“Words matter. Art matters”. – Derrick Jensen
In reviewing it now, my statement for 2014 Celebration of the Female Form seems a somewhat naive and optimistic treatise on the virtues of the community, issued in good faith.
On this day, given recent months, I do not feel so sanguine.
At least 600 artists, volunteers, and members of the community attended celebration night in June, and we received overwhelmingly positive feedback and great suggestions for our next event. However, there have been certain developments that I have come to recognise as inevitable. There are those who have never attended the event who perceive some of the art used to promote the show as illustrations of the very same mechanisms that perpetuate the hostility toward women in our current culture. Photographs are criticised for for being photoshopped, as if a painter’s brush does not commit the same sins of addition and subtraction. Images by female artists are criticised for depicting women in poses of submission. Works by male artists are criticised for being included in the exhibition at all.
Importantly, these interpretations of the images are legitimate, as are the many other interpretations of these same works. Art is not “above it all” and can certainly not be excused from critique. However, these works must be distinguished from marketing, popular culture, and all other forms of propaganda. Art, and here I use the term to include performance, visual art, music, the spoken and written word, and all disciplines in which a person creates and expresses, is an invitation to engage. It must be remembered that artists are not evangelists, it is not the purpose of art to instruct the public, or to represent a moral stance. Art is also not literal, if it invokes a reaction, honour that reaction, but do not presume that yours is the only interpretation. Art must must allow breathing room, so that each individual can welcome in their individual associations and experiences, to feel and react, whether it is indifference, contempt, grief, engagement, pleasure.
If an image, or performance, or written work evokes a reaction in you, congratulations, you are a member of the human race. Do not lash out at the artist for bringing you back to a poignant place, be grateful that you still have the ability to feel. We have entered an era where art is “supposed” to be an adornment, but that’s commercialism, not art. Get mad at an artist for being crap, get mad at an artist for being forgettable, get mad at an artist for being safe. If the work makes you angry or sad, be angry or sad, but be discerning enough to know that these feelings are yours.
Furthermore, with over a hundred artists exhibited, no single artist will represent the event. We aim to provide a spotlight on each artist in the lead-up to the exhibition. We do not expect every artist to appeal to everyone, and I consider this diversity to be the very thesis of the celebration.
I propose that equality for female artists is for each to able engage in her process without apology. As Vanessa Swift states, “I offend a certain kind of people. I am too dark or too sexual or I objectify women. I don’t paint for other people. I paint for myself. I do not push the boundaries, I have none and won’t have any placed upon me. I just paint what’s inside me, for me. To release.” In addition, in instances where the artists use models for these works, their creative subjects are collaborators, not passive objects for scopophilic consumption, and any critique needs to take this into consideration.
The event strives to be inclusive, but can by no means cater to everyone’s preferences. In bringing the community together, we seek to create opportunities to discuss these subjects openly and to raise funds for organisations that support abused and hurting women, and represent the causes close to our own experiences.
This year, the organisations we have chosen are: Brisbane Domestic Violence Service, Mental Health Carers Arafmi Queensland, Brisbane Youth Service and proceeds from our raffle will support QuAC’s Clinic30.
In embarking on this steep learning curve, I have had to face my own naivety. Prior to this project, I had never before heard of women who were against feminism. I had never previously encountered women who are Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) or Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists (SWERFS). I also encountered individuals who felt that men had no role to play in this Celebration, who claimed that we were simply reaffirming the patriarchal structure, not subverting it.
Above all, I have encountered countless men and women who consider feminism to be a dirty word. Feminism should not be confused with misandry. Simply, Feminism is the belief in equality, and a recognition that gender equality does not yet exist. Ironically, Feminism has its own history of exclusion and power imbalance. Historically, caucasian, upper-class, cis-gendered women have set the agenda for the women’s rights movement. Nowadays, those seeking to determine the dialogue may change, but the fundamental issue remains: exclusion is the result of privilege, as exclusion is enacted by those who feel entitled.
Exclusionary Radical Feminists argue that individual choice must play a backseat to feminist aims. However this affirms our bodies as political minefields – every action, every adornment, every utterance that is associated with our Selves must be interrogated as to what statement it will contribute to the feminine discourse. We must police ourselves and submit to being policed by others. Our desires, values, or pragmatic considerations are subverted. Most importantly our identities must remain fixed within this paradigm. In many ways I agree with the argument that individuals must acknowledge that their “personal is political”. However when women are told to “tow the line”, to forgo what brings them actualisation in deference to another’s criteria, are we not simply trading one oppressive system for another?
As Germaine Greer states “it’s harder being a woman in the 21st century than it was 40 or so years ago”.
Self-determination is a hallmark of any movement dedicated to equality. It is therefore not true self-determination when rights are meted out as if to a homogenised group, and denies the diversity of individuals contained therein. To do so is to establish a norm, from which anything else is divergent. This form of “othering” refers to the act of emphasizing the perceived weaknesses of marginalized groups as a way of stressing the alleged strength of those in positions of power.
As celebrators of the female form, we are autonomous individuals who share a common trait, who unite in respect for ourselves and each other. We recognise that the bodies of those who identify with the feminine become battlefields on which Politicians, Health Professionals, Beauty Professionals, Marketers, and many others stage their invasions. We see the myriad of individual experiences of domination and oppression as part of the greater intersecting mechanisms of misogyny and abuse, and instead of letting this awareness isolate us, we make it a rallying cry for creative expression and gather in celebration as a radical act of defiance.
Part of the TWERF argument, as it has been made to me, is that to accept a transwomen as “legitimate” women would be to capitulate that women are simply a “cut out” men. Such an argument is another version of the misogynistic view that women are walking vaginas. My mother remembers a time when her biology textbooks described female genitalia as male genitalia turned inside out. Such an obsession with what is between a person’s legs misses the beautiful complexity of identity. It also alienates cisgendered women who are born with non-average genitalia, those who choose to surgically augment or change their bodies, those who will never engage in the forms of sexual intercourse typically ascribed to female genitalia, those who will never reproduce, or those who lose body parts due to injury or illness. What makes a woman? Gender lies in the mind, not the uterus.
It strikes me as counter to the aims of feminism to refuse to include self-identified men. There was a time when feminists were required to rely on men because men were the gatekeepers – they controlled what laws were reformed and enforced, who was admitted and educated at university, and how people were hired and promoted. We do not need to have men advocate for us any longer, but to discount all men strikes me as counterproductive. Men need to have a place at the table in order to understand the politics of gendered privilege, in order to be held accountable. Furthermore, when we alienate men we alienate women as well, the mothers, sisters, and lovers of men. We alienate the men who have held us and listened to our experiences of abuse. We alienate the men who should be calling out their friends on problematic behaviours. This is part of the problem of abuse. Whilst women know that “not all men” rape, we cannot easily differentiate between those who are supporters and those who are predators.
Here is what we know: women face an oppressive system that enables violence, abuse, and systemic social, cultural, religious, economic, and political inequalities.
To be a female means that you are more likely to die. “These deaths are estimated at about 3.9 million women and girls under the age of 60 each year”. This is a rough estimate because many women are killed before they are born, are undocumented, or disappear. About two-fifths of them are never born, one-sixth die in early childhood, and over one-third die in their reproductive years.This is widely documented, such as the fact that in the majority of countries, women’s wages represent between 70 and 90 per cent of men’s, with even lower ratios in some Asian and Latin American countries. Despite the fact that it is acknowledged, it has failed to have been addressed, even in our most forward-thinking of nations.
Sexual abuse results in a myriad of consequences such as unintended pregnancies, induced abortions, gynaecological problems, sexually transmitted infections, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep difficulties, eating disorders, emotional distress, suicide attempts, and substance abuse. Gender inequality operates in many subtle ways. Studies have shown that when women perceive their bodies as under male scrutiny, the experience has a muzzling effect on women and that benevolent sexism is another mechanism which justifies women’s subordinate status to men.
As I write this, Abbott is Minister for Women, the very man who stated, “What if men are by physiology or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?” and other members of his party suggest a link between abortion and breast cancer. This is the country where domestic violence kills at least one woman a week, a statistic the Police largely attribute to Australia’s culture.
The Gamergate culture war is taking place, showcasing the shocking misogyny that is permissible in gamer culture. The New York wing of Hollaback made headlines when it showed a video of a Caucasian Cisgendered women in jeans and a t-shirt receiving a hundred instances of street harassment and cat calling. More column space has been spent on Renee Zellweger’s new face than on the increased violence experienced by women due to the instances of violence on the people of the Levant. Twitter hashtags such as #yesallwomen, #youoksis, and #beenrapedneverreported create a virtual communities accessed by some women in order to share their stories of abuse and the incidences of street harassment they have witnessed when “real” spaces and official channels have failed.
Reflecting on these instances, I recognise that there are imbedded inequalities within developed nations, where racialised, queer, or disabled women are assigned a lesser value than caucasian, educated, middle class, cisgendered women. Non Indigenous Australian women have a life expectancy of 83.1 years. Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have a life expectancy of 73.7 years. Transgendered women have a life expectancy of 30-32 years. The RCMP reported that in Canada, Indigenous women are four times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous women, in fact 1,017 Indigenous women and girls were murdered between 1980 and 2012. When Mayang Prasetyo was murdered and dismembered by her husband in Queensland, the media devoted its coverage to depicting her in transphobic and sensationalised terminology, rather than exploring the issues of domestic violence and abuse that underpinned Prasetyo’s death, and impacts so many transwomen.
This is nothing less than a human rights crisis.
Women in developing countries face forms of persecution permitted by their culture and sustained by their government, entrenched by an international framework that requires inequality and poverty to enable profit. It is well documented that abuse against women correlates with poverty, conflict, and displacement. In Gaza City, following the Israeli-Imposed economic blockade of 2007, Palestinian women have endured increased instances of abuse at the hands of their husbands, choosing silence rather than face the stigma of reporting that abuse. A South African women is raped every four minutes yet only 66,196 incidents were reported to police last year, and the investigations of these reports resulted in 4,500 convictions. A woman is killed by an intimate partner every eight hours in South Africa, but this is considered an underestimate because in 20 percent of these killings no perpetrator is determined. When Brazil hosted the World Cup, it became well-documented that underage girls would sleep with Europeans and Americans in order to avoid a night on the streets. In India, women face barbaric gang rapes and honour killings decreed by all-male khap panchayats. In Tokyo, Japan, 60-70% of women experience at least one incidence of molestation in a crowded train, yet only 5% of women report this form of attack to the police. In rural Peru, 24% of women reported their first sexual experience as forced.
The list continues, and it astounds me that it is still a question as to wether or not sexual inequality exists. Make no
mistake, globally and locally, women are accorded less value, less dignity, less autonomy than men. Different forms of discrimination, oppression, and domination intersect to impact women differently, but all are complicit in this system. The feminist rallying cry from the 60’s is still true: “The personal is political”, and this is why feminism is still relevant in our contemporary culture. However, in order for feminism to achieve its aim, it must have an inclusive definition of female identity.
I remain naive however, because I still have hope because this is what we know: successfully addressing the oppression of women has dramatic benefits for everyone. Providing one additional year of education for women of reproductive age decreases child mortality by 9.5 per cent. Eliminating all forms of discrimination against female workers and managers boosts productivity per worker by up to 40 per cent. We must address discrimination against women, promote gender equality, support all women, and help to move all societies towards more peaceful cultural norms.
Whilst the 2014 Celebration of the Female Form was a time for optimism, perhaps as we work toward the 2015 Celebration Night, it is time for a stronger, more dynamic voice. We can no longer put up and shut up, it is time for a real and measurable change.
Celebration of the Female Form
The Brisbane Table Tennis Centre 86 Green Tce Windsor.
Exhibition weekend is the 19th – 21st June, 2015 with two night shows Friday and Saturday, open to the public through the day Saturday and Sunday.
Please contact Vanessa at firstname.lastname@example.org