The success of social movements often relies on their ability to enlist a large public: a critical mass drawing in many others, finally able to constitute a threat to the dominant power, motivating it to change norms of behavior that it dictates and embodies. Such movements must serve as a broad umbrella, bringing together many varied publics. Without doing so, they cannot create a coalition of different power groups, capable of overcoming the disputes between them and bridging class gaps and other disparities in the name of common interests. A social movement like this often avoids statements that significantly exceed accepted norms, seeking a message universal and vague enough so that many could identify with it. No wonder attempts to establish such movements frequently lead to conciliation and vagueness, to a banal and unthreatening entity – a movement that has lost its passion and the kick that set off the struggle to begin with.
Is this also the fate of “Me Too”, the movement that broke the dam of silence and brought a flood of public testimonials on a wide range of daily crimes, including harassment, exploitation, abuse, and rape? Will “Me Too” develop into a movement or remain a mere campaign? In other words, will the current storm only gobble up the lives of public figures, or will this wind also blow through the ordinary lives of the invisible millions? Even assuming this struggle does gain force to become sustainable enough for the pages of history, will it entail association with other political-social-economic struggles – or, finally, will it be appropriated and macerated into the Western-liberal ideology?
It is too early to see which direction the future takes, but certainly not early to try and predict future trends or attempt to steer current tides.
“Dead Honeys” is a group exhibition of women artists using the (often hollow) representations of women in popular culture as their raw materials, served for our consumption by a Western capitalist culture. Thus, the gallery space of the Herzliya Artists’ Residence hosts an assembly of women, including a reception clerk, a secretary, a health nut, a prostitute, a hottie that just wants to want, a woman after a breakup, an invisible woman, a Fifth Avenue lady, and another dangling on a windowsill between heaven and earth.
All are commonplace female images from contemporary culture, but not those considered by most to be role models. Quite the opposite – these are stereotypical figures, easily sneered at. The participating artists are women that expose the system that generates these images, but also presents the lives possible within them. Their methods link them to patriarchal power structures, sexism, and the market economy. The results, if you wish to look, are submitted proposals of the possible lives of dead honeys.
The day we (did not) break the glass ceiling
Javits Convention Center, November 8, 2016. Everything is set for the historic day: the announcement of the first female president of the United States of America. The leader of the free world. Thousands arrived at the huge convention center on Eleventh Avenue, between 34th and 40th Streets. They queued for hours in the long line waiting to undergo strict security checks. Many mothers arrived with their daughters. The entire space was filled with banners of “I’m with Her”, people wearing T-shirts with the slogan “The Future is Female”, bright eyes and broad smiles. This crammed hall was vaster by far than that of the Hilton Hotel where Donald Trump supporters were gathered.
And yet, it was not the venue size that convinced the campaign staff of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to choose Javits Center. The first and primary reason to be there is the glass –1,800,000 square feet of clear panes covering every inch of its interior, domed with Manhattan’s largest glass ceiling. The choice of venue was a resounding declaration: Hillary Clinton was to stand beneath an actual glass ceiling as she smashed the metaphorical one to bits.
Clinton did take her place on the Center’s stage. She did so the following morning, facing a much smaller crowd of stunned supporters, dressed in a dark suit edged in brilliant purple: combining the Republican red and Democratic blue, a symbol that the United States is greater than the sum of its major parties after several months of an ugly political campaign. The ceiling glinting above Clinton’s defeat speech seemed stronger and more threatening than ever.
The “glass ceiling” was first coined in feminist discourse during the 1970s, then adopted by many in the following decade. Today there are those that see it as the interwoven narratives of second-wave feminism and neoliberal economics, as neoliberalism rushes to embrace the feminist ideas that serve its goals – and undermine all others. Thus, the glass ceiling metaphor is limited to what is accepted by the current economic system. Breaking this ceiling will have no impact on the capitalist system, merely allowing a handful of women (the elite and privileged, however deserving they may be in their own right) to take their place among the men who have dominated the halls of power for eons. The traditional hierarchies will abide, while any future feminist accomplishments will be forced to pay homage to the popular trickle-down theories that maintain that change first appears up on the lofty summits, and then supposedly slowly dribbles down to the masses.
The collaboration of feminist, multicultural, and anti-racist movements and that of corporate power (Wall Street), high-tech (Silicon Valley), and the Mecca of popular culture (Hollywood) provides strength and visibility to those first trail blazers, then whitewashes the sins of those to follow. So, can the “Free World” boast of progress and liberation while de facto erasing those unfortunate enough not to be included among the very first ranks of the chosen few?
