Category Archives: Thought

The danger of labels by Meri Wills

I recently watched the French short film reversing men’s and women’s roles in “everyday sexism”.  When I got to the end, I have to say it got me thinking about the everyday things that I experience and that I don’t even really notice anymore let alone complain about: The woman often in front of me in the line at the coffee shop who will try and flirt her way out of paying if a man is serving, but will be downright rude if it’s a woman. The bus driver who, if he’s stopping for a cigarette while parked and I walk past him on my way into the office, will always make a comment along the lines of “Hello again, beautiful.” The van which beeps as it drives past. The women shaking their heads and tutting at the woman with her stockings slightly showing through the slit of her pencil skirt as she walks to work.

 

We’re coded to judge people when we first meet them, it’s an evolutionary trait which helped us not get eaten. But making that first mental judgement doesn’t mean you need to act on it, much less comment to a friend. With International Women’s Day recently passed for this year, I started thinking about why certain groups deserve special mention for their achievements, while it’s assumed that for the majorities, every day is special. I recently had a heated debate at work with a colleague about whether a white, Caucasian, heterosexual male could be ‘harmed’ by something someone said to him. I pointed out that offence can be caused for any number of reasons, and being in the majority doesn’t mean you don’t have feelings, or that you are inherently racist, sexist, homophobic or anything else. I also pointed out that while he is constantly preaching ‘don’t judge someone on how they look’, isn’t that exactly what he was doing? I suddenly realised that the difficulty I was having wasn’t with the judgements themselves, it was with the labels being slapped all over them.

 

There comes a point when frantically putting labels all over your social interactions and acquaintances just starts hampering your vision of the world. It’s probably an incredibly naive and idealistic notion but wouldn’t it be better to just talk to someone? Maybe find out a thing or two about them before you start shaming them for being a “Slut – in that skirt”, or a “Toff” or a “Hipster”. We all know that when you say you’re a feminist, it’s a dirty word for a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean you should judge them for being ignorant. Educate them, don’t preach, don’t talk down, just ask them if they think that people should be equal. If they answer yes, they’re on the same page as you.

 

Labels help us categorise the world around us and particularly the vast amount of information now available to us through the internet. It’s tempting and very easy to start labelling everything around us in a mental chart of our personal slice of the world. I know I do it, but the key is keeping those mental labels adaptable and ready to change. Discrimination happens for any number of reasons and in an intelligent species, there’s really no need for it.

 

NB: Just as an aside, while reading through the comments afterwards I couldn’t help but notice the number of people who jumped on the term everyday and were criticising the film because the really aggressive physical abuse doesn’t happen to most women on a daily basis. No, you’re right, it doesn’t. But that isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen every day in every city in every country, and that doesn’t make it any less horrific. It is everyday sexism in that these are acts committed in ‘civilised’ society to thousands of women each week, often at the hands of people close to them let alone from strangers. The message of the film was what was important not the title.

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Review of Hannah Höch at the Whitechapel Gallery By Lily Magenis

 

Hannah Höch was the only female member of the Berlin Dada movement, and a pioneer in photomontage, a medium and method she used to satirize Weimar politics and subversively comment on society, gender, and race. Her first major exhibition in the UK is currently on display at the Whitechapel Gallery from January 15 – March 23, 2014.

The Hannah Höch exhibition brings together a collection over 120 pieces of work, and spans the length of her career, from the 1910s -1970s. Höch’s varying series of photomontage are presented in a chronological time line, beginning with her early work, which was heavily influenced by her career in fashion magazines. Höch critiques the way in which women are represented in the media, by ripping their images out and pulling them away from the objectified environment of a magazine page. She re-applies an image of the ‘new woman’ into a formation and structure that addresses how we perceive beauty.

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Höch’s Ethnographic Museum series questions the construction of gender and the notion of beauty, for she pairs Ethnographic masks with images of the female body. Höch’s collage “Aus der Sammlung: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum (From the Collection: from an Ethnographic Museum)” (1929), combines the body of a baby with a traditional mask and gives the figure an eye of a modern woman. Höch wants us to relate to the body in a different way, as this figure does not adhere to the idealized vision of beauty, but questions different standards of beauty. The new woman she creates here does not correlate to that of the typical woman of ‘typical’ beauty, she is a woman with a modern eye.

Höch’s art is personal, and we are greeted with a playful exploration of re-imaging. She cuts and pastes, taking familiar images and reconstructing them. Women in Höch’s collages are beautiful, feminine, and playful, but not as sexualized objects. Instead, women are depicted in a way that challenge preconceived notions of femininity. This is the new woman.

The upstairs gallery showcases a collection of Höch’s scrapbooks while the rest of the exhibition is dedicated to her experiments in abstraction and ‘Fantastic Art’ where we see her transition into color and an adjustment to her portrayal of the new woman.

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Given the extent to which the female body is included in her work, it is evident that Höch is conscious of sex and her bisexuality. However, sexuality is a factor that presents itself in her work scarcely. I was struck by the collage of a peachy pink bottom resting on a beach in “Der Schöne Po (The Beautiful Bottom)” (1959). For this was the only overtly sexual image in the exhibition. It’s bright turquoise hues and sparkling semblance stand out in comparison to her earlier collages – it has an exaggerated, girly character which I regard as a shift in the image of the new woman.

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By pulling apart and reshaping figures, most commonly female, Höch seems to be challenging the treatment of gender in 20th Century Germany. Traditionally the female figure in the artistic canon exemplifies an object of beauty. Höch contests this notion with, “Um einen roten Mund (Around a Red Mouth)” (1967). Here, a set of red lips rest on a mountain of pink petticoats. The inclusion of petticoats, which were worn by women for centuries, draws reference to a traditional and often required uniform for women. However, Höch tears at the petticoats and layers the pink horizontal frays one on top of the other, creating an abstract image of a vagina. The violence implicit in the medium Höch used here literally reshapes an image of the very core of a woman’s femininity.

Höch’s work is ambiguous, but this allows for a sort of fluid and ‘fantastic’ reading. The medium she uses is surrealistic – the multifaceted layers of cut and pasted images relax the boundaries of interpretation, and therefore we can read them in myriad ways. Her work is both political and poetic. The way she chops and splices images is political, and often comments on gender, but the finished product is beautiful and dream like.

My first impression was that Höch’s work is confused, that she struggled between different images of the new woman, as she too identified with struggles alike, (e.g. confusion with her bisexuality and being the only woman in Dada) “Two Faced” (1928), illustrates such confusion; a collage of a woman with two faces, drawn in different directions. However, this exhibition takes us on a journey of the new woman from the stiff magazine women in pearls to the effervescent pert behind. And this is exactly the point. Höch works with the notion of the fragmented self. The new woman is duplicitous and you can read her in multiple ways. Höch wants us to have our own personal and objective understanding of the ‘new woman’, as there isn’t one way to perceive her.

Höch’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery is a humorous critique of gender and beauty. Her work is crude, but not offensive. It is light hearted, but makes a point. It’s sexual but not sexualized. Hannah Höch cuts the perfect balance and creates a new image of the new woman.

 

 

Hannah Höch is on view through March 23, 2014.

For more information visit Whitechapel Gallery, London.

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Do you Love Yourself Enough? By Olivia Atkins

Valentine’s Day is typically a celebration of love. What better way to celebrate this national holiday than to attend an event that stresses the importance of loving yourself?

London’s One Billion Rising did just that. On Friday afternoon at London’s iconic Trafalgar Square, a stage was set up ready to host an array of inspirational speakers and powerful musicians.

