Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Birth Of A Career Babe

It began as a sarcastic joke about the women's movement and 'girl power'.
All through primary and secondary school, not to mention my brief stints at university, I was bombarded with the message, Girls Can Do Anything. I guess it was the times. The same message was appropriated by Mattel when they re-invented Barbie for a post-feminist pre-teen market.
I was brought up as a practical feminist, mainly by my father, who taught me less traditionally female skills. I learned, through him, that these were not always easy, or fun, but this was the price of equality. As a teenager, I began to suspect that the rest of society liked the idea of the empowered female more as a marketing tool, a perception reinforced by the vacuous Girlpower movement. Young women played dress up in the clothes of a serious career but they didn't really pay their dues, didn't really commit to what that career demanded. They were sold an attitude, an idea spoon-fed to them by wily advertisers. They ate it up, felt strong, independent, and full of baseless ambition.
Little wonder that this was the first serious theme I confronted in my painting. The result was Career Babes (example above), the most recognisable – and one of the most successful, both critically and commercially – of my series of large works.
In many ways, Career Babes defined the social, political and sexual themes that run through all my work, many of them inspired by the way women themselves have subverted idealised, sexual objectifying mass media and advertising images of femininity in order to compete with each other and, at the same time, try to seduce men. Over the past ten years, I have revisited the series to re-examine it and to review my feelings about the underlying themes.
The latest update of it is really a series in itself. Dangerous Career Babes explores how people use cosplay to play dress-up in fetishised versions of powerful, interesting characters. In other words, it's a step beyond mere career to something that reflects the current social predilection for the sensory, the virtual, the remixed, although it still about the impulse we have to assume a role, a character, in order to succeed. Career, vocation, life path, role, performance – in contemporary culture, these words have taken on new and very similar meanings. People inhabit (or lust after) characters in video games, avatar-based online communitites, anime, movies, even in art (I have heard women make jealous remarks about my earlier Career Babes series, and men make lustful ones).
Intrinsically, it comes down to female sexual desirability.
In the post-post-feminist society, men desire women who have an implied sense of danger, even if they and it are really a puerile, cartoon rendering. Lara Croft is a good example. She is intensely physical, with lots of sexually placed weaponry. Her profession is a great ruse for ogling and objectifying her. She can be held up as a great role model because she ticks some intellectual boxes. In the video game, she is often filmed from behind, each physically demanding movement eliciting a sexualised grunt or moan. Having dangerous female characters in moving media instead of dolls creates many more advantages for 'accidentally-on-purpose' voyeurism. It legitimises the opportunity for the female character's uniforms to be skimpy and skin tight to allow for 'freedom of movement'. Women and girls mimic the concept: the desire for sexual power as a tool again emerges.
Of course, the roles examined – and parodied – in Dangerous Career Babes also fulfill my own fantasies of being a strong, capable, desirable woman who does not need anyone else, whose occupation is dangerous and thrilling. It's a desire for life to be more than it is, to have the pedestrian edited or excised, to be more powerful in a number of ways – many of them related to female sexuality and youth – which are transient, and relatively easily manipulated by others and are not really that powerful after all. Most young women try to turn the last to their own advantage, devising themselves as a marketable 'package'.
I have struggled with the idea that I have had to do this too – an idea pushed on me by gallerists and art dealers and other, more powerful women. I fucking hate it.
In my teenage years, I was often sexually harassed. Men would followed me onto trains and buses, right to my front door. My school teachers hit on me. It debased my self-esteem, devalued what I felt had to communicate. So I dressed plainly, even though people tried instead to dress me up, to make me more pretty. It infuriated me. It also caused me a lot of distress and anxiety. I had to harness it in some way so, in the end, I made art about it.
I don't think people got it, at least in the beginning.
For too long, I felt I was pressured to not contribute to society, to not develop myself to my full potential. I have always been intelligent, but became disliked for it. To make everyone else comfortable, I had to shut up, dumb myself down, grow my hair long, be pretty, flirty and hold my tongue. Just because I could fill that role, because of what I looked like, there was huge pressure that I must.
I see women wasting huge amounts of time, effort, and money, to turn themselves into an ideal that age will inevitably destroy. It's an insult to everything that previous generations of women fought for. There are now so many opportunities for women to develop and realise their fullest potential, but most ignore or misuse them. It makes it harder for those of us who do want to take the best advantage of them.
All this, then, is the raw anger and frustration from which I conceived the original Career Babes, starting with scores of Polaroids self-portraits through which I channeled sexualised mass media imagery into a single, sinewy, crotch-baring pose. Art is supposed to cause people to think. To my annoyance, many who first saw Career Babes thought the works were cute. Women wanted to emulate the figures, and men wanted to bed them. I had made them desirable very deliberately to provoke such reactions, but I'd hoped that people would think more deeply about what it was about those reactions that should discomfort them.
With Dangerous Career Babes, I have decided to revisit the series after a long hiatus. The new images will be more subversive and confronting – yes, still sexualised, but not really cute. I can only hope they will be better understood.

6 comments:

drips of paint said...

very interesting read, a lot of emotion always in your writing. Glad to learn the source of your art ...

awaiting dangerous career babe! ..
hope your painting going well1

Anonymous said...

Jesus Dooney, you are fucked up. Get over yourself. Its not like you're curing cancer... wake up and be thankful that you are getting to fucking paint all day.

You're drowning in your own crap.. If painting makes you so fucking miserable, get out. You'd make an excellent door bitch.... try that one out. At least you could inflict your sexually obsessed pain on some pimply faced 17 year old... who's probably a big fan of your work.

I think your girly scribbles and blobs of paint are arranged in a really cute and sexy way. But hey... I'm sure if I really think about it... the meaning of life is hidden in there somewhere.

You complete and utter self absorbed tool. When you've invented a new bio-fuel, let me know.... then I'll read your wingey fucking blog again.

Anonymous said...

Excuse me! Who is the sexually obsessed? At least Hazel can go on her own journey without hanging off the likes of your purse strings. That must piss you off!! You go Hazel and I will continue to love your stuff.

Mats Halldin said...

I've spent my life not being what my parents and nuns at school wanted the ADHD boy to be. It's nice reading an independent woman can stay on track at the top.

(Wish ranting anons drowned in their own crap.)

Zom said...

i love what you have written. So similar to my own experience. Women seldom talk about the down side of looking like you are 'supposed to'.

I am happier in middle age, when the pressure of looking a certain way eases.

I look forward to seeing your new images. It can be so difficult to express what we really mean. So easy to be misinterpreted.

erinrichardson said...

Totally get your work, on many levels. It's sickening what women have become in response to the patriarchal society we live in.

So many people aren't sensitive to art are also going through life like robots. I'm sure you know this.

Anonymous coward is reading your blog, yet so hostile to you? They are jealous of you.

I'd like to ask, how do you feel talking about your work and its multiple layers of influence so openly? Does verbalising and rationalising have any impact on your creative flow of ideas? Do you experience a conflict between explaining and creating? Or is it irrelevant to you? I'd really like to read your thoughts on this subject.