Jude Kelly: Why women should tell the stories of humanity

Why do we think that stories by men are deemed to be of universal importance, and stories by women are thought to be merely about women?

My grandmother left school when she was 12. She had 14 children. My mother left school when she was 15. She was a secretary. I graduated from university to become a theater director, and that progress is entirely to do with the fact that people I'll never meet fought for women to have rights, get the vote, get education, have progress. And I'm determined to do the same, and obviously you are, too. Why not?

So I started a festival called WOW, Women of the World, seven years ago, and it's now in 20 countries across five continents. And one of those countries is Somaliland in Africa. So I traveled there last year, and part of the joy I had in going there was going to these caves. The Laas Geel caves. Now, these caves contain some of the oldest cave paintings in the world. These paintings are thought to be round about 9,000 to 11,000 years old. Art: what humanity has done ever since it evolved. It's how we speak about ourselves, how we understand our identity, how we look at our surroundings, who we find out about each other because of the meaning of our lives. That's what art is for.

So look at this little picture. I think it's a little girl. I thought it was a bit like me when I was a little girl. And I thought, well, who painted this joyful, youthful figure? And I asked the curator of the caves. I said, "Tell me about the men and women who painted these." And he looked at me absolutely askance, and he said, "Women didn't paint these pictures." And I said, "Well, it was 11,000 years ago." I said, "How do you know?"

And he said, "Women don't do these things. Men made these marks. Women don't."

Now, I wasn't really surprised, because that's an attitude that I've seen continuously all my life as a theater maker. We are told that divine knowledge comes down through the masculine, whether it be to the imam, the priest, the rabbi, the holy man. Similarly, we're told that creative genius resides in the masculine, that it is the masculine that will be able to tell us about who we really are, that the masculine will tell the universal story on behalf of all of us, whereas women artists will really just talk about women's experiences, women's issues only really relevant to women and of passing interest to men — and really only some men. And it's that conviction, that that we are taught, that I think colors so much of whether we're prepared to believe that women's stories really matter. And unless we're prepared to believe that women's stories really matter, then women's rights don't really matter, and then change can't really come.

I want to tell you about two examples of stories that are thought to be of universal importance: "E.T." and "Hamlet."

So I took my two children when they were little — Caroline was eight and Robby was five — to see "E.T." And it's a fantastic story of this little alien who ends up in an American family with a mum, two brothers and a sister, but he wants to go home. Not only that, but some really bad scientists want to do some experiments on him, and they're looking for him. So the children have a plot. They decide they're going to take him back to his spaceship as soon as they can, and they plop him in a bicycle basket, and off they ride. But unfortunately, the baddies have found out, and they're catching up and they've got sirens and they've got their guns, they've got the loud-hailers, it's terribly frightening, and they're closing up on the children, and the children are never going to make it. And then all of a sudden, magically, the bikes fly up in the air, over the clouds, over the moon, and they're going to save "E.T."
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So I turn to see my children's faces, and Robby is enraptured, he's there with them, he's saving E.T., he's a happy boy. And I turn to Caroline, and she's crying her eyes out. And I said, "What's the matter?" And she said, "Why can't I save E.T.? Why can't I come?" And then all of a sudden I realized: they weren't children; they were boys — all boys. And Caroline, who had invested so much in E.T., well, she wasn't invited to save him, and she felt humiliated and spurned.

So I wrote to Steven Spielberg —

and I said, "I don't know if you understand the psychological importance of what's happened, and are you prepared to pay for the therapy bills?"

Twenty years later, I haven't had a word back from him, but I'm still hopeful.

But I thought it was interesting, because if you read reviews of what he intended with E.T., he says very specifically, "I wanted the world to understand that we should love and embrace difference." But somehow he didn't include the idea of girls' difference in this thinking. He thought he was writing a story about all humanity. Caroline thought he was marginalizing half of humanity. He thought he was writing a story about human goodness; she thought he was writing a lad's heroic adventure.

And this is common. Men feel they have been given the mantle for universal communication, but of course, how could they be? They are writing from male experience through male's eyes. We have to have a look at this ourselves. We have to be prepared to go back through all our books and our films, all our favorite things, and say, "Actually, this is written by a male artist — not an artist. We have to see that so many of these stories are written through a male perspective. Which is fine, but then females need to have 50 percent of the rights for the stage, the film, the novel, the place of creativity.

