Sunday, July 30, 2017

Pussyhats and Knitting Resistance

Four MSU Museum staff members—Molly McBride, Lynne Swanson, Shirley Wajda, and Mary Worral— have gathered together as independent curators to create a fascinating new exhibition, in the Art, Art History, and Design Gallery in the MSU Student Union through mid-September.  “Knitting the Resistance” showcases material culture produced and deployed at the Women’s Marches—held on January 25, 2017 on the National Mall and across the country.  The exhibition draws extensively on the MSU “craftivism” (craft plus activism) collection, and centers on materials gathered since the November 8, 2016 presidential election.  The exhibition showcases  the pink “pussyhats" created by marchers and their supporters as a wry response to Donald J. Trump’s infamous assertion in the Access Hollywood tape that he could freely grab women by their genitalia.

As MSU Museum curator Shirley Wajda notes in a January 2017 New Yorker report    pussyhats emerged out of a complex historical genealogy, dating back at least to the neo- classical red Phrygian caps, the woolen conical hats worn by French Revolutionaries, which alluded in part to the pileus cap worn by emancipated slaves in ancient Rome.

During the same period, one might add, textiles and resistance culture were also intimately associated in the storytelling practices of sailors. As detailed by Marcus Rediker in his book,  Outlaws of the Atlantic (Beacon Press, 2014),  18th century sailors picking apart and refashioning the ropes would entertain one another on board ship with dramatic stories of maritime adventure, often emphasizing courageous resistance to  unjust authority. Hence, “Spinning a Yarn” —creating a mesmerizing, hyperbolic narrative that would inspire bravery against all odds.

Quilting, embroidery, and needlework circles also played significant roles in abolitionist and suffragist activism by women across the 19th and early 20th centuries: the intimate, shared voluntary labor of stitching and piecing, primarily by wome, was iconic of the solidarity experienced by those united in the common cause.

More recently, as Kirsty Robertson chronicles in her compelling chapter Rebellious Doilies and Subversive Stitches: Writing a Crafivisit History (in Maria Elena Buszek edited volume, Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art) activist women have long reclaimed domestic fabric arts and redirected them into the public sphere.  Anti-militarist women occupying Greenham Common in the UK in the 1980s used knitting and related craft arts in keeping with their emphasis on self-sufficiency, as well as to emphasize (in a manner that was at times critiqued in radical feminist circles) that they were “ordinary women and mothers.”  Diverse feminist and anti-globalization activists have celebrated hand-made craft labor, including knitting, as exemplifying resistance against sweatshops and the global commodified apparel industry. Radical knitting circles, while often sharing patterns and technique on line, have allowed for a re-emphasis on face-to-face solidarity that to some extent seeks to counter balance the alienation and anomie of cyberspace. While often made in private, the products of these efforts are at times forcefully inserted into the public sphere, as in the 2005 “Wombs on Washington” project, in which activists placed knitted wombs on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington DC--as they advocated for court decisions upholding women’s reproductive rights.

Pussyhats exemply this transformation from private domestic production to public culture, in which the classically domestic and “feminine” is used to make dramatic claims on the visible structure of the polis itself. In this sense, they cleverly subvert the broad, unconscious structure of gendered associations that is at the heart, anthropologist Sherry Ortner long ago argued, of the universal subordination of women in virtually all known human societies:  “female is to male, as nature is to culture.”   (Ortner applied here a central insight articulated by Claude Levi-Strauss, the founder of structural anthropology, that many of the most important principles in human cultures are generated out of the underlying equation, A is to B as C is to D—with the important caveat, Levi-Strauss argued, that ultimately those seeming equations are always subject to contradiction, tension and ambiguity. ) In its overt form, the overall equation “female is to nature as male is to culture” generally holds, in effect, that while women are vital to biological reproduction (the gestation of babies and their nurturing through breast feeding) this labor is subordinated to the really important work, generally monopolized by men, of reproducing society itself. Thus, in many human societies, blood associated with female reproductive capacity (menstrual blood or the blood of childbirth) is stigmatized or rendered polluted, while blood associated with male activities of social reproduction (in hunting, sacrifice, or warfare) is glorified and often classified as sacred.

In a way that I suspect Levi-Strauss would have appreciated, pussyhats quite literally take this ubiquitous structuralist equation and “turn it on its head.”  The redness of menstrual and uterine blood, and the pinkness of the vagina’s soft tissue, move from being hidden and demeaned (and thus being subject to male domination and violent depredation)  to being the public building blocks of positive political action, key to re-imagining a new public vision of society itself.  The vaginal “pussy” is actively moved from being individual and hidden to being public and visible. (In this sense, the pink pussyhat builds upon the well-known re-appropriation of the Nazi pink triangle in AIDS activism, often linked to the ACT UP tagline, “Silence = Death”).  At a moment of mass crisis, pinkness necessarily had to re-claim its space in the public center of society. Along the way, the feline (classically linked to the solitary and the feminine) cleverly challenges the dominant symbolism of the canine (social, masculine):  untold thousands of pussyhats, sporting a cat’s distinctive upturned ears, flood together into the nation’s streets and public square.

This transition from private to public “pinkness’ and ‘pussy-ness’ is nicely evoked by the exhibition team, which backs the installation with a wall length mural for the Women’s March, in front of which gallery visitors may snap their own selfies, locating themselves within this dramatic historical moment, co-participating as individuals within mass social action.

Walking through the exhibition, I was reminded of two foundational essays on the anthropology of the body, by my teachers Terry Turner and Jean Comaroff.  In  “The Social Skin,”  Terry Turner argued that the skin, the encompassing medium that stands between the person and the wider social context, is invariably a vital dynamic canvas upon which the relationship between person and society can be dramatically altered, especially as a person journeys through successive stages in life:  thus body painting, tattooing, incisions, and changing hair and clothing forms help to constitute new social positions and identities as we moved from the status of newborn through maturity to elder-hood and even through death towards ancestorhood.  In “Bodily Reform as Historical Practice.”  Jean Comaroff, in turn, argues that at moments of historical crisis, the human body, especially its charged surface frontiers, becomes a highly charged arena for re-imagining and re-navigating the overall geography of the social.  Thus, long hair, or dreads, or dyed hair may serve not only as an individual sign of personal differentiation from the mainstream, but as a collective expression of social protest and mass mobilization. 

Is this not precisely the labor to which pussyhats were in part dedicated, transforming the individual into the collective? The human head--which is normally in modern society endlessly manicured and reworked in pursuit of individual, commodified differentiation-- here became a visible platform of interlinked identification. Millions of marchers, around the world, became “pussies,” reclaiming a term long used as an insult into a tangible, touchable expression of strength and solidarity.

And here again, I find myself thinking of Levi-Strauss. He famously argued that animals and plants are not simply “good to eat,” but are “good to think.” Cognition, and especially cognition about the social universe and our place within it, invariably draws on models drawn from the speciation of organisms, a source of endless human contemplation, especially in the institution known as “totemism,” in which many indigenous groups have insisted upon fundamental likeness between themselves and non human species, and on underlying contrasts between themselves and other species (We are the bear clan. They are the raven clan.)  On January 25, millions of people, in effect, became pussycats, in differentiation, it would seem, from predating canines, whom they associated with the newly installed holder of the Office of the Presidency.   In so doing they reclaimed essential components of humanity—female, sexualized, reproductive, generative and nurturing—associated with the other meaning of the word “pussy.”  It would be hard to imagine a clearer demonstration of the central argument in Levi-Strauss’s work: in embracing and embodying tangible signifiers of our non-human alter egos, we come to rediscover and redefine the contours and possibilities of the human itself.

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