Perched atop a bar stool at The Penny Black, I couldn’t concentrate. I was waiting for Cherchez La Femme – a self-described ‘monthly digest of popular culture and current affairs from a feminist perspective’ – to start, but instead of thoughtfully considering contemporary examples in the interim, my eyes kept locking onto a particular unattractive lounge set to the side of the stage. Looking at its upholstery, all muddy florals and worn velvet, it was easy to image it sitting in some anonymous suburban living room once upon a time, a wasp-waisted hostess darting between the chairs with a platter of cucumber sandwiches. It was easy to imagine, not all that long ago, that lounge being part of a different world, where the main ticket item for a woman was to flit prettily through dinner party guests, dutifully pausing to fill drinks, like some kind of bartending hummingbird.
It’s this cultural shift and the changing place of women that got event organiser Karen Pickering thinking in the first place. Sensing Melbourne’s diverse events scene was lacking a fun, feminist voice – the kind of event she’d want to attend – Karen, a former editor of Overland, went one better than to complain. She made her own.
“From month, it’s run like Q and A or Insight, but it’s in the pub so it’s more fun,” she says.
This month’s Cherchez La Femme, as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival line-up forms part of a series of panel discussions, with previous topics including feminism and the law, and feminism and sport (a particularly lively debate, so Karen tells me). Attracting a regular crowd of about sixty, mainly female, participants, Cherchez La Femme is a discussion between feminists, adjudicated by a feminist, for an audience of feminists.
So, does she ever worry it’s all just preaching to the converted?
Eyes squinting slightly from behind her tinted Raybans, Karen pauses to think before answering.
“My vision was always to have a space where you didn’t have to defend your feminism,” she says.
“Feminism has so many functions and viewpoints (itself), I wanted to create a space where feminists would be able to talk together and find common ground. Realise we’re all on the same side, so we can actually get more done.”
For the benefit of her non-French speaking interviewer, Karen explains that the name actually translates to ‘look for the woman’. Still lost in translation, she tells me it’s a Continental inversion of the familiar ‘behind every great man, there’s a great woman’ sentiment, that basically categories women as troublemakers and corrupters of society – a prejudice that arguably filters through into modern times.
To tie-in with the Fringe theme, this month’s topic was feminism and the arts, featuring a panel comprising of “esteemed panelistas”: comedian Lou Sanz, Art Nation presenter Namila Benson, art critic Cerise Howard and artist Dr Megan Evans.
“The arts is kind of like a pointillist masterpiece,” says Karen, opening the show, “From a distance it looks great, but up close it’s a bit shit.”
From anecdotes of casual sexual harassment to extolling the virtues of the Green Guide’s letters page, discussion waded through the grey areas of gender difference and political correctness in an industry equally renowned for pushing the boundaries as it is reinforcing tired stereotypes.
With her polkadot pumps and hair impressive in Amadala-inspired coils, Namila admits it’s a tougher gig for a woman in the arts.
“Let’s be honest, I don’t look like Livinia Nixon,” she laughs.
“Being a woman, you’re always going to be subject to a higher level of scrutiny. Some of the male presenters rock up in their flannies!”
But according to Lou Sanz, the blokey atmosphere of comedy clubs doesn’t necessarily foster any animosity between the sexes, or unequal treatment. But out of the wings, up on the stage, the story is different.
“I wouldn’t say the industry is necessarily sexist, I’d say audiences are, and that’s the truth of it,” she says.
The common (and condescending) refrain, says Sanz, is ‘you’re really funny for a girl’, and time to time, heckling can get vicious.
“We still have the proverbial jug of beer thrown at our heads,” she says.
For artist Megan Evans, the arts has provided a refuge from restricted gender roles. But it’s also been the site of some heated debates about what alternatives are considered acceptable.
As part of a community mural project in Fitzroy, made exclusively by women, she came up against some stubborn detractors who took issue with the image’s depiction of a patchwork of female figures. Presumably permits for an overblown Lynx billboard would have passed council screening more easily.
