The Labels We Pick: Marina Abramovic "is not a feminist"

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The Labels We Pick: Marina Abramovic "is not a feminist"

I like thinking about how women relate to one another, and not just sexually. One aspect of female relations that I more than occasionally ponder and (consequently) get terribly frustrated about is why some women refuse feminism and, more pointedly, refuse to call themselves feminists.

And I’m not just thinking about antiquated, born again weirdos like my grandmother who think other women like Sarah Palin are “the bee’s knees.”

I’m referring to intelligent women, creative, artistic women—women who are prominent cultural entities and have influence over said culture.

People like Marina Abramović, who, just this week in an interview to The Guardian reiterated that she is not—and I repeat not—a feminist:

“I am very clear that I am not a feminist. It puts you into a category and I don't like that. An artist has no gender. All that matters is whether they make good art or bad art. So I thought about it, but then I said yes.”

I get it: I get that she’s an artist and she’s trying to claim that neutral ground that is metaphysically, ethically, linguistically, psychologically etc. possessed by men. Woman is the “other” to man’s dead-center, objective “neutral.” (Clearly, whether she denies feminism or not, she’s learned something from it.) By asserting she has no gender she’s trying to possess that ground—man’s ground. Her body is a neutral canvas that she works and reworks during each performance. I get it. I get that she understands the body as a neutral unit comprised of energy—a body that, through performance, she tries to push to its mortal limit. Her performances, in this regard, are as much psychological tests of endurance as physical ones. Again, I get it.

But the fact of the matter is that her body is not. Her body is not a neutral, genderless canvas. It could never be. Her body is the raw material of her artistry, yes, but/and it is also is a female sexed and female gendered body. The pills she ingested for “Rhythm 2” in 1974 reacted with the biochemical makeup of her female body (subsequently giving her seizures). The body that the participants of “Rhythm 0” (1974) whipped, cut, and variously “acted upon” was a female body, one with hips, curves, breasts, vagina.

It is a materiality that she cannot deny. She cannot deny the kind of material that she works with, neither can she deny the viewer’s experience (of perceiving, engaging with, and being witness to her female body). “Sitting with the artist,” what is the the first visual cue? The body—always gendered, multiply gendered maybe. Never genderless.

The point here is to not to observe the obvious—that Abramović is a woman with a female body—but it is to emphasize that the materiality of her art is fundamentally female.

Denying her body’s gender is correlative to her denying feminism.

And this brings me back to my original question: why do some women refuse the feminist label?

And don’t give me that trite PoMo crap of “labels are limiting.” At the very least, you need to tell me how a label is limiting you.

Rather, what if we thought about what a label affords or provides an individual?

What about, say, the label of “artist”?

What does calling yourself an “artist” provide you? What does it afford you, in terms of value, whether that value can be quantified (money) or not (community) or indirectly quantifiable (discounted or free artist residences and workspaces).

We all choose labels. We just seem to take issue with some more than others. Here, again, I ask, why, women, oh why are you so resentful of the “feminist” label?

One friend told me that she does not consider herself a feminist because she cannot identify with its history—a white one, and a primarily heterosexual one.

Frankly I think that’s a crap, uncritical excuse. I’m wondering, then, if she calls herself “American,” since I’m pretty sure she doesn’t identify with any of that white male heterosexist bullcrap that has dominated (and defined) our country’s history.

I’m particularly stuck on the refusal of “feminist” because its refusal implies that one harbors an unconscious (or conscious) hatred of women. And, therefore, of yourself. To say you’re not a feminist, to me, is to turn your back on women, on women’s history, and on women’s future. It’s to turn your back on your community. And, again, on yourself.

Comments [3]

Grace Moon's picture

Its super disapointing to

Its super disapointing to hear a FEMINIST icon disavow the word Feminist!

I also don't get the fema-a-phobia

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Grace Moon's picture

I have to add however, that I

I have to add however, that I heard an interview with her a few years back where she talked about her grandmother -- who I guess was a real tough lady. And the story goes something like she had gotten her arm stuck in some old fashion washing machine, and her grandma yanked it out. And somehow this experience kind of started her on this path of exploring bodily pain... in this masochistic kind of way.

I'm probably screwing this story up completely but there was some tie in between her unemotional grandma and getting stuck in the washing machine.

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Marcie Bianco's picture


ummmm....kay... Wink