Amber Hawk Swanson: "Feminism?" and Realdolls

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:

(c) Amber Hawk Swanson

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?

III. Conclusion

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.

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13 thoughts on “Amber Hawk Swanson: "Feminism?" and Realdolls

  1. I have a problem with the concept of “objectifying ourselves”. I don’t think it’s possible for a woman to objectify herself, in that a woman will always want to be a person and a subject and will never try to make herself into an object. In reality, women come into the world objectified, as the dominant cultural narrative tells them from their birth that they are objects for others to act upon and never subjects. The only choices that women are given in the matter are to participate in their own objectification or not to participate. Frequently, choosing to participate in ones own objectification can reap the temporary benefit of not being harassed or excluded, the payoff for being “pretty” if you will. Participating becomes a survival mechanism and a coping method.

    The dominant cultural narrative does not give us a choice on what type of subject we would like to be, only the choice of resisting or accepting our pre-ordained roles as objects.

  2. It’s similar to the problems with the gaming t-shirt. Intent matters, but it doesn’t trump the message. I certainly don’t want to scold either for trying, but if the goal is to put out a certain message, and that message doesn’t come across, then it’s usually a good idea to point that out. Hopefully in a way that will make it clear it’s meant as constructive criticism. Unfortunately, if we don’t know the intent, that isn’t always going to be the tone of the criticism.

  3. “….a woman will always want to be a person and a subject and will never try to make herself into an object.”

    ” The only choices that women are given in the matter are to participate in their own objectification or not to participate.”

    When participating is making oneself into an object, how do those two ideas not contradict each other? Do you think women are never eager to participate? That they always understand that these are their choices? That women never eagerly choose to do things that objectify them? That the only times they do so are when they see participation as the lesser of two evils?

  4. What I’m saying is that the women themselves do not do the objectification, it’s always externally applied. Most women who are eager to participate in their own objectification do it out of a sense of empowerment that’s given when they gain approval, which is still borne out of a desire for others to treat them like a subject and not an object. When we talk about eager participation we’re still talking about a survival mechanism, the only way that most women know how to gain power (however illusory) in a system determined to deny them power.

    I’m not comfortable with blaming other women because they don’t have access to other tools with which to bargain for power, or don’t have enough education of other tools. The woman who feels the need to dress sexy so she’ll get ahead at work is trying to negotiate for power, if her boss sees her as some sort of sex toy that types it isn’t her fault but his. She’s not making herself into an object, others are doing that to her.

    The problem is not women who participate, the problem is a cultural narrative that says women are objects. The problem is that women ever need to participate in that narrative in order to negotiate for power.

  5. that sucks

    my comment went away in a puff of smoke.

    shorter version:

    Saying that women can’t objectify themselves denies women agency, ignores the fact that we are part of the patriarchy as well, and brushes aside women’s experiences. The fact that I put make-up on because of external pressure is not the only important part of the process. It’s important to remember that in order to do things like the make-up bit properly, I have to learn to make myself an object in my own eyes. It’s important to remember this because a lot of the patriarchal pressure to be an object comes to us via other women, who have learned to look at themselves as objects as well, and because the harm comes not just from how other people view us, but how we learn to value ourselves.

    Plus, one can encourage dissent without blaming those who are unable to dissent.

  6. The blaming thing was really a critique of Amber’s work, not you Mickle, sorry for being unclear.

    I don’t see what’s wrong with admitting that “agency” is largely the purview of middle class white women, that the poorer you are, the fewer choices you actually make. When these critiques of women participating in “raunch culture” or porn culture come along, they tend to ignore women who are so economically disadvantaged that they have few alternatives to participating in their own objectification. If your choice is literally “blow some guy for a few bucks or starve to death” you don’t consider yourself to be full of agency.

    As a poor woman and sometime sex worker, I find this navel-gazing (borderline slut shaming actually) over privileged white girls participation in porn culture especially alienating. A lot of this concern, be it from within feminism or without, over the porn culture seems to me to be nothing more than hand-wringing over supposed “good girls” gone bad. (Good girls being culturally defined as pretty white girls with money.) Few of these critiques ever focus on the real struggles of women whose only choices are sex work or starvation, and yet they are usually used to paint all women who participate in objectification with the same accusatory brush.

    Critiquing women who participate in the culture of objectification (whether they can rightly be ascribed agency or not) really does take the focus away from the culture itself. No woman would need to blow her boss in order to keep her job if the culture (and her boss) didn’t treat her like an object, no woman would need to kiss other girls for male approval if the culture (and the men nearby) didn’t treat her and all woman like porn objects.

  7. “I don’t see what’s wrong with admitting that “agency” is largely the purview of middle class white women, that the poorer you are, the fewer choices you actually make.”

    There’s a difference between saying people have limited choices and saying that they don’t have any choices at all. Whomever you were critiquing, you were stating a lot of absolutes.

    And, as I said before, there’s a difference between critiquing the act and critiquing the person. In order to fight for better choices, or even make the best choice from limited options, we need to be able to critique the act. One doesn’t simply excuse women who use slurs like “slut” to refer to other women simply because culture encourages women to do so – no matter their age, race, orientation, earnings, etc.