“I guess I became radicalized as a feminist at that point, because we had such difficulties with that project,” she says.
But, as Cerise Howard, notes, it’s women who have often been pioneers in the arts, especially in the area of film. Although Kathryn Bigelow may have just scored the first female Best Director Oscar this year, women have been shaping the silver screen since Frenchwoman Alice Guy made the first narrative film in 1896.
Amongst the intellectual banter and occasional microphone glitches (an omen perhaps, of the problems of denying women a ‘voice’?), cabaret performer Kitty Bang and musical acts from Emily Jarrett and Eloise Maree entertained the audience with their sometimes hilarious, sometimes soulful performances.
Frequently interrupted by spontaneous applause and bouts of laughter, the time seemed to pass quickly and before I knew it, it was over. Daring to make the descent from my lofty barstool, I caught a second look at that goddamn ugly lounge set. Busy accommodating for a group of girlfriends, all red lippie and vintage clothes, it almost looked like a freeze frame from another time – the only difference was, there wasn’t a cucumber sandwich in sight.
And they say feminism has failed.
Divided We Fail: How Individualism is Holding the U.S. Back
The bootstrap mentality is about as American as apple pie. But it’s destroying our already frayed social net and education system. Can we resist our individualistic roots to mobilize and enact progressive policies?
To understand the swampy depths of American individualism is also to acknowledge that we have a serious inability to comprehend looming disaster. In fact, we’re uniquely terrible at it.
Loosely defined, American individualism is the idea that prosperity and growth is overwhelmingly the result of an individual’s hard work, cleverness, grit, and all that. (It’s both hilarious and fitting that one of our most reviled and economically disastrous presidents, Herbert Hoover, was the main architect behind the notion of American individualism.)
On one hand, this belief in individualism seems empowering. It tells us we are the captains of our own ships. It tells us we don’t have to be defined by our childhood traumas or underfunded school systems. It tells us that through scrappiness and ingenuity and discipline, we can rise above our circumstances and succeed, no matter what.
The inverse, of course, is that our failures are also ours alone to bear—with little regard for the systems and circumstances that cause some people to spend lifetimes catching up to where others were simply born.
American individualism explains so much of what we get wrong as a country, even in 2019. We downplay the systemic racism and violence of our police force through tunnel vision that tells us there are only a “few bad apples” rather than a flawed, oppressive police state. We’re unable to treat things like healthcare or housing as basic human rights, positing instead that those without access to food or shelter probably just haven’t “earned” it. And higher education—often treated as the great equalizer by meritocrats—is so expensive, it’s crippling our economy as a whole. Yet too many students are blaming themselves, and too many people are blaming students.
One is the Lousiest Number
These days, it’s hard to pick what to worry about more in the U.S. The list of societal threats certainly is long—climate change, the impending retirement crisis, the ongoing student debt crisis. These problems have been worsening for decades, and they’re all the result of failures at a systematic level.
The climate crisis was ramped up by decades of poorly regulated industries that pumped carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The retirement crisis that will likely come full force when Generation X starts leaving the workforce was set into motion by a shrinking pension system and the increasingly uncertain future of Social Security. And higher education became outrageously expensive over years of unchecked soaring tuition and fee increases.
But not everyone recognizes these mass-scale problems for what they are. Instead, too many people are blaming individual choices for giant societal failures. And these arguments are distracting us from collective solutions. Realistically, no one should be arguing that student loan forgiveness is a “half-baked” idea steeped in self-interest. Or that climate change can be reasonably combatted through laudable (yet mostly insignificant) individual actions like going vegetarian.
The numbers prove just how puny our individual actions really are against these larger-than-us problems. For example, even the most generous, self-massaged estimates put a single company like ExxonMobil’s annual carbon emissions in the range of well over 100 million CO2 equivalent metric tons. The average American, through even the most radical lifestyle changes and discipline, would likely only lower their annual emissions from about 20 metric tons to 8 metric tons. It would take millions and millions of people selling their cars and going vegan to equate to just one ExxonMobil. (Spoiler alert: There are way too many companies just like it.)
