A Feminist R(t)e(a) Party

October 28, 2011

I joined Suzanne Stroebe and Caitlin Rueter yesterday for tea. They are the Feminist Tea Partiers: young women artists who stage kitchy klatches where face-to-face discourse about feminism, rather than local gossip, is the preferred subject. I enjoyed our little chat. These refined lady artists were warm, engaging, and driven. Yet I couldn’t also help to feel a little remorse twinged with a more profound pain that comes with the endless been-there-done-that cycle which seems to define so much feminist experience and art.

The need to playfully restage and thus reinvent our feminism after its “loss” by ironically using our mother’s (or mother’s mother’s) costumes and conventions has itself been done. The image above is from Ann Magnuson and Kenny Scharf’s show East/Village West, for PST, and shows Magnuson’s generation (late 70s) staging hauntingly similar parties. Women at the LA Woman’s Building in the early 70s did similar work (i.e. the Waitresses, or Ilene Segalove, or Womanhouse as only three examples visible in our show Doin’ it in Public at Otis for PST).

Also from E/V W. Campy eighties ladies.

I’m not blaming the new tea-partiers, in fact, someone needs to (re)do the thankless work which sadly seems to be the ongoing, never-ending, tedious but necessary first-step project of feminism, enabling young women to 1) call themselves feminists (in the face of a (re)circulating set of fears of the term, the position, or the movement) and 2) educate themselves in their feminist pasts. I do this work just about daily as a Woman’s Studies professor, and have done so now for twenty-one years, as have a huge number of people I love, respect, and honor. So why doesn’t it stick? Or better yet, where does it stick? Why can’t we build? Or better yet, where do we build?

As far as this current tea party goes, I would love to ask the ladies their thoughts on two questions (hereby beginning, I hope, an online feminist tea conversation):

  • I am left to wonder why the fifties motif and not, say, a seventies one?
  • Where does gay-male camp fit into your drag?

3 Responses to “A Feminist R(t)e(a) Party”

  1. Thanks for blogging about our project, Alex! And thanks for giving us the chance to respond to your questions. At each venue we’ve found that, whether intentionally or accidentally, some aspects of the project take a back seat to others. Especially in response to the Pomona installation, we really appreciate the opportunity to clarify our intentions regarding the aesthetics of A Feminist Tea Party. I’m going to respond to your first question and leave the second one for Suzanne.

    The aesthetics of our costumes and installation, the faux-fifties tea parlor “set”—flowered wallpaper, frilly linens and cinched waist skirts—draw on imagery from 1950s television sitcoms and consumer goods advertisements.

    At each event, we perform roles in what might now be considered a prudish context to draw attention to how sexualized this imagery initially was and to bring an element of humor and playfulness into the project. We know that real women did not vacuum in high heels and cocktail dresses, or greet their husbands at the end of the workday with a martini and a smile, that June Cleaver and Donna Reed were fantasy. But these images, as they form the heritage of popular representations of women today—sex and service, the consumer and the consumed—are still relevant.

    The aesthetics are meant to conceptually mirror techniques of the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party has effectively played on the concept of historical reenactment as a vehicle for political discourse. In A Feminist Tea Party, we reenact a 1950s tea party as a forum for discourse. Where the Tea Party initially used the image of the Minutemen as a rallying cry for conservatives fearing conquest by a tyrannical socialist-fascist-marxist-democratic government, we draw on the image of the 1950s tea party as a way to link pre-1970s feminism and 1970s feminist consciousness-raising groups to our own generation’s feminism.

    While feminists of the 1970s rejected everything real and imagined about the 1950s feminine ideal, there seems to be a growing nostalgia for the white, middleclass imagery of that period and for some of its domestic ideals. Our set and costumes are an easy way to provoke a conversation about the problem of nostalgia which, whether in the context of feminism or in the context of ever more right-leaning American politics, always seems like a relevant place to start.

  2. sstroebe Says:

    Hi Alex,

    We love your questions and appreciate the opportunity to continue the conversation online. Until your visit to our installation at Pomona College, I hadn’t really considered the positive aspects of having a blog as opposed to a website for our project, but now realize that our virtual space can be a continuation of the conversations that begin in person.

    I love your question about drag. I’ve actually become really interested in drag recently, having a couple close friends who have gotten into this scene in nyc. However, we honestly haven’t considered drag in respect to our project! I’d love to hear your thoughts and to continue this conversation…

  3. MP:me Says:

    I appreciate your comments, Caitlin, about reenactment and nostalgia, and they make a lot of sense to me. There is always the problem of imitative fallacy in such parodic acts, so that they end up being read more as celebration than critique. So perhaps decking the room with the items you already do, and ALSO other ironic-homages to fifties housewives would make your critique more apparent (on top of the books you currently use).
    Suzanne, I mention drag for a few reasons, the most obvious being that gay men often perform a version of the character you’ve taken on, but with much more obvious irony (in that they are men, but also in that they are in funnier, over-the-top costumes), but also in that they enact the position with a kind of camp that is harder for women to pull off when they are performing critical versions of themselves. I think that feminist thinking here on the masquerade would be of great use to you. But given your thinking about the role of anti-racism in feminism, and also in your performance, a tweaking of your project to mark the draginess of race, and not just femininity, might also be an interesting move.
    This leads me to speculate that the rub between irony and sincerity is not always clear in the piece (a line I find VERY hard to think through) given your very sincere and necessary project of turning younger women on to feminism and its history.

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