The strategies that have been utilised in contemporary art to reveal the invisibility of patriarchal practices have shown that just like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, everyday sexisms are massive, varied, and complex. Like Calvino’s cities, sexism may at first appear to be an organic feature of a natural landscape, but it has been made evident that it is the product of careful planning, years of hard labour, huge sums of money, and most importantly, consistent upkeep and fortification. In this essay I will discuss three examples of contemporary art that address issues of the sublimation of the female, reveal the insidious nature of patriarchal society, and propose solutions or temporary relief from these problems. Drawing on feminist research in Reinharz (1992: 94) and the idea that three levels of learning must occur on: the person, the problem and the method, this essay will examine the methods of feminist theory, contextualised by contemporary art and its display of these methods. By analysing strategies devised by feminist theorists to deconstruct patriarchal hegemony I will identify the different strategies these works have utilised, and how these strategies affected the reception of the work. The examples I will be discussing are; Lizzie Borden’s film Born in Flames (1983), Sarah Browne and Jesse Jones’ Post-Patriarchal Archive in Circulation (2015- present), and Fannie Sosa’s Twerkshops (2015- present). I have chosen these three specific examples as they each exemplify different ways to make evident, discuss, and ultimately attempt to combat patriarchal and misogynistic social values. They also embody various different formats, which provides a cross-disciplinary analysis, and variation in their interactions with the viewer subject.
A Note on Patriarchal Invisibility
I will begin with a brief qualifying note on the invisibility of everyday sexism and subtle discriminations towards the female. Claims by women of sexual harassment are often derailed by victim-blaming arguments, and issues of contraceptive and abortive practices predominantly enshrine victimisation and objectification of the female in law. (An example of this being the lawful ban on abortion in most of the world’s countries in the Global South, and in the Republic of Ireland.) These examples, although seemingly obvious, are often not considered socially problematic, or seen for their victimising nature. It is no wonder, that less extreme and violent issues of sexual discrimination against women often go completely unnoticed by the majority of society. This can often take the form of misidentification of the problematic nature of a particular issue. Sanger (2001: 618) gives an example of this as the plethora of judicial decisions about whether requiring flight attendants to be pretty, slim or unmarried is unlawful discrimination. She identifies this as a misunderstanding of the problem of why airlines required (and customers seemed to desire) those characteristics in the first place. Copp, et al. (2006: 129) also give another example, this time of the seemingly benign feature of common courtesy of a man holding open a door for a woman and with the use of their ‘making the familiar strange’ technique, begin to unravel the underlying misogynistic tendencies in this act. This technique is credited to Horace Miner (1956) in his article “Body Rituals of the Nacirema” and consists of a lecturer pretending to a group of students that they are a visitor from Mars. They ask the students “So, why in your culture do men open doors for women?” A student typically says, “because it’s polite”. The lecturer then reiterates what the students say; “So, in your society, men open doors for women because women are special?”, Students nod. The lecturer then asks the students; “So, in your society, since women are special, they earn, on average, more than men, correct? So, in your society, since women are special, they walk the streets day or night without fear of violation, correct?”, and so on. (Copp, et al , 2006: 129)
Born in Flames
Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983) is a feature length feminist science fiction film that takes place after a fictional Social-Democratic War of Liberation that resulted in a pacification of society—but has in reality achieved very little positive change. The plot concerns two feminist groups in New York City, each voicing their concerns to the public by pirate radio, and a women’s army, all of whom are under investigation by the FBI. The film demonstrates different feminist perspectives, and how sexism can be dealt with through direct action, where government forces have failed. Born in Flames imparts through its narrative the suggestion that methods of progressive change advocated by a social democracy can be a case of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In its dramatisation of pseudo leftist values being used to make progressive social change seem apparent, where no real change has in reality been affected, the film uses the science fiction genre to warn against so-called feminist allies who actually serve the perpetuate patriarchal values, using feminist values as a cover for means of further female subjugation.
