Why Nipples are not the Test of Freedom

An image from the campaign

An image of a Free the Nipple campaign t-shirt

Nudity was a big part of my life growing up and combined with the weight of the body-shaming Western world I have developed a difficult attitude toward nakedness. While others seem to relish in nude adventures as a mark of rebellion, it merely brings me back to angst over being out of place as the child of a hippy mother. When I came across the “Free the Nipple” campaign that seems to be growing on social media, it brought back childhood memories. Free the Nipple emerged as a response to both laws across America which make it illegal for women to be topless, and rules enforced by a number of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which prevent nipple pics from being shared. A lot of celebrities and other folk seem to be jumping at the chance to rebel against the rules and flaunt as much flesh as possible.

A lot of statues in our house looked like this

A lot of statues in our house were inspired by this Venus

But before I get into Free the Nipple, what of my history of nudity? Well, I was raised by my single mother – an artist at the time – who was really into celebrating female bodies, particularly curvy ones. She was always sketching nudes, and given that I was a child who feared anything to do with “sport” or “the outdoors” I was always drawing and painting, and given ample opportunity to do life drawing with her. She always had strange art projects going. One particularly notable one involved painting vaginas in the bottom of a series of wooden boxes. To my eight year old horror, a rather conservative-seeming mother dropped off her daughter – a friend from school – while my mum was painting them. When my mum explained what she was doing, the other mother’s reaction was unexpected: “Oh!…Can you paint mine?”. Another time, my mum was really into ceramics and she made large statues of fat women, all breasts and thighs, in a nod to Venus of Willendorf. There were also flying breasts (a tribute to women who had them removed in cancer treatment), and most shockingly for me as a teen, our doorstep was graced with a giant ceramic vagina dentata and a penis covered in thorns. Yes, it’s fair to say that nudity was ubiquitous in my youth.

Our house was full of life drawings like this (image from kristinagaz.blogspot.com.au)

Our house was full of life drawings like this (image from kristinagaz.blogspot.com.au)

But, despite my mother’s best efforts at teaching me body-positivity, the shame of the outside world crept in. I constantly feared having friends over, after a series of parents found my mother’s art too provocative (not everyone wanted their vagina painted). And as my awkward teenage body began to form, I became more self-conscious of all things bodily, which was a terrible mismatch to my mother’s all-out embrace of the female form. I became resentful of the art she would create. In year 11 a friend showed me her own mother’s “secret shame” which was a room full of nude portraits that she had done. I felt embarrassed because all this time our house had been full of life drawings and I had always thought these were the least offensive (to be fair, they were tame compared to the enormous vagina with teeth on our front step). This, and many experiences like it, was all part of learning that in the “normal” world nudity is not really okay. As an adult, I had internalised the self-consciousness of the bodily so deep that I could barely be naked in front of myself, let alone partners and it’s been a slow process to become more comfortable with my flesh.

Another popular image from the campaign

Another popular image from the campaign

All of this means that I find it odd when people gush about walking around naked at home, because it’s just something I could never really get in to. But perhaps because of my experiences I can understand slightly more when people are so adamant to expose their nipples on social media as an act of freedom, because there sure is a lot of shame around nudity to be felt in the Western world (which we can see is actually enforced), and I myself have felt the weight of it. It’s a strange thing when you see that in advertising and popular culture sexiness can be ever-present, but nudity is barely allowed, unless filtered through the production values of Game of Thrones. But while I agree that social attitudes toward female bodies deserve critique, I don’t think we should be going and putting all of our political eggs in the show-your-boobs basket. As a form of rebellion I think it’s very limited, particularly because it can so readily be absorbed under a larger regime of “normalcy”, and end up perpetuating existing standards of beauty, race, size and so on.