As Aaron Huertas of the Union of Concerned Scientists eloquently states: “We can’t ignore individual choice and responsibility; at the same time, we also have to recognize that our individual choices are constrained by corporate practices and government laws and regulations.”
A Way Out and Up
All is not lost, though. There is hope.
While the 2020 presidential pool for the Democrats may be a bit flooded, the makeup of the pool has revealed a trend: the ideas of sweeping economic relief and safety net programs are becoming more mainstream. If the Democratic party can just avoid spending its time strategizing against democratic socialism, we could enact policies that tackle these problems at the level they’re actually at.
Party insiders and centrists aside, it looks like voters are—even if just subtly and slowly—pressuring politicians to stop blaming individual choice for societal woes. The idea of multiple presidential candidates touting competing student loan relief programs would have seemed outrageous even a few election cycles ago—and now Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Julián Castro are all on board.
The point is, we’re getting there. And if we can fight against our very American instincts, we can realize—en masse—that our efforts to save our planet might be better spent organizing than remembering to recycle our empty salsa jars. We can take solace in knowing a liberal arts degree isn’t a personal failing that deserves financial punishment. We can accept that, as individuals, we may not be as powerful on our own as we thought, but we also may not be as much to blame for our struggles.
And then, we can mobilize.
The Long Goodbye: A Spurs fan’s final salute to Kawhi Leonard
Am I a product of my generation? Yes, just like Kawhi and many of today’s younger generation of fans are a product of theirs.
The saga of Kawhi Leonard is over and while his signing to the Clippers means that two fanbases are left incredibly disappointed, there’s one group that is making their overdue final goodbyes. For Spurs fans like myself, it is clear that while the Board Man is a special player, he is a product of the current generation of players- loyal to themselves. It’s OK, I’ve resigned myself to moving on because I was happy that he won in Toronto, happy for everyone involved (except for Drake) because I knew that as soon as he signed for the Clippers, his legacy would no longer be built on unbreakable bonds but rather on personal pursuit alone. And that was never the trait of the silver and black. At times during this saga, I’ve felt like Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s 1973 movie The Long Goodbye, blinded by what I initially thought was loyalty. But after living through Kawhi sitting out, his demands for leaving, and ultimately, his winning a ring for the North, I’ve realized that in today’s NBA, allegiance, integrity, and trust are the exception, not the norm.
One of my earliest memories of being a Spurs fan was the ragtag group of players assembled for the 1992 season. It was early in my Spurs fandom and only two years into the storied career of David Robinson. The Admiral would become my favorite Spur, and ultimately, my favorite NBA player of all-time, but it was clear early on that he needed help. While Sean Elliott, Willie Anderson, and Avery Johnson were nice pieces, it was memories of wayward Rod Strickland passes that would ultimately encapsulate that time as an NBA fan. But the truth is, it was an important learning phase for any true NBA fan- that success comes with smart moves and dedicated, loyal, and hard working players who forever would put team above the name on the back of the jersey.
The years that followed was a mix of frustration and hope. The team gelled, especially for the 1994-1995 season where the team finished 1st in the Midwest (62-20) and David Robinson would end up capturing the league MVP after a dominant season (27 ppg, 10 reb, 3 blks). It was all awash come playoff time where vivid memories of Hakeem Olajuwon “dream shaking” The Admiral out of his shoes still haunt me to this day.
Perseverance paid off. Both for the Spurs and to fans like myself. Then general manager Gregg Popovich took on the additional responsibility of running the ship from the sideline, David Robinson was never traded, he rarely complained, and the miracle of the 1997 NBA Draft changed the fortunes of the franchise forever.
