Cinderellas, Godmothers and Queens | kulturpunkt

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Cinderellas, Godmothers and Queens

Women in managing positions see their accomplishments mainly as the result of their work and the cultural sector as separated from others, as a domain of social life with no real power.

by: Leda Sutlović

In recent years, women have taken over a growing number of Croatian theatres. And while richer and more advanced countries are struggling to find the solution for breaking the theatre’s glass ceiling, it seems like there are fewer and fewer such problems here. Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin, &TD, ZKM and a number of children’s theatres - Trešnja, Zagreb, Žar Ptica, Mala Scena - are just some of the theatres run by women. If we remember that the first woman manager in the history of Croatian theatre – Mani Gotovac, in Croatian National Theatre in Split – was appointed pretty recently, in 1998, we will have every reason to be thrilled by the rise of female theatre bosses. However, before we get too drunk on heady thoughts of progress, let’s take a closer look at the causes: reality is once again showing us its patriarchal way of functioning, which becomes more pronounced during crisis. Or, as participants in the theatre milieu would say, the managing positions in theatre are going through a period of feminization and queerization, because only those who are used to grinning and bearing it are able to do this work under such difficult conditions. As we’ve known for a long time, the rules of the game have double standards.

Although I’m using women theatre workers as an example, the wider field of culture work is also quite feminized, and the majority of employees in some of its areas, such as librarianship and media, are women. However, the influx of women in leading positions in theatres, but also museums (61.3% women, according to the Croatian Bureau of Statistics, 2013), is at the same time a curiosity and a mirage of progress in gender equality in Croatia. We know what it means when there is a great concentration of women in some professions and, unfortunately, it says more about the marginalised status that culture has in politics, than about the improvement in women’s status. The so-called horizontal segregation causes lower income, more prestige for certain professions and, as a result, lower social status for women. On the other hand, vertical segregation denotes the division of men and women to different hierarchical positions within a profession, which means better work opportunities, safety, pay and prestige for some. These concepts are the basis of the categorical apparatus used to analyse gender gap in pay, and nothing about them is accidental. Suddenly, the case of successful managers gets a whole different meaning.

The simple way of explaining such segregation comes down to discrimination, stereotypes and inadequate investment in human potential, but patriarchy is an old story. A more complex explanation includes different degrees and forms of patriarchy in different historical periods, and in order to define it, Sylvia Walby (Theorizing Patriarchy, Oxford/Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1990) differentiates between two main forms – the private and public patriarchy, both of which have footing in the reproduction of housekeeping. The main strategy of private patriarchy, claims Walby, was the exclusion of women from the public sphere, before the first wave of feminism and winning civil rights. Or, as Virginia Woolf colourfully writes in A Room of One’s Own, some of the posts available to educated women before 1918 (when women got the vote in UK) were "reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there; (…) addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten".

However, after rights had been won, and women allowed access to the public sphere and a social area of activity, the public patriarchy had to rely on strategies of segregation and, consequently, subordination. In that sense, the segregation of women within a certain field of work, as well as keeping them in lower ranks, also aims to maintain their position as cheap(er) work force. Especially interesting for our situation is the dynamic definition of patriarchy as a constant reshuffling of strengths and power relations, not only within itself, but also in relation to the resistance of women at certain points in history. Thanks to this dynamic, cunning patriarchy, "hard-won social gains have been transformed into new traps for women" (ibid.). Translated to our case of managers in cultural institutions, new traps come in the shape of suddenly worsened working conditions and previously prestigious positions whose appeal is fading. It looks like the protagonists of our story can’t get the real prize after all.

Unlike "new traps for women" in managing positions, the traps for women artists are a bit different. Although gathering women within an industry and presenting them to the public is a legitimate strategy of consciousness raising, this approach is nevertheless a slippery slope. Besides feminist organizations themselves, various other parties often have difficulty resisting the catnip of promotion: whether it’s a marketing stunt of a weekly or the demand of a European umbrella organization, instead of the (assumed) desired effect of highlighting the work of women authors, there is an impression that they are presented as exceptions or surprises. It looks like the initiators of these promotions are themselves pretty surprised, as is sometimes explicitly stated: "Their paths resemble a modern take on the classic fairy tale, in which unfortunate circumstances turn to gold by a sudden fortunate twist of events." (Cinderellas, Queens and Godmothers of Croatian Film 2012/2013, Croatian Audiovisual Centre, 2013.) Used in the spirit of the intended fairy-tale discourse, the "sudden fortunate twist of events" nonetheless exposes the less shiny flipside of the path towards the stars, and shows that responsibility is placed completely on the shoulders of individual women: an approach that is in accordance with the depoliticized and privatized contemporary perception of work (Kathi Weeks, The Problem With Work, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011). In this story, artists would be Cinderellas, theatre managers Godmothers, but who would be the Queens?  

A research of women’s cultural elite, which included the public, private, and independent cultural sector (Mirjana Adamović, "Women and Social Power", Plejada/Idis, Zagreb, 2011), has shown that women in managing positions see their accomplishments mainly as the result of their work and dedication, and the cultural sector as separated from others, so they classify it as a domain of social life "with no real power" (curiously, out of 45 respondents, most come from university educated Zagreb families, while merely six mothers and a father only finished elementary school). But what makes these women Queens is that they are also gatekeepers – they set professional standards and have the power of deciding and determining what really makes "successful business" (European Institute for Comparative Cultural Research, 2005). In that sense, they truly are Queens; they have the power of influence, which they, unfortunately, deny both culture and themselves in advance. Too bad, we’ve been riding in a worn-down pumpkin for a long time now. 

Translated from Croatian by Lana Pukanić.

Objavio/la vatroslav [at] kulturpunkt.hr 02.02.2016