Toying with History: Quantity of Representation

[This is part three of a thesis paper about the series Toying with History.  Here is the master post.]

Before familiarizing ourselves with the quality of women’s role models, let us examine the quantity of women’s representation. It is well and good to know the history of feminism and resolve not to backslide, but we must also contend with the lingering effect of omission from history in general. The United States is a nation that adores the archetype of the self-made individual, which predisposes us to think that unsuccessful people are somehow undeserving. Once obvious barriers to entry are removed, we assume that a free market will ensure equilibrium. We have removed these barriers, and yet equality does not currently exist in our government, films, literature, or visual arts.

Illustrating omission is particularly important with regard to my painting One Hundred Twelve Supreme Court Justices. I once again use playfully literal means to illustrate this lack of parity in our nation’s highest court. Since my series of paintings consists of paper dolls at a consistent scale, it was relatively simple to determine that paper dolls representing all one hundred twelve justices in the history of the Supreme Court of the United States would require over seventeen feet of watercolor paper. In an ironic reversal, only the female justices are represented in my historical roll.

One Hundred Twelve Supreme Court Justices (and detail)
Fig. 1. One Hundred Twelve Supreme Court Justices (and detail). Watercolor. 45” x 210”. 2014.


Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been particularly vocal on the subject of gender parity in the high court. In a 2010 interview for ABC World News, Diane Sawyer asked Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor “How many women is enough [for gender equality on the Supreme Court]?” Justice Ginsburg swiftly answered that all nine justices would need to be women. “There have been nine men for a long, long time,” Ginsburg reasoned, “So why not nine women?” (Sawyer). Justice Ginsburg’s interest in parity is no misandrist example of keeping score. Consider her highly publicized dissent on the Court’s 2014 Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby ruling. Soon after that case was decided, Katie Couric asked Justice Ginsburg in a televised interview for Yahoo! News whether Ginsburg felt that “the five male justices [who ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby] truly understood the ramifications of their decision.” After replying that “I would have to say no,” Justice Ginsburg emphasized the hope that the other justices’ blind spots might be ameliorated through the influence of female family members.

With three women currently serving as Supreme Court justices, gender parity in government is perhaps slowly improving. In any case, their lifetime term limits mean that any parity of gender and racial representation in this branch of the United States government will be a long time coming. What about entertainment, which is another time-honored source of role models?

The initial feminist litmus test for films is the Bechdel Test. The test, literally derived from a comic by Alison Bechdel in 1985, sets a risibly low bar for women’s representation. Any film passes this “test” if it includes two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The Bechdel Test originated as a joke, but the implications are serious. The Test has become an accessible shorthand for describing gendered marginalization in the film industry. When a film fails to assign names to more than one female character, any unnamed women in view are by default mere background decoration. If they mattered to the action, the audience would need a signifier by which to refer to them. When two named female characters exist but never talk to one another, you have a world in which women’s words only matter if addressed to a man. When a film includes two women who only ever talk to one another about men, then the audience has no reason to believe that these women have any interests other than men.

Nearly three decades later, Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency webseries names a shamefully long list of popular films that fail the Bechdel Test. As Sarkeesian concludes in her short video on the Bechdel Test, “When I call it a systemic problem what I mean by this is that it’s not just a few people here and there that don’t like women, or don’t want women’s stories told, but rather the entire industry is built upon creating films and movies that cater to and are about men.” Passing the Bechdel Test is no guarantee of quality, but quantitative analysis functions as a culture-wide indicator of gendered marginalization. The numbers are simply dismal.

This lack of parity in entertainment is particularly important in children’s entertainment. The most vocal group on this subject is the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. According to a study sponsored by this institute, “Research reveals that the percentage of female speaking characters in top-grossing movies has not meaningfully changed in roughly a half of a century” (Smith, Chouetti, and Pieper 2). That study also found in films “a gender ratio of 2.24 males to every one female” (3), which is similar to George Gerbner’s observation “that men outnumber women three to one in prime-time television” (Dill 106). Studies like these back up the absurd punch line of the Bechdel Test: our television and movies consistently suggest that women barely exist. The rare exceptions to this trend in children’s entertainment are Disney’s princess films. I will return to this cultural juggernaut in the next section, which concerns the quality of women’s representation.

We cannot escape inequality by reading books instead of watching television. Virginia Woolf’s observations on the state of women and fiction describe 2014 almost as well as 1929. Consider her assertion that:

…whatever effect discouragement and criticism had on [early nineteenth century female novelists]…that was unimportant compared with the other difficulty which faced them…that is that they had no tradition behind them, or one so short and partial that it was of little help. (Woolf 76)

Now compare that to the present day situation for women in fiction.

One effort to reveal gender inequality in literature began in 2009, when a group of volunteers began producing what they termed the VIDA Count. The annual VIDA Count’s process is to “break down thirty-nine literary journals and well-respected periodicals, counting genre, book reviewers, books reviewed, and journalistic bylines to offer an accurate assessment of the publishing world” (Fitzgerald). These tallies introduce and support a larger body of articles that unpack the ramifications of this disparity. The annual nature of the VIDA Count reveals which publications change in response to criticism. The numbers are far from equal in current publications, and this does not just affect today’s readers. As the VIDA website’s FAQ page points out, creative work that makes its way into the canon filters first through prominent literary publications (if only through reviews). Female authors will be a minority in the literary canon so long as men continue to significantly outnumber women in bylines and book reviews in journals and magazines.

