On Brilliance: Making Light of Women’s Creative Labour
by: Rebecca Harrison , May 1, 2018
by: Rebecca Harrison , May 1, 2018
Shining examples. Glittering careers. Stellar pieces of work. The language of our labour is beset by allusions to illumination. Light seems to flicker and flash from every page, every brush stroke, every pixel of every film as it radiates out from work that readers and viewers will surely recognise as great. It dances across photographs and skips across the surface of illustrations. Light emanates from performers and resides in manuscripts. Creativity glimmers, twinkles, shimmers. Conversations scintillate; projects are green-lighted. Your star is on the rise: go forth and dazzle your audience! Light, it seems, permeates the creative process and our collective consciousness and is ubiquitous in the words that we use to describe work.
I have never paid attention before to metaphors about light and labour. I have been too engrossed in the debates that really matter—those of feminism, post-colonialism, disability, queerness, and class, and how we deploy language to best serve equality—to pay much mind to the strange phenomenon of brilliance at work. However, as Mary Celeste Kearny argues, the ‘sparklefication’ of modern life (that is, the trend for adorning the body and other objects with glitter, particularly in US culture), is ‘overwhelmingly raced, classed, gendered, and aged’ (2015: 263). Kearney proposes that while the phenomenon of sparkle tends to be young, middle-class and white, it is overwhelmingly associated with girls. She suggests that ‘female youth of all sorts and in all places are hailed by sparkle’s assurance to signify a late modern femininity associated with empowerment, visibility and independent wealth’ (2015: 264). She also, in her taxonomy of sparkle, identifies three different forms of luminosity in discourses about girlhood in American culture: the supernatural, the environmental, and the superficial enhancement of the body (2015: 268-269). Here, amid the almost deafening talk of glitter in the workplace, I want to offer another characteristic of sparklefication. Spotlight, please, on the Brilliant Creative Woman.
The Brilliant Creative Woman is an artist, poet, musician, scholar, thinker, teacher… perhaps. She might also be a cleaner, engineer, scientist, politician, mother, sister, or paramedic. Whatever she is and however she defines herself, she must sparkle, and she must work hard—no, harder, even than that—to succeed. She must not only work to create something that is brilliant and meaningful and lasting, but also work creatively to maintain brilliance while all the men about her lose their heads and blame it (and she’s never quite sure how, or why) on her. She is awake all hours of the night; she is up early in the morning. This is her baby, she says, and she’s damn well going to make it perfect. All her projects are polished until they shine so that no one guesses at all the crying, the sweating, the bruising, the difficulty sleeping that she pricked and stuffed and thrust into her brilliant work.
Would the Brilliant Creative Woman please step forward? She’s currently standing toward the back of the stage, in the shadow of the man that undermined her, assaulted her, or manipulated her, unsure as to whether she should. Although she is all the way back there, unseen, you would know her work, because she is a shining example of a colleague. She is on track to have a glittering career, having creatively negotiated the obstacles that befell her without causing a fuss or breaking the brittle glass ego of that shadowy figure trying to block her from the audience’s view. Even after the Incident, which everyone knows about (but, of course, they never discuss), she produces stellar pieces of work that are dazzling in their originality, and always the talk of the exhibition, or conference, or festival, or wherever else her work is visible. It’s a shame, isn’t it, that while she labours so intently to glisten, she is overshadowed by a darkness that makes her so difficult to see. But she is there, I promise. You just have to want to look.
You may be wondering what’s so brilliant about this creative woman that she’s so afraid to take the limelight that is rightfully hers. She wonders that, sometimes, too. Because she is a feminist and believes that to live a feminist life she must contribute to ‘a history of wilful tongues,’ for her body is infected ‘with a desire to speak in ways other than how [she has] been commanded to speak’ (Ahmed 2017: 191). Nevertheless, here she stands, obscured by the glowing reviews of her work and the Incident (Incidents, really, although she’ll let those ones slide or else people will think she’s causing a scene), quietly saying nothing and holding her tongue. She should speak, really, because here she is, on stage, when so many like her are relegated to the wings. In the gloom of the spaces just off-stage there are black, Asian and Latina women, disabled women, queer women, trans women. All brilliant. All creative. She is not more brilliant or more brave. Rather, she is more visible because, as Richard Dyer suggests, idealised white women in white cultures emanate light (1997: 122). She glows just enough that you can make out her form through the shadowy gauze of the Incident curtaining the stage.
So: she should speak, and yet she does not speak. She should rush forward and embrace the glare of the footlights and make space for all the other Brilliant Creative Women, who are oppressed and absent, to join her. She should make herself visible—not for the sake of the male gaze (Laura Mulvey taught her that)—but so that she might light the story of her hidden labour in neon signage for all to see, like the frontage of a 1930s cinema. After all, she joined in the #MeToo movement, right? Yes, this Brilliant Creative Woman spoke up, then, and wearily and defiantly talked and talked and talked about all the incidents that happened before this one, and me too and me too and me too about the historical events that belittled and shamed her, and could have stopped her making progress with her work and somehow didn’t, because she just got on with things and was… well…
brilliant. Not her word, of course. She would never use that word to describe herself. Hard working, diligent, committed. Not brilliant, no. Why does this word surface in her mind? She can’t recall, although something about it sounds familiar.
She thinks for a while. She’s good at thinking, which is lucky because it’s her only weapon in this fight. Funny, isn’t it, that ‘ideas are assumed to originate from male bodies’ (Ahmed 2017: 16). She doesn’t laugh. She has ideas, though—original, thoughtful, insightful—hers. Hers if only she has the sense to hold back and not speak.
