Friday, November 17, 2006

The “Female Take-Over” or “Male Abandonment” of Arts Appreciation

“You want to talk of Keats or Milton, she only wants to talk of love

You go to see the play or ballet, and spend it searching for her glove!”

Professor Henry Higgins in “Let a Woman in Your Life”, My Fair Lady, lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, 1956

Above is a comical line, but interesting in its implications. Once upon a time, men were the ones who were interested in the arts and comprised most of the audience; women were seen as lacking the ability to fully appreciate plays, ballets, poems, and music, much less able to produce these works of art. However, over the past fifty years we’ve seen “the arts” become a female enterprise at least in its maintenance – the production of art is still largely thought to be a male endeavor.

In some ways, this is not a shock. Once women gain a foothold in an audience or area, the men start to leave in droves (or are pushed out). Career-wise, this can be followed in the gender ratios of men and women in the medical fields and advanced degrees in the biological sciences, among others. It has also been observed in the decline of male participation in Christian churches. There's even a trend in obtaining college degrees. I’m not going to attempt to undertake an explanation of why and how this complex sociological and psychological phenomenon occurs (or why there’s a branch of feminism that teaches “we’re all the same” even though men seem to disagree); I will instead focus on its repercussions.

In small degrees, it’s understandable why men have almost completely ducked out of the ballet audience. Men were once the largest portion of the ballet audience; it was even thought unseemly for women, in some cases, to attend. But since the rise of the Nutcracker in this country (spurred by Balanchine’s enormously successful production in 1954), ballet is seen strictly in terms of the Nutcracker’s adolescent heroine and the confectionary dream-land that she inhabits in Act 2. No matter that The Nutcracker can be an image of idealized childhood (when the production doesn’t make it have pseudo-Freudian sexual overtones of Clara/Marie’s initiation into THAT adult world) appealing to adults and children; it’s most frequent association is with pink and little girls through the multitude of ballet school productions every year. It is also interesting that the male audience for ballet remains strong in other countries, particularly in Russia, so ballet clearly isn’t something only men can enjoy.

When women began to increase their numbers (in attendance or in occupation in a field), there's a tendency for that art form (or occupation) to become associated with the feminine (or effeminate): men in fields that are dominated by women are thought to be gay. The consequences of this are negative for the arts: men still control many of the purse-strings and may be less likely to financially support something they see as a feminine enterprise, and the homosexual stigma on these men who are involved in the arts doesn't make it more attractive.

Also of concern is that, because of the female associations, men never learn to fully appreciate art. For instance, I heard many times in both primary and secondary school that "girls are the ones who are good at literature" (just like I heard many many times in college, from female classmates, that "engineering is too hard; there's all that MATH"). Both the former and the latter begin to sound like mantras, discouraging the opposite sex from interest and pursuit in those fields. In art, as I elaborated below, lack of interest can have dire consequences. We can't get by on only one gender cultivating the arts in our civilization

2 comments:

Aurelian said...

Another interesting post, and in a way, to those of us accustomed to certain images of genteel Victorian society, while it makes sense, it is still a surprise that women were once seen as lacking interest in the arts or ability to appreciate them. I guess the image conveyed by Lerner is not the one that has subconsciously impressed itself.

Stipulating that, there is no question of the phenomena that men decamp or are pushed out by areas that become dominated by women, or feminized. Ballet is indeed a good example of this, and actually usefully shows to aspects of how this happens in the way described in the post.

1) It has indeed shifted to a strong association (at least in America, with female dancers and particularly, yes, the "Nutcracker" imagarery of ethereal fantasy lands. Even allowing for its still masculine overtone overseas, and especially in Russia, it still comes as a surprise to learn that ballet was pioneered in the great French courts of Versaille by Louis and the court, not women.

The mention of how even in careers this `gender flight/shift' also holds true, but can also derive from real differences in emphasis on how men and women think about things.

To return to ballet, yes, another aspect is almost accidental, for regarding " The consequences of this are negative for the arts: men still control many of the purse-strings and may be less likely to financially support something they see as a feminine enterprise, and the homosexual stigma on these men who are involved in the arts doesn't make it more attractive."

While the above is true, its not just the present domination/association of women dancers in ballet, but also the *costumes* that tend to re-inforce this imagery in an unfortunate way. Put in a locker room fashion, it would take more than just more women being involved to make football seem effeminate, (at least till the rules were changed to lower the bar on the roughness). But since ballet costumes follow a form for grace and a traditional design, this unfairly falls victim to sterotypes when it has nothing to do with being effeminate. (Those my age will easily recall how this was assumed by classmate about Ron Reagan Jr. in the early 80's).

But this too, derives from a marked cultural illeteracy. Once the history/origins of ballet are known, or some appreciation gained for the sheer physical exertion and discipline needed, then it will be realized it is no more `feminized' or weak than Olympic competitors in the gym.

One sidebar here, helps explain why this tendency of "men leave in droves when women move in" phenomena surprises when it shouldn't. That is the systematic ignoring of the reality of gender difference.

Its interesting to note regarding:"I’m not going to attempt to undertake an explanation of why and how this complex sociological and psychological phenomenon occurs (or why there’s a branch of feminism that teaches “we’re all the same” even though men seem to disagree)"

This branch of feminist thought has been all but disproved,not by traditionalist backlash, but by science and biology. There IS genuine differences in how the brains and motives of the genders are `wired' and expressed, and the attempt to ignore this in the name of total egalitarianism has been one of the lasting mistakes of that branch of feminism.

- Aurelian

aurelian said...

A follow-up point seems worth mentioning. While the poster clearly doesn't agree with the feminist school of thought that promotes a "we are all the same" or a "unisex" assumption about gender, the post does raise and unspoken question about the problems that school of though has caused seeking to eliminate gender-specific enclaves, whether clubs or activites:

Supposing we do `go back to' (or rather "forward" to the realization that neurology, biology, psychology are showing that gender differences are real, even so, how would this translate into a way to "strike a balance"? How does an art form, like ballet, receive sufficient "mix" of both, to avoid driving out one gender or the other?

Or should art forms be seen as alternating between the genders, sortof rotating from pole to pole from time to time in emphasis, much like the Earth's magnetic field has been known to flip?

A thought to consider, though answers are lacking at this point.

- Aurelian