Lynne Franks, coordinator of the London event, introduced herself and unveiled the day’s programme, adding that the event was “owned by no one and directed by everyone”. A crowd quickly gathered around the stage, keen to participate and listen to the empowering words being spoken.

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Following on from the introduction, Leyla Hussein took to the microphone. Ms Hussein is a psychotherapist and a self-professed survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM). She used her personal and professional experiences to talk with the crowd. She claims that 66,000 British women have undergone FGM and that over 20,000 girls are currently at risk of being sent abroad for circumcision. Ms Hussein was born into a family where FGM was important and considered culturally significant. She too underwent the surgery but instead refuses to be acknowledged as a victim. She speaks on behalf of those who cannot or will not speak out, and for those who are ashamed of what has happened to their bodies. Ms Hussein now recognises the importance of education and works on campaigns to protect the female body. Although she did not originally think of the operation as violent, as it was accepted and encouraged within the family, now she realises it was child abuse. Responding to Ms Franks’ opening question asking participants why they were here, Ms Hussein says:

“I’m rising today for my grandmother who was married off at twelve; I’m rising for my mother, for myself, for my children and for my future grandchildren.”

Whitney Iles, aged only 26, was applauded onto the stage where she introduced herself and her job with Project 507. The project aims to dispel violence amongst youngsters aged between 8-18 by creating workshops and challenging the way they relate to one another through education. From her experience, she had encountered women as second class citizens. For, even if women are not subjected to physical violence, they can fall victim to self-judgement, psychological violence and social stereotypes, which contribute to damaging self-esteem. Ms Iles admitted: “we don’t see ourselves how we deserve to be seen” and urged the audience to improve their personal outlook. She demanded the audience to chant that they would not accept mistreatment of women any longer, and shout: “I will not be anything less than Brilliant!” Ms Iles asked the audience to look past their imperfections and to love themselves…arguing: “After all it is Valentine’s Day”.

She said, “I will rise for love because when we love ourselves we love each other” and “we become an unstoppable force.”

Wannabe Girl-band SHE17 consisted of TV personality June Sarpong, Baroness Patricia Scotland and local MP Stella Creasy. As a trio, they spoke about the importance of ending violence against women in society. They claimed that cooperative responsibility can eliminate violence, particularly in domestic violence cases where victims often seek an ally to support their decision. The audience was encouraged to do the thing they were most scared of, despite the difficulties that come with questioning patriarchy. She rallied that only through determination can gender-equality become a possibility. Ms Creasy said:  “Speak out and dance, regardless of the possibility that you might sink.”

Next up, Jude Kelly walked onto the stage and introduced herself as the artistic director of Southbank’s Women Of the World Festival (WOW). Since starting 4 years ago, she has acted as a pioneer for advocating feminism, believing that the only way to succeed is through re-educating the younger generation. WOW festival is a collection of workshops and talks spanning the International Women’s Day weekend in March, where people come together and exchange ideas about what feminism means. Ms Kelly claims that no society has achieved complete equality as of yet, but this should remain a goal to strive towards. She encourages men to become feminists too, reminding the audience that this is true equality and the reason for her rising: “Lets rise as women and men, and come together as humans.”

Human Rights Journalist and BBC Special Correspondent Sue Lloyd Roberts stressed the importance of bringing media attention to gender-related issues. She believes this would increase public awareness and improve female mistreatment through education. She claims often “we women are” treated as “another minority, when actually we make up 51% of the world population.” Ms Lloyd Roberts encouraged a greater demand for female coverage in the media, saying that if there is an interest, it would be possible to “get violence against women on the top of the news agenda” and talked about more openly.

Rahela Siddiqi, a human rights activist in Afghanistan spoke about her time working with incarcerated female asylum seekers. She claims that despite their sentencing, offenders are often not treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. Instead, women that have faced trauma in their home countries and sought asylum abroad are met with further problems. Ms Sidiqi said that they can be offered indefinite detention, half of all victims are subjected to rape and two thirds face prosecution. Furthermore, they can be detained during any stage of their prosecution process, and are often exploited as they lack legal assistance. Female asylum seekers are rarely given time or sensitivity towards their cases. Ms Sidiqi urged the audience to rise up for female solidarity in Afghanistan.

The last speaker of the day was Marrissa, who spontaneously spoke out about domestic workers. Although she was not scheduled in the programme, she spoke about exploitative employers, who submit their workers to atrocious conditions. Her friend Lanee read out a poem which challenged the rights of undocumented workers. She attended the event to rise against ongoing slavery in the UK workforce.

Ms Franks returned to the microphone and introduced the bands Skin and Black Voices who collaborated and provided a soulful backdrop for the audience to dance to. Despite the rainy weather, there was a lot of people smiling and beginning to love themselves!

One Billion Rising Official Website

Leyla Husein advocating an end to FGM

Whitney Iles & Project 507

Jude Kelly’s Women Of the World Festival

 

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Il Corpo delle Donne- ‘Women’s Bodies’ but where are women’s voices? By Joanna Brown

The representation of women in Italian television has been widely discussed over the past thirty years; notably as part of the larger debate over women’s position within the media. The controversial power division within the Italian media, especially TV channels, forms the backdrop to the recent light shed on this subject.  Lorella Zanardo’s 2009 documentary “Il Corpo delle Donne” is said to confront the representation of women in the Italian media.  Zanardo stated that her motivation behind the project was to educate and change the younger generation.  To offer a different insight into perceiving women beyond the television screen.  However, could it be that as much as Zanardo’s documentary is true and eye-opening, it lacks room for exceptions and tends to generalize and make martyrs of women who may be very conscious, of what they are doing and actually enjoy their position and role within the media?

In Italy,  women’s presence in TV and how they are represented creates a great diversity of opinions. Sergio Rodrigez, group creative director at the advertising agency Leo Burnett Italy, referring to the excessive presence of women in advertisements, confirms that “in Italy when you don’t have to use women, you use women.”

Women have a tendency to be placed at the centre of media discourses. Yet, the representation of women has historically been noted as contradictory and double-standardised, emulated through virgin/whore binaries. Where have these perceptions stemmed from and why have they come about?  How have these factors influenced today’s representation of women and does Zanardo’s documentary take these into account whilst criticising Italian TV?

Through her documentary, Zanardo creates a montage of various Italian TV programmes which she analyses and critiques with the help of her own voice-over. One of the main issues that comes through her documentary are the talentless women who are used in television as decoration, simply to accompany men. By showing scenes of women sat at the feet of a table, and splashing around under a shower in a white dress, Zanardo wishes to highlight the objectification of women in such programmes.  It is essential to break this trend and re-educate the population through TV.

Another imposing issue which emerges from the documentary is the increase in plastic surgery which she claims replaces real women by masks.  Zanardo focuses on the need to constantly look younger, calling it a humiliation only imposed on women, not men.  A further concern of Zanardo’s which stimulated once more her wanting to create the project was the absence, if not the pollution, of female role models for younger women.

Zanardo stresses the impact of these images may have on girls who may “aspire to the role as a way to get rich quickly.” In reality, this fear of lack of role models can be reflected beyond the television screen. In an interview with Adrian Michaels (2007), 19-year-old student Caterina Preti compares young girls in Italy who “link beauty with success” and “still have the example of their mothers who don’t work” with their counterparts in the UK who are “much more determined, they are career-minded.” The idea of linking success with beauty which she very much disagrees with is at the centre of Zanardo’s argument.

