In this week’s Creative Sensemaker, the women of Team Tortoise have shared their own favourite works of feminist art and culture ahead of International Women’s Day.
There are vanishingly few interesting things to be said about International Women’s Day (Monday, 8 March), particularly in the last few years. The whole IWD thing has gone… well, it’s all a bit “bake sale” isnt it? Call me a pessimist, but you can’t smash the patriarchy with a cupcake. And this year, thanks to Covid, there won’t even be any cupcakes.
It’s the “celebration” vibe I take exception to, because being a proper feminist is, I’m afraid, awful. It’s a cult. It lures you in with uplifting anthems and great memes, then forces you through a cruel epiphany about ceaseless unpaid care work and the constant threat of violence and that’s that. You’re trapped.
The terrible effects of inequality are everywhere you look, the news is always bad and the job is never done. Before you know it, you’re one of Those Women boring on about the same thing again and again to men who pretend to care. “Nobody likes a feminist” would make an excellent meme, and I will definitely make it one as soon as I find out how.
I have had fun whilst doing feminism exactly twice in my life. The first time was the Women’s March in London. The key to good feminist marching is to manoeuvre your way into a cluster of noisy lesbians in order to get access to the best picnics, booze and singing. Professional marchers will also have pre-identified pub loos en-route which is critical. The Women’s March became a sort of perambulating women-only Live Aid. The heart-stirring sound of thousands of women’s voices singing ‘Something Inside So Strong’, brought to you by falafel wraps and pre-mixed cans of gin and tonic. Glorious.
The second (and final) time I ever had actual feminist fun was at the Women’s Equality Party Conference in 2018. Outside what looked like a 1980s sixth form college building, a few thousand feminists huddled around a lone pizza van under leaden, Kettering skies. I knew I was in for a treat when a fellow delegate called to me from inside her car, “Excuse me but I don’t know how to reverse – can you help me park?”
After the panel discussions and keynote speeches and whatnot were over, us die-hards gathered in the “function suite”. The decor was straight out of Cheapest Ever Weddings; the bar was staffed by people’s teenage offspring – ah, the sons of feminism! – and the music was courtesy of someone’s iphone plugged into a speaker playing a “Feminist Anthems” playlist. They literally couldn’t have made less effort.
Then, the singing started. ‘What’s Up?‘ by 4 Non Blondes and ‘Go Your Own Way’ by Fleetwood Mac are standout memories, as was the moment a woman who must have been in her seventies whirled over to me on the dancefloor and shouted over ‘Can’t Hold Us Down’ by Christina Aguilera (ft. Lil’ Kim), “You and your girlfriend look so perfect together!”
Thing was, we weren’t together together – at least not then. That’s benign feminst witchcraft right there. The pure, unbridled joy of a hundred women making a bloody great din, laughing and dancing so hard for six solid hours cannot be underestimated. In the minibus back to the hotel, 12 complete strangers instinctively nailed the harmonies to the Pitch Perfect soundtrack.
These two moments aside, it remains the case that feminism will never be big fun because there is too much grim work to be done. But that’s not to say that we can’t help ourselves to plenty of slices of feminst cultural joy. The work of a female artist – whether she’s a pop star, director, author, artist, actor, whatever – especially (but not only) if she achieves commercial and/or critical success, is always worth a mini feminist fist bump because we can be sure it was ten times harder for her than it would have been for a man.
All of which means that feminist art doesn’t even have to be about feminism, and it certainly doesn’t have to feel like hard work. Mariah Carey wrote what is widely accepted to be the best Christmas song of all time, and I’m hereby officially claiming that as a victory for feminist art.
More apt recommendations for IWD might be Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me which is deliciously funny as well as gratifyingly relatable. In Audre Lorde’s Your Silence Will Not Protect You, the essay called ‘The Erotic as Power’ will not fail to move your soul in the gentlest and most gorgeous way. Taylor Swift’s ‘The Man’ is as sharp and catchy as it’s possible for a pop song to be.
But when the thanklessness of feminism has ground me down to nothing, I always turn to country music to bring my fight back. Have a go at ‘Gaslighter’ by The Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks), ‘Diane’ by Cam, ‘One Blade Shy of a Sharp Edge’ and ‘Ford Econoline’ by Nanci Griffith.
Open the windows and sing it loud. As our foremothers have shown us, you can’t make a difference without making a noise. Oh alright then, happy IWD.
Here are recommendations from Tortoise staff to mark International Women’s Day 2021:
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818) – I finally got round to reading this last year, and, although I’m not usually a science fiction literature fan, it blew me away. I was inspired to learn more about Mary Wollstonecraft (controversial statue aside) and her 18th-century protofeminist writings. Although she wasn’t around for much of daughter Mary Shelley’s life, her legacy clearly had a huge impact – the concept of cooperation and sympathy as a way to reform civil society still feels very relevant right now – and fancy beating Lord Bryon in a story writing competition!
