As I stacked the dirty dishes left by the ravenous young men in my life, I pondered whether I was a poor mum and feminist. As I pushed the dirty socks and jocks into the washing machine, finally out from their bedrooms – their floordrobes, I sensed that I have failed. How can I save the women of my sons’ future lives from a life of cleaning up after them, if I have not managed to escape the mothering 20 years later?
They have a good role model. Right from the start my darling man was the primary caregiver. Possibly more by accident than design: he was retrenched from his job shortly before the birth of our first child, we had a mortgage to pay and it seemed my prospects of a living wage were much better than his, in spite of his engineering degree and my recent arrival. So he was the one left holding the baby when I went back to work. Holding the baby, cooking, shopping, cleaning, gardening, school volunteering, homework help, sports duties on the weekend, kissing grazed knees better.
But none of this seems to have made one iota of difference. The parental nagging of teenage sons to clean up their room, pay attention to their hygiene, stop eating junk food, avoid sugary caffeinated drinks and clean up after themselves seems a boring reality of life.
My week has been full of feminism. First, I attended a Women of the World Festival workshop in Brisbane. Led by the fabulous Jude Kelly, Southbank London, the WOW Festival is coming to Brisbane in June 2015, thanks to some very wonderful Brisbane women. The Festival celebrates how successful women have been. Some women have it all, but it is a constant struggle, yet many younger women have no idea how far women have come. Yet one in three women around the world will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Jude invented the WOW Festival to create a new space for human rights for girls and women, and now this space will come to Brisbane.
Next, I was treated to the ‘seminal feminist piece’, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at La Boite Theatre Company in a version by Australian playwright Lally Katz. Nora starts as a 1879 pretty wind-up doll, dressed in a pink period costume, singing about her haunting dream about slamming the door and Nora ends as a 21st century feminist, dressed in a little black thing, shouting an angry activist tirade reminiscent of the 1970s, before actually slamming the door.
The five characters literally look and talk past each other, like they exist in different dimensions. They move on the checkered stage like a pieces in a chess game. In each corner is a chair, like a rook, but each with one sawn short leg, so its stability depends on the characters’ ability to balance three legs, until appearances disintegrate and the truth of imbalance can no longer be concealed. Above the stage, a thick messy cobweb hangs like a ceiling. Behind the stage an opaque curtain barely conceals Krogstad (sounds like Crookster in English) writing his letters and Nora desperately dancing the tarantella. The square stage rotates in the round theatre, though the symbolism of the entwining web of four strings and two rotations and the falling ceiling at the end is just a little bit too obvious. Nora’s ultimate transformation to a feminist is completely neutered by her assertion that Torvald is acting like a woman. Do we really aspire to women who act like men despising men who act like women? Not a good ending to otherwise excellent theatre.
Finally, This is not the work, an exhibition by Level, a feminist artist-run initiative, brings together community-engaged creative projects from around the world. Its title emphasises that the artistic manifestation is not the art work; rather the community engagement that resulted in these manifestations is the work. And just as well. As I walked through the exhibition looking at seemingly haphazardly put together textile pieces, I was reminded that skill comes before product. Last year’s Quilts exhibition at Queensland Art Gallery, which displayed – mostly – women’s exquisite craft skills in trying circumstances, including on board a convict ship. The quilts and textile art before me demonstrated none of that skill, but shouted angrily ‘victim’. The community engagement processes may have been excellent and empowering, but I found the manifestitations crude and substandard. Admittedly, I didn’t stay long – I felt repelled by the activist claiming of every type of disadvantage and social issue: as Jude Kelly asserted not everything women are achieving is through activism.
During visual arts lectures and tutorials, my studious man faces feminism of the activist kind. Vaginas are empowerment and penises are evil and oppressive. As a white Anglo-Saxon middle-class male he symbolises the oppression of women; and the domestic is the province of feminist art. Never mind that he probably has more domestic and feminist experience than most of the women there: he has to be cautious not to offend, which silences his perspectives in ways not dissimilar to how women have been silenced.
As I pondered whether we have brought up our boys to be decent, critically thinking young men, I remembered the Griffith Review article, Time to Trade in by Australian journalist George Megalononis. Our economy, media and society are hard-wired to the false certainty of the male brain and calls on women to change the model. However, he also throws in a caution about the growing disadvantage experienced by unqualified, white young men – and any female model will need to be inclusive, not exclusive, of the masculine or we will merely replace the much wanting patriarchy with its female equivalent and be in no better society than today.