Archive for July, 2014

I myself have never been able to find our precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute” – Rebecca West, You Rebecca in The Fictional Woman, page 284

As a young female under the age of 30, I have worn many labels in my personal and professional life. The young librarian, single woman, femme fatale, unionist, witch, dumb blonde, teacher’s pet, social butterfly, chef’s daughter, Aussie, German, shire girl, westie, feminist…and most interestingly ‘tutonic temptress’! So, naturally, I was incredibly moved when I first saw Tara Moss on Q&A talking about the common fictions and gender archetypes that define and confine us, and bravely speaking out about the all too common and personal experience of sexual harassment, violence, rape and inequality experienced by far too many women including herself.

Speaking of archetypes, I would just like to get one thing straight by clarifying one of many misconceptions. When I say I am a feminist, I am not proclaiming that I am a perverse bitter and twisted man- hater, simply that I am an advocate for women’s rights on the grounds of political, social and economic equality to men, and the expectation of being treated with R.E.S.P.E.C.T. on those terms. In fact, I believe that males and females have both masculine and feminine traits, therefore men can and should be feminists too. After all, “every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man” (Margaret Mead, The Fictional Woman, page 256). Just like women, feminine traits in men are the subject of ridicule, and seen as sign of weakness, and a threat to their masculinity. In my experience, this is most especially true of artistic pursuits such as singing, dancing or anything to do with the arts, culture and humanities. Traditionally, these are seen as ‘feminine pursuits’, often making then off limits to men and boys who want to protect their masculinity. Far too many times I have seen men with a certain artistic flair struggle underneath the weight of expectation put on them by their mates, and frightened off by the fear of being the ‘token male’ amongst a group of females? For women, one only needs to look at the appalling treatment of our first female prime minister to see that we are still uncomfortable with displays of leadership and power in women

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So when Tara mentioned her new book, ‘The Fictional Women’, I did the librarian thing and quickly jumped online to reserve a copy at my local library. From the moment I had the book in my hands, I couldn’t put it down.

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The next day, commuting to work, still glued to the pages of the book, I was about ¼ of a way through when I thought wow, this is really something. Getting closer and closer to my destination, I added ‘Fictional Woman’ to my reading list on Goodreads and shared it on Twitter. Not long after that, I had a retweet from the author herself, and a personal expression of thanks. But that wasn’t all. Obviously, she could tell by my Twitter account that I had an interest in flamenco dancing, and asked me my opinion on her description of the male flamenco dancer in the chapter ‘The Beautiful Man’.

Naturally, I jumped ahead to chapter 12, The Beautiful Man. Her description of an encounter with male flamenco dancer in a small tavern in Madrid while on tour in Spain, is full of surprise. Expecting to see a woman in a polka-dot dress dancing, instead she sees a “beautiful man” dressed in “a male corset, and small but flamboyant turquoise polka-dot scarf tied around his neck….and bolero” which “enhanced and showcases his masculine physique….emotionality, strength, vulnerability and sensuality” . Obviously struck with this expression of “male beauty”, and “the profound absence of the sensual, idealised male beauty in Anglo- Saxon culture so dominant in Australia”, which rejects and ridicules men and boys for “grooming or dressing in a way that aims to be aesthetically beautiful, or aims to attract a partner”?

Being a dancer who has learnt many styles over the years (including Latin American and ballroom) from a young age, flamenco always struck me as incredibly empowering for both men and women. Tara Moss points out this essential quality of flamenco. The “extraordinary fierceness and strength” shown by both male and female dancers.

not once does the viewer sense that the woman….is a passive and decorative object, succumbing to a dominant man…man and woman are presented as forces of nature, clashing, moving together and showing their pain, anguish, lust and determination” – Tara Moss, The Fictional Woman, page

