A few years ago, some members of the Venus collective interviewed ourselves on what we’re doing and why. It’s kind of a cool history of the show, but also just a cool conversation between the hosts, so we’re posting it here so you can know where we’re at – or at least where we were at in 2008.
I joined the Venus collective in 2000, and my current co-hosts Angela Wilson and Catherine McInnis joined not too long after. Although we all think of ourselves as feminists, the show has become less about putting forth an explicitly political agenda than about celebrating music we love; it is, perhaps, a powerful example of feminism lived and practiced.
Over the years we’ve done the show, we’ve often been faced with the question “Does there need to be a special space set aside for an all-female radio show?” – from other people and also from ourselves. In November of 2008 we sat down to address that and other questions, attempting to tease out some of the philosophical and political ideas that drive what we do, and to explore what it means to be women doing feminist community radio in Canada.
Given that the collective framework is, historically, a medium that has influenced and directed much feminist organizing, we want to try to pass on some of that ethos, and so this piece is offered as an open conversation between colleagues and friends, rather than an argument with a single viewpoint.
– Anna Leventhal
WHERE THE GIRLS ARE: FOR (AND AGAINST) FEMALE-ONLY SPACES
ANNA: I will say that while the show may have started to fill in a gap, that’s not how I think of it.
ANGELA: No, not at all.
ANNA: And it kind of pisses me off when people talk that way. I mean, okay not everyone does, but I’ve definitely heard a few people say “It’s good that you do that show, because women in music are so oppressed,” and I’m just like, ARGHHHH, it’s such a bullshit remark.
ANGELA: No, exactly… it’s just funny because there’s a disconnect between the show that we do and why we do it, and the reason for the show’s being, according to the station, which is maybe to fill in a gap. But it’s not like we’re scrambling to find music to play.
ANNA: I think people like our show for our show, not because they’re thinking “Oh thank god, someone’s finally paying attention to women.”
ANGELA: It’s weird because it sometimes seems like if you want to do a show there’s more room for it if there’s some kind of political motivation, even if that’s not what the show is about.
ANNA: I was talking to someone about the show, a professor who’s a Marxist geographer, and he asked what we do, and I said “It’s a music show about women,” and he said “Oh, so it’s not political.”
ANNA: And I thought, what’s not political about that?
ANGELA: That’s really weird that he said that.
ANNA: Yeah, he was kind of dismissive of it.
ANGELA: Was it because it’s a music show?
CATHERINE: What a surprising opposite reaction to what you normally get.
ANGELA: Yeah, usually people are like “Oh so it’s a feminist show.”
ANNA: I don’t know, I guess he’s a very orthodox Marxist, and he feels that if we’re not directly talking about anti-capitalism…
ANGELA: Did you tell him about the independent part of it?
ANNA: Yeah, I told him that I totally disagree and I think that talking about independent music made by women is very political.
CATHERINE: If someone were going to come to me and get up in my face with a critique that we’re reinforcing the idea that women need a separate space in which to make their music because they’re not up to the competitive atmosphere of mainstream music, I wouldn’t know what to say. Because I really don’t see it that way, however, I don’t have a really thorough defence. It’s complicated – I don’t think people listen to the show with the intention of putting in their time to support women artists. For sure I’ve never heard feedback like that, I’ve only ever heard that people like the music. I know in describing it to people, I personally have a real adverse reaction to the term “women’s music” because it makes me think of things like Lilith Fair that don’t represent me and don’t reflect my taste at all. And I have found myself, when I’m describing it to people, saying things like, well it’s a feminist show, which is the justification for the great airtime, but we do so much with it. And I feel like an asshole, but I end up saying these things.
ANGELA: I know! It’s a conflict.
CATHERINE: But I find myself saying it, because people do immediately jump to this conclusion, and it’s really frustrating, because I feel like the music we play is really progressive, and fun, and pushes the envelope of any genre of music, let alone the contentious genre of “women’s music”.
ANNA: The name is funny too. I find that I’ve gone the opposite way, in that, I used to be like “Yeah, our show is called… uh… Venus…” I used to kind of apologize for it, and now I use it as a challenge. I’ll be like “Yeah, it’s called VENUS!”. And then I’ll wait for somebody to say something like “So I guess you play a lot of Sarah McLachlan?” and then I’ll be like “Sit ‘n’ spin.”
