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Creativity, femininity, money, and masculinity: choosing a career in the arts

Are we really material girls?

For as long as I can remember, being creative has been synonymous with feeling like an outcast. At family dinner parties, social events, and house parties, I was always asked what subject I wanted to study, what career I wanted to pursue. I told people I wanted to do something creative, that I studied English Literature, and liked to write music. People would either respond with a surprised “Oh, really? How interesting…”, or worse, would lecture me on the reasons as to why my ambitions were commendable but ultimately impractical; foolish at worst, and naive at best.

Despite the fact that art, music, and writing are the very things we depend upon when searching for consolation from despair, creatives are critically undervalued in our social system. Many freelancers will not be paid until months after the promised pay date. Musicians often don’t earn any money, even having to pay to play certain venues, and most self-employed illustrators start out doing work for free. The truth is, if you love something enough, you’ll do it for nothing. I would love to be paid more for my writing and my music, but I also know I have to start out somewhere. This involves doing a lot of unpaid work, but it doesn’t mean I take it any less seriously than a job which would offer me a set salary. Being creative is exhausting and takes time and patience, hours of dedication and searching. To create is to live as a creative, and to stop creating involves choosing a different career path entirely.

If I know all this, why do I feel guilty that I’m not earning more? Is it because being an artist prevents me from becoming a truly self-reliant adult, or is society’s very definition of independence engrained in a financial value system, whose standards are simply too high to reach? I often wonder what really differentiates me from any other grad working a 40K office job; other than the fact that I buy my lunch from Sainsbury’s instead of Pret; and walk to work instead of driving a car. If being a proper ‘adult’ is defined by the things we own, I certainly don’t classify as one. I will probably never be able to purchase a house, I couldn’t afford an expensive holiday. By some people’s terms, I will, therefore, never be a ‘real adult’. But what if this very definition is flawed? If ‘adulting’ involves earning a certain amount of money, what does this say about what we value? I wonder if the value we attribute to money is connected to the patriarchal attitudes it embodies.

Illustration by Livi Wilson

Throughout history, women have never been owners of their own houses. Their living space was owned by their husbands; and consequently, they became part of the property. This is an idea that goes deep, and still holds sway today. As a teenager, I remember being told if my career ambitions didn’t work out, I could always find a rich man. At home my mum always did all the washing up and cooking, and whenever my sister or I were upset, she was the first person we depended upon. In our society, the stereotype is that the emotional wellbeing of a child is reserved to the mum, something the father plays little part in if he is out making money. This means mothers would bear the greater emotional burden and undergo the most strain as their children grow up. It is easy to feed milk to a crying child, but not so easy to cure an adult who is suffering from mental illness or depression. No wonder mothers may feel bitter, or that their lives have been taken from them. We may joke about women ‘doing the dishes’, but such sexual prejudices are often passed off in such casual contexts. Throughout history women have sacrificed their autonomy in exchange for financial security. Even the cultural figure of the female ‘golddigger’ still exists today.

I think the idea a woman should marry for money is ridiculous for two reasons. Firstly, if someone – anyone – makes the choice to live an existence which is less materially rich in pursuit of a creative career path; that is their decision. If they can afford to put a roof over their head, have a job that allows them to afford life’s basic requirements – they can be classified as independent, regardless of their sex. If anything, humans live more independently when they are not defined by the objects that society encourages them to consume. The first members of our species did not depend on material objects for their survival, they required the most basic things – water to drink, food to eat, a place to sleep. By contrast, in the modern world, there are a myriad of products we have come to view as indispensable. We must own a car, we must buy our own houses, we must have a job. The products I consume – the makeup I buy, the clothes I wear, and the diet trends I’m subject to – are all products which people of my sex may be susceptible to.

These idealised images of women and men are not us – they arise from a complex set of prejudices which have calcified throughout history”

Men suffer the gendered equivalent of these consumer images; encouraged to buy the latest versions of toxic masculinity through a new shaving cream or hair gel, protein shake or fitness regime. The products we buy are one of the ways in which the toxic myth of gender is created. They are the means through which we unconsciously begin to conform to some perfect version of ourselves. These idealised images of women and men are not us – they arise from a complex set of prejudices which have calcified throughout history. In a patriarchal society motivated by profit, we purchase beauty at the price of self-worth. The products we consume reflect the minds we inhabit. Once acquired, material objects become strangely disempowering despite the power they once promised us.

