Being a woman in a “gentleman’s club”

It was just that I had the feeling the art scene belonged to the men, and that I was in some way invading their domain. Therefore the work was done and hidden away. I felt more comfortable hiding it. On the other hand, I destroyed nothing. I kept every fragment. – Louise Bourgeois, 1979

When I was twenty, a friend of my grandparents’ invited me for lunch at one of the members’ clubs on Pall Mall. Women were admitted to the club restaurant and other guest areas, but not everywhere in the club. On my way to the ladies’ room, I took a wrong turn and found myself in a richly appointed, high-ceilinged lounge – a sea of Chesterfields. The odd pool of lamp light glimmered over a bald or grey head buried in a broadsheet. I took a few bold strides into the room. One or two heads looked up from their reading. One old man cleared his throat and blinked. I sensed that I was in the wrong place, and beat a hasty retreat. It was only once I was outside that I read the brass plaque reading “gentlemen only”.

I’m not sure why this memory came back to me today. But I have been pondering the odd ways that gender roles and ambivalence can complicate our creativity, and this story has some resonance for me. Working in the film industry as a woman director has sometimes felt like my foray into the forbidden salons of a gentlemen’s club. My feeling is supported by widely publicised statistics – one survey last year put the percentage of female directors working on features at 5%; another estimate is as high as 9%. Either way, the proportion is unrepresentative of the population.

Unlike Louise Bourgeois, I have destroyed my work. I have trashed drawings, notebooks and whole films (including taped rushes – never film): all part of a complicated relationship I have with creativity, violence and destruction – one which began at an early age – and may have reflected a healthy doubt about my juvenilia. I have also hidden my work. I completely understand and empathise with Bourgeois’ words about the art scene and her reaction to it.

Gender biases and stereotypes are all the more insidious because we internalise them and turn them upon ourselves.

We don’t have to believe the words on the brass plaque.

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