Cuz I Love You, Lizzo (2019) – the album and star I didn’t know I needed. I came to Lizzo relatively late (early 2020) and had lost the habit of listening to a whole album until I tuned into Cuz I Love You – it’s genuinely all killer, no filler. Now, I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes at her label and it certainly sounds like she’s been through the ringer on the romance front, but she’s just so bloody refreshing. Any woman that emanates that level of positivity, self-love, confidence and open sexuality on her own terms is a modern day feminist role model in my eyes.
Grace and Frankie (Netflix): This show is one of the best series I’ve ever watched: it’s all about the friendship between two women who aren’t teenagers – which is genuinely very rare to find. Over the course of six seasons these two older women show the audience that your soulmate can be your best friend. It is moving and hilarious – and the cast couldn’t be more perfect. I mean it stars Jane Fonda – what more could you want?
Disclosure (Netflix): A documentary about trans representation on screen over the years. It’s a tough watch, uncomfortable at times as you sit there thinking about all the harmful tropes that went over your head over the years in beloved films and sitcoms, but it is incredibly important. I cannot stress enough: if you haven’t watched it, you need to.
Also any and all poetry by Warsan Shire.
I’d like to recommend the paintings of Hilma af Klint – Swedish artist (and mystic!) and the first western abstract art known (before Kandinsky). They’re giant, beautiful and energetic.
My picks are absolutely comfort viewing. I am afraid over the past year I have wanted to be entertained, and can’t cope with anything too serious (except Line of Duty reruns, available on iPlayer).
Bend it like Beckham (Apple VOD). Thank you Gurinder Chadha, Parminder Nagra and team for such a landmark film for women’s football in the UK, one that made a huge impact on many young girls who once had dreams of being a footballer (me included). The characters are great examples of how women have to fight to challenge assumptions, sometimes having to bend rules to get what they deserve – and that ambition is good. The movie is also brilliant at capturing Indian family dynamics, and reminds me so much of my grandmother and aunts, and being made to cook Indian food. I am now determined to have my next birthday party themed to Bend it Like Beckham. And finally – Juliet Stevenson’s hilarious performance worth the pride of entry alone.
The Parent Trap (1998, Apple VOD) – the perfect duo of Lindsay Lohan – on epic acting form – and the late Natasha Richardson. It has comforted and entertained me and friends many times over the past year. But most of all the soundtrack. When feeling low I can recommend going off for a run, cycle, or just dancing in the kitchen to the epic tune of Natalie Cole’s ‘This Will be (An Everlasting Love)’. It makes everything feel just a bit better.
Oh, and sorry one more – any book by Sophie Kinsella. A must for all hopeless romantics, and the characters are hilarious. You have all got to Read The Undomestic Goddess; you can do so 100 times and corpse with laughter every time. The description of domestic inadequacy hits home for anyone else struggling with cooking. Above all, her books make you feel that, in the end, it will all be alright (and if it’s not alright yet, it’s not the end).
Staring at my walls for much of lockdown, I’ve been researching artists and dreaming of things to hang in my flat to make the world seem brighter. Yemi Awosile’s artworks do exactly that. Working with textiles, Yemi’s work is bold and subtle at the same time, drawing on the shapes and styles of African prints. For her Loko series, she used hand-carved wood blocks to create stunning patterned scarves. I recommend following her on Instagram to see her process, and the beautiful work she makes.
I’ve also been dreaming about swimming. I never thought I’d say this, but I desperately miss the smell of chlorine… So Bonny Tsui’s wonderful new book, Why We Swim, about the seduction of being submerged in water and what connects us to the big blue, has been a salve.
My feminist cultural recommendation is breakout artist Arlo Parks. Her music is absolutely beautiful and I could listen to her all day. A friend first told me about her and she started getting mainstream media attention towards the end of last year. She just released her debut album in January which is called Collapsed in Sunbeams… my favourite song is ‘Caroline’.
Arlo even shares a phone number encouraging people to leave a voicemail where they tell her about songs that have soundtracked important moments in their life and why… “A moment where you felt seen by others or gestures that made you feel better in tough times.” She also has a really beautiful smile.
On my 23rd birthday, a friend who knew me not so well that he would have been obliged to give me anything at all, gifted me A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit. It’s a book of flawless prose about loss, discovery and self-knowledge, in all their forms, which has travelled with me through my mid-20s, increasingly dog-eared from being stashed in suitcases and moved from flat-share to flat-share. I loved the whole thing immediately because it set thoughts I couldn’t articulate in ink and offered me stirring advice that I sorely needed: “fear of making mistakes can itself become a huge mistake, one that prevents you from living, for life is risky and anything less is already a loss.”
