Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Made In Daggenham and The Painted Lady

This week:  music, a dance performance (of sorts), a film and a few musing on the labour market.

I made it to THE PAINTED LADY to see James Cohen's band featuring my friend Lloyd Peterson on vocals and guitar.  It's Canadian Music Week, the bar was packed with industry types and a young crowd out to party.  The band was cooking and the place was rocking.  I had a great time chatting with Lloyd and some other friends from Winnipeg who were in town for the festival and I was reminded of just how much fun it can be to get out there on a Saturday night and hear a good band.

The Painted Lady is a charming room, with chandeliers, fairy lights and walls covered with pictures of women performers, painters' muses and burlesque artists.  At a certain point during my friends' set, a woman got on the bar in a burlesque outfit and proceeded to remove a layer of clothing.  She had a garter on and it was stuffed with $5 bills. In 2012, in a democratic country where women have equal rights (in theory) and half the patrons in the bar were women, there was a half-naked woman dancing on a bar for money.

The university age daughter of a friend of mine was there as part of our group.  She's studying at Queen's  and is a few years younger than the burlesque performer.  She said to me, " What do you think?  Is she empowering herself or is this old school sexual exploitation and objectification of women? I can't look at her and not feel sad and a little dirty." Indeed. I looked at the walls covered with pictures of naked women and the girl writhing on the bar and thought," I like this room, I like these people and I'm having a good time but I can't believe we're still having this conversation twenty-five years after I was in university. Moreover, since this is a straight bar and 50% of the patrons are women, I can't believe, in the interest of equal rights,  we don't have some comely young man on that bar too, with someplace to stuff cash in his codpiece"  That in my limited experience only happens at bars for gay men and stagettes with male strippers. Sexual exploitation is far from equal in the straight community. Is that because there are fewer straight young men who need $50 that badly?

Then last night I finally saw MADE IN DAGGENHAM a feel-good picture set in the late '60 in the UK about the first group of women to go out on strike for equal pay for work of equal value. Equal pay became law in Britain in 1970 and now women all over the industrialized world have equal pay for work of equal value, the film proudly concludes.

Wait a minute:  in Canada  the postal workers' union finally won their equal pay for work of equal value case at the Supreme Court of Canada last November. That's right:  November 2011 was when the defining case for equal pay for work of equal value was finally won in this industrialized nation.

The switchboard operators at Bell had fought the same issue all the way to the Supreme Court and lost several decades earlier.  I know because my aunt was hoping the back pay she'd have received would have supplemented her meagre retirement. Meagre, because Nortel stock is now worthless and most of the employees took a stock split and had 50% of the stock that was to finance their retirement in a now-worthless company.  The  postal union had been fighting the matter of equal pay for work of equal value since - wait for it: 1976.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2008, women working full time, on average, earned 76% of what men earned.  If they were in a unionized work environment, this crept up to 93.7% which is closer to wage parity. If you're on the shop floor at Ford, or you're an ACTRA member, like I am, chances are that you and the guy sitting next to you in the lunch room are being paid a similar wage rate if you are in a similarly skilled trade.

I'll bet you there's no union for the girls or boys dancing on bars.  I mean, they could go to Actors' Equity, pay dues and qualify, but it is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

What would it take to really empower women?  Equal pay for work of equal value and more unionized jobs.  Fewer women would be shaking their butts for a living if  other work was readily obtainable and paid better, but mostly  that's not the case. Is it better than it was 30 years ago?  Yes.  Is it equal?  No, hell no.

Retail remains the largest employer of women and is the worst paying and the most unstable employment with the worst benefits.  If you really wanted to change the lives of working women, we'd need, as a society, to support the unionization of retail. We'd also need to aggressively encourage young women so stop thinking of themselves in terms of their marketability sexually and more in terms of their marketability in well-waged labour: construction trades, engineering, social sciences and yes, nursing and teaching school.

That's a likely to happen as me waking up a foot taller and ten years younger tomorrow morning.

I can't tell you how immeasurably it saddens me that I rarely see women on the Fringe circuit doing material that's not about sex, dating or child-rearing.  This year Laura-Anne Harris did a show about Judy Holliday and the McCarthy trials and 5 starred and sold out and I can't tell you how happy that made me.  Religion, politics, art, history, music, dance, and psychology may all factor in, but dating and domestic material dominate the discourse in the main, when the speakers onstage are women.

All the women actress I know over 35 complain about the paucity of good roles available. More male playwrights are produced, more men run theatres in this country and more men appear onstage, and yes, I can back that up statistically.

When I wrote WONDERBAR! I was trying to use the metaphor of the "relationship" show to talk about how capitalism encourages women to tie their hopes and financial futures to a man, instead of fighting like hell to get paid like men get paid.  The day that finally happens across the boards women will finally have real power.  It's tough to vote with your feet and leave a bad relationship if you can't afford to feed yourself or pay the rent if you walk.

Women shake their cans at THE PAINTED LADY for the same reason women went on strike in Daggenham.  It has nothing to do with feminism and everything to do with capitalism . Women will never have equal rights or an equal position in society until we have financial parity.  The burlesque performers I know are lucky to make a $100 a night.  You bet the commodifying of sexuality, gay or straight is exploitation:  the good, old-fashioned capitalist way.

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