As with film, the situation hardly improves when we focus on formative literature for young adults. The VIDA Count draws attention to the lack of parity in literary publications, and several young adult (YA) authors have spoken out about the ways in which their careers are hampered by widespread sexism in the publishing industry. In an essay titled “A Female Author Talks about Sexism and Self-Promotion,” YA author Sarah Rees Brennan presents the irreconcilable clash between the assertive self-promotion essential to building a literary career and what society deems acceptable behavior for women. Her essay refers to many female authors’ experiences before drawing the conclusion that:

Professional ladies, online and offline, in all kinds of different jobs, are being told not to self-promote, not to talk too much, not to risk making mistakes, not to signify that their work is important to them and never to dare suggest it might be good, via the feedback they get when they behave any differently. They are also told that nobody else will be promoting for them, because they don’t deserve it. (Brennan 4)

While the VIDA Count provides quantifiable proof, it is through first-person accounts like Brennan’s that we hear the impact of vicious reviews, disproportionate advertising opportunities, and even death threats on these creators.

A similarly harmful trend in publishing is the assumption that it is more prudent to publish stories with male protagonists because boys are expected to refuse to read stories about girls (whereas girls will read stories with protagonists of any gender). The crux of the matter is not whether or not boys’ reading habits truly follow this pattern. Publishers and parents who cater to this stereotype as an immutable fact reinforce the pretense that half the world’s experiences are inherently less important. This is not a malicious omission, but it would be wrong to leave it unchallenged.

The visual arts also historically place less value on women’s creativity. Eloquent texts on the quantity (or lack thereof) of women in the canon of art often refer to Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why have there been no great women artists?” Nochlin echoes Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own when she states that the majority of artists deemed great today had precisely those advantages to which women were historically denied access: training, space to work, autonomy, and financial support (26).

In her book on three unusually successful female illustrators during the late nineteenth century, Alice A. Carter uses these qualities to explain the unusual professional success of Jessie Wilcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley. In reference to A Room of One’s Own, Carter posits that:

Women could achieve eminence, [Woolf] contended, if given equal educational opportunity, financial independence, and privacy.  Had Virginia Woolf known about these three intrepid American illustrators, she might have revised her specifications to include the opportunity to collaborate.  For it was their unconventional living arrangement that freed Smith, Green, and Oakley simultaneously from both the domestic responsibilities and the artistic isolation that still inhibit many capable artists. (9)

Carter does not stint in her analysis of the effect of teachers like Howard Pyle, Robert Henri, and Thomas Eakins on that era’s revolutionary advances in women’s access to artistic training, but she gives equal emphasis to the ways in which a community of other women facilitates long-term artistic endeavors. As Carter claims, “The greatest handicap facing every woman artist was exclusion from the fraternity of male artists, where ideas and philosophies were exchanged and the camaraderie and energetic synergy necessary to sustain a lifetime of creative production was fostered” (16). Many of the societal strictures faced by Smith, Green, and Oakley are obsolete, but marginalization within the artistic canon remains a significant factor.

The most recognizable twentieth-century artwork in this vein is either that of the Guerrilla Girls or The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago. Both approach advocacy through education. Chicago’s Dinner Party functions as a signal booster to significant but under-appreciated women in history. The Guerrilla Girls’ consciousness-raising efforts could be called a decades-long performance artwork. Chicago addresses the lack of gender parity in history by attempting to fill it.  The Guerrilla Girls expose its ridiculousness.

My Toying with History series follows a similar logic. Like Chicago’s installation, my dolls present the results of research that may not be universally familiar to viewers. The coherence of the whole depends on hedging this bet: by referring to an array of political, historical, and artistic icons, I increase the likelihood that each viewer will recognize at least some of the references. After that, the rest should become comprehensible.

My paintings echo the consistently snarky tone of the Guerrilla Girls more than the eulogistic Dinner Party. Like the Guerrilla Girls, these costumes assert that important truths can be conveyed through sarcasm. The ways in which they maintain their anonymity—a combination of pseudonyms and gorilla masks—sounds in description like a ridiculous jumble of metaphors. In fact, the Guerrilla Girls’ use of multiple layers of pretense enables them to speak bold truths in memorable ways. Adopting the names of women from art history as pseudonyms is a way of raising awareness of women’s contributions to the field. Going so far as to actually dress like their eponymous artists would tip the balance from consciousness-raising to historical recreation. Even the gorilla masks are similarly nuanced: they attract attention while maintaining anonymity and defying gender expectations. This sarcastic facade is a consistent aspect of their work. Anonymity is poignant when the topic is systematic marginalization in the arts.

Anon...was often a woman (and details)
Fig. 2. Anon…was often a woman (and details). Watercolor. 45” x 66”. 2014.

The Guerrilla Girls organized in 1985 in response to blatant inequity in the art world, and the message remains the same: women and men are not represented in equal numbers. Half the population continues to be massively underrepresented in politics, literature, film, and art. This is an old tradition of omission. As Virginia Woolf quipped, “Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman” (49). We should certainly seek equitable gender representation in politics and the arts, but it would be a mistake to ever confuse tokenism with equality. These quantifiable approaches are only a beginning.

Next: Quality of Representation

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