ANGELA: And for a long time we were talking about changing the name. To me the name Venus sounds like 1970s granola feminism. But it’s interesting because our show isn’t that at all, so it’s kind of like a fuck-you to that categorization. Because I think we do a lot with the music that we’re “supposed” to play.
ANNA: I guess it is a restriction, but so is everything. Doing a jazz show is a restriction, doing a rock show is a restriction. And you can manoeuvre within those boundaries in a really interesting way.
CATHERINE: I feel like on the contrary we have a tremendous amount of freedom because we’re not bound by genre. I think we’re better representing women of CKUT if we play as much diverse content as possible. I find it really freeing; the bottom line for me is that the number one determinant of what I play on our show is what I like, period. I find it incredibly un-limiting, I’m amazed at how rare it is that something comes up and I’m like Oh, I can’t play it, there’s not a woman in it. I think for that reason it’s really honest and it’s not forced into a mandate that isn’t relevant.
WE GOTTA GET YOU A WOMAN: FEM-CON AND FILLING THE “FEMALE QUOTA”
ANGELA: Last year the NCRA [National Campus Radio Association] did research on gender representation within Canadian campus radio stations, and it’s actually pretty low, except for our station, which is almost all ladies. Almost all the staff are women, at least right now. The NCRA also has this program called “fem-con” and it’s really weird, it’s these posters you’re supposed to print out, and you put them up in your MCR1 all around Canada, and it’s like “What is Fem-Con? Play content by women, in news and music” and blah blah. And I wonder what you guys think about it, if you think that’s going to work. Because it seems like a funny initiative.
ANNA: To me it’s a little bit like when people say “It’s good that you play music by women because women are so oppressed” and I say NO, we play music by women because it’s really good and it gets overlooked a lot, but that doesn’t mean… it doesn’t recognize how much work has already been done. And having a sign up at CKUT that says “Play more women”, it’s like… and I don’t want to totally shit on it…
ANGELA: I have.
ANNA: Okay then. It’s like, we’re already doing that, and there are other shows already doing that, and to have this governing body come down and say “YOU NEED TO INCLUDE WOMEN”, I think people’s reaction to that is “Ugh, why?” Because the thing is, it’s already happening, and it just needs to be recognized that it’s already happening.
ANGELA: The other interesting thing is that they equate gender with “fem”. They’re basically correlating gender representation with “women”.
CATHERINE: That’s a good point, and it’s something that doesn’t get talked about. You’re supposed to know instantly what they meant by “gender representation”, that it’s about the oppression of women, when really it’s more complicated than that.
ANNA: I don’t think adding a box to the log sheet is going to make a difference. It seems like making people feel like they’re being punished for something is not the right way to go about it.
CATHERINE: It’s ridiculous. But one thing I wanted to say was, the other day I was listening to the “behind the scenes of As It Happens” special on the CBC, where they talk to all kinds of producers about how the show got to have the unique style that it does and how they got some of their best interviews and so on. And they interviewed a really old-school lady, I’m not sure who it was, and they were talking about how at the CBC even in the 70s and 80s, one of their major overlords was a woman, and she was always walking around making sure that every story had female content in it. But her rationale was that having only men’s voices on the radio is boring. That was the whole point. She would say “Just check if there’s a woman in the research team that you can maybe interview to break it up, because otherwise it’s going to be man man man man man.” And if they got more women’s voices on there, it would be more… I don’t want to say orally stimulating because that sounds wrong… (laughter) auditorially stimulating, in the sense that it would have more dynamics. And that’s kind of an interesting take on it. 2
ANGELA: But the idea of legislating it is kind of weird. I think it’s good to have lots of representation of women on the radio, obviously, but I don’t know if that’s an effective way to do it. And the way it was enacted was really half-assed, like they’re just going to hang a sign… the reaction I had was, the way it’s written is so simplistic and condescending, and the assumptions it makes are kind of weird.
ANNA: Maybe I’m getting into weird territory here, but for instance I feel like no one would do that with race, because that would obviously be seen as kind of fucked up.