She keeps thinking. It’ll come to her. Maybe if she… that’s it. Brilliance. It’s what they all told her to be in the aftermath of the Incident. It’s what everyone said at the moment the mist rolled in. It’s what they said should define her during her darkest hour. Be brilliant, and, let the work speak for itself. That was it. Do brilliant work. She needn’t say anything about this awful business because the invisible labour of her brilliance would do all her talking for her. That’s right, of course. The work will somehow work for her to dazzle the audience and banish the shadow and ensure that she isn’t called crazy or trouble or tiresome and is instead revered as a Brilliant Creative Woman whose ideas (probably helped by a man, they’ll whisper, even if they don’t say it out loud) are well received and applauded. Oh, they’d said, raising eyebrows in familiar arches and tilting heads to one side in oft-rehearsed gestures. Oh, you’re thinking about telling everyone about the Incident? You could. You might. You should, if that’s what you think best. Don’t forget what Sara Ahmed said, though. ‘When you expose a problem you pose a problem’ (2017: 37). Do you really want to be a problem? Think how that will affect your work. No, let the work work for you. Be the work. Be smart. Just go, and be brilliant.
That’s how she came to be here. Unseen, while her work glistens harder than the most determined of diamonds, and silent. Denied language, she doesn’t have the vocabulary to communicate all of this to anyone, anyway. No one cares about all those incidents (The Incident, rather) when she felt, sensed, knew, somehow, what was going to happen next. She knows that all those people out there will deny the Incident and brush it off or sweep it under the carpet with a predictability bordering on farce. Her words are the stuff of subjectivity and no right-thinking rational member of the ‘invisible conspiracy’ of all-seeing men is going to fall for that (Donna Haraway, 1988: 575). And so there she stands, still, unspeaking, grateful that for all the crying, sweating, bruising, difficulty sleeping, they think her work is brilliant.
What would happen, she wonders momentarily, if she told them how the work came to be made. If she revealed the bruises and scars that she’s so carefully concealed using makeup applied from palettes sold in shades of Luminescence, Iridescence, Glow. The answer is already familiar to her. She would dull the effects of her creativity faster than she could fall off a pedestal; the work would lose its sheen, her career would fade, and any public knowledge of the intense emotional labour she invested in the project would tarnish what is now a dazzling achievement. Better for them not to know what happened. Better to let the work speak for itself (herself, she remembers a second too late). Better just to be brilliant than have them question how she managed to have all those ideas while going through such a difficult time. Oh, she knows they’ll whisper. Well, if she was dealing with all of that she must have had help producing the brilliant work. No one [they mean a woman, of course] could have coped with the Incident and been so brilliant. Never.
The Brilliant Creative Woman shifts her weight from one foot to the other, moving neither forward nor back. Side to side. One foot now bearing the pressure and the weight of the other. Still again. She becomes aware, as she drops her head and clasps her hands behind her neck—the tension, the weight, the pressure, bearing down on her and through her—of a voice somewhere offstage. A voice, at first, and then, she thinks, voices. She can’t quite hear what they’re saying, yet there’s something reassuring about their tone. Soft voices, not like the cheap whispers of the audience, that are emanating from the other Brilliant Creative Women hidden in the wings. She takes strength from their bravery: ‘[t]o speak then when one was not spoken to was a courageous act – an act of risk and daring’ (hooks 2015: 5). She tries to listen to their speech, concentrating in a vain attempt to bring them into closer proximity, and while she is too far away to recognise every word, she hears a refrain that says ‘me, I, my.’ No one can discern the voices from out there in the auditorium, but it comforts her comfort to know that back there, here, behind the shadows, they are listening to one another.
We must leave her now, this Brilliant Creative Woman, standing back there deciding whether to speak for herself or let her work speak for her. She has only two options, for as Ahmed describes, for women, ‘[t]he choices were always limited: be silent, or lose it. I would prefer to lose it’ (2017: 194). So would I. Fuck them, I hear myself say, fuck them and fuck their power, their manipulation, their easy walk-on parts in our oppression, their ‘that’s not what I intended’ and their gaslight that casts a dim shadow across our stage. Fuck their ambivalence about the brilliance of our work and the privilege of those comfortable front-of-house seats they didn’t have to pay for and the endless hours of extra rehearsals we attended while they were out for lunch. Fuck them, I’d say. Our work was not created for your approval.
But then our choices are never that straightforward.
There are no instructions: only invisibility and performance and, possibly, if you know the rules and follow them down to the letter, brilliance. What then would I really do if I were the Brilliant Creative Woman? I would stand there, too, no doubt, contemplating the limits of my own ideas and subjectivity on a stage set and dressed and overshadowed by men. I would, very likely, consider rejecting brilliance altogether, which was never my choice and never the goal of my labour, emotion, or energy. I would want, I think, to work in a world that recognised my rising star, glittering career, and stellar piece of work alongside my story of endless tears and sweat and rage which followed an Incident and made my labour that much harder. Wouldn’t knowing that story make the brilliance of my work blaze that much brighter? I would be incandescent. And one day I would—perhaps—step forwards.
Ahmed, Sara (2017), Living a Feminist Life, London: Duke University Press.
Dyer, Richard (1997), White: Essays on Race and Culture, London: Routledge.
Haraway, Donna (1988), ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and The Privilege of Partial Perspective Author(s)’, in Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 575-599.
hooks, bell (2015), Talking Back: Thinking Feminism, Thinking Black, London: Routledge.
Kearney, Mary Celeste (2015), ‘Sparkle: Luminosity and Post-girl Power Media’, in Continuum, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 263-273.
Long, Judy (1999), Telling Women’s Lives: Subject, Narrator, Reader, Text. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Mulvey, Laura (1975), ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Screen, in Vol. 16, No. 3, pp. 6-18.
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