Prototype Theory and the Conductor

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The recent kerfuffle about conducting and sexism, along with some thought-provoking posts over on the Thoughtful Gestures blog, have reminded me of some thoughts I put together for a lecture last year at a girls' school entitled 'Where Have All the Women Gone?' Having revisited my notes I find there's actually more I might want to write about here than I remembered, but for today I'll stick with Prototype Theory.

This is an idea first developed by psychologist Eleanor Rosch in 1973 to explain one of the fundamental ways we organise our perception of the world into categories. And in each over-arching category, there will be some examples that seem more typical of that category than others. One of her early studies found that there was a considerable consensus that, while hat stands might logically belong to the category of 'furniture' people would think of tables or chairs much more readily as representative of the class.

Similarly, I asked my audience when I gave the lecture write down the first kind of bird they thought of. We had far more garden birds like robins than penguins or ostriches or dodos. You get the idea: we use the more prototypical items in a class as concrete examples in our mental representations of the concept.

One of the things we have these days that Eleanor Rosch did not when she was doing these studies is a google image search. This is not, to be fair, as robust a way of determining information about our shared cultural assumptions about prototypes as her carefully-constructed methods, but it is much quicker, and does give some interesting quick and dirty results.

Have a look under the search terms 'scientist', 'stand-up comedian' and 'orchestral conductor' and see what you get.

(At the time of writing, compared to a year ago, I get a lot more cartoons of mad scientists, all of whom are male, but a smattering of women among the real photos; no female comedians at all on the first page, as opposed to two last year; and one female conductor, Virginia Martinez has infiltrated the previously all-males ranks directing orchestras. If I've got the links right, you'll get whatever google is serving up on the day you read this.)

So you see what I mean: women are in the minority in our cultural representations, so it is not surprising that the prototypical image of each of these categories is male. This resonates with the point Amelia Nagoski makes about prejudice operating mostly below the level of cultural awareness. Or possibly, this shows one of the mechanisms by which this happens. We just get used to seeing women in a minority, and hardly notice if they disappear entirely.

But there's a more pernicious dimension to this. It is not simply that women are largely absent from our shared imagery of certain professions. It is also that our shared imagery of women directly conflicts with them.

girlsaloudThink about how women are routinely portrayed in films, in television, in the newspapers. Victims, sex-bombs or harridans would summarise the categories, but numerically, it is as bodies packaged for display that is overwhelmingly the most common. In my lecture, I used this rather wonderful picture of Girls Aloud as illustration - those are great dresses, but it does look like they are made out of Quality Street wrappers, so give an almost literal sense of the bodies being offered up for consumption.

Conversely, if you are not packaged for display, you are either rendered invisible or bullied about your appearance. Powerful women are portrayed unflatteringly; expert women receive sexualised abuse about the (supposed) physical appearance of their intimate parts. Mary Beard has been heroic in standing up to this kind of bullying.

So, the problem becomes one of a conflict of categories, and it's a real tight-rope, particularly for younger women in the early stages of their careers. You need to look nice enough that you are not ignored or abused, but not so nice that you 'snap to grid' in other people's perception as female-packaged-for-consumption.

Or to put it in terms of Venn diagrams. There is plenty of overlap between between the kinds of things you find as prototypical for being a man and for being a conductor. No problem to be both.

But the elements that get characterised as specifically female (as opposed to, say, human) don't intersect at all with the conductor's role as popularly perceived.

Which is why you get all this painful discursive squirming as people try to 'explain' why there 'aren't any' great female conductors. And why, indeed, that it is the people who think this is true who don't seem to be aware of those women out there making great music, and who - when these women are pointed out - deal with it by claiming either that they're not real women or not real conductors.

This is a problem for many professions of course - stand-up comedy and science both have their issues - but it is particularly virulent in conducting, due to the hyper-masculine mythology that infuses the prototype. We know that that not all conductors are posturing egoists, but you wouldn't know that from a google image search.

Having said that, if you've read many interviews with famous conductors, or their autobiographies, or their other pontifications on the art, you'll know that many will make the most of the available mythologising rhetoric to shape their public personas. I'm sure that they are not coming out with this self-important bollocks with the specific aim of excluding women from the profession,* but I'm not at all sure they're unhappy with that side-effect.

*Well, not all of them. Obviously Jorma Panula and Vasily Petrenko are.

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