Karine Polwart’s Traces never fails to move me. The trad singer’s voice is sublime, her words are poetry, and politics is woven through her music (which often tells the stories of women whose voices aren’t otherwise heard). ‘Salters Road’, which tells the story of Polwart’s elderly neighbour when she was young, is among the best tracks on the album. It is sentimental but has great movement and carries an empowering message of freedom.
Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977) was my feminist awakening as a teenager.
This gets me every time: the brilliance of Carole King, the power of Aretha’s performance of ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’.
So I am officially going to admit to loving a bit of young adult fiction, and the best series by far that I read in recent years was the Throne of Glass sequence by Sarah J. Maas. It is much more adult than the “Twilights” of this world, but still a great way to escape into a fantasy world and – more importantly – one where the heroine is a badass young woman who is capable of being the rescuer, as well as, on occasion, needing rescuing, and who wrestles with both the dark and light sides of her nature.
On a completely different note: I recently discovered a new artist, Lucy Storrs, in a small gallery in Greenwich, whose pictures are crafted out of wool. They are extraordinarily beautiful and brilliantly capture the colour, movement and spirit of the great outdoors. Sadly I could not afford an original but I have three prints on the walls of my flat.
I first heard about journalist and writer Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998) when I was reading Marie Colvin’s own writing. Colvin is said to have carried a well thumbed copy of The Face of War around with her – almost like a Bible. Since then it has become a staple feature on my bookshelf and sparked an obsession with Gellhorn’s writing. Published in 1959, it is a collection of some of her most iconic pieces. From the bleak horror of German concentration camps to the nuanced tensions in the heat of the Vietnam War. Her skill lies in on the ground reporting that balances politics with the human impact of a crisis – as needed now as it will ever be. I am certain she will continue to be a driving influence for young women delving into the world of journalism.
One of the few highlights of 2020 was the release of Californian band of sisters HAIM’s latest album, Women in Music Pt III. It’s quickly become one of my favourite albums. WIMPIII as it’s affectionately known, manages to hit that sweet spot between retro rock while keeping contemporary. Tracks like ‘The Steps’ and ‘Gasoline’ are the perfect “dance out the lockdown stress” songs, whereas ‘Man in the Magazine’ is a witty take down of a male music reporter who asked the eldest sister Este, “Do you make the same faces in bed?” in reference to her – to my mind, iconic – expressions as she plays bass. Also check out their collabs with Taylor Swift, a crossover I never could have seen coming, but just works so well.
I stand firmly by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women as one of the most heartbreaking, joyous and beautiful examples of female friendship and sisterhood. If you can get through Chapter 40 (no spoilers for those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading it yet, but fans will know exactly what I mean) without a tear – I have some serious questions for you. Although at the heart of my love for this book is Jo. Mostly for her dogged obsession with writing but also for her unflinching understanding of her own wants and needs over those of a man – Laurie.
First up is Carrie Fisher. Famous to most as the strong, capable, determined Princess Leia (my first feminist crush). But her novels are fantastic: my favourite is Surrender the Pink – loosely based on her short marriage to Paul Simon.
Oyinkan Braithwaite, author of My Sister the Serial Killer: The title hints at the premise, but my favourite bit is the hilarious way Oyinkan writes, and her exploration of the relationship between the two very loveable sisters. Ayoola is a serial killer, whose usual post-murder routine is to ring her up sister Korede and get her to clean up the mess. It’s something a bit different, turns gender politics on its head, is darkly funny, easy to read, and shares a fascinating insight into life in Lagos.
Anita Anand, historian and author of The Patient Assassin, which combines family history with brilliant historiography in the super-gripping tale of the assassination of Michael O’Dwyer (former Lieutenant Governor of Punjab 1913-1919). It reads like a true crime thriller and you end up with such a vivid image of the character of Udham Singh (an Indian revolutionary). I’ve read a lot of Indian history, and Anita tells this important story in a very accessible way – I sped through it in a week last year and it was easily my favourite read of 2020, which I could see being turned into a film one day.
Noor Murad (@noorishbynoor): Chef and food blogger from Bahrain whose recipes are so delicious for meat eaters, veggies and vegans alike. I have tried, tested and loved many over lockdown (especially cheesy masala butter beans on toast, which is my new WFH go-to).
I also wanted to mention Hanya Yanagihara, whose book A Little Life I am hooked on at the moment, but have not finished… so will keep for the next round!
The first time I remember being truly moved by a work of art was at 17, at Rineke Dijkstra’s photography exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York. She captures the struggles of adolescence and youth with such nuance and empathy – this review of her recent show in London, by journalist Laura Cumming, is a good introduction to the themes of her work. I think I probably saw myself in her pictures when I was a teenager, but even as I’ve become older Dijkstra’s work still resonates – I’ve found myself clicking through her photography and videos during lockdown.
