Updated: Aug 4
I was at a social gathering some years ago when I was part of a conversation among a group of women, one of whom asked me what my art was about (the dreaded question btw that any artist reading this will sympathise with!). My work is about many things and not the easiest thing to explain in a few words (sometimes even I’m not sure of everything that it’s about!) However, as a broad brush answer I said it was about female body image and how women can be made to feel ‘less than‘ if they don’t conform to societal expectations.
This theme in my work started after becoming exasperated by constant pressure of being told what women should and shouldn't wear. Advice on what's 'best' for your body shape and a general policing of your wardrobe by the fashion powers that be. I came across ‘The 24 Things Every Woman after 30 Should Wear ‘on Women.com and apart from making me proper belly laugh out loud, it resonated! Wonderful women, gloriously celebrating not conforming! And challenging patriarchal values of how women should be.
This is a classic, mild, example of gatekeeping, which in its most basic form can be broadly defined as individuals or communities that are excluded from, or policed by, the broader community they belong to, due to intersectional prejudice, oppression, gender politics etc. It often prevents individuals from partaking in a discussion, from claiming and expressing their own identity, or from entering a space where they are otherwise entitled to eg barring trans women from women’s spaces.
At my social gathering, one of the women was resolute that she did not feel this pressure, she hadn’t encountered it and questioned whether it was essentially a thing. I didn’t have the research to hand that shows statistically she is in the minority. In a body image study in 2020 by the UK parliament involving 7878 adults, 61% of adults and 66% of children feel negative or very negative about their body image most of the time. Although negative body image affects all genders, women and girls experience it more acutely. The study found that young people are more likely to suffer with negative emotions about their appearance with two thirds of under 18s thinking there is an ‘ideal’ body type compared with almost half of the adults. Women, people with a disability and transgender people are at higher risk of experiencing negative emotions around their appearance.
Gatekeepers of the Art World
Gatekeeping has traditionally been a large part of the constitution of the art world. Who decides what art gets shown, what is good art, and whose art gets seen? Small independent galleries and organisations have established themselves to counteract the classic gatekeepers of the art world. They laud themselves as inclusive rather than exclusive. And to an extent they do fulfil their remit. They are supportive of artists having their work seen and provide platforms that make it easier for a diverse range of artists to exhibit and sell their work.
However, there is an entrenched power in the art system, and although some set themselves up as alternatives to that power structure, once they gain some power, in many cases they in turn decree what is good and not good, who is in and who Is not, and become gatekeepers themselves. But this is perhaps inevitable if they are to build credibility. But it does seem self-defeating!
I was brought up in a housing estate in Northern Ireland. In my family and where I lived, art was not visible (except for the obligatory kitsch Haywain above the mantlepiece!) and becoming an artist certainly not seen as a viable career. Art was for the elite, and well off. I found that showing an interest in becoming an artist was challenged by an imbedded power dynamic, whereby those of us unable to converse in the language of that institution with its elite codes, norms etc. were in effect locked out by the gatekeepers.
This still exists to some extent in the contemporary art world but is slowly changing. Effected perhaps by the pandemic, and a need for those institutions to move their operations online, there seems to be a widening of the gates and in turn attracting interest from, and being more exposed to, more diverse sections of society. And through social media, artists are taking more responsibility for promoting and marketing themselves, than relying on galleries and art institutions.
Gatekeeping and Women’s Rights
Gatekeepers are everywhere. It’s a big subject. Many women’s rights are hard to gain and in some instances are being pushed back. Look at how women are being treated in Afghanistan. In this case it is the Taliban who are the gatekeepers of what rights women are afforded and which ones they are not.
Gatekeepers decide whose voices are allowed to be heard and whose are not. Who is allowed to protest and who is not? Who says what constitutes acceptable behaviour and what is not? If we consider the epidemic of violence against women and girls, whereby at least 122 women have been killed in the UK in the year since Sarah Everard was murdered and tens of thousands have been the subject of abuse and violence. Too often the victims are shamed and blamed and made to feel it’s their behaviours that are at fault when assaulted, attacked, or even murdered. Facing questions about choice of clothing or route home or what was the woman’s response to the first signs of danger. Women being told to moderate their behaviour (don’t go out alone, don’t dress a certain way , make sure you don’t do anything to attract attention to yourself , and if someone approaches you (including a police officer) , and you are scared then flag down a bus!
This is a form of gatekeeping - preventing women from inhibiting the spaces they have every right to as they are afraid and feel threatened. With little indication from those in authority of what they are doing to manage, monitor and prevent the most violent repeat offenders.
Those doing the gatekeeping are usually people in authority or leaders who are intent on safeguarding their community from their perspective. According to Carey Philpott, head of communities at SATEDA, a domestic abuse charity,
“We need men and people in positions of power to dismantle the systemic gender inequality and cycles of coercion and control within their institutions which is mimicked in gendered violence,” said Philpott. “We need them to name misogyny, systemic gender inequality, toxic masculinity, rape, femicides, and coercive control, and we need them to understand that male violence against women and girls is at epidemic levels and happens in a context of patriarchy, fuelled by sexism and misogyny which goes unreported and unchallenged.”
Gatekeeping and Feminism
Through feminism we can advocate for women’s freedom of expression, freedom of movement and freedom of body. But who decides who is and who isn’t a feminist? Not every woman is a feminist. Not every woman who deigns to be a feminist is one. Not every woman in a position of influence is a feminist. There are also many feminisms, with varying ideas about who is oppressed and why, and how best to achieve equality.
There are also many gatekeepers of feminism, indeed white CIS feminists (so called second wave feminists) have been accused of excluding trans and queer women, women of colour, women without the platforms and ability to defend themselves. It’s the voices of the most marginalised that are often silenced. It is crucial that Intersectional Feminism - how gender, race, class, sexuality, gender reassignment, religion, disability, age, and even physical appearance combine or overlap and link to gender inequality, is recognised by the gatekeepers of feminism.
I have been incorporating gatekeeping in my recent works. In its many forms, gatekeeping is difficult to tackle. I appreciate that some forms of gatekeeping don’t apply to me with my white cisgender privilege. There are many spaces I have access to that I recognise others do not. There are also spaces that I feel I am prevented from doing so. It’s important for me to advocate for those who are excluded, to add my voice to theirs, or use my voice if they cannot.
Lately, I have been intertwining the notion of gatekeeping with my fascination for Greek mythology and in particular strong women characters. I like to weave these myths through my work and envisage various narratives of female empowerment. Heroines such as Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt and protector of girls, and Atalanta, a huntress and a favourite of Artemis, whose name means equal weight. Their symbol is a she bear and appears in many paintings of the two.
I envisage a modern-day heroine that stands up against the gatekeepers, challenging them, and breaking down the barriers. They are clever and astute, tactical, calculating, developing strategies, anticipating the gatekeepers stance and predicting their next steps. But unlike the modern heroes and heroines we see in fantasy books and films with capes and hero’s outfits, my heroine looks like your next door neighbour, your aunty, the woman you see in the supermarket. Unremarkable on the outside, but full of magnificent abilities on the inside to tackle the patriarchy and win over the gatekeepers!
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