Let me talk about "Hamlet." To be or not to be. That is the question. But it's not my question. My question is: Why was I taught as a young woman that this was the quintessential example of human dilemma and human experience? It's a marvelous story, but actually, it's about a young man fearful that he won't be able to make it as a powerful figure in a male world unless he takes revenge for his father's murder. He talks a great deal to us about suicide being an option, but the reality is that the person who actually commits suicide, Ophelia, after she's been humiliated and abused by him, never gets a chance to talk to the audience about her feelings. And then when he's finished with Ophelia, he turns on his mum, because basically she has the audacity to fall in love with his uncle and enjoy sex.

It is a great story, but it is a story about male conflict, male dilemma, male struggle. But I was told this was the story of human beings, despite the fact that it only had two women in it. And unless I reeducate myself, I am always going to think that women's stories matter less than men's. A woman could have written "Hamlet," but she would have written it differently, and it wouldn't have had global recognition. As the writer Margaret Atwood says, "When a man writes about doing the dishes, it's realism. When a woman writes about doing it, it's an unfortunate genetic disposition."

Now, this is not just something that belongs to then. I mean, when I was a young girl, wanting desperately to be a theater director, this is what my male lecturer said to me: "Well, there are three women directors in Britain," he said, "Jude." "There's Joan Knight, who's a lesbian, there's Joan Littlewood, who's retired, and there's Buzz Goodbody, who's just killed herself. So, which of those three would you like to be?"

Now, leaving aside the disgusting slur on gay women, the fact is, he wanted to humiliate me. He thought it was silly that I wanted to be a director. And I told my friend Marin Alsop, the conductor, and she said, "Oh yes, well, my music teacher said exactly the same. He said, 'Women don't conduct.'" But all these years later, we've made our mark. You think, "Well, it'll be different now." I'm afraid it's not different now. The current head of the Paris Conservatoire said recently, "It takes great physical strength to conduct a symphony, and women are too weak."

The artist George Baselitz said, "Well, the fact is women can't paint. Well — they can't paint very well."

The writer V.S. Naipaul said two years ago, "I can read two paragraphs and know immediately if it's written by a woman, and I just stop reading, because it's not worthy of me."

And it goes on.

We have to find a way of stopping young girls and women feeling not only that their story doesn't matter, but they're not allowed to be the storyteller. Because once you feel that you can't stand in the central space and speak on behalf of the world, you will feel that you can offer your goods up to a small, select group. You will tend to do smaller work on smaller stages, your economic power will be less, your reach of audiences will be less, and your credit will be less as an artist. And we do finally give artists these incredible, prominent spaces in the world, because they are our storytellers.

Now, why should it matter to you if you're not an artist? Supposing you're an accountant or an entrepreneur or a medic or a scientist: Should you care about women artists? Absolutely, you must, because as you can see from the cave paintings, all civilizations, all of humanity have relied upon artists to tell the human story, and if the human story is finally told by men, take my word for it, it will be about men.

So let's make a change. Let's make a change to all our institutions, and not just in the West. Don't forget — this message of incapability of women to hold creative genius is being told to girls and women in Nigeria, in China, in Russia, in Indonesia. All over the world, girls and women are being told that they can't finally hold the idea of creative inspiration. And I want to ask you: Do you believe that? Do you believe that women can be a creative genius?

Well then, please go forward, support women artists, buy their work, insist that their voices are heard, find platforms on which their voices will be made. And remember this: that in a sense, if we're going to get past this moment of a world where we know that we are unequal, it's artists who have to imagine a different world. And I'm calling on all artists, women and men, to imagine a gender-equal world. Let's paint it. Let's draw it. Let's write about it. Let's film it. And if we could imagine it, then we would have the energy and the stamina to work towards it.

When I see this little girl, 11,000 years ago, I want to know that the little girl now can stand there and think she's entitled to her dreams, she's entitled to her destiny and she's entitled to speak on behalf of the whole world, be recognized for it and applauded.

Thank you.