The Necessity of Feminist Voices in Radical Visual Culture

by Lauren Denitzio

Meredith Stern, "Safe Sex is Hot"

As a radical and as a feminist, it is tempting to assume that those around me are all “on the same page” or equally aware of the certain privileges we each possess or the conditioning and historical disadvantages we have experienced.  As an artist and illustrator it is tempting for me to assume that my audience is comfortable with anti-homophobic, anti-sexist, and sex positive themes.  Despite sporting the “radical” or “left-wing” label, these groups – whose members I consider friends and colleagues – are not exempt from the necessity of challenging our views on gender, patriarchy, and other feminist issues.  I have started to examine the ways in which visual resistance is used by feminist voices within these groups and how prevalent, or not, certain issues have become in radical circles.

Sandra Campbell, in her essay Creating Redemptive Imagery, makes valuable observations concerning the role of the individual in shaping what is acceptable representations of power structures and violence against women in visual culture.  She calls on individuals to make it their responsibility to discuss how the representation of these establishments in the media can affect change.  She then states that “by doing this we will lead the way to the establishment of structures and supports for artists and others in our cultural industries to develop, to market, and to disseminate a wide range of alternatives.”  It is the range of alternatives, the expression of another world where patriarchal power structures do not exist, that needs to be creatively represented if the popular mindset is going to shift to its favor.

Favianna Rodriguez, "Sex Positivity"

Radical subcultures have long used visual arts as a way of expressing solidarity, spreading information, and promoting social change.  These modes of communication have been a way to promote alternatives to mainstream thought, to expose the wrongdoings of governments and other oppressive institutions.  While patriarchy should be included in the list of those negative structures, there is a distinct lack of direct imagery towards this cause.  Politically radical groups talk about solidarity with workers, indigenous peoples, political prisoners and the like, yet not often enough do we see images supporting women in anything beyond reproductive choice.

In 2010, with historic legislation and change in social consciousness in favor of feminist causes, it is an easy and equally problematic assumption that radical or left-wing subcultures simply are feminist, thus precluding any need for further dialogue. This is like assuming that one needs no further action beyond merely stating that one is anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, etc.  For men in contemporary radical groups (anarchists, activists, punks, etc.) to say that they do not need to talk about ending patriarchy is to deny their male privilege and does nothing to ensure that women are empowered within the group. Denial becomes more problematic when discussing sexual assault and reproductive choice. When we assume that those around us act and live according to certain anti-patriarchal standards, while oppressive attitudes and actions still exist, we risk silencing those who still experience discrimination, poverty, marginalization, and sexual assault.

John Isaacson, "Mamas De La Plaza De Mayo"

It stands to reason that the issues most discussed in radical groups would be those most often represented in their visual media. This would explain the prevalence of posters and other artwork highlighting specific causes such as opposing war, ending racial profiling or fighting the prison industrial system. Yet it is troubling to see more imagery promoting riding a bicycle than advocating against sexual assault. It speaks volumes about the priorities of such groups when the majority of conversation does not acknowledge the patriarchal structures that contribute to silencing women and that reinforce gender stereotypes, which in turn promotes the subjugation of and violence against women.  It takes acknowledging these establishments even within radical groups to truly realize any long-term social change. When there is conversation on the subject of women’s oppression it tends to focus on legal issues overlooking the less obvious, daily offenses against women. These could be anything from men dominating and excluding women from tasks of activist organizing to not taking responsibility for or acknowledging instances of physical or emotional abuse.

I’m particularly drawn to how Chris Crass phrases the importance of feminism in the essay Beyond the Whiteness.  Crass’ ideal activist group is one that is, “feminist with a commitment to develop new social relationships based on equality and bring down the social structures based on domination.”  While there are many issues in popular activist discussion surrounding “social structures based on domination,” there is often a lack of understanding that these structures are present in our every day social relationships.  If we talked more about sharing resources and what radical men can do to counteract male privilege maybe we would see more artwork encouraging radical women to speak out against intimate partner violence, sexist language, emotional abuse, and gender stereotypes, etc.

Crimethinc, "Gender Poster"

The assumption that an audience for visual art, such as those buying activist posters and literature, are exempt from taking part in this discussion is a dangerous one, and one that I have been guilty of making.  Realizing the importance of visual representation of these ideals is a vital part of ending patriarchy and empowering those who have felt silenced by the notion that feminism is not essential in radical politics. ▢

Lauren Denitzio is a graphic designer and illustrator living in Brooklyn. She received her BFA in Illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2006.  She is currently a member of the feminist collective, For the Birds, and regularly collaborates with non-profits and social justice organizations on various visual art and design projects.

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