As much as Zanardo’s documentary was a necessary cry for attention and has served many purposes, I wish to argue that it is insufficient in presenting the situation of women in TV in Italy, rather generalised and in somewhat one sided and suffering from ‘tunnel vision’. Zanardo passes over essential representations present in Italian TV and seems to ignore the fact that the roles women tend to be placed in may be a consequence of deeper meaning rooted within their culture. Furthermore, it could even be suggested that these women may enjoy their positions and representations, embracing their identity through their physical appearance and attributes.

Luciana Litizetto is a famous Italian comedian who does not fit into the categories of women Zanardo denounces. Her latest monologue at the San Remo Festival (14th February 2013) saw her giving an alternative vision into Italian women’s media discourse rather than objectified women under glass tables. Litizetto’s monologo sull’amore proclaimed her support for homosexual rights (SR 06’01), sarcastically listed reasons why women love men (SR 02’40) (thus confirming her position as a female comedienne), and demanded respect for all women (SR 06’45) as an act of support against violence against women: “un uomo che ci mena, non ci ama” (SR 07’22). Litizetto represents a free-spirited woman who is not afraid to publicly speak her mind “un uomo che ti picchia è uno stronzo” (SR 08’17). At the end of her speech, in which she is informally seated on the stage, Litizetto, wrinkles and all, stands up and joins a group of women who start dancing as part of a flashmob “contro la violenza contro le donne” (SR 08’30). In contrast to other comparable instances, for example in L’Eredità where women interrupt the show to dance around wearing barely any clothes, these women are dressed and are dancing for a cause.

In addition, some women enjoy their position of femininity. The patriarchal sexist media hierarchy that Zanardo depicts in her documentary, is not as one sided as she suggests. Zanardo seems to make a generalisation about how women are represented. Danielle Hipkins claims that “the argument that these young women do not know their own minds and need re-education is more than redolent of paternalistic, puritanical attitudes towards female sexuality”  Furthemore, the writer Lazar has explored and defined this phenomena as “’power femininity’” in which self-objectification is not an indicator of the power of cultural expectations about how women should look, but in fact a strategy of “empowerment.” In fact, Zanardo’s portrayal of women in TV, conforming to such aesthetical standards, could be seen as an attack.

Continuing with the causes of such representation, Adrian Michaels explores deeper cultural effects which may influence women’s positions within society. In his  2007 article, Michaels calls up upon many different powerful women’s opinions, notably Laura Frati Gucci, head of Aidda the Italian association of top women managers and entrepreneurs, “Women in Italy are held back not by chauvinism but by rules and customs that inhabit their participation in work.”” Gucci explains how mothers complain about the lack of nurseries. Mario Draghi, the governor of the bank of Italy, confirms that “better designed policies to support families would have raising female employment rates. ” Michaels even demonstrates how “one female criminal lawyer (who prefers not to be named) argues that the lack of recognition of a modern woman’s needs is even visible in hospital obstetrics units.” This same anonymous lawyer estimates “that 10 per cent of women in her profession dress sexily because it is a weapon and because they like it.” Graziella Parati, head of comparative literature at Dartmouth College, claims that “television is still in the hands of men” but also that “women have bought into male paradigms of what femininity is, so they pay particular attention to their appearance; but they have also grown up in a country full of art and beauty and their attention to aesthetics in general can come from that.” From the wide range of opinions expressed by these women, we can see that women’s position in society is ambiguously controlled by social structures and services. In this respect, it could be suggested that before TV representation can be changed, more structural work needs to be done in order to better encourage women to `fight back’.

It is indisputable that Zanardo’s work has been essential in drawing Italian media discourse to the attention of its viewers regarding women’s role and representation. However, Zanardo, lacking crucial feminist critical knowledge and neglecting other sociological aspects of Italian culture, generalises the effects and the causes of such images of Italy’s population.

Women do have a choice, and if they do not voice their discontent it is not a simple question of whether or not they are willing to do so.

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GET YER TITS OUT by Rose Lock

Breasts are a hot topic at the moment. From the No More Page 3 Campaign to the recent news of a scheme in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire that will offer (well, ‘bribe’ is perhaps a better word) mothers with shopping vouchers provided they breastfeed for at least 6 weeks – and of course, not forgetting the fact that tits are found pretty much everywhere across the media – in newspapers, magazines, advertising and yes, music videos (yawn).

It is not a dramatically new insight to acknowledge the ways in which the female body and its function have been manipulated throughout history – yet sometimes, it is easy to forget the extent to which forces of body fascism continue to materialise in new, innovative forms. I was reminded of this recently when I accidently bought a pair of ‘Waist-Shaper’ tights and wore them to a job interview. Now I’m not going to blame this ridiculous, organ-crushing invention entirely for me not getting the job, but – the looks I got on the train as I tried to subtly lower them (‘tight’ doesn’t really cover it, they more than lived up to their name), the distraction of finding it difficult to breathe whilst reading over my notes, and later actually having to run to a shop to buy a more liberal form of hosiery before finding somewhere to change, and then sprint to the interview – well, basically, I don’t think they helped.

So despite my awareness of the continuously expanding range of irritating, harmful products that support a constant pursuit of an ever more elusive feminine ideal – it is as if we are literally chasing after a practically hairless, practically weightless, eternally young, smiling mirage, except that each time we get closer something new and shiny obstructs us; an everlasting vicious circle, which probably looks a bit like what would happen if you crossed Beckett with Disney? Anyway – I was still startled when I discovered the existence in America of the ‘Hooter Hider’.

If you’re blissfully unaware of this invention, try to imagine what it could be. Most people describe some kind of bizarre nose shield when I ask them what springs to mind from the name, which is a quaint idea in comparison to the real thing: essentially, a large sack that hangs around a mother’s neck, so that she may breastfeed her baby under a sort of makeshift tent; both breast and baby are entirely sheltered from the (presumably horrified, disgusted or leering) gaze of the outside world.

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For something that is clearly designed for purposes of being discreet, it is odd that the ‘Hooter Hider’ comes in a variety of loud, garish patterns, and is, well, pretty massive. In their description of its purpose, Bébé au Lait, the company behind the product, claim:

Our award-winning covers simplify nursing in public so that everyone — mom, baby, and present company — can carry on.

Simplify’. Hmm. And ‘carry on’ – carry on what, exactly?  Carry on pretending that ‘hooters’ don’t have a biological function, or that postpartum tits are X-rated?!

After all, nursing is a special time to bond with baby. But sometimes we’d like to stay engaged in our social setting, too. That’s why Hooter Hiders were born.

I agree; women should be able to remain ‘engaged’ in their social setting whilst feeding their children. They should not have to flee, witch-like, into the woods to seek out a cave, or hurriedly burrow into the cubby holes of public toilets to find some kind of sanctuary where they can expose their distastefully leaky breasts, safely unseen by the rest of society.

But the ‘Hooter Hider’ is not a magic invisibility cloak. It draws attention to its own role as mask, and in those glaring colours and visually clamorous patterns it imprints a firm statement: that this particular part of motherhood, or this particular function of the female body, is somehow not appropriate for the public realm. It is a 1950s kitchen in a piece of fabric, with a branded label slapped on the shoulder, which in turn is loaded with problematic connotations – because of course what is so hilarious, yet simultaneously baffling, depressing and ultimately offensive about the ‘Hooter Hider’ is its name. I wonder how long it took Bébé au Lait to come up with it. Perhaps their list of possible product names looked something like this:

–    Rack Stash?
–    Jug Smuggler?
–    Bongo Burier?
–    Bap Trap?
–    Puppy Shelter?