Madonna sung about finding “mister right . . . the boy with the cold hard cash”. Whether taken literally or ironically, the song reflects an understanding of feminine guile as something she manipulates to attain financial (or in others words, social) status. Her sexuality is a powerful weapon. Yet let us not forget Madonna is also a popstar, an icon who is flawlessly beautiful. Could an ordinary looking woman use her sensuality in the same way? Probably not. The same applies to Beyoncé. I do not deny Beyoncé is an idol for female empowerment. But I think our definition of empowerment as something which is purely grounded in the sexual becomes too exclusive in its definitions. Can we all get naked in front of a camera, or do we need to have a ‘good’ body? What does a ‘good’ body even look like? What if we have small breasts, pimples, or are overweight?

It seems we still live in a time when aesthetic beauty grants us social gain. Look at Hollywood movie stars. Look at the images that girls post of themselves on Instagram. Look at women in films like The Wolf of Wall Street. Look at the fact that older women think they are ‘letting themselves go’ if they don’t make an effort with their appearance, or the way some of us spend hours upon hours on our appearance before a night out. We are still scared of being watched, afraid of being disempowered by being called ugly. How we look as women has always been indelibly connected to the power we possess, even to the money we earn.

“I am not taking a stick towards women here; I am taking a stick to the patriarchy”

Destiny’s Child wrote a song called Independent Women. Singing to who we assume is a male recipient, Knowles sings, “Tell me what you think about me... I buy my own diamonds and I buy my own rings...” Often classified as a feminist anthem, the singer’s confident attitude emerges from the fact she is proving a man – presumably, her ex – wrong, through literally ‘buying’ the patriarchy’s definition of the material. This exposes a huge contradiction many women, including myself, are too uncomfortable to face from day to day – that the things we find empowering could actually originate from the very sources of our oppression.

I often enjoy wearing makeup and feel more confident, even safer, when wearing it. It may be an expression of my creativity but its context is still troubling; grounded in the sexual politics that conceive of women as people who should, above all, feel empowered by their beauty. I have not forfeited makeup entirely because there are days when my shame prevents me from doing so. Sometimes I wake up and feel I a mess, so I put some concealer on, maybe I get carried away with the eyeliner. And whilst there is something instinctual about wanting to look nice, this still doesn’t explain why women often put ten times more effort into their appearances than men.

What if we were to redefine what society conceived of as powerful? The recent trend in consumer culture towards self-care and minimalist lifestyles, documentaries on Netflix about veganism and climate change, juice-cleanses, and fitness regimes all speak of a need for a detox – a longing to escape a world overwhelmed by noise and images. Yet buying a new candle or a yoga mat does not immediately grant us the lifestyles they advertise. Getting into ‘clean eating’ might make you feel good but it won’t provide the magic cure to your anxious thoughts, fears, or feelings.

”As long as we desire the lifestyles culture sells us, we will perhaps never be at peace”

As long as we desire the lifestyles culture sells us, we will perhaps never be at peace. Long-lasting contentment cannot be confused with the momentary happiness of a financial transaction; the dopamine hit of an Instagram scroll. These are not things we can depend upon, and, for the majority of us, much less afford. Paradoxically, not being able to afford everything actually makes you confront what it is inside you that is wanting. Consuming is a way of avoiding a sense of spiritual lack, an attempt to fill a personal void we cannot confront in ourselves.

I may not be able to buy ‘diamonds and rings’ but this does not make my career choices worthless.  Being a musician and freelancer may not be lucrative careers – unless, of course, I am suddenly very lucky – but they do provide me a sense of spiritual meaning. I’m tired of hearing how science subjects are more valuable than doing a degree in English or Art History; which are less ‘sensible’ because they promise little ‘stability’. I’m frustrated by the fact most of the people on my literature course were women when it should’ve been a 50-50 split. Being artistic does not mean you are not self-determined, studying a science course does necessarily mean you lack a creative perspective. Rather than just encouraging more women to become scientists, we should also be encouraging everyone to be more creative.

Creatives are people we should admire and respect in the same way we respect the powerful figures in offices – even if they do not immediately grant the economic incentives of our society. We need to reassess our definition of ‘profit’ to encompass not just financial gains but also spiritual and creative ones. Here the age-old saying ‘money can’t buy happiness’ rings true for a reason – and in fact, if we have everything we need, we might just be missing the point.

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