Feminism for sale?

November 3, 2013

It is an image that one would expect to see in a feminist art gallery: A graphic line drawing depicting female biology and sexuality.

But on a t-shirt?

Why not, says feminist artist Petra Collins, who has created the Period Power t-shirt for American Apparel, as a way to open dialogue on female sexuality. Collins, who is from Toronto, is a contributing photographer for American Apparel.

Collins curates an online platform for female artists and collectives called The Ardorous. American Apparel sponsored an art exhibition curated by Collins called “Gynolandscape” in New York in September featuring work from her site.

At the exhibition Collins presented a neon piece of a woman’s menstruating genitalia that she later recreated as the line drawing image that covers the front of The Ardorous X American Apparel Period Power t-shirt.

Collins explained that she approached American Apparel with the idea for the shirt because she wanted the image and its message of acknowledging female sexuality to reach the masses—something difficult to do if relegated to a gallery. She said that inspiration for the shirt came from the idea of appropriating souvenir shop shirts with images of sexualized female bodies.

Which makes American Apparel an interesting choice because of several incidents that raise questions about its treatment and portrayal of women. From sexual harassment lawsuits against the CEO to misogynist advertising featuring scantily clad young women, the company has accumulated enough bad press that “woman-friendly” is not a phrase that easily comes to mind in describing its work.

American Apparel did not respond to questions about its negative reputation among some women nor about the rationale behind its decision to sell this specific shirt design.

Collins said she doesn’t think selling the shirt through American Apparel detracts from her original artwork’s message.

“I think having a t-shirt like this is super subversive in a company that has had bad rep in the past,” Collins said.

Half of the shirt’s proceeds and two others from American Apparel’s “The Ardorous” collection go towards Collins’ online art platform. She added that she has had a good experience working with American Apparel and has noted similar accounts from female colleagues.

“I think the couple bad things that have happened in the company are the things that outshine everything else,” Collins said.

The t-shirt drew some negative comments when Collins posted a photo of it on her Instagram account, but she said she also has gotten positive feedback, mostly from teenage girls saying it’s different from what they see all the time.

Indeed, an American Apparel sales associate said that the shirt quickly sold out shortly after it went on sale last month.

Peggy Phelan, the Ann O’Day Maples Chair in the Arts Professor of Theater & Performance Studies and English at Stanford University and co-author of the book “Art and Feminism,” said that the shirt’s design harkens back to the radical imagery and messages of the feminist art movement of the early 70s.

Phelan cited Judy Chicago’s “Menstruation Bathroom” installation and Shigeko Kubota’s “Vagina Painting” performance piece as examples of artistic precedents for Collins’ visceral image.

Despite such artistic roots, Phelan noted that Collins’ design is not quite as radical a gesture as it might have been in the 70s.

“This younger generation, this sort of 20-28 year-old roughly, seems to have a lot more freedom and matter-of-factness about their sexuality,” Phelan said.

While Phelan said that it is possible to have a mainstream feminist body of work, she added that the consumer aspect of Collins’ shirt design complicates the artwork’s feminist message, making it difficult to know where to draw the line between creative expression and exploitation of female sexuality for profit.

For Tess Dufrechou, a sophomore at Stanford and a publicity coordinator for the school’s Women’s Community Center, it’s the commercial element that caused her to be initially amused at the shirt design. She thinks that people would buy it for the shock value, not as a means to  initiate thoughtful conversations on female sexuality.

“I am totally open to art being anywhere it wants to be and I encourage people to put art everywhere,” Dufrechou said. “I just think that the way that they’re selling it is part of more of a hipster culture.”

Dufrechou has similar skepticism about of American Apparel’s legalize gay marriage shirts as a supposed social platform transformed into a commercial venture.

“You’re not an ally if you just wear a t-shirt,” she said.

Ileana Najarro is a student journalist at Stanford University. Follow her at @IleanaNajarro.

 

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