Free the Nipple makes fashion

While the core group who started Free the Nipple originally aimed for some diversity of bodies in their images, their main campaign materials involve slim white bodies with perfectly round breasts. Celebrities have jumped at the chance to endorse #FreetheNipple, with models and pop stars alike wearing the t-shirts and getting on social media to flash some skin. Fashion houses have also responded, with “sheer” making a timely comeback. On the runways this season breasts have been pert but unobtrusive. When your tactics are so readily absorbed into the mainstream, so easily sexualised or used to sell products, you’ve got to wonder if you’re on the right track. It seems the nipple reform tactics of Free the Nipple haven’t quite smashed female body norms as hoped.

An image from FEMEN supporting free the nipple

An image from FEMEN supporting free the nipple

In addition, within a context where Muslim women are constantly being targeted for covering up too much, Free the Nipple’s investment in nudity as the marker of equality par excellence almost reads as an advertisement for a certain form of Western Imperialism. A notable and similarly problematic example can be seen with the antics of Ukrainian group FEMEN. Self-described as “fighting patriarchy in its three manifestations – sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship and religion”, this raison d’être has amounted to topless protests out the front of mosques and other similar institutions, with flag-burnings and the use of all kinds of anti-Islam propaganda. A group called Muslim Women Against FEMEN has even formed in response, to call the group out on the racism implicit in their actions. You may be thinking, well Free the Nipple is obviously a different campaign to FEMEN. For one thing, it’s not targeting religious and cultural institutions per say. But it does similarly invest in the idea of revealing your body as a mark of freedom and rebellion. Here the whiteness of this cause is a related issue, as women of colour have historically been marked out culturally as always already more sexual and bodily – arguing that revealing the body is an act of liberation might not ring true for all women.

An image from the Free the Nipple documentary

An image from the Free the Nipple documentary

Perhaps one of the reasons that this kind of activity can so readily become problematic, is that it is very narrow in focus, in what it is attempting to change and how. Unfortunately sexism is a much bigger fish than absent nipples on Facebook, though this may be symptomatic of the larger issue and I’m definitely not saying that it’s okay (I once tried to post a link to an artist whose work celebrates breast diversity and Facebook wouldn’t let me, which I found deeply disturbing).

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Image from the Free the Nipple fundraiser

A whole heap of social change with regard to how we see gender in society is needed  – how we talk about and understand gender, how we raise and gender children, how we learn about sex and our bodies. Fundamentally what needs to be targeted are the expectations of gender that are enforced to keep people divided from each other in society. At best, posting nipple pictures online as part of this protest might raise awareness about sexism and double standards in society. At worst, it might promote a whole range of other problems and in fact reinforce beauty, body and cultural norms – issues which deserve more space and consideration than a picture of a model’s breasts on Instagram.

 

 

How to Smash the Patriarchy with a Small Book

Perusing Yang Lin's new work

Perusing Yang Liu’s new work

Book Review: Man meets Woman by Yang Liu
You often hear of blogsters of the new world gaining financial – and product – benefits from their blogging pursuits. I’m thinking here mostly of the fashion and makeup bloggers that have risen to stardom, who are no doubt constantly being sent designer threads and cool new stuff to put on their faces. Well, here at binarythis.com, I’ve finally reaped the first free thing of my blogging days: a book about gender stereotypes (yes, I have obviously officially made it to the big time). Oh the spoils of blogging about gender! But enough of my bragging – let’s cut to the chase and get on with a review of the thing.

Taschen asked me if I might like to review Yang Liu’s new conceptual book, Man meets Woman. Yang Liu explains in the preface that her work seeks to document the differences in communication between men and women, that she has observed and experienced. The following pages are filled with complimentary sets of graphic images on particular topics such as shopping, sex and illness. Images appearing on the left, on a green background, represent a man’s view, with images on the right a woman’s view, on a pink background. For example, “mysterious objects” reveals that for men the unknown revolves around women’s makeup accoutrements, whereas for women tools and other hardware objects are mysterious.