    A lot of this concern, be it from within feminism or without, over the porn culture seems to me to be nothing more than hand-wringing over supposed “good girls” gone bad. (Good girls being culturally defined as pretty white girls with money.) Few of these critiques ever focus on the real struggles of women whose only choices are sex work or starvation, and yet they are usually used to paint all women who participate in objectification with the same accusatory brush.

    I disagree about the “within feminism” part, but only in terms of degrees. We’ve internalized a lot of it too, and so tend to adopt the same language and assumptions – unless we are specifically addressing the subject, which does happen, but definitely not often enough. I think that feminism is better equipped for recognizing it than mainstream culture, but that both need a lot of work. And when it comes to why women make such choices, I think feminism goes too far the other way sometimes and assumes that such choices are never made for good reasons unless they are the result of not having better choices.

    No woman would need to blow her boss in order to keep her job if the culture (and her boss) didn’t treat her like an object……

    True. To clarify, the reason why some of your statements bug me is because they echo some of the arguments I’ve gotten into recently on other threads about why rape should only ever be used to refer to acts that are (or should be) punishable by law. One of the interesting – and infuriating – things about sexual harassment is that if one gives in to such degrading pressure and does decide to “blow” one’s boss, the boss is often not guilty of any greater crime than harassment, despite having used threats to force sex. The fact that consent was not freely given is pretty much never recognized. (Since most people here – and there – see the logic of how that’s wrong, that isn’t my main point.)

    Even more than that, the implication that one doesn’t have agency or that one doesn’t participate in one’s own objectification makes the decision to submit to sex to be a lesser choice than what it is.

    In cases where it’s a sacrifice for others, pretending that one does not make the choice to consent to be treated (albeit temporarily) as an object treats the act as something other than a sacrifice. You may not see it that way, but remember that the cultural narrative is that there is no “good” reason for making such a choice. Acting is if it’s not a choice at all does no more to educate others than acting as if she had all kinds of options would. It renders the sacrifice invisible and makes her a completely powerless victim rather than a victim with only bad options. Or – as evidenced in several discussions about 300, not a victim at all.

    In all cases, but especially where it’s a decision of weighing personal risk (or sacrifice for an adult rather than a child, such as in 300), it suggests that any woman who submits is not really raped. Despite having agreed to sex only because of threats, most women who submit to sex because of harassment have a weaker case, not a stronger one. This is because the cultural narrative is that rape is always the worst thing you can do to a woman (short of murder, and not always even that). It’s considered an oxymoron to say one submitted to rape (in the absence of physical force or threats). Arguing that one cannot objectify themselves (versus arguing that self-objectification is the result of external pressure) is the same sort of argument, and gives weight to the idea that one cannot submit to rape. Especially when your examples of submitting to the pressure to objectify oneself are also examples of submitting to rape.

    All of which contributes to why many women who submit to rape refuse to call it rape and helps to support arguments that there are clear lines between rape and harassment/objectification, rather than it being a spectrum of behavior. After all, the idea that one cannot submit to rape is the main reason why.

    (So, mostly, I’m arguing semantics, not intent. But I’m doing so because I think it’s important, not because I want to nitpick.)

  8. er – sorry about the third to last sentence being cut off

    And since that wasn’t really a clarification (they tend to be shorter)

    shorter Mickle:

    saying women objectify themselves, full stop. implies that the choice is made in a vacuum and among lots of other, equally attainable options.

    Within feminism, the implication is never assumed in the abstract, but often needs to be addressed in practical terms since we self-labeled feminists tend to b privileged in other ways and so don’t always bother to see how other’s choices are limited.

    saying that women can’t objectify themselves, full stop. implies that either such forces are always overwhelming (making self-reflection futile) or that any choice that knowingly results in objectification negates the wrongness of objectification, either through being a paradox or the victim deserving it.

    Within feminism, this implication is assumed in the abstract as well as being applied to real situations, but less so than outside feminsim.

    IMHO, both these assumptions need addressing within feminism and without, but in different ways. The second assumption needs to be addressed directly because the very idea that self-objectification cannot negate it’s wrongness is not widely accepted. The first needs to be dealt with by talking about the limited choices of particular groups and the privilege of white feminism, as it’s the reality and not the hypothetical that is being rejected.

  9. late again,but if anyone reads this can they please tell how is it that women got it so bad and is judged as a sex object because she were short skirts or do porn I don’t see it as objectfiy inless she was forced to do what she did

  10. ty: Again, please refer to the sexual objectification thread that I pointed you to in the other post. There’s more to sexual objectification than being forced into it. In fact, quite a lot of sexual objectification these days works with the willing participation of the objectified, and is often packaged as “empowerment”. But that’s an entire set of posts in of itself.

  11. I have been visiting this site a lot lately, so i thought it is a good idea to show my appreciation with a comment.

    Jim Mirkalami

    PS: I am a single dad 😉

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