Monday evening I attending a lecture given by Cheri Gaulke and Denise Uyehara at Pomona College about their work as collaborative feminist performance artists (not collaborating together but both being a part of collective art groups at one point in their careers). The next morning I was so inspired by the idea of women working together to pursue an aesthetic approach to advancing the social and political equality of women, that I decided to talk to my daughter about being a feminist. She is two years old. It went something like this:
Me: “Gretchen, are you a feminist?”
Gretchen: “am I a feminist?”
Me: “Yes, are you a feminist?”
Gretchen: quiet contemplation… “No, i’m not a feminist”
Me: “Well, being a feminist really just means that you think boys and girls are equal to one another, do you think boys and girls can do the same things?”
Gretchen: “yes… Mommy, I’m a Cinderella Feminist!”
I cracked up, but then I started thinking. The idea of a Cinderella feminist was pretty adorable, because really, to a 2 year old, these are just two of the roles one might play in the infinite storeroom of props and scenarios that constitute the world around them. In another way, it made me truly think of today’s young women who embrace the very same institutions that women once fought against, young marriage, family, staying home with children, and yes, dressing provocatively seemingly for the benefit of surrounding men. Really, though, there is a distinct difference in the way women today embrace these formerly stifling conventions, today they own it, and (theoretically) are pursuing their own paths which just so happen to entail these roles rather than having these roles foisted upon them without option or opinion.
At the same time, however, gender stereotypes are so intrinsic in our culture and mindset that perhaps it is only the presumption of choice that has changed, not really the ability to choose. Women dress provocatively claiming to be taking control of their own sexuality when really they are still playing to a male fantasy of female sexuality. But, really, how do we know? Gender and sexuality are so interwoven and so difficult to see objectively that it is difficult to know even what choice IS anymore. Can there really be free will when we are enveloped in a culture so early and so completely?
Denise Uyehara, a founding member of Sacred Naked Nature Girls talked about James Luna being criticized for appropriating Native American culture and the humour in that, given that he himself is Native American. This was an interesting thought — just because one is a member of a certain culture, is it given that they are “authentic” in their use and understanding of cultural elements, that they have authority and right to those images? Even if they are utilizing images that adhere to the same cultural stereotype other members of the culture might lobby against? Just because a woman is a woman, is she authorized to make herself into a sexual stereotype?
Gaulke talked about her early years as a feminist in the 70’s and mentioned her frustration that “women were ‘in the closet’ about being women, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that they are women.” This reminded me of something Jane Livingston said during a discussion panel at the Getty a couple weeks ago between 3 female curators. Livingston was asked about being a woman curator at an institution widely criticized for its predominant focus on male artists (she was the 20th century curator at LACMA in the 70’s), and she replied, “it just didn’t occur to us.” Claiming that they just weren’t conscious of the lack of women in their repertoire, the three proceeded to discuss exclusively male artists and to show a general lack of interest or knowledge of female artists working during this time period. To be a professional in the art world at that time, women had to deny their femininity, to see “objectively” by perpetuating the status quo of male dominance. I really wonder if much has changed. In order to be seen as unbiased, we have moved back toward a status quo that makes women perpetuate the very same cultural stereotypes they once fought against, in order to be claim equality women have reclaimed their own chains under the guise of choice and emancipation.
How do you see feminism today? Are feminism and professionalism mutually exclusive ideologies? Is there a role for feminism in art NOW? Are YOU a cinderella feminist?