“Open secret.” That phrase lingered in headlines, on social media platforms and over dinner tables after producer Harvey Weinstein was fired from his own company last month amid allegations he’d sexually harassed and assaulted dozens of women in his industry over a period of decades. It turned out plenty of people in Hollywood knew about Weinstein’s alleged sexual impropriety, they just failed to discuss it publicly.
The fact is, sexism in its most elemental form is in many ways an “open secret” that can be hard to define and is often shameful to identify. In a country where the symptoms of systemic sexism range from a severe gender wage gap to a backlog of untested rape kits, it can feel useless to speak out. Yet there is power in finding a finding a voice to talk about secrets like these. Thousands recently attested to that fact by sharing stories of sexual harassment and assault in solidarity with the #MeToo movement on social media. This month, a group of women in the New Orleans music industry are poised to go a step further.
On November 2, 3 and 5 at Preservation Hall, photographer Katie Sikora debuts The Sexism Project, an exhibit featuring portraits of 60 women who shared stories of sexism and gender-based discrimination with her over the past year and a half. The photos and excerpts from the interviews will be on view each day of the event, which also features performances by many of the musicians who participated in the project, including Big Freedia, Helen Gillet, Maggie Koerner, Tasché de la Rocha, Julie Odell, Alexis Marceaux, Morgan Thielen and others. On November 2, the photos and full interview transcripts will also go live on The Sexism Project’s website.
Asked about the genesis of the project, Sikora said she’d noticed a phenomenon in which the topic of sexism seemed to inspire groups of women to share similar experiences without making them public.
“We talk about them briefly behind closed doors and then we open the doors again and go back out in the world and they’re still behind those doors. I wanted to talk to people in an official interview setting and bring those stories to light,” Sikora said.
The project took a few different turns once Sikora began interviewing people and photographing them—mostly in their homes—last spring.
“When I started the project I thought it was going to be collection of stories about sexism in the music industry, but that’s not how sexism works,” Sikora explained. “All the interviews ended up being so much more conceptual and specific to each woman. That was a really powerful part of the project showing how differently everyone can view one topic.”
She initially planned to write a feature comprising the results of her work, but one of her subjects, Alexis Marceaux, encouraged her to do something bigger. Marceaux ultimately suggested the exhibit at Preservation Hall. She now serves as the group’s Events Curator alongside Creative Director Morgan Thielen and Katie Budge, who handles marketing and publicity for the project.
“A lot of women don’t realize it’s happening and then when they do it’s kind of almost too late,” said Marceaux, whose own interview for the project details multiple instances in which she’d been overlooked by promoters who repeatedly attempted to pay the man in her band rather than give her the money, despite her role as the band’s finance handler.
In other interviews, musicians described being chalked up to the girlfriend of some other band member—even if they’d walked into the venue carrying the instrument they’d been hired to play there. A more overt tale of “advice” shared with Sikora involved a woman being told she’d get further in her music career if she would “just get on [her] back.” Unsolicited advice about playing instruments or operating recording equipment was a common theme, too, as was the experience of hearing seemingly innocent directives like, “You should smile more.”
“That’s [like] telling a woman that her appearance is more important than what’s in her head. It’s not anybody’s place to tell someone what you should wear or what you should do with your facial structure or how you should use your equipment or how you should play a song,” Sikora said.
“There are some more sensitive interviews with some really heavy stories,” she added before admitting the interview process took an emotional toll on her.
“It’s just sad how much people are hurting because of this and it’s sad that other people don’t believe their pain,” said Sikora.
Still, both Sikora and Marceaux feel they’ve already begun learning more about how sexism functions in society—and why speaking out is worthwhile—from working on the project. They hope to cast their net wider going forward, taking The Sexism Project to other demographics like New Orleans men and local service industry employees.
Said Sikora: “60 women is barely scratching the surface.”