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Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Where's the Bechdel Test for Photography?

illustration of women playing street football, Harper's Bazaar, 1869

Continuing on a literary theme from yesterday's post (and to procrastinate me away from the looming presence of marking hell) it was interesting to read that there was a decline in woman authors in English literature from the 19th century through to the 1950. The authors of the report

'...found “a fairly stunning decline” in the number of books written by women in the first half of the 20th century, writing that “the proportion of fiction actually written by women … drops by half (from roughly 50% of titles to roughly 25%) as we move from 1850 to 1950.”

With this decline comes a decrease in the representation of women characters, with women characters constituting around 25% of women characters compared to 75% of men. Kate Mosse connects all this to Victorian domestic mythologies and the  hierarchy of literary criticism

The decline in women writing is part of the reason for the drop in women characters. According to the academics’ analysis, in books by men, women occupy on average just a quarter to a third of the character-space. In books by women, “the division is much closer to equal”. The analysis finds: “This gap between the genders is depressingly stable across 200 years.”

Kate Mosse, the bestselling historical novelist and founder of the Women’s prize for fiction, said that she was not surprised by the results. “When we were setting up the prize, we discovered that when a book by a woman won a prize, it was more likely to have a male protagonist,” she said. “This huge piece of research backs that up.”

Mosse pointed to “a sea change from the Enlightenment through to Victorian values, so women are freer in the time of Jane Austen or Mary Shelley or Ann Radcliffe, but then Victorian values – the idea of the angel in the home – take over. And then criticism becomes a discipline. It’s a male discipline, and it’s therefore not surprising to me that women as writers lose their positions, because it’s men writing about male writers, and it starts to inch out women. You see this in history, and in music – it’s equal, and then when criticism starts to become important, women’s contributions are undervalued.”

The suggestion is that the marginalisation of women in novels and the elevation of the male is an institutionalised affair. It's something you can see across the board. In film you have the simple measurement of the Bechdel test that shows how marginal women are in Hollywood film, while even in things that are supposed to be definitively male such as football, the marginalisation of women's role was institutionalised by the Football Association in the UK. Before the FA banned women from playing football in 1921 (FIFA lifted the ban in 1971), Before this, women played in front of crowds of tens of thousand in the UK and there was a flourishing visual and news culture - which is why a museum of women's football is being opened. The illustration up top is part of this museum and is a startling reminder how something can be so easily wiped from our collective history, and how easily we take part in this erasure.

     Robert Frank

Oh yes, photography. It's difficult to quantify the representation of women in photography because photography is far more functional and diverse than literary fiction or cinema. But many many women are looking at the photography of specific artists, questioning it and are marking photographers off as excessively male in the collectively toxic sense Mosse hints at and Churchwell wrote about in this great piece on Mailer, Updike and Roth. There is that perception of the macho man-photographer-beast recreating a manworld in his image in all kinds of sub-sects of photography - and then replicating that world view in the lists they create, the artists they promote, the attitudes they present. I don't know if it's always fair or not, but it's there in a big way. People might not write about it, but they talk about it all the time. Writing about it is still difficult.

I think the most interesting and useful analysis of representation of gender is the high street test where you walk down the High Street and see what is on offer. Because that is the photography that everybody sees, all the time. Photobooks, exhibitions and special interest photography such as is dealt with on this blog and in all the usual places is far more marginal. It doesn't really matter in terms of mass visual effect.

But I'm still waiting for somebody to do the Bechdel test for photography - you know, the one where it doesn't count if they're naked, tied up or have a chocolate box invitation face. You could apply it to photobook histories (Volume 1 of Parr and Badger), genres such as photojournalism World Press Photo ( specific sub-genres (Provoke) or even specific artists. Hold on - I'll do Robert Frank.

I just did The Americans and in my unscientific and unreliable methodology around 32 pictures are specifically male centred and 22 are more female centred, with none of those pictures falling into some kind of Bechdel disallowing category. Despite the imbalance, the seeking out and inclusion of women and the worlds in which they live shows that Frank was thinking of these things back in the 1950s. How far have we progressed now?

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