Hmm. Can see why they scrapped that last one; it might have confused people. But then, ‘Hooter Hider’ does not do much to clear up any confusion, does it? It uses a word that transforms a part of a woman’s body into a commodity for gawping consumers – a term associated specifically with ‘Hooters’, an American restaurant chain characterised by big busted waitresses in revealing outfits, the brainchild of (quelle surprise!) six businessmen in the early 1980s – for a product that serves to actually HIDE this part of the female anatomy, because of course, in this context, these particular wopbopaloobops/shirt potatoes/ [insert preferred slang term here] are not conforming to ‘Hooter’ specifications i.e. large but buoyant, perfectly round, golden dumplings, with absolutely no leakages or baby mouths in sight.

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So even the language of objectification is used for a product that is specifically designed to hide female breasts performing their biological function. It is as if American society is as baffled at this alternative bosom action as Reece from Malcolm in the Middle was when he discovered that “…milk comes out of those things?!” Astonished, he exclaimed: “WOMEN ARE THE COWS OF PEOPLE!!”  And why wouldn’t he, when there is such a lack of imagery of breastfeeding, or even slightly more realistic, natural bodies in contemporary culture, yet an excessive amount of inflated, plastic cleavage, of breasts as the perfectly round targets for turning a person into a stereotype; a woman into an object.

Image culture eroding the reality of the body is nothing new, of course. Germaine Greer wrote in 1970: ‘Whenever we treat women’s bodies as aesthetic objects without function we deform them and their owners.’ Jean Baudrillard described the process of images constructing a ‘hyper-reality’ in his essay ‘The Precession of Simulacra’ in 1981. In this case, it is a current absence of breastfeeding imagery that has seemingly resulted in the materialisation of the ‘Hooter Hider’- a literal covering up of nature.

It is also significant that the ‘Hooter Hider’ covers not just partial nakedness, but a bodily process of secretion, because it follows a pattern of culturally constructed taboos around other female bodily fluids. Menstruation has historically been concealed, shunned, and disapproved of across cultures- and remains so to a great degree today. Emphasis is placed on the ‘discreet’ nature of ‘sanitary towels’ (even this name, prim and pristine, does not give anything away) on their offensively flowery packaging, in TV advertisements girls fly through the air in tiny shorts, seemingly entirely unaware of even the mere existence of periods, and pads/‘panty liners’ (seriously, does anyone actually call them panties?) themselves are increasingly violently and unnecessarily scented. And now, even lactation is seemingly considered unfit for the café table, the park bench or any communal area – even when it is necessary for the nurturing of a baby. I don’t want to come across all “Will somebody PLEASE think of the children!!” – But also, the baby underneath the enlarged garish sack tent has to suckle away in darkness, underneath an enlarged garish sack tent. And then there’s the fact that the whole thing looks pretty bloody ridiculous.

And it is not just in America that this breastfeeding taboo exists. I have overheard a number of conversations recently here in the UK from both men and women who have said things like “Oh yeah, I hate it when women do that [breastfeed in public]”, and my personal favourite: “They could at least give us some warning.” Sure, hold on – I’ll just get out my megaphone, shall I? “SORRY EVERYONE, just wanted to warn you – I am about to get my tits out, but it’s to feed my baby – that ok? They’re not perfect either, so look away now! Ok, carry on!”

Of course, not all women are mothers. Not all women want or are able to breastfeed, for various reasons – yet significantly, a great pressure to do so remains.

This is not an angry rant at women who are self conscious about breastfeeding in public. Personally, after the extremely painful and probably quite undignified agony of giving birth, I can’t really imagine giving that much of a toss about any passers-by witnessing an ordinary part of human life involving ordinary breasts (in fact, surely this is a perfect opportunity to show off? A “Hey look what I can do!” situation? Look at this! I’m literally FEEDING another human and I don’t even have to get up!) But I can understand why many do feel the need to wrap themselves in layers of fabric, or worse, have to actually move to find themselves a private space in which to feed their child. The ‘Hooter Hider’ is not helpful to a woman’s sense of her own bodily autonomy; it just adds another contrasting and distasteful layer to the pre-existing trifle of pressures on women to breastfeed in the first place. It is deeply paradoxical and unfair to insist that ‘Breast is best’ yet, um, not now ladies, not here! No tits out unless they’re sexual symbols, yeah?

Let’s not regard breastfeeding the way we already regard menstruation – unnecessarily tiptoeing around it with trepidation, afraid of leaks and stains, treating it as an embarrassing taboo or concealing it with sodding flower patterns.

And if anyone wants to design a ‘Hooter Hider Hider’ – preferably an even LARGER piece of fabric with no mention of ‘hooters’ but instead images of women breastfeeding with glee – that would be great.

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(Re)staging in performance work- Marina Abramovic, Gina Pane and Valie Export by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

The issue of re-staging artworks critically examines how the construction of modernism, as an ideological system of power and sexual division, can be reexamined, readjusted and reinterpreted. The re-enacting of performances actively engages with the politics of representation and the potential for a more flexible framework of theoretical interpretation, “at its best, the return to the live via complex modes of re-enactment, re-staging, reiteration, might be seen to be sparked by (and eliciting of) openness and hope, by way of presenting new possibilities of intervention and by activating fresh ways of thinking, making, being in the world.”[1] Furthermore, re-enactment locates itself back to the social, cultural and political viewpoint of its origins- creating a clear correlation with the theorizations of that period. Above all, a process of including and reworking past styles is imperative to women artists due to the concept of what Catherine de Zegher calls an ‘elliptical traverse.’ This active structure radically critiques the institutional structure of classification, exploring ommitances and fissures in the dominant history of modernism and delving into an “artistic experience that is folded into visibility, as into dough.”[2]

Griselda Pollock argues that there is an intrinsic ideology bound up with the system of representation, a structure of sexism that actively perpetuates a gender hierarchy that overtly excludes women. Pollock states, “Women have not been omitted through forgetfulness or mere prejudice […] what we can learn about the world and its peoples is ideologically patterned in conformity with the social order within which it is produced.”[3] The concept of the representational figure of Artist was signified as male, heterosexual and white, located in the formative and actively creative site of the studio. This notion of individual genius was unleashed against a depiction of twentieth-century art practices based on a structure of innovation and progression, defined by modernist critics such as Clement Greenburg and epitomized in Alfred Barr’s infamous formalist diagram of styles and movements:

It also refers to a representation of twentieth-century art practices which select some as significant (advancing, avant-garde), while marginalizing others as residual, reactionary or historically irrelevant. Modernist criticism and art history have become the shaping and ‘selective’ tradition of and for twentieth century culture in the west.[4]

During the late 1960s and the early 1970s, this dominant paradigm of modernism in artistic practice began to be deconstructed on many levels. An analysis of the politics of representation emerged alongside social upheavals such as youth movements, national independence movements, anti-war activism and black consciousness movements. Pollock further states that the emancipatory effect of the Women’s Liberation Movement and feminist practices had an enormous impact on the visual arts.[5] In addition, Laura Cottingham adds that fundamental issues concerning abortion, birth control prohibitions, discrimination against women and sexism were contested during the unfolding of second wave feminism as a mass political movement.[6] The position of the female body in patriarchal structures was relegated as subordinate, yet, women artists were beginning to be encouraged to reclaim their own image and to seek new modes of artistic representation, “feminist consciousness allowed women artists to see how completely the representational circulation of the female body before 1970 had existed on the level of spectacle, metaphor, fetish, object, property, vessel, caricature, and symbol.”[7] The female body, previously represented as nude and passive, part of the material of the canvas through the active and expressive brushstrokes of many male masters of modernism,[8] was reclaimed and asserted as a direct mode of expression, “many of the artistic processes that have incorporated the artist’s body are really about transcending it, getting outside of the corporal limitations of the human frame, challenging the ideological frames that regulate the movement of bodies in space.”[9]   Although there were male artists such as Paul McCarthy and Richard Long using their bodies in their work during this period, the female body had an additional layer of meaning through its status as muse and model, as “hundreds of years of art history attended to the depiction, idealization and fetishization of the female form.”[10]

