Still a long way from the tipping point

Observations on girl power

Rushing through an art gallery, I passed a film featuring a female cleaner who seemed to be solving the dilemma of how best to polish a banister by sliding down it, commando beneath her overalls. I was late for a workshop on feminist campaigning and arrived, gasping, face-to-face with a gorilla mask.

The masked woman leading the workshop was a member of the Guerrilla Girls, a US-based collective formed in 1985 to protest against male domination of the art world and beyond. They remain anonymous behind their masks, each identified only by the name of a dead female artist. Their campaigns take many forms, but best known are their billboard posters, three of which are at the Oxo Tower's Bargehouse gallery in London, as part of Amnesty International's exhibition "Imagine a World . . .".

The Guerrilla Girls' first visit to the UK has come at an interesting time. In the past five years the backlash against feminism has gained ground, peaking in August when the broadcaster Michael Buerk commented that the "shift in the balance of power between the sexes" had gone too far. Men, he suggested, were now little more than "sperm donors".

Buerk's comments provoked much derision (Anna Ford dubbed him "bonkers") and a barrage of conflicting statistics. He backed up his argument by referring to the undoubted rise of female power-players in British broadcasting; others cited the ascendancy of women artists (in particular Tracey Emin, whose work also features in Amnesty's show). Yet the Fawcett Society published a compelling list of statistics - for instance, that only 20 per cent of MPs and 15 per cent of national newspaper editors are women.

I was thinking about all this as "Frida Kahlo" talked us through the Guerrilla Girls' work and advised us on setting up our own campaigns. Have a few specific but significant areas become so female-dominated that men have little or no chance of breaking into them? Will other sectors join them until the gender seesaw reaches a tipping point that sees it teeter and plunge firmly in women's favour? Will this new order cause just as many problems as the old one?

I was still thinking about this when I got home and sat through an enjoyable evening of Strictly Come Dancing, The X-Factor and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? (it had been a long week). But all doubts were wiped at the end of this last programme, when Chris Tarrant commented: "Well, it's been girls' night tonight." It was a throwaway remark, but it reminded me just how much women's participation in cultural life is still noticed (by me as much as anyone) and commented upon, while men's is a given. Had those three contestants been male, their sex would have been invisible.

So whereas the Spice Girls, the Donnas and the Slits are called "all-girl bands", I've never heard anyone comment on the gender of Franz Ferdinand, the Strokes or Arctic Monkeys. There are "boy bands", of course, but that's strictly a genre definition. "Girl bands" are defined as such whether they're punk, indie, hip-hop or folk.

To be male is still to command a strangely universal position, while women are treated as a minority. The 2003 Booker Prize shortlist (four women, two men) was described as a "triumph for women", while the 2005 list (four men, two women) produced little or no comment along gender lines beyond the occasional observation that, well, wasn't it warming to see some women on the list?

So long as it seems anomalous for a University Challenge team to feature three women and a man (with the result that it gets called "the girls' team"), I think it is safe to say that there's still a feminist case to be made. Now, I really must get to work on those posters . . .

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