This week Toronto-based painter and photographer, Petra Collins, of Rookie fame and art collective, The Ardorous, made headlines after her controversial tee depicting a line drawing of a hairy vagina with masturbating fingers and a dazzling hot pink splash of menstrual blood hit American Apparel shelves.
Public outcry ensued. “Ew”; “Gross”; “WTF?”, “Grotesque”, cried the haters. “Vile and disturbing” boasted the newspaper headlines. The Daily Mail even went so far as to blur the graphic image in question.Of course, on the other side of the coin, the tee has been lauded as a piece of shocking, great art; a powerful feminist work loaded with vitriol directed at the mainstream media and fashion industry.
Collins spoke eloquently and passionately about her t-shirt design to VICE, stating that the piece was intended to shock and provoke strong reaction – needless to mention, Collins has certainly succeeded in that aim. Collins emphasised the feminist aspect of the project, specifically the widespread cultural disgust at menstruation, female masturbation and pubic hair:
Menstruation—and also pubic hair—really freaks people out. There’s pubic hair in the drawing, which I guess is super shocking to people, even though I cannot get over that. I feel like I’m so sheltered in a way. I always forget that people are so close-minded.
Grown women are taught to repress their post-pubescent body or hide it. When you start puberty and you start growing hair you’re taught to shave it, because no one’s supposed to see it. With your period, it’s something that you conceal—no one’s supposed to know. It’s almost paedophilic—and I don’t want to throw that word around. But this feminine ideology we have, of the woman being a prepubescent girl, is how we’re taught to change our bodies.
Without doubt, Collins’ points are worthwhile; however, the problem lies with the outlet selling the politicised t-shirt in question. Best known for its ‘soft porn’ advertising campaigns and for the degrading way in which women’s clothing is styled in campaigns and looksbooks, American Apparel hardly seems like the right place to peddle clothing infused with a feminist message. If anything, the attention-seeking ways of the high-street retailer taint the provocation that Collins intended, that of feminist intervention. In doing so, Collins’ feminist project fails to pack any real punch.
Yet, the sheer disgust generated by the t-shirt pervasive in internet comment threads proves that Collins’ endeavours are not entirely a failure. Much of the backlash proposes “What if this was a man with erect penis and hairy balls hanging out?”. But, it would not be the same, would it? Yes, a t-shirt bearing the naked male genitalia, gross and ludicrous all at once, would still be shocking, but merely shock for the sake of shock. A penis on a t-shirt would just be that: a penis on a t-shirt.
Many of those who have chimed in on the debate believe the same thing about Collins’ design – a boring, pointless, shock tactic – however, I argue, that there is a difference in depicting the female nether regions as opposed to the male.The difference lies in the way in which the female body is presented as highly sexualised and available in mainstream culture. Lest we forget, it is not the male body that is plastered across Page Three, naked and arranged for viewing pleasure, nor are toothy males smiling down at us, hands just about covering nipples, from the top shelf. Alternatively, what about that other pop cultural fiasco of recent times: Robin Thicke’s infamous unrated Blurred Lines video. A catchy song it may be, but the video presents the age-old dichotomy of the clothed male and naked female; a modern update of Matisse’s nudes in the studio, if you will.
Collins’ t-shirt then, gives the proverbial two-fingers to the cultural conventions that govern our consumption of the female body. The female body is not merely this beautiful thing, pearly, perfect, neat and trimmed solely for the pleasure of the male gaze, but is visceral, oozing and vibrant. The real shock of Collins’ t-shirt lies in the suggestion that female sexuality is not passive, placid or submissive, but active, carnal, and yes, even a tiny bit gross.
It’s just a shame about the store.
UPDATE: Check out this great piece by Collins on female censorship via Oyster