The glass ceiling was not only enmeshed in Hillary Clinton’s political career, it swallowed her whole. Clinton, with her pant suits, PC rhetoric and the party functionaries that surrounded her, became the face of the institutional elite (a fact gleefully used by her opposers, and obviously Trump himself during the campaign). Feminist activist Hillary Rodham, influenced by the civil rights movement, who heard Martin Luther King’s words and was present in the violent riots of Vietnam War protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The same Hillary that made her student commencement speech in Wellesley College, saying – “we feel that for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible”. Hillary Rodham was swallowed up in the image of Hillary Clinton, with her hair dyed increasingly lighter. She was tamed into being an inevitable, unlikable candidate, one that eventually became unelectable. The intense activist Hillary Rodham met her doom in the hollow feminine form of Hillary Clinton.
The power of Hashtivism
The pain felt by many across the US and the entire world at Clinton’s defeat was made infinitely worse by the identity of her opponent. While every word out of Clinton was prechecked with focus groups and refined to a high polish by speech writers, Trump was unpredictable, aggressive, and astoundingly misogynistic. And if that isn’t enough, during the campaign several testimonials of harassment and even sexual assault of various women were made public. Trump is, ostensibly, a garden-variety sex offender. It is unsurprising that “Me Too” and the global wave of personal admissions that came in its wake were one of the most powerful reactions to the choice of Trump and to the culture that allowed this choice to happen.
In early October of 2017, articles were published concurrently by The New York Times and The New Yorker with statements of women accusing Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of a long line of sexual abuses, describing in detail the system that protected him throughout the many years. Shortly after, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”. The immense reaction raised awareness of sexual assault in the Western world to new heights and was received with profound shock and consternation by the male half of the population, at least.
And yet, despite the success of “Me Too”, is it not a sad fact that a white, popular Hollywood actress was required to step up and get this important movement off the ground? Milano was certainly not the first to attempt greasing the wheels of this collaborative, unmasking, empowering, empathetic process. There are too many precedents to count, with just one example in the form of African-American social activist Tarana Burke, who founded several organizations aimed at empowering sexual assault victims. Burke coined the term “Me Too” over a decade ago but was awarded none of the influence and exposure as the (important) tweet by Milano.
There are many reasons for this, from the maturation of social media, to the disappointment at Clinton’s downfall, and finally the opposition to Trump’s election and the chauvinistic violence he has permeated the Oval Office with. Nevertheless, there are significant blind spots to the “Me Too” phenomenon. First, as established, it relates particularly with women (and men) of substantial fame, and less to other women (for comparison, one could view similar attempts by African-American women in the US to raise awareness of sexual assault in the workplace through hashtags, such as #YouOkSis or #WhatWereYouWeaaring, which never came close in public reaction).
Subsequently, there is a fundamental flaw in the fact that the only voice finally echoed by others came from the Hollywoodian Olympus – but it is also a ray of hope in the long run. If the success of social movements rests on enlisting large audiences, could there be a stronger enlisting force than that of Hollywood? Misogynism, rejection of the female voice, the derision of women in positions of power, and the violence directed against them have all long been interlaced in cinematic fairy tales, and even previously in Greek mythology, the cradle of all Western civilization, in the story of Echo (fated to echo the voices of others), and that of Philomela (rapped and her tongue cut off so that she could not testify to the crime), or that of Medusa (raped by a god and punished by a goddess, and identified with the image of the bloodied severed head) with a writhing mass of phallic serpents erupting from her scalp. The horrific double standard, punishing tales (for the victims, at least) that expose the systematic oppression so deeply rooted in Western history and deeper, are far more ancient that the mythologies that reflected and depicted them. Will the voices of victims, audible at last, suffice to generate a change of similar historic proportions? Will a renewed look through their perspective be enough?
While employing voice and scrutiny are important, identification is an inherently transient reaction, and empathy alone cannot engender political change. Certainly not when the legitimacy of the speakers relies on their victimhood. While “Me Too” provides visibility to the struggle against sexual exploitation and the culture that creates it, it also flattens its female participants into anonymous victims, framing them for our view only in relation to the men that perpetrated crimes against them. Can this be seen as the anticipated change from those voices of Greek and Roman mythology, where women are only heard as victims or martyrs, usually just prior to their death?
The question of what next step to take is becoming increasingly urgent. The harassers may find their judgement, and one could hope that the norms that normalized their actions be rectified, with new and better behaviors developed and internalized, but is this enough? We seem immune to everything by now – and if we can cluck our tongues and soon return to our daily lives after seeing the massacre of civilians in foreign wars or the butchery of school students, could we be relied on to react differently when faced with sexual harassment? Can we expect the system itself to be sufficiently undermined so that true change is possible in all walks of life? We have witnessed endless repetition of examples demonstrating that the neoliberal system cannot be severed from its white sexist roots. Time after time we have seen its power to subdue the highest pinnacles of opposition, enlisting each movement and wave of activism to its interests.