This functions to make evident a very specific form of patriarchy, which is often overlooked and therefore more important to publicly address. The film offers as a suggested antidote to this patriarchal method, gang based, anarchistic attacks on the perpetrators. Given the science fiction nature of the film, we can read this as slight hyperbole, with the aim to instill the call for radical action against patriarchal means of oppression. This can then encourage women to take this power into their own hands, instead of placing trust in the hands of politicians, who often reveal themselves to not live up to promises of improving the quality of life for women in society. Such is the case in the projected future of Born in Flames. The direct action strategy used to dismantle the subordination of women that the film portrays, is the one of the main tactics used by anarcha-feminist groups and is an extension of anarchistic tradition of acting without representatives to address issues that directly affect oneself (Hildsdotter, 2011).
We can also link the strategies employed in the film to one described in Copp and Sandstrom’s Making Sexism Visible: Birdcages, Martians, and Pregnant Men (2006, 133) : imagining men in the bodies of women. Copp and Sandstrom describe a pattern of thought in their students in that they see men and women as inherently different, which causes difficulty when teaching that gender is a social construct. The reproductive nature of the female causes students to believe that a woman’s inequality is ultimately biological. Borden’s film uses this double standard that many believe is a matter of biology, to shock the viewer when we see gangs of women on bicycles, arrive like superheroes into scenes of women being violently harassed by men on the streets of New York. These gangs are regarded as terrorists, and their victims are perpetrators of violent acts against women . This victimisation of the male enables the viewer to be more objective of their prejudices in regards to treatment that one receives due to their gender.
A review published the day after the film’s release in The New York Times, although it offered a few favourable comments about the rawness of the performances, claimed that the film was little more than a manifesto for radical feminist beliefs (Maslin, 1983). The review stated that the film was unconvincing in its politics and failed to persuade a viewer who is not of a radical feminist viewpoint. There was no mention of whether or not the film was successful in its use of the science fiction genre to make an astute judgment about the nature of the current politics of the time. Instead it is praised for its ‘inventiveness’. In contrast to this, at the time of its release French feminists claimed it portrayed an accurate picture of their reality and the issues they faced, and it was awarded the Grand Prize at the Créteil Films de Femmes in 1983 (Sullivan, 2002).
Burn in Flames: Post-Patriarchal Archive in Circulation
Burn in Flames: Post-Patriarchal Archive in Circulation (PPAIC) is a collaboration between Irish artists Sarah Browne and Jesse Jones as part of In The Shadow of The State, a project investigating the role of the Nation State in the control and regulation of the female body (Create, 2015). This work is referential of Borden’s Born In Flames in both its title and its strong science fiction elements. PPAIC anticipates a future in which a patriarchy does not exist. The work takes the form of a number of workshops/demonstrations in which participants contribute material for the post-patriarchal archive, in anticipation of the forthcoming extinction of patriarchal materials. Items from everyday life are named as evidence of the current, late-capitalist oppression of women, from legal documents to consumer goods. These objects are identified, stamped, and placed back in circulation.
Burn in Flames: Post- Patriarchal Archive in Circulation can attempt to improve visibility of the insidious nature of everyday patriarchal values by providing and collecting physical evidence of such; and this proving evidential and embodying proof of such values. The strategies employed in PPAIC could be read as the ‘making the familiar strange’ method of making patriarchy visible in Copp et al’s Making Sexism Visible: Birdcages, Martians, and Pregnant Men (2006, pg 129). Browne’s and Jones’ work asks one to envisage a society without patriarchy, thus enabling the participant or viewer to act as the outsider, or ‘Martian’ in this strategy. This strategy has the effect of discombobulating the student, or in this case the viewer/ participant, and causes them to speculate about the patriarchal nature of the paraphernalia submitted to the archive.
