In Her Pants
Forty years after the rise of feminist art, Seattle artist Lynn Schirmer discovers something shocking.
Illustrated by Kris Chau
Look at this and guess what it is (hint—it's not a penguin, it's not a banana peel, and it's not a flower):
Have you guessed yet? Seriously, guess.
"I want to get that image out," says Seattle artist Lynn Schirmer. She was sitting in her loft in the Tashiro Kaplan Building the other day, drinking tea. "I want everybody everywhere to know what that shape is."
That shape is a human clitoris. If what you see when you close your eyes and picture a clitoris is merely a nubby button, then (A) you are normal, and (B) you are wrong. The nubby button is connected to a neck the size of the first joint of your thumb, and stretching from that neck are two arms that flare like a wishbone—arms that can be as long as three-and-a-half inches. The two bulbs that also extend from the center, which make the clitoris look like a penguin, were thought to belong to the vagina until recently. In the 1990s, Australian urologist Helen O'Connell "initiated the mainstream medical profession's rediscovery" of the clitoris, Schirmer says, "and it took until just a few years ago to see it fully mapped via MRI and other noninvasive imaging technologies." The result? The discovery that the clitoris has 10 times more erectile tissue than anatomy textbooks or the illustrations at the doctor's office show.
Amazing, huh? It's not the size that matters, but the astonishing lateness of the discovery itself. And it's important for a couple medical reasons. If there's more erectile tissue than was previously thought, female genital mutilations may be at least partly reversible. And scientists are finally beginning to detail the nerves and blood vessels connected to the clitoris—information surgeons need to avoid unintentionally impairing sexual function.
Why has it taken so long?
Rebecca Chalker narrates the unsolved mystery of the disappearing clitoris in her 2000 book, The Clitoral Truth. She writes, "Claudius Galen, the most famous physician of antiquity, was very straightforward about it: 'All the parts, then, that men have, women have too, the difference between them lying in only one thing, namely, that in women the parts are within, whereas in men they are outside.'" Then in the 16th century, two Italian anatomists (Fallopius and Columbus) fought over competing claims to have "discovered" the clitoris; a Danish anatomist settled their dispute by pointing out that "the clitoris had been known to everyone since the second century," writes Thomas Laqueur (in Making Sex). In 1844, German anatomist George Ludwig Kobelt published an exhaustive study of the whole clitoral system, including the arms and the bulbs. He noted a strange historical oddity—that descriptions of the entire clitoris had, by the Victorian era, "completely disappeared from Physiology." His drawings were ignored.
A hundred and fifty years later, in 1981, A New View of a Woman's Body by the Federation of Feminist Women's Health Centers "provided the first contemporary description of the internal clitoral organ. However, none of these works has had an impact on anatomy texts," Schirmer writes on the website for The After Dinner Party, a social art project that includes a group exhibition on the subject of the clitoris at the Tashiro Kaplan Building during Seattle's May 3 art walk.
Schirmer envisions clitoris-inspired art, but also performances and public rallies—with hats, buttons, flags, T-shirts, and thongs that Schirmer has had imprinted with the shape of the full clitoris. In addition to the story of how the true winged shape of the clitoris has been lost and found repeatedly since the time of the Greeks, there's merch for sale on the website. (There's a clitoral wall clock, folks.) Adding to the indoor art exhibition, she hopes to project the clitoris onto the side of a building on May 3, Batman-style.
A few men have asked Schirmer why it matters. "What if you couldn't see your penis?" she replies. "It's not like it's my appendix. Nobody goes out on a date with me so that they can eventually massage my appendix. My appendix doesn't give me an orgasm!"
Her goal is simple: to expose what's been hidden. I e-mailed a link to The After Dinner Party to Betty Tompkins, an artist who has been making huge, explicit paintings of sex acts and genitalia since 1969—who's been looking the clitoris in the face for 43 years—and she replied, "I would not have been able to identify the illustration as the clitoris."
"As a project," she continued, "it reminds me so much of the '70s, the beginning of the feminist movement where someone would bring a speculum so everyone could see what women look like on the inside. It was a big thing back in the day. It is as good an excuse to make art about as anything else. I don't know that I have anything profound to say about this. As an artist, I am more interested in what we can see than what we can't. And all the early feminist work I can think of is more vaginal in nature. Can't think of a single clitoral piece."
Tompkins attached images to her e-mail. One was Gustave Courbet's 1866 painting The Origin of the World, the most famous example of a male artist explicitly depicting female genitalia. It is a view straight up between a naked woman's legs, her vulva and hairy pubis pressing toward the viewer's face. But Tompkins pointed out something I'd never noticed before: "I don't think they are anatomically correct. No outer labia. I was surprised. What do you think? I am guessing that for all the show and tell of the setup, Courbet didn't actually look very closely at his model."
The After Dinner Party refers to the sparkling monument of feminist art that is The Dinner Party, which holds a place of honor at the Brooklyn Museum, the nation's only center for feminist art. The Dinner Party was made in the late 1970s by Judy Chicago. As recently as 1990, members of Congress decried it as "pornographic" and "offensive." They blocked it from becoming part of the collection at the University of the District of Columbia.
All The Dinner Party does is present a chronology of vividly painted and sculpted vulvas. To find it offensive, you have to find labia offensive. It has 39 table settings. Each plate, bearing a vulvar form, sits on an embroidered runner that tells you which female historical figure is being represented. Susan B. Anthony's plate is not really a plate but a fully three-dimensional flaring pink ceramic vulva with an angry red center. The suffragist died in 1906, 14 years before suffrage.
