Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Monkeying with feminism

Posted By on Wed, Sep 3, 2003 at 12:00 AM

A nude, Rubenesque woman lounges gracefully on a tumble of blankets; the curve of her naked body perfectly mimics the paintings that hang in famous museums — except for the oversized gorilla head that rests on her creamy shoulders. The accompanying message states: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Less than five percent of artists in the Modern Arts section are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female.”

The image is the work of the Guerilla Girls, a New York City collaborative of female artists dedicated to fighting sexism in art, politics, film, and just about anywhere else. Founded in 1985, the Guerilla Girls maintain their anonymity by donning gorilla masks and assuming the names of dead female artists. They craft and distribute brilliantly sarcastic posters and handbills which illustrate sexism everywhere from the White House to Hollywood. Take, for example, their billboard rendering of the “Anatomically Correct Oscar” which transforms the gilded statuette into a pasty white man: “He’s white and male, just like the guys who win!”

Just recently the collective has moved into the world of publishing; after zinging the male-dominated annals of art history with The Guerilla Girls’ Bedside Guide to the History of Western Art, the Girls now tackle pop culture with their latest book, Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerilla Girls’ Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes.

The path seems a natural one for the Girls to take, as their organization itself is a direct counterattack against one of the most famous and hated stereotypes of all: the Feminazi. A term coined by ultra-right-wing doody-head Rush Limbaugh, the Feminazi is usually characterized as a viciously angry, humorless, militant man-hater. The Guerilla Girls, on the other hand, are hip, biting and laugh-out-loud funny, utilizing funky pierced-tongue-in-cheek humor as their weapon of choice. Hell, the cover is a bright bubblegum pink — the “girliest” color of them all.

Although it tackles a serious subject, the book is delightfully campy and breezy, filled with short sidebars, quirky photos and sarcastic diatribes that go for the jugular but also elicit a laugh. The core chapter analyzes and dissects the most common stereotypes impressed upon women, along with their accompanying spokesmodels. Who is more emblematic of The Girl Next Door than Julia Roberts? What Femme Fatale/Vamp is more over-the-top than Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct? And no one does Bitch/Ballbreaker like Hillary Clinton — after all, the book quotes a 1995 survey where less than half the respondents thought Newt Gingrich should apologize to the former first lady for calling her a big ol’ bee-otch.

Sometimes stereotypes are so pervasive it is easier to acquiesce to them than defy them; the authors acknowledge some women actually embrace and exaggerate stereotypes to further their careers: “Actresses like Pamela Anderson play up their Bimboness, looking gorgeous, acting stupid, and laughing all the way to the bank.”

The Girls further argue that an onslaught of repetitive stereotypical imagery will lead to accompanying stereotypical behavior, and wonder whether our next generation of young women who adore Britney Spears, the quintessential “Rock Starlet” stereotype, will begin to emulate the way she looks and acts. After all, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish Spears from her multitude of thin blond pop-singing colleagues like Christina Aguilera, Shakira, etc.

“If this Rock Starlet stereotype persists,” the Girls write, “it could make human cloning irrelevant. Many of us will be virtual clones already.”

The Guerilla Girls have even assembled their own collection of ethnic stereotype Barbie dolls: There’s Lauren, the Jewish American Princess (comes with three retractable nose jobs) and Latisha the Welfare Queen (each of her six children has a different father).

And speaking of Barbie — in the section devoted to the Prostitute stereotype, the Girls bring to light this interesting little tidbit: Did you know Barbie, the revered icon of young girls’ youth, actually started out “as a Teutonic cartoon hooker named Lilli who slept her way into the hearts of men all over Germany in the 1950s”?

It was only after the owner of Mattel discovered Lilli on a trip overseas and bought the rights to the doll that the lovable little harlot received a squeaky-clean makeover. However, the question remains: Was Lilli as anatomically incorrect as her future incarnation? Seems a hooker without nipples and a vagina would be a hard sell indeed.

Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at


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