be found in the latest elections: Paris, where two women were going head-to-head, was the only city where voter turnout grew. The greater part of the citizenry is ready for equality, but no-one listens to them… Making good decisions about this has therefore never been so important. Let’s not forget that a good segment of society is attached to democratic values: accepting pluralism, openness to others, respecting individuality, constructing a common narrative. If you’re a democrat, you can’t be against male/female equality.”
After the pioneers, a new generation of women is making its entrance in the cultural milieu. In 2007, thirty-year-old stage director Juliette Deschamps, daughter of two of theatre’s great names, Jérôme Deschamps and Macha Makaïeff, became the youngest woman to put on a production at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. “I love working with members of my generation because they’re de-gendered, you might say. When I work, I don’t see myself as a woman. I’m a professional, a brain. One day, a man arrived on stage and asked me for three coffees, thinking I was the intern. I went to get them and then came back, smiling and saying ‘Here they are, can we get to work now?’ ”
3 questions for Fabienne Brugère, philosopher and author of The Politics of the Individual (Seuil)
Why is the debate on male/female equality so heated?
F.B. : It’s a question that affects everybody, and therefore everybody thinks they’re an expert on the matter. And yet most people only have an opinion, if not prejudices.
Do powerful women disturb?
F.B. : Yes, of course, and especially if they’re intelligent or if they don’t respect the standards of feminine beauty! But one should first and foremost consider people and individuals, projects, desires and not a sexual apportionment of humanity! That’s what I show in The Politics of the Individual.
Does society seem ready for that to you?
F.B. : Our society is growing more and more complex. Certain people are losing their footing, others exploit them. These groups are linked to the past, to national and sexual identities that no longer correspond to globalised reality. And yet it’s not because reality is changing that values are lost. Values are essential, but only as long as they respect the equality of all voices.
Article published in TGV Magazine in May 2014. Many thanks to Soledad for the illustrations and for allowing me to reproduce them on this blog. Translated by J. A. Macfarlane