What are newspapers really talking about when they talk about “culture”? In the case of The Guardian’s culture page, it’s more a question of “What would The Guardian actually talk about if for some reason it had to stop talking about identity politics in its culture pages?” Let’s look in more detail.
The lead story in the culture section is “Why couldn’t Marianne Jean-Baptiste make it in British movies?”. Despite being highly praised, this black British actress has had to move to the US to get roles. “It’s something she really, really doesn’t want to talk about,” the article’s (white, male) author, Simon Hattenstone, tells us, and the “it” here is race. He pulls a quote from the archives in which Jean-Baptise says: “The old men running the industry just have not got a clue. They’ve got to come to terms with the fact that Britain is no longer a totally white place…”
“In the intervening years,” says Hattenstone, “she has rarely talked about race. You sense she regretted her past candidness; that she felt it had come to define her.” And yet that’s what he also proceeds to do, to Jean-Baptiste’s increasing anger: “Oh God, are we going to do this boring shit? Really? Honestly?” Why is it boring shit? “Because it’s so talked about. It’s been written about.” Why, she asks, every time she is interviewed, is she expected to answer this; why has she got to be the spokeswoman for black actors?”” Why indeed?
The Guardian culture section continues with Is Jagged Little Pill the most feminist album of the 90s?. Female musicians are asked about Alanis Morissette, and tell the paper: “She remains one of my favorite female artists.”
Then we come to a section called Self-Portrait, in which Gillian Anderson says: “It would be difficult for me to be in a relationship where the man was boss.”
Next, in Books, there’s a slightly odd piece entitled Are you as well-read as a 16 year-old Eton schoolboy? This is about a recommended reading list published by the outgoing head of Eton, and The Guardian is keen to point out that “only 10% of Little’s book recommendations are by women… non-white authors aren’t well represented either”.
Gender even rears its head in a piece about dinosaurs: a review ofJurassic World breaks off from its eulogy with the caveat: “No matter that the lead female character in Jurassic World is a tiresome throwback – a prim career gal who is taught to loosen up by a relaxed and rugged man. One smile from Pratt has melted most objections to these sexist archetypes.”
Reading The Guardian’s culture section, I’m tempted to propose a newspaper version of the Bechdel Test, which famously stipulates that women on screen cannot be talking about their relationship to men. It’s not enough to have women and black people in your culture section — to really count, they must be able to talk about other things than just being women and black people. As the boredom and anger of Marianne Jean-Baptiste attests, only ever being able to talk in interviews about the glass ceiling is, itself, a glass ceiling.
Now let’s turn to Libération. It may be a short geographical distance from London to Paris, but it’s an enormous cultural distance. The French are not in thrall to American-style identity politics, and Libé’s culture section, while not featuring any fewer women or black people than The Guardian’s, actually talks — gasp! — mostly about culture.
The lead article is entitled Natalie Prass, fertile soul. Already, that pun (fertile soul / soil) is something one senses The Guardian would fight shy of: are women to be defined by their fertility? Can we even mention fertility as an attribute of women?
But the fertility in question here turns out to be creativity itself, especially the way new digital means of production give artists freedom of expression for very little money, allowing them to stay masters of their art.
The Film section of Libé leads with a piece about young girls (again, a term The Guardian would probably avoid). To the Anglo-Saxon reader, identity politics is shocking by its absence here. Clémentine Gallot tells us that “rather than a golden age in life, being a young girl is a gassy, evanescent state, a form of availability to the world”. She goes on to examine the archetypes of the virgin, the girl next door, the tomboy and the ghoul as they appear in films. One senses that femaleness, rather than an obstacle whose overcoming is to be applauded, is here seen as something inherently rich, fascinating and complex — dare one say “fertile soil”?
The next article in the section looks at a new generation of Greek creators. Here — very much illustrating my Bechdel point — women artists like Eleftheria Arapoglou and Eleanna Karvouni are asked about the Greek economy and its effect on culture, not about being women in culture.
Finally, there’s an article about Ornette Coleman by (disclosure: my friend) Olivier Lamm. “Ornette Coleman made music an art of combat and contestation rather than compromise and consolation,” says Lamm, but rather than focusing on the musician’s race, he looks at Coleman’s Modernist intentions, his dissonance, detachment, radicalism, atonality, and his relationships with other members of jazz’s avant garde. The piece ends with a quote from Jacques Derrida’s conversation with Coleman: “For me, innovation is not a word, it’s an act. If you don’t do it, it’s not worth talking about it.” One could say the same thing about inclusivity.
But surely this failure to frame culture in terms of identity politics is hurting, for instance, French women, I hear you protest? Apparently not. According to the 2014 Global Gender Gap study France is at 16 and rising. The UK is at 26 and falling. Do it, don’t talk about it.