Performance art emerged as an alternative medium, a celebration of previously taboo subjects such as sexual desire and the boundaries of the female body with often emotional or intimate material. [11] Body-orientated practices were often seen as a liberating tool, which could powerfully commentate on gender and sexuality, “it is more open, without an overwhelming history, without prescribed materials, or matters of content.”[12] It could be argued that artists incorporating the body as “a shifting and unstable site”[13] anticipated Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity as a role that is performed, rather than biologically determined. [14]It is important to highlight that these theorizations were not yet developed in this period; yet, as we elliptically traverse back with a retrospective glance at these emerging forms, our contemporary critical awareness could both enrich past performances and emphasize their subversive and deconstructive nature.

The Belgrade-born artist Marina Abramovic is widely known for her series of performances in the 1970s in which she purposely subjected herself to physical pain. Abramovic, the self-proclaimed “grandmother of performance art”[15] has also become a key figure in the politics of re-staging performance work, re-enacting both her own works and works by other artists. In 2005 Marina Abramovic re-enacted six major 1970s performance art works at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.  Through this exhibition Abramovic aimed to expose a model for re-performance that both respected the past and opened up possibilities for reinterpretation. Abramovic’s conviction contested Peggy Phelan’s argument performance is non-reproductive:

Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology. Performance’s being, like the ontology of subjectivity proposed here, becomes itself through disappearance.[16]

Contrarily, Abramovic argued for performance’s ability to endure and to inspire new audiences by redoing and preserving work. Kaja Silverman states that the key is not to keep the past unchanged but “to transform and not to reproduce.” [17] Abramovic introduced the concept of a performance ‘score’, that is to say, a certain set of guidelines that re-performances must follow: to ask the artist for permission, pay the artist for copyright, perform a new interpretation and display the original documentary material such as photographs or videos. [18]The undertaking must be approached with thorough research and understanding, [19] yet this open structure works on non-hierarchal and open level. A concentration on two of these re-performances by female artistic practioners, Valie Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969) and Gina Pane’s The Conditioning (1973), engages with the politics of representation contested during their creation.

Abramovic’s re-performance of Gina Pane’s The Conditioning took place on the fourth night of the Seven Easy Pieces event.  Abramovic, like Pane, lay fully clothed on an iron bed-like structure heated by the fire of fifteen tall candles. There is an interval of approximately 10cm between the fire and the bed, the tips of the flames nearly reaching her body. Abramovic extended the original to seven hours, yet, after the first thirty minutes of Pane’s performance her only activity was slowly wringing her hands, “needless to say, the pain started right away and was very difficult to dominate.”[20] Pane presented her body as artistic material in this performance, “I feel I succeeded in making the public understand right off that my body is my artistic material.”[21] Kathy O’Dell argues that the specific way the body is positioned reflects the structure of contract, “particularly the consideration phase of contract proceedings, during which benefits or detriments are clarified.”[22] Furthermore, in contract negotiations, what is being exchanged or considered is often the human body or its services and in the modern period, she states that money and the human body became interchangeable.  She cites Walter Benn Michale’s who describes how masochistic performance “personifies modernity in that it thrives on the tension between owning and being owned.”[23] The symbolic site of the bed can be discussed in psychoanalytical terms:

the bed serves as a compelling metaphor for the oedipal scenario in part because the father’s role in the oedipal scenario is that of claiming territorial rights- particularly sexual rights- over the mother, and because the site most symbolically invested with sexuality is the bed. Lacan argues that the father’s figure’s extension of territorial rights over the mother figure constitutes the “law of the father.[24]

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This notion of territorial rights can be linked to Pollock’s argument on Marxist theories of production, consumption, distribution and exchange in highlighting the value of the object. Pollock cites Raymond Williams who states, “What seems to me very striking is that nearly all forms of contemporary critical theory are theories of consumption. That is to say, that they are concerned with understanding an object in such a way that it can be profitably and correctly consumed.”[25] Amelia Jones pushes this idea further, linking the use of the artist’s body to contemporary issues of globalization by stating that it can addresses, “this voracious commodification, and, in particular, the marketing of the artist (via the artists’ body) as commodity fetish.”[26] Therefore, through this reference to production, consumption and the contract, the body becomes a catalytic signifier for engagement with modernist capitalist regimes, “this, I believe, was Pane’s mission: to demonstrate not only the role of the body in social relations but also the ways in which the body can become more effective as a tool for change.”[27]

Both Pane and Abramovic’s performances evoke the sensation of touch, Kathy O’Dell argues that the participatory aspect of touch is sensory and active, questioning gendered systems of looking at the female body.[28] Furthermore, the pain endured by Pane can be understood as a metaphor for the “oppressive level of institutional and political domination in the 1970s”[29] seen in the political turmoil of the Vietnam War. Therefore, this performance is tied directly to the political climate, “‘in the end, it was a bed that served the needs of others rather than her own in the psycholegalistic terminology of territorial rights.”[30] By lying down once again on Pane’s bed, it could be argued that Abramovic is engaging with the political dimension of the piece in order to address contemporary issues. After all, as Kathy O’Dell states, “in being disturbed, we ask questions. In being moved, we seek answers.”[31]

The correlation to masochistic pain also evokes Abramovic’s own 1970s performances in which she often injured herself by incising the skin or cutting her hand with sharp knives, pushing her body to the limits of what is physically and mentally bearable. It has been argued that this subjection to self-torment for women performance artists work to assert control over what happens to their own bodies. [32]In her 1974 piece Rhythm O, Abramovic invited spectators to use any of the seventy-two objects she had arrayed on a table next to her whilst she promised to remain completely passive for six hours. The objects included a feather, a scapel, a gun and bullet. Before long, her skin has been cut, her clothes cut and a spectator had placed the gun against her forehead.[33]This work explored the dynamics of violence, pain and self-destruction whilst allowing the spectators to become co-creators of the work in which her passivity and silence becomes an active and radical gesture, “you made yourself submissive, you made yourself passive. You said, you can do whatever you want to me. You were overcoming by submission, controlling by being vulnerable.”[34]On a similar vein, Rhythm 10, in which Abramovic plunged a knife rapidly and rhythmically between the fingers of her outstretched hand, amplifying the ways in which women often engage in self-sabotage, “from foot binding, to obsessive dieting, diverse cultural energy has been dedicated to deforming women’s bodies, often with women’s own almost masochistic consent.”[35] It has been argued that the transformative power of unrehearsed enactment offered an opportunity to depict the pain of patriarchy and women’s agency alongside, “the shared mortality of the human body, the ability to survive pain, and the persistence of ritual form.”[36] By re-performing Pane’s work addressing similar notions of pain, the rhythm of repetition evokes Abramovic’s slicing knife and becomes ritualized; insisting on the power of both previous works and the meaning they project, persisting on the importance of reassessment.

