The siren sits on the rocks and sings to passing ships. Sailors, intoxicated by her song, wreck their ships on the rocks and die. It’s a common narrative of feminine sexuality and power that ultimately teaches men to fear and suspect women of ill-intent. We see it in mythology, we see it in classic literature (think Lady Macbeth and Queen Gertrude), we see it in film (the femme fatale of every film noir ever made, the way the slut is always the first to die in any horror film, and you only survive at all if you’re a virgin). We experience it in our own lives, when a school girl is told to wear her skirt longer because the boys and male teachers can’t concentrate, or in the undeniable double-standard where women can’t simultaneously be sexual beings and romantic partner material.
We experience the fear of the siren call in how our culture responds to women’s activism. Just over a year ago an irresistible song rose up from Women In Theatre & Screen, and thousands of women have joined the chorus. From the first tentative strains, the fear of women and their power has inspired everything from gentle mansplaining how we really don’t understand our own oppression, to outright drunken vitriol. Our first great offence was holding a women-only forum. As I said in my “maiden” speech for WITS, despite common misconception, when women unite it is not all cauldrons and witchcraft and cursing men. Sometimes, indeed always when it comes to WITS, it is celebration, pro-activity, self-empowerment and self-advancement. It is creating new spaces for women, not thieving spaces from men.
The fear of the siren is rooted in the misconception that honouring women’s power and creating space for women which, as over 50% of the population, is rightfully theirs anyway, necessarily means dis-empowering men and claiming their territory. The extraordinary success of Festival Fatale (consciously provocatively named!) under the consummate leadership of Lizzie Schebesta, which showcased so many diverse artists, including a few men, and engaged an even wider and more diverse audience, proves the point I made at the second WITS forum, that putting women front and centre does not mean robbing men of their opportunities. What it means is growing an audience by demonstrating their stories matter, and by extension growing the industry, and this is good for everyone.
Since those first forums, the blatant adversarialism has died down. I like to think that by creating opportunities for women that have in no way disadvantaged men, that by adding to the landscape, we’ve alleviated some of those fears. And to some extent, I think this is true. But the complacent non-effort of some cultural leaders, allowing their representation of women to diminish with their seasons for next year as WITS women Maryann Wright and Michela Carattini identified (shout out to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company who smashed gender parity outta the park with 60% women for next year!), tells us our adversaries are still out there, they’re just not singing their song as loudly anymore. I imagine they hope to fly under the radar. But the numbers speak for themselves.
WITS will keep singing its song. It is, like the siren, irresistible. It is sexy. It is powerful. It is magical. But it is not dangerous. The siren doesn’t want to destroy you – she just wants to share her music with you, because it is beautiful. Remember how the siren’s song drew you in, and how the power of that call is what terrified you in the first place? Let her sing on your stage and on your screen and imagine how she might entrance, inspire, and entice a new, engaged, hungry audience.