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.