Abramovic’s re-enactment of Valie Export’s Genital Panic (1969) showed how reinterpretation could change the nature of the work through altered audience perception. Valie Export originally performed Genital Panic in an underground pornographic cinema in Munich. The cinema setting was alternative space for a performance, creating a shift away from gallery-based exhibition spaces. This negation of the commodified gallery system was rooted in a desire to reach an audience beyond the traditional patronage structure.  Therefore, performance art also addressed the conventional relationship upheld between art and its audience, “it implies an active relationship between performer and audience which can render the activity and experience more collective and social, more immediate, communicative and also open-ended.”[37]Export walked through the auditorium slowly through the rows wearing jeans with a triangular cutout in the public area, with her “crotch and the [the audience’s] nose on the same level.”[38] It is argued that Export aimed to expose issues surrounding the male gaze by placing a real physical female body in front of the consuming customers. This confrontation of the voyeuristic male gaze is said to actively anticipate Laura Mulvey’s critical argument in the infamous essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. [39]Export confirmed the notion of panic involved in the spectacle, stating that “people in the back of the cinema got up and fled the situation, because they were afraid I would come up to them as well.”[40]

However, this performance is associated with an iconic photograph rather than any specific documentation of the event, “Genital panic is a great contradiction because she also made the photograph in her studio and there are lots of different images of that poster.”[41] The problem of documentation is particularly apparent as many pieces from the 1970s were not recorded and there only remains, as Abramovic states, “testimonies, bad photographs, small texts, some people saw something, extremely small audiences.”[42] Often, complex works are often reduced to singular photographic images that represent the performance and future generations will only experience the work through these images. [43] Documentation of performance was often seen as inadequate in conveying the immediacy of the work, with some artists stating that an integral part of a performance was that it disappeared. [44] This belief meant that many artists actively refused, “to create anything permanent was a way of attempting to thwart the system and to stay loyal to performance’s supposed ‘irreproducibility.’”[45] It is argued that Abramovic was aware of this potential problem and instead:

works within the basic premise of the performance; that is, rather than attempting to replicate all the particular elements of the original event, which was, after all, entirely dependent on the circumstances of a certain time, space and personality, Abramovic distils something of the conformation at the core of Export’s work.[46]

Abramovic contends that the value of the experience is more powerful than the photograph or documentation, ‘I have a very strong idea about what 21st-century art should be: art without an object. The object is definitely an obstacle between artists and the audience. Objects have to be removed.”[47] Therefore, another dimension to repeating performance work is the dissemination of art object,the artwork is no longer viewed as a static object with a single, prescribed signification that is communicated un-problematically and without default from the maker to an alert, knowledgeable, universalized viewer.”[48]

Abramovic’s re-performance ensures Export’s work does not slip into invisibility or a simple reduction to a singular photographic image. An engagement with both Pane and Export’s work contents traditional notions of originality, bound up in the concept of individual art maker as genius, “the meaning of the work can’t flow if the originality of the work is seen as holy […] Everything is built around the idea of the ego, and this prevents the work from having a proper life. The ego is not an obstacle to the real experience of art.”[49] Abramovic poses a challenge to the conventional understanding of performance art as an irreproducible product of a specific artist, relying instead on the meaning at the core of the work “the ego has become almost an object for the audience and the public. Sometimes you go to an exhibition and you look at the name, not the work.”[50]

The practice of re-staging performance works is undeniably crucial in engaging with issues surrounding the politics of representation. This cycle of retracing reputes the notion of masculine genius locked into a linear structure of constant innovation, progression and advancement. It questions what has been omitted from the dominant canon of modernist discourse whilst locating works within a social, cultural and political framework. Abramovic’s engagement with both Pane and Export validates the theoretical meaning of their works: the interruption of the male gaze, the female body as a site of passive looking, issues of pain and control, the commodification of the art object within the art institution and the assertion of female subjectivity and sexuality. Re-performance invites the spectators to re-experience the participatory aspects of these works, creating a level of meaning beyond the static two-dimensional photograph of documentation that could spur interrogation as to how far we have, or perhaps have not, advanced since their origins. Due to the lack of original documentation, with the emphasis placed on the ephemeral and transcendent qualities of performance, re-performance ensures that the practices of these women artists are not forgotten. It acknowledges the introduction of second wave feminist modes of producing and critiquing whilst reminding the spectator that the deconstruction of the terms representation, modernity and femininity are still valid even today.

 

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[1] Amelia Jones, Perform, repeat, record: live art in history (Bristol: Intellect, 2012) p.13

[2] Catherine de Zegher cited in Mignon Nixon, ‘After Images’ in October, Vol.83 (The MIT Press: 1998) http://www.jstor.org/stable/779073  [Accessed 10/05/2013] p.121

[3] Griselda Pollock, Vision and difference: femininity, feminism and histories of art (London: Routledge, 2003) p.1

[4] Griselda Pollock, Framing feminism: art and the women’s movement 1970-85 (London: Pandora, 1987) p.103

[5] Pollock and Parker, ‘Framing Feminism’ p. xiii, preface

[6] Laura Cottingham, Seeing through the seventies: essays on feminism and art (Amsterdam: G + B International, c.2000) p.126

[7] Cottingham, p.126

[8] Carol Duncan, ‘Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting’, The Aesthetics of Power: Essays in the Critical Histories of Art (Cambridge University Press, 1993): 81-108 (originally published in Art Forum (1973)

[9] Cottingham, p.121

[10] Battista, p. 12

[11] Kathy Battista, Re-negotiating the body: feminist art in 1970s London (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013) p.53

[12] Pollock and Parker, ‘Framing Feminism’ p.45

[13] Battista, p.14

[14] Judith Butler, Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity (New York; London: Routledge, 2006.)

[15] Mary Richards, Marina Abramovic (London; New York: Routledge, 2010) p. 2

[16] Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: the politics of performance (London: Routledge, 1993) p.146

[17] Battista, p. 33

[18] Richards, p.37

[19] Richards, p.61

[20] Kathy O’Dell Contract with the skin: masochism, performance art and the 1970s (Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, c.1998) p.45

[21] O’Dell, p.45

[22] O’Dell, p.46

[23] O’Dell, p.46

[24] O’Dell, p.46

[25] Raymond Williams cited in Griselda Pollock, ‘Vision and Difference’ p. 4

[26] Battista, p.53

[27] O’Dell, p.49

[28] O’Dell, p.49

[29] O’Dell, p.50

[30] O’Dell, p.50

[31] O’Dell, p.xiv

[32] Uta Grosenick Women artists in the 20th and 21st century (Koln; London: Taschen, c2005) p.13

[33]RoseLee Goldberg Performance art: from Futurism to the present (London: Thames & Hudson, 2001) p.165

[34] Marina Abramovic, Marina Abramovic: artist body: performances 1969-1998 (Milano, Charta, c.1998) p.16

[35] Cornelia Butler WACK!: art and the feminist revolution (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007) p.345

[36] Butler, p.355

[37] Pollock and Parker, ‘Framing Feminism’ p.45

[38] Jones, ‘Perform, repeat, record’ p.90

[39] Jones, ‘Perform, repeat, record’ p.90

[40] Jones, ‘Perform, repeat, record’ p.91

[41] Marina Abramovic cited in Amelia Jones, ‘Perform, repeat, record’ p.99

[42] Abramovic, ‘Artist body’ p.42

[43] Battista, p.149

[44] Battista, p. 148

[45] Abramovic, ‘Artist body’ p.59

[46] Katy Deepwell in Marina Abramovic, ‘Artist Body’ p.38

[47] Abramovic, ‘Artist body’ p.42

[48] Amelia Jones Performing the body/performing the text (London: Routledge, 1999) p.1

[49] Richards, p.33

[50] Abramovic, ‘Artist body’ p.50

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Old masters and old mistresses: the BBC’S ‘Great Artists in Their Own Words- The Future is Now’ by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

The HIS-tory of art, as a discipline, adheres to a strict theoretical canon based on a process of constant innovation, progress and avant-garde advancement. Movement follows movement, -isms spiral into –isms. As time unfolds, so does the reduction of the canvas- style is unpicked, colour is unleashed, linear perspective and historical narrative deconstructed and transformed into an explosion of subjectivity that peaks with the onset of modernity.