Fannie Sosa’s Twerkshops
Fannie Sosa’s Twerkshops bring together theories of race and gender with indigenous healing practices and contemporary movement and dance. The focus of the twerkshops is knowledge sharing and the de-privatisation of knowledge. This is done through dismantling the physical teacher-student model and reinstating circle learning where there is a lack of hierarchy in the physical layout of the class. (Hugill, 2015) This is how she demonstrates the de-privatisation of knowledge; one of the core principles of the workshops. This strategy is socially useful as not only do the workshops physically empower the participants through the spreading of knowledge and techniques of traditional methods of healing dance, but it also serves to intellectually empower them in encouraging them to not only consume but also to contribute to the theoretical discussion that takes place. Sosa’s symbolic use of the circle is referential to female centric practices throughout politics and mythology. (For example the rituals of casting the circle and drawing down the moon within celtic witchcraft tradition (Farrar & Farrar, 1996: 16). In early 2015 Sosa held a student- organised In Conversation with writer and curator Ama Josephine Budge entitled ‘twerk as a decolonial, open source, healing and sexually autonomous practice’ which was followed by a three day workshop. During the workshops, participants discuss historical processes that have led to the way we define ourselves, and the colonising effect of White Supremacist Capitalist Hetero-normative Patriarchy (Bor, 2015). Sosa’s workshop are a call to arms against such values and an empowering effect on participants. Reactions to the work are extremely individual due to the nature of the work, and its absolute dependency on face-to-face contact.
Sosa’s creation of a female and person of colour led safe space that focuses on education has the ability to teach women about social feminist practices and the history of female healing in an environment where participants can exist outside of the patriarchal presence of most public spaces. In this way, women can learn in a temporarily non- colonised space. The workshops are usually open to all, with some being designated for queer participants and participants of colour. The workshops provide a space for participants to turn away from the male gaze both physically and theoretically (Hugill, 2015). This strategy of the creation of a female space is identified by Estelle Freedman in her identification of development of a female public sphere as the only viable political strategy for women at certain points in history. She argues for the creation of this public sphere, but is also referential of other feminist theorists’ (Including Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Nancy Cott) research that suggests this sphere need not be public, and that any type of all- female grouping or space is beneficial to the mobilisation of the female and the development of a feminist consciousness (Freedman, 1979: 513). Sosa’s space is not strictly all female, however in the female-centric, non patriarchal, decolonisation of the physical space of the workshop, she creates a space that can be more realistically applied to everyday life and how the mixed spaces we encounter can be changed, and embedded with a feminist value.
The combination of practical learning and theoretical discussion (which is framed in this case as the practice of dance and historical discussion), is another device that we can trace to feminist thought. In her work The Conceptual Practices of Power: A Feminist Sociology of Knowledge (1990), Dorothy E. Smith insists that language, theory and text should be studied in the context of their actual material conditions (Aptheker, 1992: 468). Smith claims that by doing this, one can deconstruct the dominant social discourse.
Both Burn in Flames: Post-Patriarchal Archive in Circulation and Sosa’s Twerkshops engage with the feminist practice of consciousness raising, with the use of the workshop format. Consciousness raising refers to a small group partaking in face to face practice, and was first utilized by second wave feminists in the 1970’s as a way to share personal experiences of gender discrimination in conversations and meetings designed specifically for these purposes (Renegar, Sowards, 2004). The two works use this strategy to different affects. Sosa’s Twerkshops focus primarily on the female and creating a discourse that facilitates learning around female centric practices, whilst PPAIC focuses on the predominance of patriarchal artefact that we can find in the everyday, and raises the awareness and therefore visibility, of said artefacts.
One strategy that links all three of these works is the optimistic focus on a future where sexism has been or is being overcome. The utilisation of strategies that have been identified in feminist theory as a means to create a social awareness of discrimination towards the female is key in differentiating between a blind optimism and a carefully constructed plan to achieve this change. All three of the case studies discuss use strategies that span anarchistic, psychological and pedagogical discourses, which have been noted for their usefulness in a feminist context by feminist theorists. These devices, as we have seen, have various outputs in terms of how the work is received by the viewer, and can make patriarchal social values evident both through raising awareness of these values and their manifestations, and through the empowerment of the female and the creation and perpetuation of a feminist consciousness, which can then lead to feminist action.
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