Women's Work: 'Role Models' Plays with Feminism

Photo courtesy Angela Strassheim
DROP THE F-BOMB at the cocktail party, and watch the conversation wither.

We speak, of course, of “feminism,” an idea considered progressive by those before us — a fierce belief in the need to fight for a woman’s rights.

Once landless, voteless, “fragile” creatures evaluated solely according to their ability to roast a turkey or model a dress, women now not only constitute a majority in the United States, but also hold a fair number of the reins. It’s easy for us to think the playing ground is level, and to roll our eyes at ’70s-style radical feminism, now lumped together with PETA’s red-paint-throwing as protest via shrillness.

That doesn’t mean, as some think, that feminism or objectives are obsolete. In short, the war has not been won. And here to shake up your cozy post-feminist worldview is “Role Models,” an epic, astonishingly diverse group vision of the American feminine universe at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Photo courtesy Sally Mann
The photographs from 17 photographers — all styles, groups and ages; all women — depict fragments of the female experience. Take a self-portrait by Catherine Opie, which shows a childlike depiction of an idyllic scene — two stick figures holding hands in front of a charming A-frame house. This scene is carved into Opie’s unshapely back, blood beading as brightly as the sun shines in the “drawing.” Oh, and the stick figures? They’re both women.

“Role Models” doesn’t play just one note — it deals with every aspect of femininity, from the burgeoning sexuality of childhood to the ironic glamour of drag queens, from race to makeup to life rituals to costuming, sisterhood and power.

Katy Grannan addresses self-image: She placed newspaper ads seeking models, and those who responded were allowed to set up their own glamour shots.

Photo by Laurie SimmonsOne such, “Pleasant Valley, NY,” chose to portray herself in her ’70s living room, looking directly into the camera, stark naked. The model has chosen to groom herself in a particular way; her dogs are also pictured, facing away, and the comparison between their parts and coloring is inevitable and unfortunate.

In the realm of objectification, Laurie Simmons gives us a glorious birthday cake. It is frilly and pink, featuring flowers and frosting-bunting, and it stands on a shapely pair of legs, the sweetness and promise of femininity literally objectified into a tasty rite-of-passage treat.

Lorna Simpson‘s four-part “She” deals with workplace gender relations by showing a woman seated in a man’s suit, head cut off, fidgeting awkwardly between frames. Demureness? Carrie Mae Weems shows four young lounging black girls directly engaging your gaze, confident and in control, in “After Manet,” alluding to the post-Impressionist’s idyllic and controversial images of women shimmering on the edge of mainstream culture.

Even cleaning up after men is plangently featured: Eleanor Antin‘s faux-Civil-War photograph “In the Trenches of Sebastopol” gives us a matronly nurse surveying with dismay a landscape of proudly splayed battlefield casualties.

As a body of work, “Role Models” is endearingly self-conscious. Many of the subjects directly address the viewer during a private moment, and most of the pictures are staged — and let you know about it, awkwardly or humorously. (The works of compulsive self-portraitists and identity-shifters Nikki S. Lee and Cindy Sherman are featured.)

Only a few photos are documentary in nature, and are all the more powerful for it, as in Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs of the life of “Tiny,” a prostitute in Seattle, photographed as an elfin sprite playing dress-up in the early 1980s and, later, as a doughy matron wearily handling children of her own. But “Role Models” doesn’t suffer for a lack of authenticity; the settings are sufficiently vague and the emotions heartfelt enough to connect with the viewer.

As the show reminds us, glass ceilings haven’t shattered — they’ve slipped within tolerance, just enough that we can forget women earn about 23.5 percent less than men, that there are a total of 13 female CEOs in the Fortune 50, that just 1.8 percent of stay-at-home parents are men. “Role Models” reminds us of the questions we’ve forgotten to ask.

»National Museum of Women in the Arts,1250 New York Ave. NW; through Jan 25; $10; 202-783-5000. (Metro Center)

Photo courtesy Angela Strassheim, Sally Mann, Photo by Laurie Simmons

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