TV-wise, I’d have to recommend the hilarious show Broad City (Amazon Prime) by comedians Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, and Fleabag (iPlayer) by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (if you’re one of the few people who hasn’t seen it yet – what are you waiting for?). They’re the only two shows I have rewatched in their entirety more than twice.
So I am yet again confirming my uncoolness, but, what the hell. The one thing I’ve learned of late is to be genuine.
Celine Dion has been such an influential force throughout my life. I had a difficult childhood for one reason or another, and the pain I inherited and experienced meant I was unable to identify with my emotions well. Over the years, I have continually turned to her for comfort and meaning. It didn’t matter what crisis I was going through, there was always a song with lyrics that would help calm, explain or teach me something emotionally. I’ve also learned a bit of French along the way.
I saw her live as a teenager and it was such an incredibly moving experience, I can feel the vibrations of her voice resonating through me now. I’d hoped to make it over to Las Vegas but time and money didn’t allow. But she is on tour again next year, pandemic permitting, and it’s on my list of lockdown escapisms.
A New Day Has Come came out when my grandfather died. ‘Goodbye’s (The Saddest Word)’ just seemed to fit. ‘I Know What Love Is’ I turned to in order to understand my relationship with my mum. We’d had a fractious few years; I’d made a massive life-mistake a few years earlier and despite it all she held my hand, loved me no matter what and it was the first time I’d felt I understood what a mother’s love meant.
‘Loved Me Back To Life’ channelled my feelings for my now husband – an awakening to true love, the powerful flow which fills every pocket of your being. ‘There Comes A Time’ came along during the time my brother was in Afghanistan and served just as profoundly upon me throughout the catastrophe he suffered since coming home. I have never known a man so low and broken.
‘L’etoile’ helped me channel the light and considerable energy my husband needed to help him deal with life day to day after being deeply affected by the coup in 2016 in his hometown, Istanbul.
And… Hurrem Sultan, born enslaved in the early 1500s and kidnapped as a young teenage girl by the Ottoman army. She quickly found herself in Suleiman’s harem. Her sharp intuition meant she could appraise her situation and make it work for herself. I’ve always respected women who have been able to do this. Hurrem not only managed to get the King to fall in love with her but over time, and with the delivery of six children, secured influence in politics and affairs of state. She faces criticism in the history books for being manipulative and cunning but I disagree. In the face of inequality – desperation in her case – we all have choices to make as women. The rules of engagement are changing now, thankfully, but over the centuries, and until very recently, women have had to learn how to survive in enormously imbalanced societal systems. This survival has had to come at personal cost to women, requiring us at times to “pick our poison”.
I’d like to recommend Sophie Ward’s Love and Other Thought Experiments. It was such an interesting read. It weaves in love, loss, motherhood and whether we really know the reality that we live in. It took me a while to read it as it really had me thinking.
I also listened to a lot of Missy Elliott last year. As well as creating her own absolute classic hits, she’s one of the few female producers in pop music and has been recognised with pretty much every award in the industry.
Little Women (1994 version, Amazon Prime): Sometimes, you just need things that are sweet and comforting – and this film is the movie equivalent of a mug of hot chocolate. Directed by Gillian Armstrong, it’s a gorgeous adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s book. Yes, the Greta Gerwig version was good too, but this one will always have my heart. The driving force in the movie is, of course, the bond between the March girls, played by Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst and Trini Alvarado. Their performances capture all the fondness and ferocity of sisterhood: heads laid on shoulders, vicious arguments, silliness, rivalries and, above all, fierce and tender love. One to watch curled up on the sofa with your mum.
A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin: she’s better known for her biographies, but here she writes about her own life. It’s so beautifully written and is an amazing portrait of a time and of a woman, and of the challenges she faced to get ahead, be heard, and try to be happy.
I’m mentioning Heartburn by Nora Ephron just in case everyone else thinks it’s too obvious a choice and it doesn’t end up on the list. Its sheer insightful wonderfulness means it must surely be included somewhere.
‘The Orange’ by Wendy Cope is an old poem, and I think I’ve probably been “influenced” into reading it again recently because it seems much-Instagrammed? But if I’m allowed to embrace earnestness for a moment: it’s small and ordinary and silly and moving, and it struck a chord during lockdown. Oh, to share unthinkingly a ginormous piece of fruit with people who are not my flatmates, in a place that is not my flat! I’ve also been listening to SOPHIE, who very sadly died in an accident at the start of this year and I came to appreciate really late as anything other than a producer; and to Nubya Garcia, who makes me feel like the type of person who can work while listening to jazz.
Do please send us your own recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now.
Take care, and best wishes.
Editor and Partner
Photographs Getty Images, Netflix, Rineke Dijkstra