Over the past weekend, I fell into the booby-trap of the internet, and it saved my life. After hanging out with some rad, critical, hilarious, and fun friends over the weekend, I got tricked into thinking that Facebook is, in general, a great place to engage others in critical and meaningful conversations about how women are depicted and represented. I temporarily forgot that photographs, paintings, and the like are nothing more than random and meaningless, cool-looking feats of human ingenuity that neither carry with them nor reinforce social ideas. Those smart, feminist ladies had lured me into their trap of critical thinking that, in the end, only ends up hurting brains and breaking hearts. It’s happened to the best of us. Luckily, these online winners were quick to point out that analyzing how women are represented in art is dumb, over the top, antagonistic, and generated by my need to get laid rather than me actually having ideas and opinions. Duh! Whoops!
I wanted to offer a thank you to those individuals for reminding me, so that I can free up my time for more important endeavors like pouring milk over parts of naked bodies I intend to photograph. I thought I’d write a top 10 list to detail and honor their contributions.
The comment thread was inspired by an interesting and provocative set of calendar images inspired by 1940s “pin up girls,” in women are photographed ironing, on a scale, with a mop, on a swing (etc.), while clothed not by textiles, but by what the blog calls “real milk.” The project was shared by one of my favorite drag queens, Manila Luzon, this weekend.
Despite the creativity, beauty, and technical difficulty of the photographs (for more about the process of pouring milk on models and photographing it in order to make it look like clothing, see the original link above), on first glance my first impulse was to feel bored by the images. The milk closely contours the models’ bodies, the models are not very body diverse, and are doing things like riding mopeds, weighing themselves, or playing with a beach ball. Boring, banal but not terrifying. When I let the images linger a bit, I started to feel uneasy about the use of milk in the photographs because (1) do we really need more images of scantly clad-to-nude women covered in white liquid circulating? I’m sure using white was a practical aesthetic choice—the result is striking. But—really? (2) I’m not very cool with how we extract milk from female cows. In fact, I think the oppression of non-human animals and the oppression of women (and others) are linked. Not everyone agrees with me, and that’s totally ok. I'm cool with that, just think it's worth discussing. In fact, there are a healthy and growing number of feminists who do think that part of being a feminist means to at least think critically about how we consume bodies and their products. Sharing these particular feelings, for whatever reason, garnered all 10 of the pre-packaged responses to feminists I’ve been warned about, ultimately reminding me that I am (1) crazy (2) a witch (3) over-thinking things. Thanks, Facebook.
1. “OMG chill.”
I forgot that sharing a feeling of disgust about the way women are depicted in something is also considered “freaking out.” Thanks.
2.“WOW …- it's art. Pull the stick outta yer butt. Like it or don't like it, but it's not really a political debate. It's a photoshop thing....”
Ok. I am so glad someone finally cleared that up. I thought that politics affected art and art affected politics. I also thought that art could be studied in order to understand and debate ideas about gender and representation. I cannot believe that I have wasted so much of my life on thinking through art. While we are at it, I should probably ask the artists working in the art history and fine arts department where I work when they’d be okay eliminating all of their theory classes and critique sessions. I mean, clearly any resources used on critical thinking rather than producing images are being thrown away. We could definitely use that to buy the sunscreen dispensers the undergraduate students at our university have been clamoring about.
3. “Feminism and gender equality DO NOT mean to make women the same as men, NOR does it mean to suppress any thought of sexuality.” (from the person trying to censor my response to the representation of female bodies and sexuality I’m currently confronted with)
These comments are always fun because they follow a comment in which I never even mentioned men/women becoming the same. In fact, by commenting on how women were represented in the photographs, I was referring to women as a group, idea, etc.. This is a great reminder though. We need to make sure all of these gender roles stop getting fuddled and mixed up. It’ getting out of hand. This comment is also a great reminder that to comment on your own “thought of sexuality” is to censor someone else’s, even if that person’s was made to ridicule your ideas. Takeaway: posting something someone else didn’t see or doesn’t agree with is suppressing them. Good to know.
4. “Your interpretation isn’t the artist’s making”
OMG. WOAHHHH. I knew that interpretation of an image happens in that lovely space between the image and the viewer. I did not know that that space exists entirely outside of cultural and historical context. What a dummy. I also did not claim that the artist “made” my interpretation, but…this insight apparently means I shouldn’t share what I think about the images. I did not know that. THANK YOU!
5. "The women were represented that way for practical purposes…what a FUCKING thought"
Thank you for reminding me that if something is practical and efficient, or aesthetically pleasing, it cannot be problematic or worth critique. That will save me A TON OF TIME.
6. "Always a downer in every single post, jesus."
OH YEAH. Thinking about rhetoric and implications of images BUMS PEOPLE OUT. My bad. That will ALSO save me A TON OF TIME.
7. “You need to get laid.”
LOLCATZAGANZA! EPIPHANY! YOU CRACKED THE CODE. I decided to dedicate my life to critical analysis precisely because I WAS NOT GETTING LAID. Wow. All of these years of study, when I could have just…had sex? THANK YOU. YOU HAVE SET ME FREE.
8. Seriously, are we having a feminist debate on a DRAG QUEEN's Facebook page? (posted by Manila Luzon)
Seriously, is a drag queen wondering why (1) feminists are interested in drag culture and (2) why they’d comment on pictures of Barbie-esque women posing with irons and mops covered in “real” milk? I don’t even have a sarcastic response to this one, it’s just too sad.
9. “I’m a writer and a photographer. Sometimes my art is straightforward. Honestly, I take the majority of the pictures I take because I think they look cool, not because of some deeper, underlying meaning. I took a picture of a dead bird because I liked how morbid it looked.”
Oh, right, what is “morbid” does not vary based on cultural context either. I forgot about that whole “it just looks cool” argument. That apparently saves any image from rhetorical analysis. Also, you’re reminding me again that the photographer’s intentions are definitely more important than anyone else’s feelings about the images. Your position is definitely what professionals teach in art school. Thank you!
AND, my favorite…
10. "Or maybe they just thought it looked neater with milk. Maybe there ISN'T an underlying message. This reminds me of when we're doing analytic reading for English class, and my teacher points out alliteration in a certain sentence in a novel we're reading and how the author is probably doing this for some deeper reason. Maybe the author just did it because it sounded better. Things don't always have to be complicated."
Again, we’re returning to the “it looks cool so it is cool” argument. And, you’ve also picked up (WAY BEFORE I DID) that if the artist didn’t intentionally depict women a certain way, there’s nothing to critique. I used to think things are complex, because social relationships and hierarchy are complex. Not anymore. AND you have finally solved the mystery of why I’m such a downer—I teach writing classes. We do analytic reading. Close reading, even. That’s my main problem. I need to find another job. Thanks! Also, that English teacher sounds like an idiot. Alliteration never adds anything to a passage, and is never intentional. We also never need to think about why things “look cool” or “sound better,” especially if we will ever write or create things at work. WHAT A WASTE OF TIME.
In sum, these beautiful geniuses just saved my life. I no longer need to teach or take pointless classes. I no longer need to pursue a graduate degree—instead, I can focus on getting laid. I never have, and it clearly has clouded my judgement. I also never need to trouble my pretty little head with “art” again. Apparently, it’s NBD.
Really, though. For those of you out there who put up with these comments routinely, you are not alone. Feminists may not agree on everything, and I'm so, so into that. Critique, debate, and analysis lead to growth. Let's keep talking rather than shutting each other up.
[Photo thanks go to my canine companion, Bartleby Charles, and my partner who sends me photos of him with champagne.]