Foundation Degree Digital Media Journalism
Hull School of Art and Design
Leeds Metropolitan University
PPD3 Ethics Essay: Discuss the pros and cons of positive discrimination with regard to the production of visual culture by “marginalized groups”
Positive Discrimination Is it Ever Acceptable?
In this essay I will discuss the pros and cons of positive discrimination with regard to the production of visual art. I will look to the art world and mainstream visual culture to explore the subject and find arguments and counterarguments to prove my assertion that positive discrimination is a flawed concept.
Positive discrimination is defined in the Collins English Dictionary as being:
“the provision of special opportunities in employment, training, etc. for a disadvantaged group, such as women, ethnic minorities, etc U.S equivalent affirmative action.”
I will be focusing on discrimination in terms of gender with reference to Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble, looking at Arts Council practices. To lend a current perspective I’ll be looking at the recent Turner Prize winner Susan Philipz and examining whether this was an example of where positive discrimination has been used to effect a certain outcome.
Throughout the last fifty years popular entertainment has portrayed marginalized groups in unbalanced ways. Film and television have consistently represented gay and transgender characters in a negative light. Some would argue that to have included minority groups in any entertainment was a good thing but this exposure has been cynically taken advantage off, leaving those groups misrepresented and lending today’s society a warped view of difference.
The John Hopkins University, the accepted word leader in the field of Gender Identity, defines transgender individuals as being “those whose gender expression and/or their genitalia and sex chromosomes differ from the traditional definitions.”
In 1971 Hammer’s Roy Ward Baker directed Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde the mild-mannered scientist is taken over by the murderous, monstrous Sister Hyde. The publicity material of the time included the lurid tagline, “For the first time ON screen an actual sex change, bit by bit, will be seen”
During the nineties British and American popular drama were prone to writing stories that attempted to show their sympathies for marginalized sections of society.
In David E. Kelley’s Ally McBeal, a series about a young female lawyer making her way in a male dominated work place the character of Ally is empowered. However when the writers chose to include a transgender character they stuck to type. In that, although during the episode she had found acceptance -even been victorious in the courtroom- they killed her off brutally and needlessly in the last minute.
In British soap-drama Coronation Street the trans woman Hayley played by Julie Hesmondhalgh has continuously been on the receiving end of many vicious barbs, personal attacks undermining her status as a woman. This attitude towards the trans community is repeated time and again not only in fiction but in real life.
In November a trans woman was killed in London when someone pushed her in front of an on-coming underground train. The media chose to concentrate her gender status and whether her chosen gender expression was known to her family, rather than condemning the murder. In life she had been a successful human rights lawyer of twenty years standing, but this fact was only briefly mentioned in passing. In Andrew Hough’s article from The Telegraph online he refers to her as a “transvestite” which is wholly incorrect, he concentrates on the fact the publication has the first “pictures” of the victim and throughout the article chooses to refer to her as a “he” denying her, her chosen gender role even in death.
There are also notorious game-shows that involve a big disclosure at the climax, when it is revealed to the audience that the buxom beauty the male contestant has been seen on screen with is actually a, “man,” not actually a man but a trans woman going through transition – but that wouldn’t have the same horror or shock value. Both these propagate the myth that being trans is a negative thing; something that society should be repelled by.
This schema reflects my view that in mainstream visual culture rarely will any character from the aforementioned marginalized communities have a successful normative narrative. They will be killed off aka ‘Rachel’ in the Michael Bracewell novel Saint Rachel or be cast as mentally deficient or sexually permissive or be cast as the villain of the piece (and subsequently take their own life) as in recent episode of ITV’s detective drama Lewis.
There are those comedians that continually refer to; the trans community as men; butch women as men (particularly female sport stars); any woman they don’t fancy as men and one highly successful female singer as in the case of Lady Gaga being consistently questioned on her gender.
(Halberstam J 2005) talks about ‘punishments for those who cross sex and gender boundaries,” She talks about this act of transgression being seen as a threat to society. She questions the idea gender roles are biologically ordained and suggests that for some gender expression is a fluid concept. She goes on to suggest ownership of that gender expression and identity can transfer from being innate to the transperson to being a creation by the viewer.