In doing so, Moss accurately and poignantly makes the connection between flamenco and feminism, most particularly, flamenco and the equality of the sexes. This has been reasonably well documented in books written on the historical and political context of flamenco. Donn Pohren was the first writer in history to communicate the mysteries of flamenco to an English-speaking audience. See http://www.salon.com/1999/10/02/pohren/. He writes about flamenco ‘as art’ and flamenco ‘as a way of life’. In this way, flamenco is not just the music of southern Spain. More than that it is a way of life that influences the daily activities of may southern Spaniards. The art of flamenco is the outward expression of the flamenco way of life, expressed by anyone who is emotionally and actively involved in this unique philosophy’ Pohren 1962. The central philosophy and narrative is that of the social outcast, the wandering gypsies who passed through Andalucian, and were bound up in the history of colonisation, conquest and persecution throughout the ages. See flamenco family tree http://nylonguitarist.com/flamenco_family_tree.html

Interestingly, the political nature of flamenco is discussed in ‘Anything but background music’ by writer on the politics of culture Mike Marqusee in red pepper magazine. See http://www.redpepper.org.uk/anything-but-background-music/. Marqusee, points to the poetic influence of Lorca in the cante jondo, the ‘deep song’ associated with the gypsies of southern Spain. Lorca found in it a source of inspiration in his lifelong political-cultural-sexual struggle against bourgeois philistinism. The recovery and promotion of deep song was part of a larger democratic embrace of popular beauty, an antidote to what he came to see as the inhuman machine of modern capitalism. As a leftist and modernist, he embraced cultural diversity and plural identities of flamenco, whose unique expressive forms, gave access to remote but shared human realms and opportunity to champion the music of the gypsies, as he did the Muslim and Jewish roots of Spanish culture. All of which made him a prime target for the fascists, who murdered him in the early days of the civil war.

In ‘Flamenco: Passion, Politics and Popular Culture’, William Washabaugh describes flamenco as that which remembers, celebrates and plays with male and female centered “moments of sociality”. This is illustrated in a dance from Seville called the sevillanas. In this dance, the woman imitates the bull with arms curved over her head, challenging the composure and self discipline of the man with her wild and dangerous naturalness. Public fraternity and male bonding occur in small public gatherings, late at night in pubs and taverns where working class men gather together to celebrate camaraderie with wine and spine chilling emotionally charges and poetic flamenco cante. For women, bright, daring and carnivalesque festivals like the feria, represents a release from the constraints of social life, which allows women to dress in daring clothes and dance provocative dances. This corresponds to my own experience of Thursday night flamenco at the Spanish Club

Every Thursday night, we would finish our flamenco class, and venture downstairs to the bar where the party had only just begun. There was live music, singing and dancing all night long, and the club would be filled with Spaniards of all ages, drinking, eating tapas, and talking with friends after a long week at work. Men and women would spontaneously get up to sing and dance with the musicians. Occasionally, I would get up to dance the sevillanas and tangos we had been working on in class with my fellow flamencas. Being a working night, a late night of escapism and dancing all night felt very indulgent, liberating and empowering. It was as though all the pressure and worry of the week was suddenly lifted from my shoulders, and instead was filled with the joy of music and dance.

The next chapter…

‘A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has’ –Margaret Mead, in ‘The Next Chapter, page 305, The Fictional Woman
In the same way, I feel that by bravely documenting her personal experiences in the Fictional Woman, Tara Moss ‘makes the personal political’, empowering for the next generation of feminists to ‘change the story. To look beyond the fictions of the past, stop viewing activism and feminism as radical and see the bigger picture. To acknowledge that woman in the 21st century can be as strong, complex and multi-dimensional as men. Tara’s book pave the way for next generation of women and men to arm themselves with use statistics, research and lived experience, to draw attention to the existence of gender inequalities. To challenge those who would have us believe that the position of women as secondary to man is part of the natural order of things. To dispel the myth of ‘meritocracy’, which has for centuries ignored the simple fact that the so called ‘best person for the job has been from the same demographic. This book is calling us to take actions both large and small. By acting with new knowledge and using our democratic rights to lessen bias, practice inclusion, seek out facts to challenge assumptions, and to speak out against inequalities where they exist – we can change the world, one decision, one action, one word at a time.

On that  note, I would  like to leave  you with an inspiring Farruca traditionally danced by men, but this time danced by Marina 

Sydney Ideas – Tara Moss: The Fictional Woman

Author Tara Moss on molded gender narratives, toxic silences, and damaging stereotypes. In conversation with Professor Elspeth Probyn and a fellow PhD candidate in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, Paul Priday.


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