Una Mullally: Cruel summer ahead with no female festival headliners

Too few women playing Ireland’s big music festivals – and too many excuses

Bananarama will be performing  at Beatyard. Otherwise it’s an all-male line-up of festival headliners at   Forbidden Fruit, Longitude, Body & Soul, Sea Sessions, Indiependence and Castlepalooza. Clearly there is something wrong. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Bananarama will be performing at Beatyard. Otherwise it’s an all-male line-up of festival headliners at Forbidden Fruit, Longitude, Body & Soul, Sea Sessions, Indiependence and Castlepalooza. Clearly there is something wrong. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

 

Last week, a mild storm reflecting a major issue broke out online. The electronic music festival Higher Vision was called out for its lack of female acts. “Five stages and you have to look pretty hard/far down to see a woman on the Higher Vision bill,” music writer Niall “Nialler9” Byrne tweeted about the Louth festival. “It’s about encouragement and openness, not quotas. Any time this is brought up the men give excuses rather than seek to understand.”

Byrne’s points generated a conversation, which predictably revolved around a level of defensiveness that many men seem to automatically greet any attempt to highlight the invisibility of women in public arenas.

While the lack of women playing Higher Vision on St Patrick’s Day (which by all accounts was great) was stark, it’s certainly not unique. It’s not just about women on a line-up either; even where female artists feature on a line-up, they are rarely at the top of it.

Male-led act

Every single headliner at every announced major Irish music festival this summer is a male-led act. Forbidden Fruit’s headliners are Orbital, Aphex Twin and Bon Iver. Longitude’s headliners are Stormzy, The Weeknd and Mumford & Sons. Body & Soul’s headliners Metronomy have a female member, followed by male headliners Lambchop, Vitalic and Sleaford Mods. Sea Sessions’ headliners are The Coronas, Primal Scream and Sigma. Indiependence’s headliners are The Coronas, Tom Odell and Manic Street Preachers. Castlepalooza’s headliners are Girl Band, Wild Beasts and Waze & Odyssey. Life Festival’s headliners are Rudimental (who frequently feature female vocalists, but whose four core members are male), Duke Dumont and DJ EZ.

While Beatyard’s headliners are male – Mark Ronson and Air – that festival seems to have a broader proportion of female representation, with acts such as Bananarama and Candi Staton playing just under the headliners. Electric Picnic’s line-up is announced this week.

Bingo card

Clearly, there is something wrong. And defensiveness isn’t going to fix it.

Most of the arguments that attempt to shut down people when they just want to talk about why women are excluded can be found in a useful mocked-up bingo card called Female Conference Speaker Bingo, which can be applied to all aspects of female invisibility in public realms: “There aren’t enough qualified female speakers”; “We need big-name speakers, and few of those are women”; “You can’t kick out a male speaker just to fit a woman in there”; “Women never volunteer to present”; “The organisers just wanted to get the best speakers they could find”; and so on.

Those making these repetitive arguments and excuses often don’t realise that women have heard them so many times before, to the point that they are memes. They are also “tail end” arguments, rather than “source” arguments, in that they ignore the context within which the exclusion of women occurs. The marginalisation of women in arts programming is not a unique blip that happens in a vacuum – it is part of a much broader suite of exclusion, where men are first, more plentiful and more visible across most public arenas.

Losing power

I’ve tried to understand the defensiveness that always greets this issue, even though it’s hard to grasp why people want to shut down a conversation when the problem is so glaringly obvious. What I think this defensiveness comes down to is a subconscious or conscious fear of losing power. The status quo in arts programming suits men, and many do not want that unseated, as if fair representation is a threat. Requests for conversations about representation are often viewed as irritating. When some men try to excuse unfairness with cliched arguments, what women hear is opposition to visibility, and being told to shut up and deal with second place.

The impact of Waking The Feminists on the theatre world in Ireland showed that the arts world is uncomfortable with being exposed as the opposite to the egalitarian and progressive space it likes to claim. The worlds of arts programming and music festivals exist in the same broader context where women are consistently excluded from positions of power, from the biggest prizes, from the most high-profile slots.

Ludicrous

An easy test to show how ludicrous the exclusion of women is from any arena is to ask yourself what it would be like if things were the other way around. If all major music festivals in Ireland had female headliners across the board, this would be seen as remarkable. So why is it not equally remarkable when men are? Just because we are used to it doesn’t mean that’s how it should be. And what does this marginalisation say to the women attending, all those potential female musicians in the crowd? What do you think gets reinforced summer after summer when stages are full of plenty of men and few women? You cannot be what you can’t see.

Music festival bookers will say that there is no intention to exclude women, that there aren’t enough female acts, that gender doesn’t enter the decision-making process, that the onus is on women to put themselves forward. These are excuses, and none of them matter when the result is the same as an approach designed to exclude women would be. Whether the bias is unconscious or to the fore, when the result is the same, the problem is emerging from a similar source. Stop defending it and start listening.

If people are so sure of their “right on” credentials, then why not act to change something for the better, rather than maintain the conservative status quo?

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