Ideas

Closed in the Night – Thoughts on Contemporary Female Identity and Power

Posted by: Claire Komacek

‘Women artists of the feminist generation’1 came to realize that they ‘were no longer clear about the nature of female identity, realizing that it was up to them to redefine it.’2 This happened through the exploration of ‘the shared, collective ‘circumstances’ of women so that individual women could come to understand themselves as human beings. One of the first areas of circumstantial identity to be explored was the female body.’3 As feminist history and art in the 1970s came to be so rich in imagery of the female body and female sexuality, I wonder if this is a contributing factor to why many young women artists do not identify as feminist. Two quotes by Judy Chicago state that ‘we’ve been taught that female power is destructive’4 but that ‘power begins with claiming your own sexuality, your own womanhood.’5 Juxtaposing these two quotes, both from one single interview, next to each other becomes slightly daunting with the deferred association that perhaps to claim one’s female sexuality or womanhood would prove to be destructive, and thus this is why it must be kept within the constructed confines of what society deems acceptable and appropriate.

Historically, the stifling and taking away of female power began long ago with the eradication of the divine feminine and the positioning of the male god with the introduction of the patriarchy, as clearly detailed in Merlin Stone’s book, When God Was a Woman. This still goes on today, most obviously in society’s productions where women are continuously portrayed as passive and submissive, but it other ways as well including the promoting and sustaining of rape culture, violence against women, and the controlling of women’s reproduction and sexuality in the forms of birth control, abortion access, maternity/paternity leaves, breast-feeding rights and accommodations in the workplace, etc. It would seem today that perhaps Americans fear this power still and have ‘internalized the idea that power, for women, is negative.’6 I think most Americans are only comfortable with the societally constructed female or the way a women ‘should’ act, look, think, etc and the place that women ‘should’ be. Especially if women have internalized these ideas themselves, how can we ever come to know the truth? And the truth must be somewhere, as ‘certainly the best evidence that within women lies something other that determinist social constructions is the fact that feminists could rebel against and question patriarchy at all.’7

Additionally, the feminist art exploration of the female body and female sexuality during the 1970s is a critical issue that continues today. Second wave feminists were left feeling confused about the true nature of the female sexual self partially due to the ‘severe repression of women’s sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s, where women viewed their bodies only in relation to men or children,’8 and hardly as their own, pushed even further by society’s ever-increasing critique of women’s bodies as visual and sexual objects. Many of those messages still prevail today in society through portrayal in film and television and slut-shaming or sexual double standards for men and women. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sums it up in her TEDx talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists, ‘We raise girls to see each other as competitors … for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. We police girls, we praise girls for virginity, but we don’t praise boys for virginity.’9

I think that many young women artists today have accepted the societally constructed image of the over-sexualized female body and submissiveness perhaps because of their lack of exposure to other sources. If millennials are receiving only these messages from the film, television, social media, advertisements, and pornography that they are exposed to, it makes sense that they would come to accept this ideology. And of course it makes sense that they would adhere to it in their personal lives. There comes the time in young women’s lives when they want to explore their identity as a woman, their sexuality, but it appears we are only left to mimic the display that surrounds us, perhaps driven by the completely natural desire to feel desirable.

As the feminists of the 1970s attempted to discover ‘who we (women) are’10 decades later it is still not entirely evident to me. A quote from an interview with Miriam Schapiro hits home: ‘I often wonder about the young American women artists of today … For two decades they have repeated the images and icons we created in the seventies. Why am I seeing the art of my generation being created anew each decade? … In the absence of representations, of icons, of memory, contemporary women artists are condemned endlessly to repeat the ills of survival in the patriarchy. Each generation opens the wounds, which close in the night behind them.’11

Finally, on a more personal note, as ‘using one’s own experience might be the most valid way of consciousness-raising and formulating political analysis,’12 reading about women artists in the 1970s creating art around the experiences of being a women, of the female self, of inhabiting a woman’s body, and of female sexuality has highlighted pre-existing personal issues for me. But instead of finding direction or answers in this reading, I’ve come to feel even more confused. It seems that feminist artists somehow held this innate knowledge inside of them and that all they needed to do was allow themselves to access and express it. As a young female artists today, I find it very difficult to look at this issue objectively; I begin to think that if my predecessors came to know this, that I should somehow be able to as well.

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1. Broude, Norma and Mary D. Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact (New York: 1994, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 21.
2. Broude and Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art, 22.
3. Broude and Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art, 22.
4. Broude and Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art, 70.
5. Broude and Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art, 70.
6. Broude and Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art, 70.
7. Broude and Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art, 29.
8. Broude and Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art, 24.
9. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘We Should All Be Feminists,’ YouTube video, 30:15, published April 12th, 2013, accessed June 11th, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc.
10. Broude and Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art, 29.
11. Broude and Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art, 83.
12. Broude and Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art, 21.

Images:
1. Judy Chicago, The Great Ladies Transforming Themselves into Butterflies. 1973. The Power of Feminist Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1994. P72.
2.  Karen LeCoq and Nancy Youdelman. Leah’s Room from Womanhouse. 1972. The Power of Feminist Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1994. P60.
3.  Lydia Nobles, Moore College of Art & Design, Fine Arts Major, ’15.

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