At the beginning of this year I set myself a goal with regard to both reading novels and buying CDs (or their digital equivalents). I decided that this year at least 50% of the books and albums I would consume would be by female artists.
I’ve generally held back on any sort of direct imposition of “quotas” (that horrible word that people tend to use to describe any imposition of “artificial” choice upon “natural” choice; a pretty problematic binary to begin with but what the hey) in regard to art. But this year I figured what the hell, I would give it a shot and see what happened.
For the purposes of comparison, last year my stats in both areas were around 60/40 in favour of male writers/artists.
So what did I learn?
In terms of novels, I didn’t find the exercise too challenging at all. I did learn that my past tastes (in terms of authors whose books I “looked out for) skewed toward male authors. So I needed to step out of my comfort zone a little and buy some authors who I had never read or heard of before.
In the end my stats for this year are around 70/30 in favour of female writers. And I don’t regret the experiment at all; I don’t feel that I had to compromise on quality in the slightest to make that figure, and I managed to discover a lot of authors who I think will be on my list of favourites for years to come.
I did find my list of books read leaned more heavily than usual toward literary fiction and away from genre fiction. I’m not sure whether the gender factor had any correlation with this or whether it was just something I was leaning toward anyway. Overall, I felt that, if anything, I found the books I read this year more enjoyable than last year, so in the end the experiment felt like a success in those terms.
Music was a much tougher ask, for the simple reason that I buy and listen to a lot more albums in a year than I read books. So the shift in ratio required a lot more purchases from female artists. During the year I discovered a few things:
1) My music history is quite strongly skewed toward male artists.
2) Reviews of music, music blogs and other forms of recommending new music are highly skewed toward male artists.
3) Based on the info on new release albums each week that I could find, the music industry itself is still highly dominated by male artists.
These three things are not unrelated, of course, but it meant that as the year went by and I exhausted all the obvious suspects who were already on my radar, I had to do quite a bit of detective work to find enough female singers/bands to make up my list.
My final ratio was 56 percent female artists (and I should qualify, I used a somewhat subjective measure as to whether a band qualified as female, largely based on where I perceived the dominant energy in the band was, in terms of songwriting and singer, mostly).
Unlike the reading list, I do feel like I had to make some compromise on quality (from a subjective point of view of course) to make my music list equal. Not a large compromise, but a small one. That said, there were benefits to that to some extent too, as I forced myself to find artists and bands outside my usual genres.
One thing I did notice was that while I found it quite easy to find female singer-songwriters, it was a lot harder to find groups, and in particular rock groups. I think that says a lot about the industry itself, and the gender expectations on musicians. But I did manage to find some good groups who went against the trend.
Most people probably don’t buy as much music as I do, so probably these issues were atypical. But I don’t actually regret doing it; I grew to enjoy the detective work of hunting these lesser known bands out. And again, I discovered a whole heap of great artists who I will continue to follow.
So this is the part where I feel like I should draw some kind of conclusion. But I don’t really feel like that’s something I want to do, or the point of the exercise. Obviously there were things I learned about the visibility of gender in each field, the accessibility and the biases inherent in my own history as a reader and listener. And I think it’s worth trying an experiment like this, if for no other reason than to brush your own tastes against the grain and push the boundaries a bit.
I suspect I’ll continue to track my gender consumption next year, out of curiosity. It takes more than one year to undo preconditioned tastes, but I feel that this year has changed the way that I look for music and books to the extent that it will be a fairly natural thing to continue. I’m not to fussed whether the ratio is always 50/50, but certainly keeping my own leanings visible to myself is worthwhile.
I don’t really know what my opinion is regarding gender ratios these days. I think we all have to walk our own path and I’m certainly not suggesting you, dear reader, need to analyse your tastes or subject them to the same numeric scrutiny. On the other hand, if you do choose to, I hope you find it as rewarding and as much fun as I did.