The question is posed in the film "Who Does She Think She Is?" which premiered in New York last week. The doc is a timely look at women and the creative life from director Pamela Tanner Boll, co-executive producer of Oscar winner "Born Into Brothels," and co-director Nancy Kennedy, an editor whose credits include Sundance winner "Why We Fight."
Boll follows the paths of five female artists who are also mothers, a dual role that has proved untenable for most women through most of history and that proves challenging, to say the least, for the subjects of the film. "Who Does She Think She Is?" poses the bigger question of whether women really do still have to choose between having a family and being what you would call a working artist. In it, we see the subjects struggling with the work and guilt involved in balancing self-expression and family care. We hear from academics about the devaluation of women's child-care role and the historical suppression of female creativity. And we're presented with stats: Women make up 80% of art-school classes but about 20% of working artists. From 2001 to 2004 the percentage of female artists among exhibitions at the Guggenheim was 11%, at the Tate Modern and LACMA it was 2%, and at the permanent collection at MoMA it was 4%.
Sound familiar? Like many industries, advertising isn't a model of gender equality, and it's in its creative precincts where the imbalance is most pronounced. We know that women are not underrepresented in ad schools, but -- hands off your keyboard (not that a search would really help here) -- can you name five female executive creative directors?
We've discussed the Whither Female Creatives issue in these pages before, and you'll no doubt recall Neil French's famous bit of insight on the gender gap (female creatives, he said, can't hack the lifestyle and leave to "suckle something" before establishing big careers). There are many factors that contribute to the lopsided numbers -- agency culture and the male energy that's traditionally pervaded the industry among them. But, as "Who Does She Think She Is?" asks, are making a life from creativity and creating and nurturing life mutually exclusive?
Artist and creative director are, of course, vastly different careers, but they are similarly all-encompassing. "It's human to create, to make things," says Boll. "When you get older though, it's hard for anyone to be creative for a living. For women, if you don't have a strong support system to back you up in terms of your kids, it's doubly hard. And in our society, that support isn't always there."
One can see some of the more obvious forms of sexism dissipating as new generations shed layers of gender baggage. But the motherhood/creativity tension remains.
Women, we are told, have power, as we make most of the purchasing decisions. But women are making these decisions because they are still the ones mainly charged with running a home. And while images of well-groomed celeb moms are now an inescapable blight, the reality is that most women are running their homes without battalions of helpers.
"Until we have some kind of system in place where women can afford to have good child care, it's going to be tough," says Boll. This is, of course, an issue that transcends job description.
"The film is about art, but it's really about the struggle that I think women are still in -- to pay attention to their own cares, their own work, without being pulled into someone else's orbit, without feeling or being called selfish. We are still teetering back and forth on that edge."
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Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity magazine and Creativity-Online.com.