Being “Feminine” in the Twenty-first Century






Otherwise knows as “The Hood,” Inglewood is on the way to becoming gentrified.  As with SoHo and Chelsea, the artists lead the way and where artists go, real estate agents are soon to follow.  But for now, the neighborhood, bordered by Loyola Marymount University and Otis College of Art and Design and the local airport, LAX, is at an optimal mix of old timers and new comers from the art world.  The Beacon Arts Building is run by Renée Fox, an artist in her own right, who puts together interesting exhibitions that feature artists from the local scene. This exhibition space is more than a gallery; it is also a neighborhood hangout for art gatherings and art parties and art panels where the issues of the day are discussed.

Beacon Arts Building

This fall, The Feminine Canvas2011 featured veterans, such as Meg Cranston and Yolanda McKay, mid-career artists, like Fay Ray, and up and coming art makers, including Allie Pohl, in a group show reviving an old topic in Los Angeles—-feminism, or a commentary on the state of women in the world today.  As I interpret it, the title uses the word, “canvas,” or the blank surface that is written upon by a gendering process, which transforms the material into something named, “feminine.”  “Feminine” is neither female nor woman, both of which imply something “natural.”  “Feminine” is a cultural construct that is resistant to change and modification, defying social evolution and political progress.  “Feminine” is a (male) given, meaning that feminine is given to women through a (male) system that has been in place for hundreds of years.  Women are made into what (male) society wants and needs through the machinations of (male) mass media and (male) mass custom.

The source of the unrelenting indoctrination is an apparatus that is run by men for men.  This vast machine that includes television, movies, the internet, print media is a vast territory of visual culture that, like film, excludes women except as window dressing, or that, like fashion magazines mold women into dressed up dolls, complicit with male ideas of the feminine ideal. Women internalize these “ideal” characteristics with designated them as decorations and strive their entire lives to be worthy of male admiration.  One of the major sections of The Feminine Canvas was a room full of photographs made by Laura London in a series called Rockstar Moments.  London presented a series of images of a thirteen-year old girl, trying on a series of homegrown costumes that would evoke “rock star.”

Rockstar Moments

On one hand, one has to say that progress has been made and that women, from Madonna to Lady Gaga, are finally making some tiny inroads into the male bastion of rock ‘n’ roll.  Those two ladies mock and make fun of male expectations of women, but then there are the lesser lights, Brittany Spears and Christiana Aguilera, who display “femininity” without parody and without understanding that “femininity” is a costume.   The little Rockstar girl is innocent of the mechanics of the construction of the female as a process Joan Rivière called a “masquerade.”  According to Rivière’s 1927 essay, women put on the “masquerade” of “womanliness” in order to not alarm men, who are ever on the alert for what Rush Limbaugh recently called “uppity-ness.”

The young girl in London’s color photographs is the child of Cindy Sherman’s “Centerfolds” of the eighties.  She has a bit more agency than her predecessor; she seems more active than passive; but she is still trying on the costumes that the society has doled out to her.  Alone in her teenage room, she tries out already ready personas, Cindy Lauper, Blondie, Madonna, all from the past, because nothing new has been created for talented women who was still expected to strut about the stage and reveal their bodies while singing songs of dysfunctional relationships.

It is hard to say what is more disheartening, that we are still discussing a manufactured product like “femininity,” or that, forty years after the feminist movement of the 1970s that it is still necessary to talk the old talk.  What does “feminine” mean in the twenty first century?  When I attended this exhibition, the previous weeks had been marked—or should I say marred—by the spectacle of a so-called candidate for the Republican nomination for President, Herman Cain, being accused of sexual harassment by several women.  It was just two weeks before the state of Mississippi would vote on the strange and terrifying “Personhood” law, giving an embryo more rights than a real woman.

The television screen was alive with the scorn of Herman Cain supporters, all of whom mocked the women he had allegedly assaulted and called them liars.  Since the Cain incident, I was required, as are all employees of any legitimate institution or business, to attend a workshop on sexual harassment and realized that what I saw on Fox News was a verbal assault on women that created what in an office would be called “a hostile workplace.”  Faced with the unrelenting verbal assault of angry men, the women who bravely came forward to question Herman Cain’s fitness for public office quickly faded into the background.

Who would not be cowed and terrified by the sight of the porcine faces of Dick Morris speculating that one of the women was angling for a Playboy centerfold and Rush Limbaugh smacking his lips and making a crude play on her name, “buy-a-lick?”  This, ladies and gentlemen, is how men control women—though dismembering their good names and calling them whores.  Apparently, any woman who tries to explain what it is like to be accosted by a male in power is a target for angry denials and derision.