The innate hostility of the neoliberal system to any change is immediately understandable: a profound remedy of injustices certainly means dismantling the existing world order and those power bases the system is founded on, and which it continues to serve. It would mean ceding the excess privileges of certain segments of the population, and thus inviting a struggle with unavoidable innocent victims.
“Dead Honeys” arises from this complexity, this cautious hope and the obvious fears, directing our gaze to female representations just as dramatic and no less commonplace than those flooding “Me Too” on social media. Familiar figures, regular images, those our eyes scan carelessly, without ever truly seeing. Thus, the space of the Artists’ Residence is filled with a host of one-dimensional figures, mundane and intentionally banal. This array of images reveals the mechanisms that produce them as the scaffolding structuring the accepted, the right way to be a woman. Each of these figures in the gallery allows us, in her own way, to delve down into the roots at her core: the origins of a white, sexist economic theory of inequality.
However, beyond all this, each figure also demonstrates a vivacity that gushes into the seam between the generic gestalt and the human body she tries to govern.
Working nine to five
The heroine of Efrat Rubinstein’s video work “MultiTask” is a reception clerk working in a large office building, juggling a list of duties, some random and senseless. Rubinstein herself, mummified in a black uniform, plays the lead role. She connects, coordinates and mediates between the various incomers to the building, providing varied services, always with a smile and a softly warm, even tone. Throughout the work we hear her send out endless greetings, exposed to the superficiality of the act. Her territory is contained within the space spanning the reception desk before her and the glass cabinet at her back. She is caged within her narrow, invisible borders, trapped in her uniform and the duty to appease the whims of all who approach her.
She spurns attempts at wooing her on the handheld two-way radio, listens patiently to the demands and various complaints aimed at her, makes coffee for fellow employees and instructs the foreign worker on Hebrew terms. Beyond the cover of her jacket sleeves peek tattoos on her wrists and fingers, a glimpse into the woman required to play the restricted role allotted her. When flowers are delivered for the 24th floor for a marriage proposal, she dryly comments to one of her colleagues on the radio – “Who wants to be proposed to at the office?” (and yet holds on to the rose petal in her hand, raising it to catch its scent from time to time).
Alongside this work is a screening of another video – “ScratchCard”, presenting a pet puppy in a storefront window. He too, like the reception clerk, is hemmed in a confined space, between red velvet awnings and the glass. He too was born to please.
Waiting rooms and reception desks are also the backdrop of Noi Fuhrer’s sculpture “Out of Order”. Fuhrer’s reception clerk is presented by a palm, holding a pencil, swinging it back and forth, the depiction of boredom. Under her hand is a nonogram, a picture logic riddle, where you pencil in the squares until an image begins to emerge. In this case, the image forms into a man standing alongside a car, its hood raised and smoke billowing out. This limited segment supplied by Fuhrer allows us to complete the complete picture; in our minds eye we already see her ergonomic chair, computer screen, and office phone.
The positioning of the hand is reminiscent of M. C. Escher’s “Drawing Hands”, whereby two male hands draw/create each other in perfect symmetry. In Escher’s work the hands constitute self-establishment and consciousness, but the hand in Fuhrer’s work does not fashion its own awareness. The eternal cyclicality of its motion is powered by a mechanical force.
In another of Fuhrer’s sculptures in this exhibition – “Shop-Girl”, an artificial nail set with sparkly rhinestones presses a single computer key: the digit 0. The nail presses eternally on that one key, an empty key, its only key. The plastic nail, garishly colored, covers the living nail beneath. It serves as a buffer between ones contact with the world, but the world is itself just another plastic cover.
Jennifer Chan’s video – “A Total Jizzfest” – is designed as a PowerPoint presentation loaded with special effects, showing the pioneers of information technologies and the internet, from Alan Turing to Mark Zuckerberg, from Steven Jobs to Julian Assange. All men, all white. Not a single woman among them.
Chan adopts and radicalizes the digital aesthetic of the 1990s, the old-style effects and lackluster animations emphasize the absurdity of this parade of men, and certainly the resounding absence of women in the history of the internet. So, does Chan goad the corporate aesthetic and the platforms presenting themselves as free and democratic, despite having been instituted primarily by men, and still biased towards men till current day. Facebook, for example, began its journey as a closed network for Harvard students to post their pictures, calling on friends to vote: “hot or not”.
The absence of women is also palpable in the video work – “New Girl in Town” by Paulina Pukytė and Minna Haukka, focusing on the figure of a prostitute. Pukytė and Haukka gathered dozens of signs printed on uniform A4-sized papers, made by employees of a brothel in London’s Soho. The aesthetic of the childish signs, familiar from elementary school, kindergarten and refrigerator doors, displays the naivete of decorations and cloyingly sweet, crayon-drawn embellishment. The texts they present are simple accounts (“friendly Chinese girl”, “cheerful, slim, long-legged Brit”, “new girl, on the top floor today”). Out of context, these drawings would seem general descriptions of young women. Their appearance stands in stark contrast to what they sell: a human body, a woman whose humanity has become product packaging.
