This year’s All About Women festival marked another International Women’s Day weekend where diverse speakers and a sea of people packed the Sydney Opera House to unpack issues around modern womanhood and cross-cultural experiences. We attended several talks and events over the two-day festival and came away with some key thoughts.
The term “humiliated fury” entered our lexicon when talking about abusive men
You haven’t been paying attention if you don’t know our country and the world is rife with domestic abuse and violence. Journalists Jess Hill and Sanam Maher joined BuzzFeed’s Gina Rushton to discuss their work investigating and covering this global pandemic of gendered abuse – Maher on her reportage of “honour killings” in Pakistan and book focussed on the murder of internet-celebrity Qandeel Baloch, and Hill on her ongoing dive into domestic abuse in Australia and the cultural strategies used around the world to combat it compiled in her book See What You Made Me Do.
A fascinating stream of cultural parallels and differences ensued with both women articulating their findings – universally, it is entitlement and shame that drives men to abuse and kill women. Hill and Maher reflected on their different stories but continued to circle around to the concept of “humiliated fury” in perpetrators of abuse. In Australia, Hill talked about how entrenched our socialisation is in making men disconnected from their feelings. “Back here in their crocodile brain.” She said. “Their view [of a confrontation] is totally distorted by shame”. Maher’s investigation into the way Qandeel’s life infuriated many people in Pakistan and how her death challenged perceptions of justice and “shame” added weight to this too.
Both journalists also spoke on their encounters with cis male entitlement in and out of their work. Maher wrapped it up neatly, after years of exhaustive interviewing, laughing as she jabbed: “as a reporter I dealt with entitlement by saying I am not going to talk to another man without being paid for it”. Claire Finneran
To understand gender, we need to look at our world, not our brains
In The Gendered Brain, cognitive researcher Gina Rippon had the task of condensing her 448 page book (of the same title) that shatters the myth of the female brain into a 20-minute presentation, before sitting down for a discussion and questions with science journalist Natasha Mitchell (Life Matters). Rippon takes aim at the pervasive, fixed understanding that men’s and women’s brains are fundamentally different. In her research, Rippon found that there is no structure that can reliably determine the female brain from the male brain, and that historical factors that have been quantified as sex differences can be chalked up to a difference of experience. “Belonging is a powerful driver in the brain,” she said. “The secret of human success is not language or creativity, it’s the fact that our brains are wired to be social...stereotypes are handy shortcuts, and the brain is the ultimate stereotyper.” She went on to explain that babies arrive on earth with a finely tuned social radar, and we are absorbing social cues like sponges from early on.
While Rippon’s critics label her a sex-difference denier, she explained that she does not ignore the fact that there is a biological script built into our brains, but we need to acknowledge that this script is playing out on a social stage. And this social script often enforces the idea that little girls are destined to be empathetic caretakers and little boys will grow up to be aggressive providers, let alone the belief that the set of genitals you’re born with is ultimately tied to your gender. Alannah Maher
An ’80s movie musical made in Sydney changed people’s lives
After a rare and rambunctious screening of the 1982 Australian musical Starstruck, programmer and writer Kate Jinx sat down with the filmmaker Gillian Armstrong to discuss its ongoing impact. With topics ranging from the particularities of the eccentric film’s production (it was filmed at fabulously kitsch Sydney locations like the Harbour View Hotel and Bondi Pavilion) to Armstrong’s work with Gender Matters, the Q&A was full of laughs and insight. Armstrong reflected on how the film world siloed her in the wake of her period classic My Brilliant Career, saying; “I’m the first to say I’m a feminist but I’m mainly an artist.” Her casual dig at industry ideas that women only make films about women hilariously crescendoed with her impassioned jab; “I really hated that I started getting programmed into women’s festivals” with the sudden realisation; “Oh! Haha, like this one”.
The entertaining conversation was engulfed in vocal audience interactions. Interactions that grew as it became more and more apparent how many people in the room had been deeply affected by Starstruck’s first run in cinemas in the 80s and how many had, in fact, been extras in the film. Audience members raised their hands to tell how the film inspired them to build careers in film editing, giggling gaggles shouted out the scenes they had participated in as children, and Armstrong relayed a lovely story about how the director of the Adelaide festival decided she would get into the arts after seeing it.
Fittingly the film ends with glittering fireworks and song at the Opera House and Armstrong affectionately described Saturday’s one-off screening as the lead characters finally making their way back to the house. It was also a return, it seems, for many people whose lives had been impacted by the neon-tinged madness of Starstruck itself. Claire Finneran
Australia is an alcoholic
In Sober Curious, a panel with varying experiences came together to talk about the problematic relationship women, and Australian society at large, have with drinking. Author and journalist Jill Stark (The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, High Sobriety), talked putting down the bottle for good after outing herself as a “binge-drinking health reporter” and her highly publicised year off drinking; Yumi Stynes (Ladies, We Need to Talk) shared confessions from a life in the music industry and wanting to “fuck all the beers” in her own journey to recognising her drinking problem; and Shanna Whan (Sober in the Country) spoke on her experiences as a high-functioning alcoholic and why rural Aussies should feel empowered to say no to a beer. Taking up the mantle of moderator and token non-sober wine mum, Clementine Ford (Boys Will be Boys, Fight Like a Girl) was measured and incisive in her hosting duties.
