A feminist artist named Amber Hawk Swanson has been profiled in a Chicago Reader article called When Amber Met Amber. Given the recent discussions here about author intent versus conveyed message, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the work that was profiled.
What follows is less a critique, because I can’t properly critique a work without seeing it, and more a gathering of impressions. I’m interested to know what impressions you get from all this, as well, and would highly recommend reading the article in full.
I. A look at authorial intent
Amber makes no bones about considering herself a feminist. The inspiration for the project highlighted by the article began with a video documentary of her sorority sisters in order to generate quotes from real women about the disturbingly elongated figures of fashion sketches:
She ended each interview with the same question: “How do you define feminism?”
Intrigued by their responses, Swanson began talking to more women and by 2005 she herself was in front of the camera. “Feminism?” consists of ten shorts in which she quotes from interview transcripts while participating in her own objectification.
The responses there led to her producing a controversial set of video shorts called “Feminism?”, where Swanson quotes from the interviews while visually participating in her own objectification.
“I was interested in the cultural phenomenon of young women rejecting feminism,” Swanson says. “In some ways I took on the character of a young woman doing so—either rejecting feminism or being naive about it.”
As for her Realdoll project, their ability to blur fantasy and reality was one of the draws for Swanson. Beyond that, however, she reveals that she was also seeking to find a way to deal with the negative attention that her previous project had drawn:
“I was looking for a receptacle for the onslaught of attention and negative feedback—a stand-in for myself,” Swanson explains. “It was just the right amount of crazy to order a $12,000 doll.”
II. What message are people picking up?
The problem with authorial intent is that it’s not readily transparent to the consumers of the work and because of that the message that comes across will inevitably be different from the one that the artist tried to put in it.
In the case of “Feminism?”, Swanson’s intent was garbled in regard to the difference between the characters she took on and her real self:
“Feminism?” toured colleges and film festivals and is now part of the collection at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. Reaction was understandably intense. “I put myself in my own mock porns. I was not only sexualized but I was also hyperfeminized,” Swanson says. “People conflated the persona of the work with me. There was so much attention, positive and negative. I was excited to get attention but also overwhelmed by it.”
Without having seen the film myself, I can’t comment on how Swanson handled the separation of character from author commentary. In lieu of that, I want to offer one of the photos from the Realdoll shoot with an accompanying description of the project:
The image itself is not enough to stand alone to me as feminist commentary. If I wasn’t aware that this was a specifically feminist critique, I might not have seen it as much more than a new and bizzarre way of objectifying women.
Despite that, however, it does have some distinctly feminist elements that become clear when one puts a feminist lens on the critique. The most immediately noticeable to me was the commentary of the victim being the doll (a true object) and the victimizer being the real woman. The agency of the real woman, though, is undermined by the blank “pornface” expression she wears, which could be a subtle commentary as to the inability for a woman to escape her own objectification even when she’s the active agent.
I also think that the series — which show Swanson literally objectifying herself — is a blatant comment on the state of white, middle-to-upper class girl- and womanhood, which encourages us to objectify ourselves and other women for the pleasure of men all under the heading of “empowerment”.
The description of the video scenes does not reassure me as to the clarity of message:
Since the wedding Swanson has put Amber Doll to use in a project exploring the interplay between fantasy and reality in sexual relationships. The finished work, which is still untitled, will contrast stills of intimate “partnership” scenes with video reenactments of rape scenes from movies such as Irreversible and The Accused. Unlike “Feminism?” which spoofed sexualized depictions of women in popular culture, Swanson’s latest videos are meant to mimic them as closely as possible—with one main departure. In the rape scene reenactments, both Swanson and Amber Doll will be dressed as the victim in the film.
What messages does dressing both Swanson and her doll convey to audiences? How will a feminist audience read it versus a non-feminist one? Are there other elements in the filming that reinforce the feminist reading, or will being faithful to a pornographic representation obscure the intended message?
There is no doubt that feminist art is a wonderful and necessary thing. And art that critiques the objectification of women is doubly necessary as far as I’m concerned. My only concern is that the message is too subtle and may rely too much on a clear feminist reading in order to reach the audience in the intended way.
Obviously the article itself raises questions that can only be answered by a proper viewing of the art, but I believe that the situation raises other interesting questions, such as how much should the parts of a work (especially when the whole is a compilation of many related parts) be able to stand on their own? When should we be content with our works being read properly within a feminist setting, and when should we strive to create a message accessible by everyone?
Like I said, I don’t have the answers here, but I do think that it’s important to ask those kinds of questions.