Thursday, March 03, 2011

Being a Good Girl

A student I was privileged to have in my feminist theory course last term is a graduate student in the fine art photography/video program. I've found myself thinking quite often about her work, which simultaneously portrays and critiques stereotypes of good girls. The stereotypes she chooses juxtapose images of good little girls with conformist adult women, and juxtapose past norms for female discipline with contemporary expectations.

I haven't developed expertise in thinking about visual culture and art, but I'm immediately struck by the difficulty of what she proposes to do. How can an image simultaneously present a role and critique that role, and do so with multiple levels of meaning, making depth available to the viewer. And all while anticipating the expectations and assumptions that viewers will--or won't--bring to what they see.

This conundrum, which I expect is common in photography--especially in photography that reaches toward social commentary--is also familiar in feminist theory. For instance, consider my post below--on the one hand, in striving toward gender equality, we hope that, soon, gender won't matter, but for the sake of the striving, we must call attention to it. A point has to be made, but in making that point we risk undermining the eventual goal. This blog on politics and photography often addresses similar themes.

Whitney considers a related question in this post:
Do you have to rebel to be liberated? Does liberation dictate a change in appearance or only a change in mindset?
And this is a puzzle which I saw the young feminists in my course struggling with. On the one hand, they felt that they wanted to graphically mark their feminist consciousness--by how they dress or by not wearing make-up. But they also, rightly, questioned whether marking themselves was either required by feminism or effective as a feminist action. (And it's true, the people I know who have adopted a hippie persona are rarely radical, and the radicals I know don't usually look it but live their lives in ways that set them outside the mainstream. More on this thought soon.)

Below is one of Whitney's video installations. My first reaction was to love it--it's beautiful, and it seemed to me to find that tension point between, on the one hand, showing how much care feminine appearance and performance requires, and on the other hand, showing that the costuming, while perhaps adopted to fit others' expectations, also becomes adored in its own right, as we fit ourselves inside the role we are expected to inhabit.

Interestingly, Whitney reported that all of the women she has shown it to say they like it for reasons similar to mine, and all they men she has shown it to describe it as trite or clich├ęd--including my male colleague who does aesthetics.

Untitled from Whitney Warne on Vimeo.

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