Guerilla Girls: Masked avengers miss the mark

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On Friday night, Swarthmore was lucky to have as speakers two notable women, Frida Kahlo and Emma Goldman. Before you get confused, you should know that those are only stage names for two real women, members of the Guerilla Girls. These “provocateurs in jungle drag” wear masks and take fake names to keep the focus on their work, and off themselves. Their “humorous, hard-hitting critique” is intended to make people aware of the unequal representation of women and other minorities in the art world, and eventually to eliminate it. Their presentation, however, left some confused as to what their message actually was.

The beginning of the event was a video montage that introduced the audience to these masked avengers. The soundtrack was reminiscent of a WWII documentary, and one sort of expected to see columns of marching infantry in the background. The closest thing to a Nazi in the film, though, was a blond dude who sounded off on the Girls’s “embarrassing feminist pleas.” Presumably echoing a common opinion, he stated that “they don’t have any talent and they’re taking it out on men.” Harsh, but it got a laugh from the audience.

At this point, the Girls entered through the auditorium doors, offering bananas to audience members. “Want one?” they asked. “One bite of this banana, and you’ll instantly turn into…” (hushed voice) “…a feminist!”

On the stage, they introduced us to some of the backwards opinions of women that famous men in history have had, starting way back in ancient Greece. Did you know that Martin Luther compared us women to weeds? And that Renoir thought women’s bodies unsuitable for anything but dancing? These quotes and more served as a testimony to the opposition that women have faced over time.

The testimonial section continued as Frida and Emma read mail they’d received from both friends and foes. These letters reiterated some of the criticisms that had been touched on earlier in the introduction: feminists are whiny bitches and talentless hacks, their work doesn’t accomplish anything, and the proper place for women is wherever white men say it is. The general gist was that there was a lot of work for the Guerilla Girls to do.

So, what exactly is it that they do? The Guerilla Girls were founded in 1980 by a group of female artists who were “pissed off” about the unequal treatment that they received in the art world. According to their statistics, although 65% of young artists today are women, fewer than 10% of them have their art shown in galleries. Women’s salaries are 2/3 that of men, but women artists’ a mere 1/3. And on and on. The accusations stacked up to a bleak picture of the prospects for minority artists.

The Guerilla Girls got their start plastering New York City mailboxes with posters (which, they let the audience know, is a federal crime – but they were really pissed off) about discrimination against women artists. When the Girls read from their poster “The Advantages of Being an Art World Token,” which included items like “Not being stuck in a tenured teaching job,” there was a wave of rueful laughter. Over time, their activities and criticisms expanded from the art world to other areas. “From the very beginning,” Frida said, “we wanted to change people’s minds about the f-word: feminism.”

Besides showing highlights from their poster collection, Frida and Emma also talked about their books (which include a guide to the feminist history of western art and an illustrated encyclopedia), a planned line of (parody) stereotype dolls, and performed a skit reenacting a conversation between Elizabeth Hess and gallery owner Arnold Glimcher, with the part of Ms. Hess played by a charming and squeaky-voiced young man from the audience.

By the end of the night, however, the Girls had left many of their own questions unanswered. Expecting a more dynamic, involved performance, some were disappointed by the fact that the event was mostly limited to the Girls reading slides and excerpts from books. Though their satire may have provided a lot of grist for the mill of righteous anger, for some people, it simply fell flat; for others, it sparked interest but didn’t lead anywhere.

One issue was the Girls’ seemingly flippant attitude towards their own mission. Although they don’t want to be seen as stereotypical feminists with no sense of humor, a side effect of the emphasis on satire is a lack of emphasis on methodological depth. They read a great number of statistics, most notably the fact that while only 5% of artists in the Modern section of the Metropolitan Museum are female, 85% of the nudes are. However, they admitted that women only got naked in art in the 19th century, so they ignored Greek and Renaissance art, leading one attendee to wonder whether, had the baby Jesus been female, they would have decided to include Her in their statistics. Their inclusion of “Mother” in their list of pernicious stereotypes may also have left some anthropologists scratching their heads. The Girls were making big claims about the evils of the professional art world, but they didn’t back them up.

Others had a problem with the Girls’s tone. It was especially noticable when, as they read letters from critics, they would switch to lilting, mocking tones, making it impossible to take the words they were saying seriously. A woman who wrote them to say that her life was “hard enough fighting the male-dominated medical system” and that she didn’t need “people like you making it worse” was scornfully nicknamed “Dr. Mouse” by the Girls. Meanwhile, letters from fans were signed off with real names. A junior, majoring in art, commented that, although she found the performance interesting, she felt “the constant sarcasm was a bit much.” Another junior who wished to remain anonymous commented that, “By the end of the event, I was feeling insulted and creeped out– in a, ‘you’re making my side look stupid and unidimensional!’ way. “

In short, it seems that, at a college campus already sensitized to issues of inequality in our society, the Guerilla Girls had nothing new to offer. One of the juniors summed it up, saying, “It didn’t offer any new information or ways of thinking about the topic; I can only imagine this event being of use or interest to people who have never heard of feminism.”

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