Why the idea of the ‘perfect feminist’ is impossible

Exploring the notion that the ‘perfect feminist’ is an impossible standard for women to live up to, this photographer captures the iconography linked to femininity

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Frances F Denny’s Pink Crush
"Wicked Game"Copyright Frances F. Denny, archival pigment print, Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City

American photographer Frances F Denny named her series “Pink Crush” after a nail polish. All the photos in the project, in fact, bear the name of nail polish shades – “Butterfly Dreams”, “Mermaid Moon” – and it’s a distinctive artist statement. Denny explores something rooted very deeply in female identity; the candy coloured aesthetic of girlhood and its impact on a woman’s place in contemporary society. 

“All of my work tackles the same core concern: the various influences girls are impacted by as they develop into women”, she explains. “In Pink Crush it comes from a personal relationship to these feminine signifiers from when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, and the effects of pop culture and commercialism on the female psyche. The first image I made was of a pink wig in my studio in grad school – there was something disembodied and animal-like about it, disturbing and beautiful at the same time. Though that picture is no longer part of the series, it got me thinking about how these objects played a role in developing my own sense of self as a woman. I wanted to explore how those objects and colours can be defining, and how the ‘thingness’ of girlhood is quite sticky”.

For women all over the world, “Pink Crush” evokes an instant tingle of recognition. Hula hoops and ponies, pink hairbands and rainbow friendship bracelets are the usual artefacts of girly adolescence, and an almost unescapable part of the Western culture. For Denny, the series is merging the well-known visual concepts and personal experience linked to femininity. “People seem to identify with the objects in the pictures, like the lanyard, the Bubble Tape gum, the Lisa Frank colour palette, but there are very personal references as well, like in ‘Better Together’ which is a still-life evoking a Tiffany’s blue wedding assemblage of rock candy and silk flowers.” She explains: “While making the series, I was engaged to be married and conflicted with trying to have a meaningful wedding while at the same time feeling highly critical of the whole commodification of the marriage ritual – a complex that was all but force-fed to me from an early age, of course. There are also a couple of images about birthdays, and the disappointment I always felt about myself on my birthday, most notably perhaps in ‘Birthday Bash’, which for me is a kind of regurgitation of the girl-themed birthday section in one of those big chain party stores.”

“Being a perfect feminist is yet another impossible standard to live up to as a woman” – Frances F Denny

The artist’s main aim, however, is not to document the aesthetics but to submerse and question it. Her main aim is infantilisation of women: “The figures in ‘Pink Crush’ are all women around my age (31), yet in the photos, they look like they could be much younger. From afar, viewers usually assume the figures are young girls, but if you see the prints close up, you realise they are women – that ambiguity may be uncomfortable. I also wanted to reflect the pressure to be sexy and attractive that younger girls feel, too. And at an ever-earlier age, as far as I can tell”.

In a way, Pink Crush reflects the confusion and doubts of contemporary feminists fighting for gender equality: raised in the candy coloured kingdom of stereotypical girlhood, we might still treasure affection to our own unicorns and pink tutus. Denny rethinks those for us helping to understand the nature of our internal struggle. “Ultimately, ‘Pink Crush’ is an admission – that despite being a feminist, and despite being critical of the ways women are infantilised and sexualised in so many ways culturally, I’m showing that this stuff is insidiously adherent; that perhaps we also maintain these behaviours or fascinations because it’s how we learned how to be women,” she says. “I am attracted to these colours, and have a fondness for these objects and effects despite seeing myself as someone who would like to think she knows better. In a recent The New Yorker piece Lena Dunham wrote, ‘I like admitting that my feminism and my femininity are not fully formed or in perfect harmony.’ That statement resonates with what I’m trying to express in my work. Being a perfect feminist is yet another impossible standard to live up to as a woman: making ‘Pink Crush’ was a way of admitting that I am far from a perfect feminist who can eschew all the loaded feminine signifiers she was conditioned to love”. 

“Pink Crush” is on show at New York’s ClampArt until 19 of December, 2015. Click here for more information

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