ANNA: Exactly. If someone said “Get some more black people in your show,” well, representation is way more complicated than just adding colour, no pun intended, to your line-up. It goes way deeper than that, and I think in that case people would recognize it; not that people don’t recognize it with women, I mean obviously to a certain extent we agree that it’s weird, but I don’t know.
CATHERINE: It would be depressing to me if I made art and I felt like people only liked it because they needed to fill their female content quota. I would feel really bad about that. That’s not to say that I think that whatever the cultural version of affirmative action is is a waste of time, I don’t think that at all… but it’s off-putting. I remember that time we had Merrill [Garbus, a musician who plays under the name tUnE-yArDs] on for the second time, and she was saying that when we first had her on, and we had asked her who were some female musicians who had influenced her, she kind of blanked because she had written a list of her influences and they were all men. And she went back and really thought about it, and that’s why she started trying to play shows with more women, like why she started Titties for Tune-Yards [a mini-tour of all female performers playing small, intimate venues]. But she thought about it a lot and tried to make links with more female musicians and listen to more music by women and bring in more to the show, and that’s pretty interesting, because I would never even have hoped to have that kind of effect on someone, I mean that’s never been my goal. Maybe stuff like that works, it’s possible. But like what, did we guilt her into it?
ANGELA: Maybe we just made her rethink her influences, think harder about them.
FROM THE BATHTUB TO THE STREET: THE PERSONAL, THE POLITICAL, AND THE MUSICAL
ANGELA: Do you think our show has some social or political value?
ANNA: No, not at all. It’s just about party time music. (laughter)
CATHERINE: I don’t know what you mean by that. I mean, it’s valuable socially to me.
ANGELA: Well that was kind of my next thought, that it’s more for us. And I suppose that’s valuable as well.
ANNA: There are examples. Like the thing with Merrill, and when I was interviewing Jessee [Havey, former lead singer of folk-roots band The Duhks], she told this story about doing a photo shoot for a magazine and the stylist put her in this belly-shirt, not her band stylist but the magazine stylist, and she was like “There’s no fucking way I’m appearing like this, you have to Photoshop it so my belly is covered.” And she stuck by it. And another time she was shooting a music video and she was told she had to be in the bathtub for part of it, and she said “I’ll do it, but I’m not getting undressed. I’m getting in that bathtub with my clothes on.” And this guy called up during the interview to say “It’s so inspiring to hear a young woman talking that way, standing up for her values.” It was just one dude, but he was moved. And that was cool. The thing is, how can you really quantify social value? I have no idea.
ANGELA: I don’t think it’s possible.
CATHERINE: Just on the micro level, we’ve had a lot of good times, we’ve become friends from doing it, people come on our show, on our karaoke show and have fun, and they think it’s funny. When they were doing the Titties for Tune-Yards festival tons of people were coming through and meeting each other.
ANGELA: What I find is good is, if you ever go to a show, and you’re really impressed with someone, you can say, Hey, want to come on my radio show?
ANNA: That’s how we met Merrill, because Catherine went up to her after a show…
ANGELA: I find it’s really great to be able to do that, because I don’t make music, I’m not an artist, but I feel like it’s nice to be able to contribute, to say Hey, come on my show, and maybe more people will come to your show. I find that pretty rewarding. It’s definitely not possible to quantify it though.
ANNA: To say “We’ve fomented this percentage of positive change in our community.”
ANGELA: Especially in community radio, where there’s no statistics anyway about any of this.
ANNA: It’s nice to think that it happens in ripples. Like that one question made a difference to Merrill, and that caused her to have this women-oriented tour, and that caused all these different women to meet… and then who knows?
CATHERINE: I think that it does have social value, I think my answer is yes. Zsofie [former drummer of queercore band Thundrah] was saying to me that if she ever started a band again she knows she could promote it on Venus, and she feels really good about that. I think it is a resource and a service that’s available to people. I don’t know about political value. What would that even mean? That a lot was affected because of our show?
ANGELA: I don’t know, I think they’re kind of similar, social and political. Like the guy who was impressed with Jessee, maybe he’s thinking, “I never thought about it that way”. I don’t know if that’s political.