The Dinner Party is a spectacle. Walk into the room with it, and voices fall to a hush. It is commandingly, beautifully made. It proudly takes up space. But it's dry. It's taxonomic. It's literal. It's one of the more humorless pieces of early feminist art. Compare it to Tee Corinne's Cunt Coloring Book from the same time—ink drawings of real live vulvas, capturing the wild variations among supposedly standard equipment. She put them together in a book and published it widely—it's still available. You're invited not only to look but to touch and to decorate them yourself. The title is Corinne's way of raising the taboo, pushing a slur up against the innocence of biology. If The Dinner Party is for polite company, Cunt Coloring Book is what you might put away when your relatives visit.
There are many examples of more confrontational showings of female sexual parts over the years. In 1968, the artist VALIE EXPORT—an Austrian who changed her name and demanded it be printed in all caps; her name is forever shouted—is said to have entered an independent movie house wearing a pair of pants with the genital area cut out. She roamed the aisles, situating her vulva with the faces of the moviegoers, challenging them to deal with a "real woman" rather than actresses on the screen. She called the piece Action Pants: Genital Panic. Later it was re-created (though there's some question whether it ever happened) in photographs with the artist sitting spread-legged, holding a machine gun on her lap.
Action Pants made for a great story and some unforgettable photographs, but EXPORT's Tap and Touch Cinema in 1968 was even gutsier. The artist stood outside a film festival wearing a boxlike contraption around her naked breasts, with a curtain in front, so that men could put their hands inside and feel her up while having to look her in the eye—with a crowd around them. Both parties found themselves extremely vulnerable. They also found themselves publicly symbolizing the disturbing links between secrecy, sex, and entertainment. And yet it was somehow funny, too.
"I'm a big believer in humor as a way to make people understand things," says Seattle artist and graphic novelist Ellen Forney, who had her first comic published in Ms. magazine in 1992. In 2007, she showed her big drawings of hands performing sex acts at Liberty. I sent her a link to The After Dinner Party, too. She knew about the wishbone arms but not the penguiny bulbs. She e-mailed back an image from The Atlas of Human Anatomy, "still respected and the latest copyright is 1997," she wrote. "It just shows the glans." (The glans is the nubby button.) Rampant clitoral incorrectness!
The emphasis on the shape of the clitoris in The After Dinner Party—clitoris-emblazoned hats, etc.—"could be kind of seen as elementary," Forney says. "In a lot of ways, it seems not nuanced enough for modern sensibilities. That said, I think about the fact that so many young women not only don't consider themselves feminists but really kind of eschew the whole philosophy—a lot of women just enjoy the fruits of our mothers' fights, and I feel really pretty strongly about that. My mother subscribed to Ms. at its birth. She ran for city council and was referred to as Mrs. Leroy Forney.
"But even now, I was in a women's comics anthology and I had a really long talk with the editor, Megan Kelso, about whether it makes sense for us to marginalize ourselves anymore, so there's this weird balance. You kind of go back and forth between 'We are a special group and we want to have our particular way of looking at things recognized,' but at the same time, we also want to be a part of the canon, of the collections of comics, just non-gendered comics, so it's difficult to figure out where to land on that. I would love to say that it's irrelevant now, but I don't think that it is. I think you could have a batik of a woman saying, 'I love my clitoris,' and it's all dorky and it doesn't really speak to anyone other than, like, the stereotypical hippie. And on the other hand, it could be a very thoughtful statement about how these are struggles that we are still grappling with."
Forney paused. "I hope that there is at least something of a sense of humor. It could be amazing, or it could be—oh, god."
In 1983, Barbara Kruger—an artist who'd begun her career in the 1960s by making crafty wall hangings with feathers and ribbons—created a work of art called We Won't Play Nature to Your Culture. She superimposed those authoritative words over an advertising photograph she found of a sunbathing woman's face, a leaf over each eye. We Won't Play Nature to Your Culture made an announcement: Gender roles prescribe a false duality, a lie that's become the foundation of our society. Feminism won't just mean reclaiming and celebrating the realms considered essentially feminine—crafts, cooking, sewing, vulvas, à la The Dinner Party. True feminism, this next wave claimed, will have to call bullshit on prescriptions for both sexes. We'll have to queer the whole system.
Recent feminist artists have picked up both strands of feminist belief: what might be called the "essentialism" of the 1960s and early '70s, and the "structuralism" that followed, which argued that social structures dictated gendered behaviors rather than any internal "essence" of femininity or masculinity. A video of Seattle artist Wynne Greenwood and K8 Hardy delivering a news broadcast while cameras are directed at their exposed nipple and vulva, rather than their faces, is a perfect example. It's a sophisticated, collaborative, multimedia approach that synthesizes the inherently, absurdly sexist conditions of contemporary life, on one hand, and the influence of generations of feminist art and female-driven thinking, on the other. The focus on body parts echoes essentialism; the use of the TV-news format evokes structuralism.
And it's funny. You can't forget it. You can't watch the TV news the same way again. Likewise, Hardy is doing a runway show with real models in this spring's Whitney Biennial—sure to tweak the framework of fashion while directly involving women's bodies.
A month before Schirmer's The After Dinner Party opened, it was still unclear whether any unforgettable new works of feminist art will emerge from it. But if the only result of it is that the shape of the clitoris is implanted in the minds of the masses—maybe some clitoral graffiti is in order?—that would still be something. Can you believe that in one of the most advanced countries in the world, leading feminist artists—and doctors!—still don't know what the clitoris looks like? To say nothing of most people. In an age where the American presidential election is hinging in part on the "controversy" of a woman's access to birth control, rape remains a tool of war, and certain cultures still embrace the genital mutilation of girls, a little goddamn cliteracy is a powerful idea.