- August 2016
- July 2016
- May 2016
- April 2016
- March 2016
- December 2015
- November 2015
- September 2015
- August 2015
- July 2015
- June 2015
- May 2015
- April 2015
- March 2015
- February 2015
- November 2014
- October 2014
- September 2014
- August 2014
- July 2014
- June 2014
- May 2014
- April 2014
- March 2014
- February 2014
- December 2013
- November 2013
- October 2013
- September 2013
- August 2013
- July 2013
- June 2013
- May 2013
- April 2013
- March 2013
- February 2013
- December 2012
- November 2012
- October 2012
- September 2012
- August 2012
- July 2012
Sweetening the Fibre of Feminism
13 / 09 / 2012
In this edition of Culture Club, Elisabeth Morgan and Tanya Rao examine creative and humorous ways to further the feminist cause, both in Australia and abroad.
A band of women in fake beards infiltrate the Melbourne Mining Club, take to the stage and proceed to congratulate 200 guests on efforts in upholding the patriarchy. A perplexed audience looks on as they dish out Golden Beard awards to convenors Richard Morrow of E.L. and C. Ballieu for an “outstanding contribution to the patriarchy”. The speech continues, “…now that you have Gina Rinehart writing poetry and posing for the media, nobody will suspect that 83.8% of mining industry employees are Beards! 86% of your managers are beards! 96.3% of your CEOs are beards!” Chris Fraser (CEO of Sirius Minerals) responds to Mining Australia, “while they were polite, they were uninvited and unwelcome”.
These women comprise the new Australian branch of a French feminist activist collective known as La Barbe. First established in 2008, La Barbe – a pun meaning both ‘the beard’ and an exclamation of boredom – employs satirical humour to expose the disproportionate influence of males in public life. La Barbe has crashed a smorgasbord of male-dominated events including (but not limited to) French Senate assemblies, Free Mason meetings, theatre openings, television talk shows, and the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Sarah Vermande and Céline Mouzon, members of the French La Barbe troupe, explain their strategy:
“We go to places where male power is on display – say, a symposium or a board meeting, where most participants/speakers will be men – and we join them with our beards on. We then congratulate them on the maleness of their institution/assembly, shake their hands, and leave… The aim is to ridicule male domination, to make it look like what it is: an artefact of the past.”
La Barbe are not alone in employing humour and creativity to prod at the roots of female oppression. Fun and imagination have become vital weapons in revitalising the cause. Caitlin Moran, author of How to be a Woman and heroine of funny feminism, argues that feminism shouldn’t be good for you, like fibre – “It should be as exciting as rock‘n’roll”.
The world has recently been subjected to a wave of rock‘n’roll feminist stunts. Australian shock jock Alan Jones inadvertently sparked a viral social media piss-take phenomenon a fortnight ago with his declaration that women were “destroying the joint”. Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot have attracted international support after being sentenced to two years imprisonment for the “hooliganism” of a protest performance in a Moscow cathedral. London Muff Marchers donned pubic wigs and ‘You’ve got my chuff in a huff’ signs to raise objection to the new cultural obsession with hairless women. Jane Caro reflects on #destroyingthejoint’s overnight success at New Matilda:
“Instead of feeling hurt and angry about the way women are routinely dismissed and put down by many of the powerful, they have felt gleeful, naughty — and yes, powerful.”
Melbourne artist Sharon Margaret tackled the public silence and disgust around menstruation by knitting giant tampons in her recent installation series Blast Off. The woolly mammoths were suspended at various angles as the viewer walked through a maze of tampon clouds.
“I think most people just found it hilarious. One of the reactions I always aim for in my work is drawing people in with the textural nature of knitting… That touch element, people wanting to touch, coming in close and realising what it is, then maybe pulling back.”