This canon thrives on the romantic notion of genius as a singular individual overwhelmed with radical raw talent. This individual is often posed as depressed or neglected, misunderstood in their own time frame, only to be rediscovered after their death. Excavated like a golden nugget. But this concept of genius is not neutral. Genius follows a pattern in the history of art- white, heterosexual and masculine. Tick these three attributes off your list and you’ve got yourself a modern master. This is the history of art we’ve all been taught at school: Manet led to Cezanne who led to Picasso who led to Matisse who let to … you get the point.

The BBC often has interesting art historical programmes based (loosely) outside the parameters of this model, like Andrew Graham-Dixon’s focus on the art of Russia, that new preppy young chap (James Fox, I think his name is? I typed ‘preppy young art historian’ into Google but I realized this made me sound about 100 years old and did not surface any answers) who looked at the history of art thematically in three colours. That was interesting. Not radical, but interesting enough as a one-time formula. However, on Iplayer this week the Beeb have a brand spanking new art program called ‘Great Artists in Their Own Words- The Future is Now’ (1907-1939.) The program “unlocks” the BBC archives in order to “tell the story of the birth of modern art, in the words of the artists who created a cultural revolution” which all sounds very impressive and dramatic, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

The notion of documentation and archiving is interesting just in itself. When you look at documentation in the light of say, 1970s feminist performance art, it becomes clear how dominant myths of modernism are perpetuated in the acts of interviewing or recording. The 1970s performance works were not well documented, and they were not supposed to be. This is because the emphasis was placed upon the ephemeral and transitive experience of the performance, as something that took place in front of an audience and then disappeared. Photographs or videos would always stand in place as a substitute for the corporeal act, becoming a tangible object that could be placed within the art institutional system of production, consumption and capital. The downside of this is that feminist artworks often remain unexplored underground, their complex meanings never to be debated within mainstream discourse. Interviewing is based on a decision; somebody has actively decided that the artist has something to say that needs to be recorded and validated. They often do. But, what about the artistic voices that were not always given (or refused) a platform for discussion? What does the history of art omit in its inclusion?

So, this program was set in the hub of late 1920s/early 30s Paris and started with a charming biography of Picasso, the man who “set the standard of what it was to be an artist” due to the fact he “shattered conventions” through the creation of cubism in a “fever of creativity” (get ready for a lot of speech marks.) Rivalry! Picasso was supposedly jealous of another artist named Matisse, who also possessed “dazzling gifts” and a “revolutionary vision.” Then along came Duchamp, who was equally as transgressive, who “completely changed human art expression” through one “simple gesture” of the ready-made. Just like that, startling really. This one man bought about a revolution! He “swept away” old art and replaced it immediately with “his idea that anyone could be an artist.” So along came Max Ernst, the lonely solider fighting on the front of WW1, he offered a “startling new direction” to the mix “like nothing anyone had seen before” which “lay the foundation for Surrealism” and “unlocked a new visual world.” Jump to photography and to Man Ray, his innovations and “incredible versatility dazzled his contemporaries.” What’s this? Leonora Carington, A WOMAN!? Have you never heard of her? That OK though because she’s a weird anomaly  “strong enough” to mix with masculine Surrealist circles. She also had a personal love affair with Max Ernst, of a sexual nature- ooh la la. Oh, and she’s also apparently a witch as it was said she “didn’t paint her pictures but brewed them up in a cauldron at night.” Nice. Then Magritte. Usurped by Dali, who eventually sold out and did loads of bizarre Alka Seltzer adverts. The end.

Apart from brief mentions of the world wars, this documentary completed omitted any references to the social, cultural or political circumstances of that time period. It relied solely on biography and personal antidotes. There was no mention of scientific discoveries, the urbanization of new modern spaces of leisure and entertainment or the rapid development of industries and production based upon capitalism. No discussion of the circulation of new forms of accessible media such as magazines and newspapers, the fact that women gained the right to vote in 1928, no mention of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Claude Cahun, Hannah Hoch, Remedio Varo, Frida Kahlo, Meret Oppenheim, Louise Brooks, Josephine Baker or Dorothea Tanning. Not even a hint at the emerging deconstructions of binaries of sexuality and gender or the discussion of lesbian identities in Radyclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness. No psychoanalysis, which actively began questioning the formation of the self in symbolic structures of language and the murky realm of the unconscious. I get that the program is supposed to be a brief introduction, a quick summary of the Western art of this period, and so maybe there simply wasn’t enough time to critically converse with those issues. But, then again, I don’t really buy that. The discussion of the work itself, the actual art, was so minimal. The paintings appeared on the screen for a few seconds, and then disappeared without any real analysis or interrogation.

The amount of hyperbole used was excessive, and quite frankly, ridiculous. Not to mention boring. Art history, when studied as a practice invested in the meaning of works placed within a sociological, cultural and political framework, can be so rich and complex on both philosophical and psychological levels. Biography after biography like some kind of gossip-y  Chinese whispers is embarrassing, and it’s why art history often has a bad name. It does a disservice to the artists mentioned, reducing their work to two-dimensional conceptions of revolution and change, propping them up as some other-worldly god-like masters with innovative powers beyond the realms of human understanding. But, even more so, it falls back upon the same-old canon of artistic progression; completely negating and undermining the deconstructive practices of so many incredible feminist, post-structuralist and post-modernist thinkers.  Art history is better than that, you’ll just have to believe me.

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Thrush: A Feminist Issue by Aimee Bea

Recently I have been watching a LOT of bad television. Top of my list this week was channel 4’s 40 year old virgins, a bizarre journey following a couple of mid-to-late thirtysomethings over to the States to throw money at hippies in Portland to hug them naked until they feel ready to penetrate.  As far as documentaries about ageing first-timers paying for sex go it was pretty standard. There was however one part that struck a chord, one of the virgins had a problem articulating words that he associated with sex or sexual activity. In order to combat this he was assigned the task of repeating ‘clitoris’ and ‘shagging’ in front of a mirror until the words themselves lost their power. As well as making unnerving yet ultimately hilarious viewing, it started me thinking about my own relationship with the literal language of love and the ways in which bodily language immerses itself into our cultural lexicon.

It seems to me that the language that we as a society use to refer to male genitalia is a lot more varied and intergrated into everyday slang, like it’s pretty commonplace to ask people if they have the ‘balls’ to take something on.

When it comes to female sexual organs the choice is comparably limited and polarized, with words often falling into two camps: the childish (there is not a single person on earth who can say, hand on heart that they don’t laugh on hearing the word fanny.) or the obscene. Take cunt for example, everybody knows what it means but it’s probably one of the most severe swear words that can come out of our collective mouths, words for male genitalia just don’t have that impact. Even when mentioned to in literature we tend to lyricize vaginas to a point of twee-grotesqueness, I’m referring directly to a particularly cringe-inducing line in an Adrienne Rich poem, ‘her rose wet cave’ which has haunted me everyday since I read it.

