Right, Ive talked about gender and art so I think its appropriate to look at feminism as it ties in with quite a few ideas i mentioned in my breakdown of gender.
A really good essay on the subject is by Julia Kristeva – Abjection & Melancholia, basically she says we are born into a blissful semiotic state where we are unaware and happy. As soon as we say our first word, particularly ‘Father’ which I feel has the most poignant meaning in regards to the feminine, we enter the symbolic world as we understand it as adults, where everything is subject to the hierarchy of language and words, and ultimately language is loaded with the masculine. As soon as we utter our first words we are crushed by society and bombarded by symbolism, this immediately sculpts us into a masculine mindset. Julia Kristeva beliefs that to resolve the core issues behind feminism, which I think its fair to say haven’t greatly changed since the days of the suffragettes, we need to address the language system that we use. I think the easiest way to think about this is to think about the rise computer technology over the last few decades, to talk about these new technologies and developments we had to make new words to describe them. In the same way Kristeva says we can’t resolve these issues without adapting our language into a more neutral gender state.
‘Language is a virus’
Looking at art, it reflects a kind of truth, where you can identify the issues and identity of an artist from the work they produce. Kristeva identifies a massive range of artworks, particularly genres like photography that is often seen as ‘beyond the pale’ when challenging set cultural ideas, where pulses of the original blissful spirit break through the symbolic state. We can never be fully crushed.
Another feminist writer called Helene Cisoux calls for a new language system in her book, ‘Ecriture Feminine’. She believes that we need a new language system to break through the spell of language, as it restricts how we express ourselves and even how we think.
I think its an interesting idea that language controls and corrupts us to such an extent, but ultimately I believe it would be impossible to completely change our current language structure, as it has been built through over three thousand years of history and culture. I think we can address the way our current cultural systems work through art and visual culture. Women are entitled to equal human rights by law, but are being suppressed and dominated in other ways. First we need to look at the wider picture.
Western democracy’s many interventions of philosophy, technology and war have contributed greatly to our condition today. The ideas of socialism have given us our welfare state and ideas of community, although I feel that commercialism has centered the West into a singular identity rather than a communal one, the I rather than the we. Without a doubt, the greatest advancements in technology are fuelled by war. Many would argue that some of the greatest changes to how we organise and make sense of our lives are due to feminism.
In the modern arena there are two main questions left in gender politics, is feminism still necessary, and if it is what does it still need to address. Most people would say the sex war has been won, but in ethnicity and sexuality many women are still treated, I feel, unfairly. Certainly from a photographers view point, if this weren’t true than why are many women artists still dealing with the same issues in their work as women were before women rights became standard. Yet even (particularly Western) educational and justice systems still favor the male. Let me give some examples…
A judge in Texas, USA, freed an accused rapist saying ‘a women cannot be raped if she is wearing jeans’. The rapist was later proved to be guilty.
‘If a women wear miniskirts, how can they expect not to be assaulted at night.’ Judge Robert Stein
A US paper printed as fact ‘successful women are less fertile than housewives.’
‘Women’s failure to achieve at higher academic level is because they have smaller heads’ a senior professor at an Irish University.
‘Summing up, if she doesn’t want it she only has to keep her legs shut’ Judge David Wilde addressing the jury before they make their final verdict on a rape case.
‘He clearly hates prostitutes, many people do, but now he’s killing innocent girls’ Senior detective working on the Yorkshire Ripper cases.
Law may claim equality and justice for all, but clearly there’s still a bigot mode.
Sexuality is a key area where women are still treated unfairly. For example in rape cases a women’s personal sexual history can be used by the defence to defend the actions of the accused rapist, but the accused sexual history cannot be used against him in court, even if he is a serial offender. Not exactly a fair system, and evidence of a ‘she asked for it’ mentality, in fact most domestic rapes are dismissed before they even make it into court. Rape is still used as a weapon of terror in wars across the world, most significantly in Bosnia, where girls as young as three have been sexually assaulted.
There is a convenient notion that in the relationship between men and women, men are naturally dominant. This ‘biological essentialism’ is often cited as the core of the imbalance of the sexes, where women are biologically figured to be inferior. Other narratives can be identified that help shape and control identity and how we behave in society, even religious narratives, significantly Adam and Eve, where the women Eve made a mistake, the consequences of which effected everyone.
Society sees it fit to reward masculine jobs, hence the sanctification of feminine professions such as nursing or primary education, ‘they are working out of kindness therefore don’t need to be paid as much’. A women doing an identical job as a man can be paid up to 35% less wages. Yet in education under 16 girls out-perform boys in all areas, so much so they are putting in new procedures into schools to allow boys to catch up. Education is another key socialising factor in the UK, sociology and cultural studies isn’t taught in our schools as it is in the rest of Europe, and feminism is usually only taught to women through night classes. If children understood controlling social factors from a younger age perhaps there would be greater equality. Overall democracy operates a policy that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that results in women behaving in a predetermined manner that ultimately makes them into second class citizens.
So what has this got to do with photography? Feminism, and artwork informed by feminism explores and explodes this core material at the root of patriarchy. It aims to expose the methodology of gender bigotry. Key strategies for feminist work are to explore the ideas of biological essentialism, and to reconceptualise the language we use. Our thoughts are predetermined by the linguistic system and our belief system is dominated by advertising and consumption. This in turn is connected to ideas of the other (a concept that basically everything different is scary or sinister), where we are punished for being transgressional and rewarded for being ‘normal’. The feminist project seeks to explode the idea of the women as an inferior, and recognises and combats the ideas where these myths are grounded and try to educate this imbalance. Their representation of women in images and writings is critical to how people view women particularly in mass media and popular art. Through visual culture we adopt mannerisms and behaviour patterns, we use what we see to make sense of what is around us. If the media we are exposed to is imbalanced or bigoted then the masses will adopt this system ofvsemiotic failure.
As a photographer I think it’s useful to understand the motives and ideas behind feminists work, so that I can identify it others work and use some of its ideas within my own work. I don’t think feminism is strictly for women. I don’t see why I can’t use feminist themes and address feminist issues in my own work, I find the quotes cited as particularly disturbing and think that injustice should be addressed. I find ideas of the influence of the mass media and general image consumption particularly interesting also and is another key theme I would like to address in my own work. I will be posting up some key photographers influenced by feminism in my coming posts.