Experimenting with scale and texture, Margaret plays on contradictory masculine/feminine associations in her work. Knitting, an art form traditionally associated with feminine domesticity, is radicalised to resemble a rocket, a torpedo, a zeppelin, or even a phallus. A hidden monthly ritual becomes huge and powerful, yet dreamy and cuddly. The humour also opens a social space to discuss women’s periods without discomfort or embarrassment. Margaret recalls a conversation with three men at the exhibition about pads and cups:
“They were instigating it, initiating it and were really intrigued by it all. There is a lack of understanding about the whole experience and what it is like as a woman. It brought on some good conversations that needed to be had.”
La Barbe’s creative stunts have been rewarded with international media coverage and growing global alliances. Within the first four years of its life, La Barbe has established homes in Australia, Copenhagen and Mexico (adapted to the more culturally appropriate ‘Las Bigotonas’ for ‘The Moustache’). The La Barbe manifesto has been printed in major newspapers around the world. Vermande and Mouzon explain the importance of humour and creativity in their activism:
“Humour is definitely the key, as is the visual nature of what we do: the pictures are striking, the way our message is framed is funny, and the message itself is crucial and legitimate… If we didn’t have fun being involved, many of us would have given up a long time ago. And if the public didn’t have fun following what we do, many of them would have given up too. It’s about keeping up the stamina.”
La Barbe activists infiltrate the Odéon Theatre, June 4th, as the new theatre director announces a season of 14 plays written and staged by male writers/directors. Photograph by Nick Mead.
Armed with horrific statistics of domestic violence, sexual exploitation, discrimination and inequality across all fields, feminism is overwhelmingly feared as the bearer of bad news. The stigma of the widely pervasive ‘unfunny feminist’ stereotype has long been central in efforts to denigrate the cause. Mainstream humour belittles feminist attitudes and condemns the feminist for not laughing. Here’s a gem, ‘Q: What does a feminist use as a contraceptive? A: Her personality’. As a result, feminism becomes marginalised and painted as boring, serious and militaristic.
In The Great Feminist Denial (2008), Australian women reluctant to identify with feminism were questioned on their reasons. Many women wished to avoid negative feminist stereotypes and viewed feminism as no longer relevant. The thin guise of ‘post-feminism’, with women scarcely peppered around authoritative positions, has become an easy means to brush off claims of sexism as ‘double standards’. Women can ‘have it all’ (which Nelly Thomas suspects means kids and a job), but are still often foremost publically valued, in one way or another, by their physical appearance and ability to bear children.
Creative initiatives like La Barbe and Blast Off expose the comfortable guise of post-feminism, and the fun element slowly eats away at the cliché of ‘unfunny feminist’. In La Barbe’s case, the cliché is turned completely on its head – it’s men in high places bearing the brunt of a feminist joke.
UK radical feminist and journalist Julie Bindel argues that new ‘feminist-lite’ types take power away from the movement in favour of ineffective individual expression. Bindell is “tired of being told by so-called third-wavers that my feminism is fascist, old hat, irrelevant and man hating”, and sees efforts to widen the audience and welcome men as pandering to the patriarchy. Are these fun, creative and humorous projects rendering feminism’s radical edge soft and fuzzy? If men like a particular brand of feminism, does it mean it’s not working?
Despite being seemingly light-hearted, feminist creativity and humour is driven by the acknowledgement of female exclusion. These movements have challenged stale stereotypes and brought serious issues of gender imbalance into mainstream public discourse. Humour can be a powerful antidote to our typically weary reluctance in considering issues outside of our own interests. Hirsute, woolly and hilarious, this activism is jolting the mainstream out of its feminist blind-spot.
Elisabeth Morgan works in Communications & Project Support at the Victorian Women’s Trust, and is assistant editor of Sheilas. Her poem ‘In Animate’ appears in the current edition of Voiceworks, and more feminist articles and interviews can be found at Lip and Feminaust.
Tanya Rao is a writer based in Melbourne. She writes about tea, art, napping, feminism, bohemia and nightlife. Her new collection of poetry, ‘That’s not my heart it’s my breast but you can take it anyway’, explores female erotic journeys through a sense of the spilling, raw and indecorous. You can find more of her stuff at tanya-rao.tumblr.com