ANNA: Well, you know, the personal is political. Which means… uh… (laughter) Joking aside, our show takes that idea as basic, that the personal is political. We think there’s something important about music made by women, other than that women have pretty voices. Some music made by women is overtly political, like Le Tigre, but what we’re assuming is that if any woman writes a song, any song, that song is bound to come from her experience as a woman. Which itself is political, because it’s influenced by things outside of herself, like society, patriarchy, blah blah blah… and in paying attention to it, that in itself is political. That is kind of the basis of our show.
ANGELA: Someone like Wanda Jackson, when [our former co-host] Emily interviewed her, she was like “I’m not a feminist!” But in a way that’s kind of beside the point, because she was a woman who was making music in the fifties, in rockabilly, which was a super male-dominated field. She was leading by example. And I think that’s personal and political.
CATHERINE: And maybe it’s just that way for us too. I mean we take that time slot, we assume it and we do what we want with it, we push our agenda and our taste in music, and we’re women, and that’s maybe political right there. If politics is people trying to get more power and push their agenda. Which it is; it’s a power game.
YOU MAKE ME FEEL LIKE A NATURAL WOMAN: DEFINING GENDER REPRESENTATION
ANGELA: I was thinking about when we had Rae Spoon on, and he’s transgender, and it led me to think about, what about queer representation on the show, and does that fit in our mandate? Because a lot of people think it doesn’t.
ANNA: It doesn’t? Who are these people?
ANGELA: Well some people have responded that it’s a women’s music show, and isn’t that excluding?
ANNA: On our MySpace page, I remember writing this, and thinking about it, and whether or not I agreed with it, and I’ve decided I do, that we aim to support women-identified women [as opposed to women-born women]. I’m totally in line with that.
ANGELA: Me too.
CATHERINE: So Rae decided to go on?
ANGELA: Yeah. I don’t know if he would now, but it was a few years ago.
ANNA: Rae is FtM [female to male transgender]?
ANGELA: I think so, yeah. But I think being FtM, or questioning, or trans, in a public arena… like, someone will write an article on Rae Spoon being like “she” or “he”… sometimes I feel like it’s hard to get the real story. But as far as I know I think he identifies as male.
CATHERINE: Rae’s a complicated person, because he doesn’t take any hormones or anything to change his voice, so he sounds like a girl.
ANGELA: That’s why it’s so interesting in terms of what we do, because it’s all voice, right?
ANNA: It is interesting, because would we change the mandate of our show to be “women and trans people”? Because maybe then someone who’s FtM would want to come on our show, maybe they don’t identify as exclusively male, but they wouldn’t feel comfortable being on a women’s music show, and if our mandate shifted…
ANGELA: I know that’s a huge deal in other circles, “women only” spaces, but I feel like we’re more fluid about it. But it doesn’t even come up that often, and I don’t know why it doesn’t come up that often.
ANNA: I basically wouldn’t have a problem playing anyone on our show as long as they’re not… a dude. Like a dude dude. If it’s not Bonnie Prince Billy or Wolf Parade… that’s where I draw the line.
CATHERINE: We can’t play Wolf Parade.
ANNA: Obviously. What I would worry about though is claiming people for feminism who don’t want to be claimed.
ANGELA: But then under that, should we not play Wanda Jackson? The more we think about our category the more fluid it is.
CATHERINE: It’s funny though because we’re clearly sometimes not sure, so we’re checking out names…
ANGELA: Like if someone’s named Tracy or Stacy…
ANNA: I definitely once played a Leslie and realized after that it was a man.
CATHERINE: I’m trying to less play things where I know there’s just a woman in it playing the tambourine. I’m trying to go more for a woman giving creative input. That’s tough sometimes too.
ANGELA: It makes me wonder about the category itself, whether it’s outdated. But I don’t think it is. It’s just more flexible than what people are thinking when they say “Oh you do a women’s music show, you play Ani Difranco,” which is exactly what I try not to play.
ANNA: One day I’m going to have to confront my Ani demons and play an entire Ani Difranco show.
CATHERINE: That’s what I was thinking too. Someday I’m going to do it.