The saddest bit of video footage I saw was Herman Cain surrounded by his male supporters who were making jokes about one of the bravest women of the twentieth century, Anita Hill, the woman who made ‘sexual harassment” a household world and an actionable offense.   Or maybe it was the poignant clips I saw of Mrs. Herman Cain, the latest Good Wife, saying that for her husband to assault a woman would mean that he had a “splint personality.”  Sadly, wives do not know their husbands.  Indeed, women assume that men are morally constructed as consistent beings, but, as Simone de Beauvoir pointed out in The Second Sex, men compartmentalize.   Wives are baffled to hear the husband who beats them at home, in private, strike a self-righteous pose of virtue in public.  Poor Mrs. Cain, she was trotted out for Fox News, and then put back in her Wife Place.  She, like her husband, seemed like a throwback to an earlier era.

Update:  A few days after I wrote the paragraph above another woman emerged, claiming that she had been the mistress of Herman Cain for thirteen years.  She says that she came forward because of the way the other women were trashed.  Herman Cain denied the affair—no sex, says he—but his lawyer does not.  His campaign stated that Cain had “alerted”  his wife.  Mr. Cain, please go away.  All these women can’t be liars.  Mrs. Cain, read Simone de Beauvoir. She said it all sixty years ago, and what she had to say is still relevant.  And that’s too bad.

So have conditions for women really changed?  The work of Allie Pohl would suggest that they have not.  Pohl has made the groin area of Barbie her artistic territory.  The join of the legs, hips and belly and all things in between make an identifiable shape that the artist has made into her trademark and her jewelry line.

Made by our own local toy maker, Mattel, Barbie was born in 1959 as a young woman, complete with breasts.  A change from the baby dolls usually given to little girls to train them to be mothers, Barbie taught girls how to be girls.  Being a “girl” means dressing up in fetching costumes, fussing with hair and make up, and hanging out with poor emasculated Ken.  Barbie changed with the times.  She began to look her owner directly in the eyes, rather than casting her eyes modestly sideways, she had her vocations and her careers and her jobs.

Pohl is uninterested in the feints of the toy company.  She focuses instead on what about Barbie is unchanging—her measurements.  Despite three alterations in her body shape, Barbie has retained her large breasts (39”), her small waist (19”), her narrow hips (33”), and her huge head.  According to various experts, Barbie is about six feet tall and weighs 100 pounds and cannot menstruate.  The exhibit at the Beacon Arts Building showed the Barbie Torso as a chain of cutout dolls locked into a white picket fence and nailed in place.  The image shown was taken at another exhibition and at the Beacon, Barbie was wrapped around a column that supported the ceiling.  But wherever she is, Barbie cannot change; she remains firmly fixed in her improbably body.

Allie Pohl's Barbie Fenced In

Although Barbie has run for President—you go girl—she has never grown stout like Margaret Thatcher nor worn pants suits like Hillary Clinton nor had children with strange names like Sarah Palin.  Barbie Enjoys Being a Girl, as the song goes and her image is burned like a brand on the minds and hearts of every little girl who has combed her long blond locks.  This little girl may talk of becoming a lawyer one day but she will always yearn for the perfect Barbie figure and will be haunted the rest of her life by an impossible Ideal Woman.

Allie Pohl's Barbie as a Chia Pet

Laura London’s little teenage girl is fantasizing about a life as a rock star, a dream as impossible as getting a figure like Barbie.  What is so poignant about this little girl is what is not present in these photographs.  It is the Lack that pains.  It is what we do not see that bites.  Although some of these photographs have a light background, for the most part their mood is dark.  The colors are not saturated like those of Nan Goldin, the colors are not intense like Cindy Sherman.  The artist has chosen a tonality that is both dim and dark at the same time, as though the dressing game is being played in a shadow and filtered through amber.  London could have used light pastel colors to make the images more “girly,” but she does not.  She could have shown a little girl having fun trying on adult clothes, but she does not.

Laura London's Rockstar Moments

The choices of the artist make it clear that is is not a happy little girl.  She is moody of expression, unsmiling and deeply serious.  One has the sense that without a costume, she might not exist, that she needs an image to be. She does not smile, she poses, she postures, but there is no happiness in her enterprise.  The mood is claustrophobic, closed in, introverted. Rock stars live at night and work in the dark.  Clearly, her quest for persona dissatisfies her, discourages her, saddens her.  Even worse, she seems to equate personality or personhood with the right combination of clothes…if only she can locate her outfit.

Rockstar Moments

This is what we do not see.  We do not see this young woman reading her own book, writing her own story, singing her own song, dancing her own dance.

She searches through hand-me-downs. You begin to ask questions: Why is the “female” and “femininity” still a spectacle on a catwalk for the benefit of the male gaze?   What has society done to this child-woman that she is inside, closed up in her room, alone with only clothes as her companions?

Why doesn’t she laugh?  Why is she not outside, in the sun, running in the bright light, alive with a vital future, leaping for joy, suspended against the sky?

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Being “Feminine” in the Twenty-first Century”

  1. Renée says:

    Hi Jeanne,
    Is it possible to have a printable version of this text from the Feminine Canvas? I’m still so grateful for your participation. Look forward to speaking again!

Leave a Reply