Our societal avoidance of directly referring to vaginas is reinforced by televisual media and other mass-marketing campaigns that seem to have a total inability to spell out the realities of what they’re selling. The most obvious example of this is the infamous beaker of blue liquid representing menstrual blood – which caused me to believe for many years that when the time finally came my womb would shed bubblegum panda-pop. The worst campaign for literally beating around the bush are those for thrush medication, the main offender being ‘vagisil’ whose adverts seem to rely on a series of wink-wink, nudge-nudge codes in order to tell us what exactly the product is and where we should be putting it. Statements such as ‘feminine itching and burning’ and ‘the relief you need – right where you need it’ may seem subtle and modest enough, but wouldn’t it just be better all around if we learnt to articulate it properly? The trickle down effect of this vagueness becomes all the more apparent when trying to purchase aforementioned medicines, more often than not you find yourself faced with an impenetrable coffin of plastic security casing. It’s hardly surprising that women are trying to steal their medication, if we’re having trouble even mentioning the word ‘thrush’ (even my mum calls it songbird – which is kind of genius but still…) how can we be expected to comfortably stand by and watch a teenage shop-assistant wrestle it out of it’s beanie babies display case?

Instead of politely tiptoeing around the subject of vagina ‘issues’ we should be promoting an awareness of self-care and the best way to do this is by addressing the problem directly, starting with the language that we use. The more comfortable we are talking about our vaginas, the more comfortable out vaginas are ultimately going to be, so find the nearest mirror and repeat after me: thrush, thrush, thrush, thrush…

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Acrimony between women sucks, let’s stop it by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

So, the other day I was in that lingering unmotivated lull of a mood where I didn’t even want to leave the confines of my comfy bed, let alone do anything productive like pick up a book or go outside. I decided to switch on I-player and watch something entertaining to keep my brain from shriveling up entirely. I decided to watch a program called Snog Marry Avoid. I should have really guessed from the title it wasn’t going to be a high caliber affair. But ten minutes in, and I felt more depressed than ever.

If you’ve never watched this program (then good for you please don’t) basically all that happens is they take a woman, parade her in front of this weird electronic ‘pod’ machine thing and insult everything about her appearance. Then they ask a bunch of men if they want to marry her, to which they all inevitably respond saying SHE’S HIDEOUS etc. And then they transform her into a beautiful magical butterfly and all the men fancy her and blah blah happy ending blah. The thing that annoyed me most about this program wasn’t even the glaringly obviously shitty and sexist stuff like automatically assuming all these women are heterosexual and base their entire levels of self-worth and validation solely on male opinion. That’s just so bleak I can barely be bothered to comment on it. It was the fact that it seemed to be based entirely on a woman-judging-woman formula, perpetuating acrimony between women to an explicitly obvious level. Can you imagine a program in which the genders were flipped around entirely? Not really. Because women are supposed to be ‘bitchy’ towards each other, so much so that it’s presented as almost natural.

The insults were aimed primarily at the amount of makeup the women were wearing and/or how much skin they were showing. While I can  advocate the calls they kept making to ‘natural beauty’ but this should be about being valued on characteristics such as kindness, compassion and intelligence, the presenter kept banging on about stamping out a thing called ‘fakery.’ Fakery= too much makeup or fake tan= too obvious= too threatening. This is not about  natural beauty at all. It is still shaming women on their appearance, waging their worth as objects. They were accused of trying too hard, of making too much effort, of not getting it ‘right.’ Just another form of control that breeds such a negative attitude that thrives off a destructive and tired notion of women hating each other. It’s such an effective form of control; making women dislike each other, setting them in competition with each other, celebrating the fact that they should value each other on their cosmetic consumption. In short, acrimony makes women weaker.

This way of thinking stems into our everyday lives and it manifests in a constant, nagging judgment of other women. I’ll be the first to admit that. But, there also seems to be a distinction between the different women in your life, depending on how well you know them. I mean, the women who you are closest to like your dearest friends/family… you have a wealth of love, compassion and time for them that will never fade, no matter what. But this level of understanding never extends towards women who you don’t know. Because you are taught to feel threatened and insecure and not good enough and everything horrible. Let me give you a couple of scenarios. Ever found yourself flicking through Facebook and ending up at say… your boyfriends ex-girlfriend? Don’t deny it, it happens. And you irrationally deconstruct her appearance bit by little bit, try and convince yourself she has a big nose or crap hair or something equally banal. She’s probably actually pretty cool and you probably have a lot in common. But, that’s classic acrimony. Or imagine you are in a club and there’s a super hot babe who might happen to have a lot of makeup on or be wearing a shorter skirt and ALL the other women are looking at her up and down, giving off evil telepathic vibes. Just because she is a super hot babe and we are judging her appearance, feeling insecure and jealous and instead of assessing where that feeling stems from. Unnnggh I hate it so much and YET I DO IT ALL THE TIME. Let’s all admit that? It will make the next bit easier.

Luckily, I’m reading an incredible book called Cunt by Inga Muscio and she devotes a whole chapter to this conundrum. Muscio states: “the idea of acknowledging the presence of acrimony between all women is pretty dang-awful daunting to me. It extends far past jealously, cattiness and general shitass vibes into highly oppressive forms of ageism, classism, homophobia, objectification and racism.” She also highlights acrimony between women as a primarily Western concept through the story of her Iranian dance teacher named Jaleh. Muscio recounts how her and Jaleh would talk after class about culture and freedom. Before these discussions, she always presumed women in fundamental Islamic countries, for example in this instance, had it way worse than us here in the West. We have ‘freedom’, we can wear what we want, do what we want, lie in bed and watch bloody Snog Marry Avoid if we want. Yet, when Jaleh came to America she was bereft about the levels of meanspiritness and malevolence women project onto one another in their daily lives. Iranian women are very consciously aware of gender-explicit oppression but they have each other’s back. Muscio asks if really all our freedom is worth it if women don’t actually like each other much at all. Furthermore, “women choose to be catty, cruel, prejudiced, competitive or jealous of each other partly because we grow up learning that negative behavior towards women is perfectly acceptable, and partly because it is a difficult task to see ourselves in our perceptions.”

What we need to do is sort this out, argues Muscio. And we can consciously get in the habit of doing this, stopping ourselves, asking “What do I see here that is threatening me?” and then “What of myself do I see here?” And attempting to answers those questions as honestly and truthfully as possible. I’m not suggesting some instant feminist utopia where all women are complimenting each other’s hair and lipstick every day. But, attempting to  make small steps in your mentality in order to try and eliminate this larger problem of acrimony. Turn off Snog Marry Avoid and the campaign against ‘fakery’, be as ‘fake’ as you want to be as long as it makes you feel good and happy. Stop picking other women apart on their appearance. Every time you feel a negative thought popping in your head, try and replace it with a compliment. Maybe even say that compliment out loud. Ladies, it’s about time we started to love each other.

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TED women; two videos worth sharing.

TED have had some cracking talks from some amazing women recently.

If you have a spare half an hour, treat yourself to a couple of thought-provoking videos.

First up, we have Caroline Heldman. A leading advocate for spotlighting how the mainstream media contributes to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America, Caroline Heldman offers straight talk and an often-startling look at the objectification of women in our society. She illustrates how it has escalated, how we have become inured to its damaging effects and what we can do individually and collectively to demolish the paradigms that keep us from a better world.

Cameron Russell admits she won “a genetic lottery”: she’s tall, pretty and an underwear model. But don’t judge her by her looks. In this fearless talk, she takes a wry look at the industry that had her looking highly seductive at barely 16-years-old. (Filmed at TEDxMidAtlantic.)

Enjoy! And keep them coming TED.

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