This kind of approach and attitude in dramas and real life serves to justify those narrow-minded individuals who place all the importance on what you are rather than who. Frederick Douglass (1817 – 1895) one of the most foremost leaders in the abolitionist movement said “without a struggle there can be no progress,” but I would claim that, because the negative representations feed into and get reinforced by the collective psyche of society, minority groups of whatever persuasion, will always struggle to be seen as equal to those who choose to live within their birth gender.
The author (Butler J 1990) argues that, feminism has made a mistake by defining women as being a group with common characteristics and interests. She goes on to say that the traditional view of feminism reinforces the idea that men and women are divided into two specific groups.
“Rather than opening up possibilities for a person to form and choose their own individual identity, therefore, feminism had closed the options down.”
While feminists abandoned ideas that biology was destiny, they created the idea of a patriarchal culture where traditional male and female gender roles would prevail. This made the aforementioned ‘destiny’ inevitable and didn’t allow for the possibility of “choice difference or resistance”.
I suggested in the opening paragraph that positive discrimination is a flawed concept. The act of making special reservations for minority groups to achieve is inherently wrong. This notion is supported by Human Rights Laws.
“Positive Discrimination in the workplace is illegal and contravenes the Race Relations Act 1976.”
“Positive discrimination in job selection because of gender is unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975”
Fleur Bothwick European Director of Diversity at Lehman Brothers states, “Most organisations won’t support positive discrimination and most candidates won’t either.” She then goes on to ask, “Would you like to know you’re only in a job because of the colour of your skin?”
Positive discrimination in recruitment remains illegal, however this kind of activity does allow an employer to look for potential employees in areas that may well have hitherto been ignored.
Some organizations in the art world appear to place themselves outside of this nationwide accepted, legal framework. In the case of the Manchester Arts Festival Ladyfest in 2008 the exhibits and artists showcasing their work were all female. Organiser, Rachel Niemann justifies the selection process by saying that “Women artists are massively under represented in the arts, particularly in the major music festivals.”
Salford Visual Art grad. student Laura Robertson inexplicably says,
“Some might view the exclusion of male exhibitors as positive discrimination gone mad, but Laura says this enables the exhibition to escape being too issue driven.” Which I think queers the pitch somewhat in that, surely a show with all women exhibitors means that the art in whatever form will inevitably become skewed in some way towards the feminine?
It is interesting to speculate whether they would have responded positively to a transgender artist wishing to showcase work alongside the other exhibitors.
(Pratt M.B. 1995 pg181) writes “last year a trans person had to be thrown out of the festival unless she proved – by allowing herself to be stripped – to be what she claimed.” This particular book is set during a conservative time, when the possibility of crossing genders was not referred to in traditional society; a time when being Lesbian or gay was frowned upon although, as she points out early on in the book, not uncommon at all within the confines of her small North American town.
So far I have concentrated on gender but it is clear from the example below that race can also be a factor and is no stranger to acts of positive discrimination.
On the BBC Points of View forum I found a part post referring to the Film Council funding events that exclude white writers. The forum member asks within the body of the post “How can it be fair for a university educated and wealthy Asian to be able to enter or apply when an out of work aspiring white writer living on social is excluded?”
The post goes on to refer to the practice that theatres guarantee grants and funding by a box-ticking culture the different fields of age, gender and ethnicity are all used when putting in bids from funding bodies such as the Art’s Council.
On pg 27 of the Cultural Diversity Report, “Ethnicity and participation in the creative sector,” commissioned by the Arts Council, they (the Arts Council) attempt to explain some of the reasoning behind this culture of positive discrimination in recruitment as follows:
For example, some seek to reflect the social and cultural composition of
the surrounding area/and or its audience – ‘a position often informed by a combination of political commitment and practical reality’. For others, the commitment to cultural diversity made sound business sense, while some organisations pointed to the difficulties they had in recruiting Black and Asian staff, or how they were restricted by their financial and practical circumstances. Elsewhere, the term was conflated with either equal opportunities or positive discrimination.
