F Words and Guerrilla Girls

Posted September 10, 2013 in , ,

© Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com

The word "feminism" wasn't part of my vocabulary for the first two decades of my life. Spending my formative years as a Mormon girl in a small town in Southern Utah, it was just one of those words I’d never heard, though its ideas were an integral part of my upbringing. I was raised by a strong-willed, single mother, who refused to be treated any less than the person she was, or buy into the idea that someone's patriarchal authority trumped her personality and her dreams. My mother went to church because she loved god, and she worked from home because she loved her children––expectation and obedience did not dictate her decisions.

Her example led me to feel dissatisfied with the status quo of my community, and the roles I played inside of it. I left town and I left the church, thirsting for stronger role models and like-minded peers. I found them in college, where Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, Sylvia Plath, Anne Carson, Virginia Wolfe and Gloria Anzaldua were brought to my attention through studies in literature and poetry. Though many of them preceded me by literal eras of time, I related to these women more than anyone I had ever met. Anzaldua felt the same social rejection, Carson verbalized all my thoughts and fears, Plath seemingly ripped out my soul and sewed it into her prose, and Stein calmed my nerves and made me feel less alone with each Tender Button.

These women––these writers and artists––helped shape my ideas of self and my view of the world around me. They are a foundational layer in the construction of my identity, and, given the current pop culture climate that feeds the likes of Miley Cyrus and Farrah Abraham, I hate to imagine who I would be without that layer.

For nearly three decades, since 1985, the Guerrilla Girls have been fighting their damnedest for women of foundational caliber to be seen and heard by women in desperate need of strong, artistic role models. Starting with a protest against an exhibition at the MoMA that founding year that featured the work of 165 artists, but only 17 women, the Guerilla Girls have been actively bringing feminist issues to the public's attention through mixed media projects that are sometimes humorous, often blunt, and never apologetic. The group of female artists donned gorilla masks and took on the names of deceased female artists and writers, empowering them further and hiding their identities to keep the focus on the issues they backed. Though members have come and gone, I was able to speak to “Frida Kahlo,” one of the founding artists of the group, prior to their appearances in Utah, beginning with Utah State on Sept. 10, Weber State Sept. 11 and finishing at the UMFA on Sept. 12.

Looking through the Guerilla Girls’ archives, it’s clear that the group has stayed true to their roots as “The Conscience of the Artworld.” They’ve continued their creative ad campaigns through posters and exhibitions, and their repertoire has expanded to include books, billboards, demonstrations and tours, with a big show opening in Bilbao, Spain after their stint in Utah. “It’s been really exciting for us to look back,” says Kahlo, who explains that the group has been working on compiling a portfolio of their work for interested parties, such as Utah State University, to purchase for their own public collections.

Archiving the past is important, but the Guerilla Girls aren’t spending too much time reminiscing, nor are they keeping their sights on local issues. Most recently, the group traveled to London to meet with members of Russian punk rock performance group Pussy Riot. “They have many things in common with us: The idea of being anonymous, the idea of doing surprise critical attacks on the establishment and using art to create a discourse about politics,” says Kahlo. “[But] their situation is so dire and so different than ours.” She explains that here in the States, the problem is that protestors are ignored. “[Pussy Riot] are in an environment where that sort of criticism, though similar to ours, is not tolerated, and they're being punished,” says Kahlo. “… All we can do is add our voices to the international text.”

Speaking out includes using the taboo “F-word”––feminism. “Women are basically afraid to use it because they feel it makes them look like they're man haters, or that they want more than their fair share of rights,” says Kahlo. “It's quite simple, what it means: that women deserve the same rights and treatment as men.” We discussed this further, as I had recently had a conversation with my own mother, crediting her for my feminist values, to which she had replied, “But I’m not a feminist,” taking me aback because, well, she is. “So many people who say they're not feminists, if you ask them the big questions: Do you believe in equal opportunity? Do you believe in equal pay for equal work? Do you believe in reproductive rights? All these basic tenets of feminism––they'll say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,’” says Kahlo. “Feminism has been given a bad stereotype from the get-go: bra burners, feminazis. I think it's getting better, but we all have to work harder at it.”

Part of that work is being facilitated by the group through presentations like the ones touring through Utah this week. “We try to be persuasive––we try to be transformative, and we actually try to write our projects to direct people who may not know who we are or who may not agree with us,” says Kahlo. “We really want to change people's minds.” In addition to the presentations, the group also invite the audience to workshops where the Guerilla Girls help those inspired by the performance come up with strategies for their own activism. However, Kahlo is quick to say that those looking to mimic the group need to find their own feminist ID. “People who want to be like the Guerrilla Girls should go out and invent their own crazy identity, their own crazy schtick, and continue the kind of work that we do from the vantage point of a different time,” she says.

Though it’s true that feminism has taken leaps and bounds all over the world since 1985, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Right now, women in the United States are being aggressively campaigned against through bans on same-sex marriage and attacks on reproductive rights. “We really think women everywhere should stand up for [those issues], and we want to remind them of that,” says Kahlo, who also admits that bringing men to our side of the feminist issue is another crucial aspect to making it an acceptable term.

In less than a month, through conversations with Kahlo, former Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna (check out my interview with her here), my mom and yes, ladies and gentlemen, my WWE-worshipping, Rolling Stones listening, penis-wielding boyfriend, I've come to realize that an identity based on shaky "isms" can be daunting and constricting. What it really comes down to are a couple of simple questions: Are you on the side of justice? And are you standing up for it? I believe that if you can answer a "yes" with conviction, and say with confidence that you make decisions, however small and insignificant they seem, that live up to your standard of justice––you bring power to the terms you associate with.

Come see what feminism can inspire by attending one of the Guerilla Girls presentations in Utah, check out their portfolio available at Utah State University, or find them online here.

© Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com © Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com © Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com © Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com