What Would Serena Do?

I’ve been a little agitated lately as a female person on this planet. This week it stems from Serena William’s astounding achievements being continuously marred with racist, sexist commentary. While watching the BBC coverage of this year’s Wimbledon ladies semi-final, I was annoyed that thirty whole minutes was spent pouring over Maria Sharapova in unimaginable detail while Serena, who took her 21st title this month at Wimbledon and has an 18 – 2 record against Sharapova, was glossed over in about five minutes. It makes me pretty sick.

Taking a cue from Claire’s recent blog post, I reread parts of Eavan Boland’s Object Lessons, particularly searching for this one passage: 

“In the old situation which existed in the Dublin I first knew, it was possible to be a poet, permissible to be a woman and difficult to be both without flouting the damaged and incomplete permissions on which Irish poetry had been constructed (xii).”

In terms of poetry (only), Ireland has moved on a little from the point from which Boland speaks here. I was lucky enough to attend a reading as part of the Yeats’ Day Celebrations that featured the five current Poet Laureates of Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and Belfast, as well as the Young Poet Laureate of London – all female. 

Just going to say that again – all female.

The struggle of women, however, and for women in the arts particularly, remains very real. A friend’s mother told me recently, “it’s hard to do things as a woman.” It’s a basic observation, I know, but it is very true. I asked a few of my inspirational women in the arts about their experiences and how each of them find being a woman, an artist, and being both at the same time. This is what they said:

Photo by Cait Fahey

Photo by Cait Fahey

Megan Nolan is a writer and performer currently based in London. Her work has appeared in many online publications as well as in print, and she has read widely in a variety of settings. Recent readings have included "Word's Work" curated by artist Claire Potter in And Model Gallery, Leeds, UK and in the Irish Museum of Modern Art at a recording of the curator Morgan Quaintance's radio show Studio Visit.

“As in most aspects of my life, my career is hampered less by external restrictions, more by my anticipation of them. I find myself procrastinating and stagnating and keeping work hidden away because I am crippled by an overly acute wariness of how it, and therefore I, will be received by others. I totally envy and resent what I see much more frequently in male artists than female - an unthinking assumption from the earliest stages of their careers that they deserve to and will succeed. My mental associations with the practice of writing are mainly negative - forcing myself to excavate my thoughts and feelings is painful anyway, and the process of then making it public is intensely stressful to me (as well as exhilarating). I’ve become increasingly aware that the kind of work I do is received as specifically female because it is confessional and emotive. When someone like Karl Knausgaard dissects his internal life and uses the events of his life in service of ideas, it’s received as bold and radical because he is this bearded stoic Scandinavian man. But to investigate emotion or pull apart the nuts and bolts of your private life is seen as weak and profoundly uncool when most women do it. I’m trying to think about different ways to play with this, different manners of framing what I fear will be received as weak and vulnerable to make it into something more troubling for a reader/viewer. I want to acknowledge the presence of those things but go so deeply into them to an exhausting or hyper-real degree that they become impossible to merely dismiss; I want to turn the female-ness into something that upsets and disgusts you.”

Photo by John Minihan

Photo by John Minihan

Jennifer Matthews is a native of St Louis, Missouri living in Ireland. She writes poetry and is the editor of the Long Story, Short Journal. Her poetry has been published in Poetry International – Ireland, The Stinging Fly, Mslexia, Cork Literary Review and more. In 2015 Jennifer was selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series. A chapbook of her poetry is forthcoming. 

“I've recently come across fascinating articles about the psychology of "bright girls" and their troubling tendency to ascribe both success and failure to "innate and unchangeable" abilities, resulting in the avoidance of unfamiliar challenges. Apparently young boys typically aren't deterred by failure, and seem to feel better about themselves the more they wrestle with difficult tasks. It's a cruel phenomenon. In my own writing life, this belief has led to absolute paralysis at times, and because of it I have passed on everything from invitations to reading at events I admire, to an offer for a full-length poetry collection. Any clunky line I wrote was evidence to me that I had an embarrassing lack of talent. I hope that women like myself will learn to make friends with failure. As Beckett said: ‘All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ I've been chipping away at the problem over the years, and my writing practice is slowly becoming more indulgent of failure. I believe that has strengthened the quality of my writing, and has earned me some more (external) success.” 

Photo by Shiron Cole

Photo by Shiron Cole

Hannah James Scott is an Irish actor and writer living in London. Some credits include a UK tour of Translations by Brian Friel, short film Crumble shot in Australia and a run of MacBeth in London. She is currently developing a piece of work on mental health with writer Mike O'Leary.

“For me [the challenge] is the judgment of my face and my body. I am only at the beginning of my career so my experience of this judgment is limited but still potent all the same. I am in constant conflict between embracing who I am, now and the desire to change what I look like in order to pre-empt what I think the industry will ask of me. Apart from all the many elements of this career I can't control, my body is something I can, and therefore becomes the whipping boy for all my insecurities. However, there is precedence set by the industry and society. The reality of the industry for women is that supply outstrips demand and we are all trying to win this bun fight. The Bechdel Test conducted on most films available leads to some depressing conclusions. We are pitted against each other, compared and dissected. The comparisons are not even to do with our acting ability but whether we are considered to be hot or sexy /too thin/too fat/too old/too young/too white/too black. I am aware that it is a visual industry and so what a person looks like is part of the story telling but I do believe that between the writer, the director and the casting agent, a little bit of imagination can go a long way. Not only conventionally good looking white people fall in love or have complicated lives, or extraordinary adventures so not only stories of conventionally good looking white people should be written, made, and cast as such.

I am lucky to be surrounded by women that are brilliant and challenging. They are writing scripts and performing shows and questioning the status quo. They inspire me to accept who I am and to not be afraid to change the mould if the mould doesn’t fit me. I am also privileged to be surrounded by men who want to write interesting and complicated characters that reflect the women in their worlds. However I am not going to lie, I struggle daily with self-doubt and self-confidence and sometimes don't feel I have the energy to fight the big bad industry. Then I remember I love it and that I think it is no coincidence that I have chosen the profession that I have; a profession, that to me, reflects the experience of what its like to be a human being. A life that is full of ups and downs, lots of hope, rejection, love, passion, disappointment, excitement and judgment. At times I am delighted with it and other times I am despairing of it but sure that's what life is like anyway.”