So it would appear that the Points of View forum member has every reason to be disenchanted with the Arts Council’s accepted policy of positive discrimination. However, without this activity would the arts only cater for the affluent white middle classes; only commission work by those artists and writers from that particular demographic; only explore issues that were of interest to that particular demographic: be seen as being even more elitist than it is viewed by many currently?
From the inference garnered from the excerpt taken from the cultural diversity report I have suggested a practice of positive discrimination is actively being undertaken. With the recent political changes after no one party gaining a majority of the votes in the recent General Election this may not be so unambiguous as it first appeared. David Lammy of the Guardian online writes in the article “The coalition is making the arts more elitist” dated 12 November 2010, “We should not be surprised that the coalition has decided to protect the country’s “crown jewels”, like the Royal Opera House at the expense of programmes that reach out to new audiences and new communities.”
Remaining in the arts world, the ever-controversial Turner Prize was awarded to the sound artist Susan Philipz for her work. Her installation was site specific and it was formerly heard under the George V Bridge in Glasgow. During the International Arts Festival the reproduced laments spoke directly to the listeners about the lives lost on the River Clyde. So by moving the work from that site and into a gallery in London the work is diminished. Laura Cumming writes in the Observer in her article Turner Prize 2010 review “At Tate Britain her work dwindles into a pleasant recording.”
Secondly including sound art in the Turner Prize shortlist is at best cynical. It suggests that the act of including sound art was done to appease some group or other, or to try and be seen as being a universal art prize, an inclusive, open minded awards body. Laura Cumming again backs up this assertion by saying “the 2010 Turner prize has righted the wrongs of many years and, in theory at least, accomplished everything one could reasonably hope for, and yet it remains imperfect.”
So in conclusion I refer back to my first notion of positive discrimination being a flawed concept. Whenever it has been used to affect some kind of change it has been questioned; as in the distribution of funds in the arts world; the massaging of figures and social spectrum in theatre attendance; the inclusion of niche areas in Arts awards. I believe the world would be a far better place if everyone regardless of what sector of society was treated as equal and not given special favour to appease the box ticking culture prevalent in many professional bodies.
Butler, J, 1990. Gender Trouble. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
Pratt, MB, 1995. S/He. 1st ed. L.A. California: Alyson Publications.
Halberstam, J, 2005. In a Queer Time & Place. 1st ed. New York and London: New York University Press.
TransUnity. [Online]Available at http://www.transunity.com/pages/genderidentity.html [Accessed 01 December]
English Collins. (2005). positive discrimination [Online] Available at:
[Accessed 15 December 2010]
Hammer (2011). Dr Jekyl and Sister Hyde [Online] Available at:
http://www.hammerfilms.com/productions/film/filmid/203/dr-jekyll-and-sister-hyde [Accessed 15 December 2010]
Hough A. (2010). Kings Cross tube murder first picture of killed transvestite human rights lawyer. Telegraph Online. 29 October. Available at:
[Accessed 22 December 2010]
Millar M. (2006). Is there a case for positive discrimination? (Positive discrimination article) [Online] Available at: http://www.personneltoday.com/articles/2006/01/17/33430/is-there-a-case-for-positive-discrimination.html [Accessed 15 December 2010]
Wredensfors E. (2008) Here come the girls for Ladyfest. Citylife. 06 November. (News and Reviews section) [Online] Available at: http://www.citylife.co.uk/news_and_reviews/news/11465_here_come_the_girls_for_ladyfest [Accessed 01 December 2010]
Lorddaffyduck. (2010). BBC News does it again. (BBC forum thread message 76) [Online] Available at:
[Accessed 15 December 2010]
Arts Council. Ethnicity and participation in the creative sector. (Cultural Diversity Report) [Online] Available at: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/media/uploads/documents/publications/307.doc
http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/google-search/?q=positive+discrimination [Accessed 15 December 2010]
Lammy D. (2010). The Coalition is making the arts more elitist. Guardian Online. 12 November. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2010/nov/12/coalition-labour-arts-elitism [Accessed 15 December 2010]
Cumming L. (2010). Turner Prize 2010 – Review. The Observer. 10 October. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/oct/10/turner-prize-2010-review [Accessed 15 December]