The years that followed were graced by the very best kind of basketball for basketball purists. While the league continued to flourish under the star power and glamour of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the Spurs quietly put together championship pedigree devoid of front page drama, superstar whinging and a sense of loyalty to the city and team that has all but become extinct in today’s NBA. My generation of Spurs fans are lucky to have lived through 5 championships, but also lucky that we were able to stay true to a team that had loyalty in their DNA. We were blessed that Tim Duncan got to take the court with players Tony Parker and Manu. Both absolutely crucial to the titles and the teams, both exhibited the kind of character seemingly rare today.
Kawhi was supposed to be the next titan of the team. We saw what was possible with his captaincy and Finals MVP run for the 2014 ring. He was supposed to continue the Spurs legacy. What we got instead was an endless whinge-fest, culminating in his sitting out all but 9 games of the 2017-2018 season. The mysterious ailment that plagued him, his battle with Spurs management, his desire to “go home” to California, and his distance from other Spurs players led to so much unnecessary frustration. In March of 2018, Manu was quoted as saying; “For me, he’s not coming back because it’s not helping [to think Leonard is returning]. We fell for it a week ago again. I guess you guys made us fall for it. But we have to think that he’s not coming back, that we are who we are, and that we got to fight without him.”
It’s the kind of distraction that my 7th-grade basketball coach would have found embarrassing. Kawhi did the Spurs dirty, and while fans often project the burden of legacy on to players even when they never set out to be, it is the unfortunate fall out of being a great player- especially one that at the time, seem to fit the mold. Kawhi has now done the Raptors dirty, and if he wins a title in Clipper-land, he will most likely do them dirty too. It’s his MO, it’s his way, and really, in today’s 2K video game NBA, it’s OK because that’s just the way it goes.
Team basketball is dead, superteam basketball is now the play. Raptors fans are playing it cool, saying that the one title was more than they could have ever asked for. But really, if I was a Raptors fan I would be disappointed because Toronto seemed like such a great place for him to be. A good coach, a good front office, an adoring nation, everything he said he was unhappy with in San Antonio. If I was a Raptors fan, I would be disappointed not because the team didn’t do what the Clippers did and mortgage their future for a chance for more, but because Kawhi proved that there’s no such thing as loyalty- and that it’s OK today as long as there’s some transient success. Perhaps I have been spoiled by Spurs basketball. Spoiled by Popp’s team-first mentality where the glory of championship parades is not the end, but the next beginning. If I was a Clippers fan I would be wary. Not just because Kawhi isn’t as superhuman as we’ve all made him to be. But because the Clippers DID have to mortgage an entire future for Kawhi and Paul George to battle it out against LeBron, against AD, against an entire city that will always hold the Lakers above the Clippers. If I was a Clippers fan, I would be wary of Kawhi’s new 3-year, $103 million dollar deal (with the option to opt-out in two). Not because it means he’s positioned himself for that supermax pay off, but because potentially, he could weasel his way out of the Clippers in two years too.
Am I old and a little bitter? Maybe. I’m grateful of Kawhi’s contributions to that 2014 title- his performance during those finals, especially after the bitter disappointment of the previous year, proved that he was more than capable of being the next Spurs great. He came alive in Game 3, proved his MVP status in Games 4 and 5, and cemented what seemed like the future for the franchise. But in the end, what stands out more for me is the letdown that Kawhi just wasn’t up to par with the Spurs giants that he was supposed to follow. Am I a product of my generation? Yes, just like Kawhi and many of today’s younger generation of fans are a product of theirs.
He could have been placed next to The Iceman, The Admiral, and The Big Fundamental, instead, Kawhi becomes another in the long line of a new generation of NBA superstars beholden to no one but themselves, playing their former teams and fanbases for fools. I feel like Phillip Marlowe, manipulated, trust broken, hearing Kawhi telling me that “maybe I’ll never learn, maybe I’m a born loser”. Maybe he’s right, maybe I’m just waiting for my harmonica moment. It’s the way things go today.