This discussion was unironically sobering and refreshingly non-preachy as they discussed the culture around drinking through a feminist lense, unpacking the social contract of drinking, the spiritual void that is often filled with alcohol, ‘wine time for mummy’ and other marketing tropes the alchohol industry uses to target women and overcorrect after the traditional affiliation of drinking as a boys club.
While each panellist brought a valuable perspective, Shanna Whan’s rural input into a discussion dominated by the city perspective (something that was dominant in the festival as a whole) was striking. Her honesty about reaching her rock bottom, waking up in hospital after her husband found her at the bottom of a staircase with a hole in her head, also was. It was her words; “Australia is an alcoholic” that stuck with me. Australia is in denial, aloof to our binge-drinking problem in many ways. As Whan said “Australians think that you have to be pouring whiskey in your coffee every morning to be an alcoholic.” That’s not the case, drinking problems can be far more undetectable and far easier excused.
Tiny murmurs in an all-gender bathroom can have a huge impact
While washing my hands (singing ‘Happy Birthday’ three times just in case) in the festival’s all-gender bathroom an old bloke wandered in to use the facilities. “Oh no! Am I in the wrong place?” he yelled as I continued to lather my fingers. “Nah, it’s an all-gender bathroom mate, don’t worry about it” I replied. He looked back at me wide-eyed and aghast mumbling “well that’s very confusing for someone like me”. “But...you are a gender” I said. And sudenly his posture lifted with the realisation shouting “Aw yeah! I am!“ he comically marched into the cubicle emboldened and empowered. If there was one takeaway that man had from the festival, it may have been this opportunity to share a piss receptacle with me, a cis woman he doesn’t know. Go forth an conquer the non-binary toots of the future my friend, wherever you are! CF.
We shouldn’t let the patriarchy dictate what is beautiful
In Rethinking Beauty, the discussion revolved around interrogating how we navigate our outward appearance and perceive others. A lot of this talk didn’t dive specifically into beauty and the practices of beauty, but rather the social contexts that exist around personal appearance and how the speakers each interrogate those spaces and created community around the rejection of shame and patriarchal standards. From her perspective as a person living with ichthyosis, a rare genetic disorder that affects one’s skin and hair, self-described appearance activist Carly Findlay brought up interesting points about second-hand ableism. Talking about instances where people play devil’s advocate to rude or problematic reactions to disabled people in public, for example. She feels you shouldn’t excuse your child for staring at a person with a visible difference, you should educate your child. And to not assume you can touch or ask invasive questions of a person with a visible disability.
Writer Bri Lee (Eggshell Skull) brought very self-aware critiques on beauty and body standards to the table inline with her latest book, Beauty, which interrogates unattainable standards of physical perfection. As moderator, ultimate millennial slashie Flex Mami controlled the conversation well, however it would have been great to see her have more space to unpack the issues she herself speaks so profoundly about in other mediums like her podcast The Bobo & Flex Show, such as her experience as a black woman navigating Australia’s euro-centric beauty standards. The discussion managed to cover concepts of body neutrality and body positivity and celebrate all approaches to beauty without falling into a toxically positive, Dove-esque faux “All BoDiEs ArE bEaUtiFuL” tone.
In a panel of First Nations women, not giving the audience a microphone was a brilliant symbol
Rarely during festivals like these do we get the privilege to listen to panellists and speakers without the notorious non-questions of audience members during the allotted Q&A time. This occurrence can range from lightly baffling to alarmingly derailing in events where First Nations people have the stage and white people make up the majority of the audience. Blak Matriarchies – a powerful panel comprised of Bibi Barba, Amelia Kunoth-Monks, Celeste Liddle, Kirli Saunders and hosted by Rhoda Roberts – was an intimate look at First Nations feminism, matriarchal structures, and modern womanhood and not a single white woman from the audience got to stand up and have their say. It was fantastic! This might have been a Drama Theatre-specific practice (I didn’t see any other talks in that venue) but the audience was directed to send their questions to an app so that they went straight to Roberts’ iPad and she could not only choose queries for their relevance, but aggregate common threads. In a discussion that spoke at length on the need to centre the voices of Aboriginal women and how large a struggle it is for these voices to be heard, the lack of vocal audience participation was a potent symbol that (even if unintentional) should be adopted by Australian institutions giving platform to First Nations perspectives into the future. We, the audience, have said enough.
The women of this panel gave some of the most memorable, funny, devastating, and poignant stories and thoughts to the festival. Barba spoke about her fight for intellectual property as an artist and how her practice is informed by her grandmother, saying; “I paint her voice every time my brush touches the canvas”. Liddle extended her ongoing online work in feminism and decolonisation, speaking about equal opportunities at universities, unions, and the pervasive elitism and preferencing of white male voices, stating; “we can have doctorates up the wazoo, but it’s still not seen as as qualified as a white dude with a doctorate”. Kunoth-Monks brought her experiences from living in Utopia alongside her grandmother and dealing with the government’s many intervention programs (“stronger futures for whom exactly?”) in her communities firsthand. She explained the complexities of colonial perceptions of gender in Aboriginal communities and also hit hard with her observations on how white-run systems don’t benefit the communities they proclaim to help, saying; “our poverty has become their commodity, they still want to make sure we aren’t advancing in the future”. Poet, teacher, and multi-disciplinary legend Saunders shared spiritual stories, her own writing, and wrapped up a future-looking perspective saying she wants; “people willing to walk next to me, not for me.” This was a poignant summary of how this panel preferenced the voices of the First Nations women on stage and above all, something we should all strive for. CF