Wednesday, 6 April 2011

It was never about “me” or “I,” It is about “we.”




I have just read an interview between Jessica Svendsen and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville for Broad Recognition, A feminist newspaper at Yale. I feel incredibly inspired by this interview, I find Bretteville's articulation of language empowering and her absolute belief and passion for her life's work, completely affirms her as one of my idols. I have posted some extracts and also my own opinions.


"When you look at the word demo­c­ra­tic as a part of fem­i­nism, that equal­ity and that abil­ity to argue with each other, come into fric­tion with each other or come into con­nec­tion with each other, on an equal plane, that is inher­ent in the ideal of democ­racy. If you try to trans­fer that into a fem­i­nist per­spec­tive, it holds that same mean­ing that we can talk with each other, agree or dis­agree, and work it out, as a part of self-criticism, as well as a crit­i­cism of fem­i­nism, as well as a crit­i­cism of mod­ernism, how a demo­c­ra­tic and more equal soci­ety is cre­ated so that what­ever kind of gender—there is as much dif­fer­ence within each gen­der as between the gen­der. You come from that per­spec­tive, it makes it very hard to talk about men and women all the time, around it. But I do think the word fem­i­nism is impor­tant because it car­ries with it an activist buzz. It really belongs to pay­ing atten­tion to how women are being treated, which, until we are treated absolutely equally, then I can­not let go of the word."

I often feel as though the word feminism carries with it certain negative or perhaps cliched connotations and it seems that most, male or female, have their opinion on what feminism means. For me, I feel that feminism is not a word that can be described with one sweeping definition as everyone's opinion differs depending on their experiences and their actions or involvement in feminism. I feel that almost all women are aware feminism in some way whether they proclaim this or not, simply by being a woman, involvement is unavoidable.(I can't imagine how any woman would want to avoid the topic)

JS: Many women design­ers acknowl­edge the glass ceil­ing and every­thing that sur­rounds them being a woman designer, but they are not nec­es­sar­ily fem­i­nist designer. Can you clar­ify the dis­tinc­tion between a female designer and a fem­i­nist designer?
SB: A female designer is often talk­ing about her­self, as many of the women who voted for Hilary in the elec­tion. These women talked about the expe­ri­ence with misog­yny as their rea­son for vot­ing for Hilary, rather than look­ing at what Hilary might do as Pres­i­dent. That was not what they were look­ing at; they were look­ing at their expe­ri­ence, and where they felt dissed. Vot­ing for a woman was acknowl­edg­ing them­selves. That is sim­i­lar to women design­ers who acknowl­edge the glass ceil­ing are really look­ing at.

I think to be fem­i­nist is to really care about women in gen­eral, not only design­ers, not only at priv­i­leged insti­tu­tions like Yale. Think­ing about women who don’t have any­thing, and what are the forces at work in our shared glob­al­ized cul­ture that keep women from actu­al­iz­ing their poten­tial. That is not what those women are talk­ing about. They are talk­ing about their poten­tial and their actu­al­iz­ing. That is the dif­fer­ence between being just a woman designer or being a fem­i­nist designer. It doesn’t mean that you are always work­ing on fem­i­nist con­tent, it means you think about, more broadly, women as a cat­e­gory and how that cat­e­gory is used against women, wher­ever they are, on a socioe­co­nomic level in a glob­al­ized world. That, to me, is fem­i­nism. It was never about me, what­ever “me” or “I” is. It is about “we.”
I find this statement explains an aspect of feminism very well. Being a woman does not make you a feminist (although you may be affected by feminism) in the same way that being a female designer does not make you a feminist designer. This idea of a 'we' instead of I, really rings true for me.


Much of my work centres around feminist attitudes and the portrayal of women, however I create work based on alternative themes too. The fact I make work about women is not what makes me a feminist necessarily, infact if I describe myself, as a designer, feminism is only one dimension and I would not like to narrow the perception of myself in that way. I feel my work does, and will span across a wider platform, therefore, yes I am a feminist designer but also an experimental designer, a concept-driven designer etc. etc.

Certainly as a person (being a designer as part of that) I would absolutely describe myself as a feminist. Although I may get angry about certain issues regarding the treatment of women, this is a level of unrest not designed to be anti-male or to take over the world, but merely to be offered the modest chance of being absolutely equal to men. no more than that. Some may think that equality has been achieved, however the balance is not level (in both directions, I wouldn't claim that men have all the advantages) It is, as Bretteville described, a genuine interest in the well-being of women, not just myself, not just designers, but all women be it those who are deprived of choice, my peers or colleagues.

There is one thing I would like to return to. You men­tioned the Miami poster cam­paign, and many peo­ple asso­ciate fem­i­nist graphic design with more con­fronta­tional or aggres­sive tac­tics, like the Guerilla Girls or Bar­bara Kruger. What alter­na­tives are there for fem­i­nist design?

SB: I am one of the alter­na­tives. I chose to focus on what we don’t have and how to get it, not on what is oppress­ing me or oppress­ing us. Some peo­ple are filled with a tremen­dous amount of anger and the way to express it is through their work and through their work about what is oppress­ing them. I think that that is very impor­tant work. It just hap­pens to not be my work.



Yes, because it is also how the notion of good design has changed. Both have changed. I just felt that Yale was known for good design, which was very much aligned with mod­ernist design at that point. So I was try­ing to open up the design, try­ing to open up the fem­i­nist design. A state­ment, like that, out of con­text, requires a lot of unpack­ing. Both around what is “good” and what is “feminist.”

I had an inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion with some stu­dents the other day. It wasn’t about fem­i­nism, but it is like this: two stu­dents were doing work that had images of like, kit­tens and sun­sets and palm trees, but they came off of Google images—they were get­ting them off the net. I was try­ing to locate what it is that those images were serv­ing. One of the other stu­dents, who was older than the two stu­dents who were doing it, said, “It’s gen­er­a­tional. The response to that.” I said, “I don’t think that if that’s oper­a­tive, it is not all that’s oper­at­ing.” It turns out that one of the stu­dents was doing it as a reac­tion against good design, clean design. Here we are, 2009, and some­one is choos­ing, what I call trashy, low, images to sig­nify “sweet­ness” as a reac­tion. My com­ment was: “You are here at Yale to do your own work. You don’t have to react against some­thing. Go for some­thing.” Because to spend your time against that now, unless you do it from an extremely informed, thought­ful, broadly-researched base, is a very knee-jerk, against, kind of activ­ity. It is not that you can­not use kitty kats and sun­sets. It is more: Why are you using [these]? I want to here from you, why, some­thing other than “I am against good design, clean design, all that design I learned at RISD.” I want more. I want to hear more. Talk about it more. Tell me more.


Bretteville continuously offers a considered and intelligent insight, Here is the full interview

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