Cultural theorist and feminist scholar, Angela McRobbie, recently wrote “popular feminism is celebrated in such a way as to suggest that the politics of feminist struggles are no longer needed. Seemingly supplanting feminism per se, and appearing to adopt the interests of girls and young women, commercial culture finds a license to speak on their behalf.” Performance and multimedia artist Madelyne Beckles centers much of her work on this premise. Her latest exhibition hosted by Gallery 44 entitled “Arrangements” is a series of three performative videos which satirize and comment upon the contemporary state of “feminism.”
An Artist on the rise
Beckles, who is Canadian, studied Art History and Women’s Studies at Montreal’s Concordia University and since has slowly been gaining traction in the art community for her brand of off-kilter, self-deprecating performance art that tackles social issues with a millennial post-internet stylization. Madelyne is certainly one to watch, with recent shows at the Museum of Modern Art and collaborations with photographer Petra Collins.
Womanism is a Form of Feminism Focused Especially on the Conditions and Concerns of Black Women is one of the three films featured in Gallery 44’s Arrangements. It sees Beckles utilizing her webcam and a voice over to imitate “call-in commercials on late night television.” The viewer is invited to call 1-800-FLIRTY-FEMINIST and is tantalized with a seductive promo for modern day feminism. Beckles makes a digital caricature out of the contemporary state of the movement in the digital age.
The tongue in cheek nature of Beckle’s performativity is both endearingly humorous and replete with subtextual undercurrents about the absurdity of superficial and performative feminism. It is a paradox that is similarly iterated by McRobbie in writing “Companies draw on the language of ‘Girl Power’ as though to bestow on their products a sense of dynamism, modernity, and innovation. Such post-feminist strategies allow for the expansion of the ‘teen girl’ global market on the basis of re-invention of the category of youthful womanhood, for whom freedom has now been won.” Or in Beckles’ words in her video Theory of a Young Girl “With today’s brand of feminism, you no longer have to compromise looking cute.”
Beckle’s work critiques how commercial culture adopts, performs and creates tropes that contribute to popular feminist identity. In Theory of a Young Girl she paints her nails strategically on top of a pink binder titled “Theory”, in Womanism she spanks herself with a copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. The subtext is that of not only feminism as a stimulus for economic profit in contemporary society, but also of cultural profit as well; feminism is “cool” and the performativity of being “woke” is a way in which to acquire this “coolness.” One profits off of being “seen” as a feminist. In an interview for Gallery 44 Beckles explains this performativity. “Part of the inspiration for the work was my intrigue and slight frustration with people posting photos of the books they are reading. I feel like feminism had a big push in 2015/16 on the internet with women from my generation and while much of it was good, there was also a big part that was about gaining cultural currency and showing off. So this work tries to take apart what it means to read these books or show off reading books and asks: “What are you really gaining?”
The paradox lies, inevitably, in the irony that Beckles is enacting. The performativity of “wokeness” is inherently self-serving which becomes essentially the antithesis of political activism and feminism, and thus points to a larger culture context which rewards narcissism. The other paradox at play in her work? The entrenchment of popular feminism within capitalism. Content that is sponsored, funded and inspired by corporations and material goods isn’t exactly the most subversive of forms.
The Failure of Popular Feminism
Beckle’s A Theory of Young Girl riffs on this friction by incorporating Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl which includes quotes pulled from French women’s magazines. She juxtaposes these quotes with portions of feminist critique in between highly stylized feminine imagery. At one point she declares “I’m going to do what I want with my hair.” Such a statement could at one point have been potent as a form of agency and rebellion. However, feminist scholar Patrizia Gentile believes otherwise. As a result of the influence that commercial culture has had on feminism, Gentile believes these instances of rebellion have been stripped of their potency in that their commodification and mainstreaming “are used to maintain the status-quo and counter community activism advocated by certain strains of feminism.” In normalizing feminist rebellion and making it “trendy” one inadvertently reinforces the status quo by participating in it, something that Beckles is alluding to in her satirical performativity. In an unknowing and purposefully ditzy voice, enveloped in hyper-commercialized and feminized images, proclaiming one’s “independence” becomes a paradox in itself.
Beckle’s opens the video with the quote “the young girl originates in the failure of feminism” succinctly summarizing the ethos of “Arrangements.” The conception that the “young girl” has of herself and the one that Beckle’s character is so blithely adhering to is, in essence, the failure of feminism enacted. The idea of the “young girl” itself evolves out of a need to place her in a capitalist spectrum as a consumer. By allowing itself to be absorbed by capitalism through codifying gender and feigning freedom through stylization and predetermined identity markers, popular feminism operates under the false guise of female liberation. Women are still prescribed their gender roles; only now the shackles have just been painted pink.
Cody is a content creator at Glossi Mag.
He is a photography aficionado, theatre school alumni, fashion enthusiast, avid Ariana Grande fan and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing.