I never considered if I was a feminist or not until I was called one by a male professor. Well, he didn’t call me a feminist exactly. What happened was this, during a one on one critique in art school he was looking at my work and said, ‘Look, I get it. You have this whole feminist thing going on.”
Immediately my blood began to boil. Just because I’m a girl attending art school I am automatically doing the whole ‘feminist’ thing? Feminism had nothing to do with my work!
Or so I thought.
I was working on a series of still lifes for my advanced studio class. My idea was to show what it would look like if a girl in her mid-twenties was to take out her frustrations from the cruel reality of the world on her childhood barbies who made her believe the world was a pink safe place where dreams come true. One of the images is of three Barbie heads on spikes in a heap of Barbie parts. I was trying to reflect women’s experiences through my work, which is the most basic definition of Feminist Art and the Feminist Art Movement.
I had a feminist thing going on. Yet why did it feel so insulting to have someone identify it as that? Did it only feel insulting because it was an old white male saying it? What if it was one of my female instructors?
At the time I was doing the work I was unaware of what Feminist Art really was. I knew women burned their bras in the 70s and I knew about Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party which was explained to me as ‘a bunch of vaginas on plates that she was calling art.’ Sure, I am all for women’s equality. One of my biggest frustrations as a kid growing up was being told or treated like I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. It’s still one of my biggest frustrations. I just didn’t understand how a bunch of vagina plates were supposed to make the ‘Man’ treat women with more respect. I wrongly grouped all of Feminism in with my mis-understanding of one piece of art work.
I wasn’t alone. I can remember other female students being equally insulted by automatically being grouped in with feminist art just because, we often wrongly thought, we were women artists. Many of those female students were unaware of what they were even being associated with. Even the famed photographer Cindy Sherman has tried to disassociate herself with the feminist art movement. Art History 101 mentions the feminist art movement in passing, as the beginning of performance art. If you really want to learn about feminist art or about any women artists in any time period you have to take a special topics class. (But that is a rant for another post.) The more I learn about feminism on my own the more I realize many of my ideas are feminist in nature. It shouldn’t be an insult to be associated with these woman that forced the male dominated institution to take them seriously, to consider women as serious contenders in the art world. I’m not sure I would be able to dismember Barbie and photograph the doll’s head on a stake and get an ‘A’ by an old white male artist if it wasn’t for their work, if Womanhouse never happened.
Yet, I still find myself stuck in an identity crisis. I am leery of being called feminist or having my work associated with feminism because I feel like I am just being grouped there by men that don’t know what else to do with women’s art. But on the other side of things I really enjoy being married and want a lot of kids that I can stay at home with. I am hesitant to openly share how excited I am by those things because then I am not feminist enough, just another poor weak woman giving in to the male dictated role of submissive wife and child bearer. What is even more confusing is that I do not think loving wives and stay at home mother’s are weak or unable to be feminist. I could say that its just in my head but I have had to many conversations with too many people that have re-enforced that this is a very real way of thinking in our society. When I tell people that now that I have graduated college I am excited to have kids and be a mom, I am asked why I even wasted my time and money going to school. Sharing future plans my husband and I are making, the conversation’s focus is always on what I am giving up for his career.
I could follow the old adage ‘who cares what other people think, just be you.’ But if we are all honest, it matters what other people think. It matters how we are seen by our society and our peers.
Maybe I let it matter too much.
As always, thanks for reading.
Check it out:
Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party
More from my Barbie Series