I’ll start with a disclaimer: it’s hard, as a man, to write about female self-representation in art. It’s undoubtedly harder, however, to represent yourself while female.
But what is contemporary femininity? While the dissemination of text, images and ideas on this topic seems at an all-time high, the scope of these concepts is still remarkably focused around male fantasies. “Body Anxiety”, which launched on 24 January, aims to empower women by letting them write their own narratives on gendered appropriation. Curated by artists and writers persons Jennifer Chan and Leah Schrager to showcase artists working with and through the internet as a platform to detangle contemporary femininity, ”Body Anxiety” is accessible exclusively online.
How the feminine is represented in a female artist’s work is a subject of constant contention: in an interview for Sleek Mag’s “What Women Want” issue, Sleek asked Petra Cortright if men should be asked they are feminists more often.
“Men never have to justify their masculinity in the same way that women are made to talk about being women,” she responded. “For example, discussions about women’s work always has to mention femininity–it’s never just about the work. And that sucks!”
“The internet has allowed women and gender-queer people to reinvent and explore sexual identities by sharing self-imagery that radically differ from the limited versions of femininity seen in pop culture,” Chan writes in her curatorial statement. In the pursuit of self-representation, almost every artist turns to appropriating the selfie, but can “Body Anxiety” be understood within the contemporary framing of female representation?
With the limiting scope of how non-male people are represented, the lens through which these images are received is critically distorted. Video work by Faith Holland and Angela Washko, for example, can be understood through the female tropes used in web-cam videos: Holland’s videos were made to be uploaded on porn distribution site Redtube, and she can be read as the cam-girl and the amateur stripper; Washko’s instructions on attracting a millionaire-mate can be related to the YouTube channels on nail art tutorials or shopping “haul” videos.
“Can” and “should” are miles apart, however, and the appropriation in “Body Anxiety” critiques the limited capacity in which women are allowed to be represented, read and understood. Alexandra Marzella’s “misandrystood” is a scan from the labia across the taint to the anus, and the resulting image is definitively outside of the contemporary visual comfort zone. The bondage porn scene in Ann Hirsch’s “bad feminist” seems less immediately discomforting – perhaps out of familiarity, but definitely out of cultural legibility – than the distorted Photo Booth video of Hirsch dancing alongside a vagina wearing reading glasses entitled “dance party just us girls”.
Whereas “bad feminist” offers a narrative of women that has been written as representation, the discomfort in “misandrystood” and “dance party just us girls” is a product of female self-representation willing to disturb the hierarchy that has, historically, simply written it off. “Body Anxiety” offers a platform outside of institutional hierarchy for these interventions to take place as women and gender-queer people push for a broader scope and understanding of femininity.
Part of the reasoning behind this show was due to examples of appropriation of female bodies by male artists in the net art sphere. While discussions have ranged from the civil to the absurd, this exhibition takes back the authorship for female artists themselves by changing the conversation and making a clear statement for something—anything—different.