Liu works with a range of stereotypes from the home to the workplace, providing imagery for many clichés – e.g. a man who sleeps with numerous women is a king, whereas a woman who sleeps with many men is considered easy. While the majority of pages focus on perceived differences between men and women with regard to heterosexual relationships, there is some commentary on same-sex partnerships. Liu’s images reflect a view that gay male couples in society are much more visible than lesbian partnerships.

While looking through Liu’s work, I couldn’t help bristle at many of the reflections on offer. It seems to me that there is a fine line between reflecting stereotypes, and reinforcing them through replication. Liu dances on that line, and I’m still not sure whether I really like the project. Part of the problem is that Liu’s motivations are somewhat difficult to deduce – she states that the images are reflections on a world that she perceives, yet it is not clear whether she is challenging these stereotypes, or merely describing them (and perhaps, reasserting them).

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Liu uses the classic iconography of “man” and “woman” symbols in her work

However, luckily we’re living in a postmodern age where the author is (figuratively) dead, so we can make of texts what we will. At the end of the day, I think that the greatest contribution Man meets Woman makes, is that it acts like a guidebook to stereotypes of men and women today. Do men really find beauty objects mysterious? Are women confused by hammers and screwdrivers? We don’t have to accept these as “truths” but Liu’s capture of these generalisations hints at the social expectations underlying the perceived differences between “men” and “women” in society.

But how are we to ensure that Liu’s book gets taken up in this way – as a challenge rather than a reinforcement of stereotypes (already there are a number of blogs reflecting on the “charming” and “witty” reflections of the book). Never fear – here’s a handy guide to using this small book to smash the patriarchy:

STEP 1: Visit parliamentary question time. Throw copies at the heads of known misogynist politicians.
STEP 2: Go on a guerrilla mission Valerie Solanas style – throw the book at all known misogynist pop artists.
STEP 3: Get someone to bail you out of jail.
STEP 4: Reflect on the stereotypes of the book, and realise that we live in an unjust world where men and women are socialised differently and driven apart.
STEP 5: Become a revolutionary gender warrior.
STEP 6: Use the book for kindling if you get cold while smashing the patriarchy.
STEP 7: The book also doubles as a nice coaster if you need to stop for a refreshing drink.
STEP 8: Show other people the book and talk about how it doesn’t need to be this way.
STEP 9: Work with others to fundamentally reassemble society into a world where gender is plural and fluid, not binary, and doesn’t separate us from each other.
STEP 10: Read the book again, as a bizarre historical artefact capturing an inequitable time.

Things that are more nude than Miley Cyrus

“The denial of lower, coarse, vulgar, servile – in a word, natural – enjoyment, which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an affirmation of the superiority of those who can be satisfied with the sublimated, refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the profane. That is why art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences” – Bourdieu, 1984

Definitely more nipple action than Miley in ‘The Birth of Venus‘, Botticelli 1486:
the-birth-of-venus-1485(1)

The nipple party continues with ‘Gabrielle D’Estrees and One Of Her Sisters‘, artist unknown 1594:
gabrielle-destrees-and-one-of-her-sisters_school-of-fontainbleau_ecole-francaise

And if you thought Miley was bad, at least she was in the privacy of her own wrecking-ball room. ‘The Luncheon on the Grass‘, Manet 1863:
the-luncheon-on-the-grass-1863It looks like there may even be some bondage happening in ‘Nude, Green Leaves and Bust‘. Picasso, 1932:
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Kahlo also communicates suffering with revelation of her body in ‘The Broken Column‘ 1944:The-Broken-Column

And there’s even full-frontal penis action in Lucian Freud’s ‘After Cézanne‘ 2000:
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Miley’s looking pretty tame after all. She even has shoes on:
miley-cyrus-wrecking-ball-video-4-650-430

 

Some Thoughts on Art or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Skywhale

art magpie

Though many Canberrans hate the art scheme, magpies on the other hand are huge fans

