On Culture

Touching Up (And On) Feminist Roots

You've come a long way . . . : Yoko Ono performs
You've come a long way . . . : Yoko Ono performs "Cut Piece" in 1964. (By Minoru Niizuma -- Lenono Photo Archive)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2007

Feminism has come a long way since Yoko Ono performed "Cut Piece" in 1964, sitting mute on a stage as members of the audience approached her with scissors and snipped away her clothes bit by bit.

And it is reassuring to know that a woman no longer has to attach a paintbrush to her underwear and, in full view of an audience, crouch, lunge and swivel over a work-in-progress to affirm that her point of view -- as influenced by her gender -- is valid.

Feminism has evolved and so has its art, which is celebrated in "Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution" at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. These days, a kind of feminist political performance art can be found inside town halls, on chat shows and behind a debate lectern. The star? Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose presidential campaign can be as captivating and complicated as anything that an artist might have produced with a video camera or a paintbrush.

In her interactions with other women, Clinton embraces the rallying cry of "You go, girl!" But she seems acutely aware that some women can't shake off a view of feminism as something that is shrill, unfeminine and off-putting. She challenges women to vote for her because she is the best candidate and not because she is a woman. And then she waxes fondly about how wonderful it is to have 90-year-old ladies want to shake her hand because of her historic campaign.

Her staff bristles when the candidate's appearance is noted. But to win support from beauty shop owners, it sends out promotional materials depicting the candidate's many hairdos with this lighthearted admonishment: "Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will." She doesn't want gender to be an issue, but her favorite self-deprecating jokes have to do with the stereotypical subjects of hair, clothes, weight and managing the husband. Is she taking up those topics to defuse them? Or to address the concerns of those fearful of an armed and angry feminist in the White House?

Clinton is performing a tap dance. And so far, it appears to be persuasive.

According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll numbers, in the Democratic primary campaign, Clinton leads among women voters with 57 percent of their support, and there's little difference between older and younger women. But in January, when she announced her candidacy, there was a difference. Back then, 54 percent of women under age 45 supported her while only 45 percent of older women did. Clinton's cautious balancing act may have helped close the age gap among a group of women old enough to remember when artists such as Cosey Fanni Tutti starred in hard-core pornography and called it art.

Those porn shots are part of "Wack!" and there is nothing careful or even tactful about her message. Overwhelmingly, the artists represented are brazen and bawdy. Their version of feminism was sure-footed on the importance of gender. Their biology meant they could be mothers but that didn't necessarily define their gender. You don't walk away from "Wack!" with the sentiment that motherhood is the most important thing a woman can do in her life. It's an option. Women are depicted as individuals as opposed to being soccer moms or working moms or single moms.

The show includes a timeline of feminist history, starting in 1953 , when women were first admitted to Harvard Law School. After that is a long gap lasting until the late 1960s when a flood of activity begins -- Roe v. Wade, Geraldine Ferraro, Sandra Day O'Connor, the ERA fight.

For anyone who has dabbled in women's studies, who has had a cursory interest in contemporary art or who appreciates the comedy of Margaret Cho or Sarah Silverman, it is hard to shake off the sense that much of the art, the performance pieces in particular, comes across as cliched. It is almost humorous now, this vulgar, let-me-put-my-sexuality-in-your-face posturing. Instead of women transforming their bodies into a form of personal politics, instead of using them as a way to get their message across, the body has been, for the most part, banished from the cultural conversation.

In the old feminist performance art, women were hyper-aware of their physical nature, enthralled by their own sexuality and eager to rally around the sisterhood. There is a ruthlessness to many of the works in "Wack!" And there is a clarity of purpose.

The way Clinton expresses it, feminism has become more nuanced, more reserved, more politically savvy, but also more painfully ambivalent. Clinton dwells on the uneasy relationship between making a historic statement for a group and being held captive by it. Of being proud of one's gender, but not wanting to dwell on it. Of savoring the pleasures of femininity -- ever-changing hairdos -- but not wanting others to be distracted by them.

Women will vote for the candidate -- male or female -- who speaks to them. That is a fine legacy of the feminist movement. The hyper-sexualized gender politics that gained power through the ability to shock, inflame, embarrass and even demoralize isn't as necessary now. No one needs to spread her legs to make a political point. But surely, feminism's future is not as a joke about bad hair days.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company