Women are often made to feel like everything they do in public is in service to men. When women refuse to look cute or smile, they are committing a personal offence against them.

This was the experience of Jules, lead singer of Australian band, Twerps. In an article in Australian music magazine, Mess and Noise, reviewer Christopher Lewis questioned why, during a performance at a music festival, the band’s only female member failed to ‘crack a smile.’ Outraged and disappointed that this kind of comment can still be made about a female musician, Jules wrote an article in response asking why her three fellow (male) band members weren’t criticised for not smiling too. Along with Jules’ response, there was major backlash to the article, with the story being covered across Australian radio stations, publications, and medias.

Lewis’ ‘why doesn’t she crack a smile’ comment struck a chord with close friend of Jules, photographer and cinematographer Mia Mala Macdonald:

“It was like: the band make the greatest music, they’ve made some of the best albums in Australia over the past few years, and the only thing that was commented on was that the female singer never cracked a smile,” says Mia.

The review was eventually taken down, but Mia couldn’t shake the residual sentiment. Along with her colleague Catherine Tipping, the two women combined their skills to create a beautiful and meaningful art project: Mia with her love of portraiture, Catherine with her exceptional weaving skills. The artists worked with a diverse group of women and girls from all around Melbourne, and created the portrait series Why Doesn’t She Crack A Smile in the aim of challenging the underlying tensions and reactions to the politics of feminism.

Mia printed the portraits on fabric, and Catherine used wool needlepoint to transform the photographs. Each piece portrays a different feeling and message, and the blend of portraiture and needlepoint detail together address cultural and political connotations of identity, social discomfort, feminism, representation and transformation.

As a successful freelance photographer, lecturer at TAFE and universities, and manager of the design cultural complex Magic Johnston, Mia wanted to address the discrimination that various minority groups face, and the sexism that many women have to deal with regularly:

“Even as a female who works for yourself I get it. I’ve been on set recently where they assumed that I’m not the photographer but the assistant. Which was really funny. I got asked by the boss of the advertising agency to go pick up five lattes. I was like ‘yeah sure’ – so I went and got the lattes and I came back and he’s like ‘so where’s the photographer’ and I was like ‘I’m the photographer’. It was good to prove a point.”

Mia hopes that projects like Why Doesn’t She Crack A Smile can help open up a conversation around current modes of feminism and contemporary misogyny:

“It’s an ongoing conversation I have in my life, especially now going through a new journey in being pregnant whilst also being in a same sex relationship – the discrimination we face is not what I would have ever expected in Melbourne. I constantly have to explain myself in every situation I’m in. It’s an endless spectrum of questions, and I always feel obliged that I have to explain myself.”

Mia Mala Mcdonald and Catherine Tipping were finalists at the 2016 Monash Gallery of Art Bowness Prize and the 2016 Perth Centre of Photography Iris Award with select pieces from the Why Doesn’t She Crack a Smile series.