In Canberra we have a penchant for statues. There’s publicly-commissioned bronze on every street corner, from sheep showing you their bits to creepy parcels: if there’s a patch of spare land we’re not developing, you’ll bet we’ll be putting art on it. But some residents aren’t fans of local government spending on this kind of thing. If art is often a case of “you love it or you hate it”, it seems Canberrans more often fall on the “hate” side of the coin. I myself distinctly remember a time when I used to complain about our use of public art funding. I supported it ideologically, but used to worry that we were paying overseas artists whom our Chief Minister(s) admired, while Canberran artists missed out. I would moan about the fact that the Belconnen owl seriously looks like a penis. When art + Canberra came up in conversation I’d roll my eyes at the thought of another statue. That time was last week. So what changed?

whale

Such a cutie!

Well, we got a freaking Skywhale.

Commissioned as part of Canberra’s Centenary celebrations this year, The Skywhale is a many-mammaried chimerical hot air balloon, designed by controversial and world-renowned ex-Canberra artist Patricia Piccinini. Let’s let that sink in for a sec. OUR TOWN MADE A MAGICAL BREASTED SKY CREATURE POSSIBLE. IN BALLOON FORM. When my friends and I went to see her launch at the NGA, I felt like an exuberant child. I was literally skipping.

Ok, so I personally dig the majesty and awe of Skywhale. It comes from a combo of being a previous fan of Piccinini’s work, which always challenges ordinary conceptions of humanity and life, and the fact that I get really excited about hot air balloons (it’s a Canberra thing). But a lot of others have been outraged, and apparently it’s now being referred to as “Hindenboob”. People have been complaining that the artwork is too obscure / ugly / irrelevant / expensive / big / arty / offensive… every ire-filled rejection you can imagine.

Though a lot of the unfolding debate has been pretty amusing, it’s hard not to get down when a lot of people seem to draw the conclusion that art is a waste of money and time, or is just a big joke. I decided to ignore this depressing aspect of the discussion, and instead revel in the delight I found in Skywhale.

skywhale cake

Like the real Skywhale, the cake was both temporary and delicious

I was so enthused I made a cake version of her, with delicious boob-cupcakes on the side. I thought, well, the haters might be able to express disdain, but they probably won’t bother to get inventive with their complaining. They’re not exactly going to bother baking something with anti-Skywhale sentiments if they don’t dig creativity. And we all know cake speaks louder than words.

But while I am obviously a massive Skywhale fangirl, I think my personal preferences are fairly irrelevant to the general debate. While I may never be able to convince those who think public money shouldn’t be spent on art (though there are good arguments to be made in response), I can say something to those who say we don’t need art that’s too “weird” or seemingly superfluous to your average resident.

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Eating the Skywhale treats

The thing is, spectacular art is often whack. If it wasn’t, it might not get us feeling, thinking, or talking. If it was just another stone in the pavement, we’d walk right over it. Had Skywhale been a big ordinary-looking whale balloon, would the despair over her cost have been so great? Would we feel at ease if there were only a singular transparent layer of meaning; comforted knowing that we wouldn’t have to deal with feelings of horror, fantasy, lust, confusion, distaste or joy sparked by encountering something strange and difficult to comprehend? Art can change us, our minds, moods, perspectives on the world – if we’re open to it.

skywhale-launch

Image source: P.S. Cottier

When I first heard about Skywhale I couldn’t believe my eyes. Had our little town truly gotten behind such a peculiar and wondrous artwork that would now be part of the contemporary art cannon?! I started looking around me at all the public art I’d previously complained about. I noticed that actually, there is a lot of work by local Canberra artists. There’s also a huge range of installations, sometimes in the strangest places, so that everyone – not just public servants or inner-city dwellers – can enjoy it. But you might say, these works are there 365 days a year, Skywhale is just fleeting hot air right…?

While Skywhale is relatively ephemeral, she’ll float through the imagination of this place for time to come. It’s just how we choose to respond to this artful memory that matters.