Cooks like Betty Crocker, looks like Donna Reed
The strict dietary regimen of Rasha Asfour provides the foundations for her great project – “Confessions of a Healthoholic”. Asfour documents almost two years of her systematic, perhaps compulsive, weight loss. Along with photographs presenting her daily meals – studio shots of calorically well-balanced and colorful compositions of dishes – she also presents identical self-portraits. In this series she stands in her room, near her bed, her back to the wardrobe, dressed in a bathing suit and directing her gaze to the camera. Used to seeing such images in weight loss clinic ads – the “before” and “after” shots – here all we have is a multitude of “befores”. No significant changes are discernible from day to day, nor in the entire length of period she documents. Optimistically, she positions the camera each day, filled with the hope these hundreds of images reveal to be left unfulfilled.
“Tomorrow is Another Day” by Efrat Rubinstein (the last immortal words of Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 classic “Gone with the Wind”), contains dozens of green men’s shirts, sewn into a curtain. Here Rubinstein references O’Hara’s green gown, stitched from curtains and representing her desire to survive. But Rubinstein does the opposite, sewing clothes into curtains, using cheap men’s shirts to create a melodramatic and panoramic spectacle.
The video work “Hot Beach Babe Aims to Please” by Jillian Mayer presents Mayer sporadically rising from the sea waves like Venus in a bikini. She leaves the water only to return in an endless cycle. The moment she enters the frame, a flurry of cursers directed by a computer mouse track her body movements like a swarm of pesky flies. The pattern of the cursers is based on research examining how the pupils in the eyes track screens while surfing online.
The aim of such studies is to understand where surfers’ eyes are drawn while using the internet (tracking the “hot spots”) and utilizing this information to lengthen surfing time on websites and increasing sales and ad exposure. Mayer, investigating the ways in which technology influences our lives and experiences, herself is transformed into a “click byte”, with cursers harassing her body incessantly.
In “The Lady from Fifth Avenue “, Efrat Kedem extracts entire worlds from the marginal and transient. Fake fur, paper napkins and plastic petals of artificial plants make up three everyday elements trying to imitate a natural or expensive material, fused into a sculpture no larger than a coffee mug, teaching us something of the false images of Fifth Avenue – the street known to many without ever having stepped foot on its pavement through its many cinematic depictions, that which overlooks Central Park and the Upper East Side, the sites of the Guggenheim and the Met, of Tiffany and Rockefeller Center. Kedem’s lady managed to embody in miniature the architype of the privileged woman, and much like the architype itself, its fragility. But along with this fragility and the potential for derision, the figure of trash succeeds in also being amusing, as if aware of her own ludicrousness, opening the path to reclaiming this image, being redeemed from waste.
“The Breakup” by Kedem is founded on a different female cliché: the brokenhearted woman. Comprised of empty ice cream containers and a tissue box. Used together, they immediately identify the female gender (presumably recently dumped), dressed (of course) in her pyjamas, and certainly holed up in her apartment for days. Kedem focuses on the esoteric and unnoticeable, highlighting how TV and cinema representations instruct us on the “right” way to be men, women, consumers. Her works tread the thin line between representation and reality, between the imagined and the tangible, managing to instigate the transformation from consumption waste to daily performances both ironic and fantastical.
There goes another clean slate
There are men and women that believe that, despite the force the “Me Too” campaign contains, it again casts women in the role of victim. And yet, how can we begin to deconstruct this victimhood without bravely and genuinely examining the images of women so inextricably linked to it?
Every one of the figures in “Dead Honeys” succumbs to the role of victim but does so in order to refute and undermine it from the inside out. They deceitfully yield to the image, thus making apparent the inherent incongruity between the living body and the forms forced upon it. This counter-appropriation of stereotypes, even just playing or toying with them, may be part of an ongoing process of dissecting them into their original components, materials that then may be used to form a new image – a figure more alive, suppler and bolder. The signs of life in dead honeys gaining in strength until they erupt from within the system of oppression.
Any critique, however justified, may provoke action or incur paralysis. It seems that this is the time to be rid of naïve cynicism, one that maintains that as these current steps are insufficient, no merit may be gained from proceeding. Maybe the quote – “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” – stills stands, but even the master’s tools may be used for something. At the very least, they may be turned against themselves. This is the time to begin establishing an active solidarity between women of different origins and classes, without falling into the trap of “divide and conquer”. The future, if there is one, is female.
*One cannot avoid considering, in this context, the Medusa’s (accusing?) gaze, turning to stone any that catch it, doomed to become one of the men (and women) silenced forever.