by Zoe Freney
My favourite book when I was four was Jean Cushman’s Little Golden Book, We Help Mommy.(1) First published in America in 1959, its reprinting in the 1980s reflects pervasive gender norms in western society at the end of the 20th century. I identified with Martha, the rosy cheeked little girl who helps her mother with the dusting, making beds and baking a treat for Daddy. I grew up in a small town where the boys played football and the girls played netball. I did ballet, which taught me good posture and, reinforced by images like those of Martha’s neat little pig-tails and tightly buckled shoes, how to behave and how to be in my body as a girl.
According to feminist phenomenologist Iris Marion Young, the differentiation between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ body comportment and movement is structured by society.(2) Within these structures ‘the space available to our movement is constricted space…’ Limited by how we think our bodies should perform, we do not allow them to freely extend to their full capacities.(3) This was expressed by John Berger in the 1970s, ‘To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space … A woman must continually watch herself’.(4)
While mainstream media has been slow to challenge gender assumptions, visual artists have long been subverting expectations of gendered behaviours. But at the same time as Man Ray photographed Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy in the glamour portraits of 1921 to the mid 1920s, he was objectifying the model, Kiki, as his plaything in Ingres’ Violin, 1924.(5) In recent decades, artists have made more authentic works investigating their own lived experiences of gender. Sarah Lucas’s career parallels a call by philosophers for the retrieval of the body, and the renewed importance of corporeality in feminist theories.(6) Lucas’s Self Portrait with Fried Eggs, 1996, was shocking to my teenage self, in the artist’s ‘manspreading’(7) up yours to the ladylike. Today I find it still potent but also funny, the fried egg breasts flipped sunny side up to expose yolk nipples, well-done. Lucas’s use of humour as a strategy is as effective as her defiant stare in subverting expectations of the feminine. Lucas boldly takes up space.
Challenges to gender norms and ableism are given space in the text based works of Adelaide artist Ruby Allegra. Shouty, coloured capital letters on bright backgrounds speak out in slogans like Not all women menstruate, and not all people who menstruate are women, 2018. Allegra’s artwork and internet activism question society’s expectations of bodies and gender. For Allegra, who is disabled and gender fluid, it remains an activist position to be ‘proud of your body … in a society that thinks that you shouldn't like yourself.’(8) This relates to ableist discrimination, but body positivity is rarely present in models of ladylike behaviour, as girls and women instead often internalise shame about their bodies’ actions and attributes. For me this was engendered through a heady mix of Catholic indoctrination and ballet training, but the structuring of our bodies and identities is inherent in popular culture, through everything from televised sports to the kids’ wear department.
Local emerging artist Sarah Tickle explores the impacts of gender-nonconformity and gender representation in cinema on her own life.(9) Her revisiting and sampling of the film archive presents a broader critique of Australian cultural gender norms. As a teenager Tickle identified with the ‘tomboy’ characters on screen, and this fictional community of consciously unladylike girls and women helped her deal with the isolation that resulted from her own gender non-conformity. In her recent show Keep Your Dukes Up, 2019 at FELTspace, Adelaide, she presents herself as Sarah ‘Wildfang’ Tickle, duking it out with Jodie ‘Filmstar’ Foster. But rather than fight each other, they square up to the world, they ball their fists at the violence of society’s structured norms.
In 1989 when Judith Butler’s oppositional feminist text Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (10) challenged the assumptions of heterosexual gender norms I had grown out of reading Little Golden Books. However, ladylike feminine comportment continued to be conveyed as normative in middle class Australian culture, structuring women’s bodies and behaviours as surely as the ballet teacher’s ruler slaps to bent legs. Artists who use their subjective positons to offer nuanced views of gender and identity, often against great personal adversity and discrimination, speak to difference and celebrate diversity. This means that today children can read expanded discourses of gender, so that they may imagine multiple possibilities and opportunities for themselves.
My own copy survived beyond my childhood, but when faced with reading it to my own young sons I decided it was time to retire We Help Mommy. Regardless, household chores in our home tend to adhere to gender stereotypes.
Iris Marion Young, Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), 143-144
John Berger, Ways of Seeing (New York: Penguin, 1977), 46
Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York, London: Routledge1993), 27-28; as well as Young (1990); Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism (Allen & Unwin, 1994) and others
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, (New York: Routledge, 1999)