Not Playing it Safe: Fractured Femininity and Feminist Art Practises

Published online at Sleepover Club (2015)

In our culture, women of all races and classes who step out on the edge, courageously resisting conventional norms for female behavior, are almost always portrayed as crazy, out of control, mad. […] It is frustrating, maddening even, to live in a culture where female creativity and genius are almost always portrayed as inherently flawed, dangerous, problematic.

- bell hooks[1]


In March of this year Rupi Kaur, a Canadian spoken word poet and university student, posted a photograph to Instagram that was instantly removed for being in breach of the company’s “Community Guidelines.” The offending image, which Kaur produced as part of a project for a visual rhetorics class, featured a fully clothed female figure lying in bed with her back to the camera. The transgressive element that saw the image removed from Instagram was the visible spots of menstrual blood on the figure’s grey sweat pants and floral sheets.

Although Kaur managed to have the photograph reinstated on her Instagram account after questioning how it could possibly contravene the guidelines, given that it did not feature nudity nor violence, the fact that this image was initially removed in the wake of a public embrace of gender equality and empowerment sheds light on a disjuncture in the discourse of contemporary feminism. While it is entirely permissible for Emma Watson to speak up on behalf of equality in her speech for the HeForShe campaign and Beyoncé was applauded for her open celebration of her feminist status at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards, the statement behind Kaur’s period. (2015) photographic series points to another side of feminism that has failed to be integrated into the larger, celebrity-driven debate: “some are more comfortable with the pornification of women. the sexualization of women. the violence and degradation of women than this."[2]

The unspoken “this” to which Kaur refers is nothing new within the tradition of feminist art practice, so the fact that the sight of menstrual blood still holds the power to shock and appal is significant. Second wave feminist Judy Chicago is arguably the first artist to employ menstruation as a serious theme in her art, specifically in Red Flag (1971) and the collaborative work Womanhouse (1972). The fact that Red Flag, a photographic lithograph featuring the removal of bloodied tampon, was mistakenly viewed as blood-covered penis speaks to the effacement and invisibility of women’s experience. Taking this approach to gender politics further, Chicago’s contribution to the domestic installation, Womanhouse, was her “Menstruation Bathroom” in which she installed a shelf laden with sanitary products above a bin overflowing with used pads and a single, blood-soaked tampon on the floor. In this work, Chicago essentially laid bare the truth of womanhood that had been perpetually concealed by packaging and cosseted silence.

Notably, Chicago’s focus on menstruation has not occurred in isolation: the nude female body in one of Kiki Smith’s beeswax sculptures, entitled Train (1993), appears to shuffle forward as red beads, reminiscent of a bridal train, fall behind her, and Ingrid Berthon-Moine has put period blood front and centre in her photographic series of women wearing their menstrual blood as lipstick in Red is the Colour (2009). More recently, in 2013 Carina Ubeda produced an installation at the Center of Culture and Health in Quillota, Chile that presented 90 sanitary cloths suspended in embroidery hoops to mark five years of her menstrual cycle. Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly, the reaction this installation reportedly provoked was often disgust.  

What this brief survey on the approaches to menstruation in visual culture has attempted to establish is a rather problematic lack of progress in shaking the taboos associated with certain women’s issues. From one perspective, the public dialogue pays lip service to the feminist cause and enjoys flirting with the subject of equality, especially when it is attached to the cultural capital of celebrity; however, when relational aesthetics are brought into the picture, successfully ripping the veil of perceived decency and what is accepted as an appropriate model of femininity, fear, revulsion and panic set in. Essentially, feminism in its contemporary manifestation is fractured and is subject to a specific set of omissions and exclusions. On one side, there are the pastel pink, and inherently safe, proclamations of gender equality; while on the other hand, there are artists who actually intervene into feminist debates and are then labelled as radical and reactionary or, at the very worst, as distasteful and offensive.

To provide an example of an artist whose work has traversed both sides of this binary, venerated photographer Cindy Sherman began her career with her Untitled Film Stills (1977-80) before moving on to more abstract explorations of the body. Where the cinematic framing of Sherman in her first set of photographs evokes the weary glamour and dishevelled elegance of film noir femme fatales and B-movie divas, drawing attention to issues of the male gaze and the female body as object, her later work interrogates the horror of the human body itself. In Untitled #177 (1987), taken from her Disasters series, Sherman has almost entirely disappeared, as the focus of the photograph is a set of prosthetic buttocks dotted with pimples on the verge of erupting with pus. If Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills are the “safe” examination of the female body as a site of spectacle and desire, her later photographs from her Fairy Tales, Disasters and Sex Pictures show the body in crisis, and it is this lack of bodily integrity that is simultaneously so illicit and troubling.

Ultimately, feminist artists who refuse playing it safe do so by enacting issues of control directly onto the body. Julie Kristeva’s notion of the abject, despite being conceived in the 1980s, is still deeply relevant to the traces of otherness in works by Sherman, as well as other feminist artists. In the Powers of Horror, Kristeva defined the abject as that which “disturbs identity, system and order. What does not respect boundaries, position, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”[3] The female body’s propensity to spill blood, to give birth and to leak milk exemplifies its status as abject in its sheer failure to remain sealed and cohesive. However, its apparent ambiguity has been stripped, or more literally waxed, to create a female ideal that is devoid of body hair and airbrushed to erase marks of aging.

Given the unrealistic representation of femininity that is perpetuated in the media, feminist artists have had to bare the burden of addressing the disparity between reality and fantasy – from the chewing gum vaginas adorning the body of Hannah Wilke in her S.O.S Starification Object Series (1974) to Jenny Saville’s Plan (1993), in which the subject’s voluptuous form is marked by contours delineating the visceral folds in the flesh of her body. The maternal body has also received treatment by artists who have removed it from its sacred and divine associations. In Yurie Nagashima’s Untitled (2001), for example, the pregnant subject is photographed topless while sitting on a couch brandishing a leather jacket and red lipstick. Further subverting the stereotypical view of pregnancy, she is giving the middle finger, a cigarette dangling from her lips.

Although Barbara Kruger integrated the text “Your body is a battleground” into the visual landscape of one of her untitled works in 1989, the message maintains its poignancy. Over forty years have passed since the emergence of second wave feminism and yet the challenges faced by the women at the forefront of the movement in the 1970s continue to exist and, while wider audiences have become desensitised to depictions of violence, the sight of a leaking female body still causes anxiety. Fortunately, the democracy of the Internet has provided a forum for female artists to critique and confront issues that would potentially not be afforded space within the white walls of a gallery. Emerging artists such as Madison Mclerie, who has playfully eschewed the waxed ideal by photographing women who possess pubic hair and have wild flowers tucked into the elastic of their sheer underwear, and Scarlett Mellows, whose embroidered works recreate forbidden crevices yet to be ridden of hair, are wantonly testing the boundaries of propriety and subverting gendered expectations. These are artists whose work, like that of the feminist artists before them, impels the viewer to question the status quo, to resist normalised assumptions and to open a broader social dialogue that is provocative, oppositional and definitely not safe.



[1] bell hooks, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 207.

[2] Rupi Kaur, “period.” 23 March 2015,

[3] Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 4.