On “Deconstructing Clean Notions of Girlhood”

Image by Petra Collins, via The Cut

Image by Petra Collins, via The Cut

It would be hard to discount that society promotes an idyllic vision of girlhood in which youthful femininity is seen as untainted—definitively virginal. This is a concept that needs to be disbanded, and revealed for the unreality that it is. Growing up ‘girl’ is not all tea parties and lavender scented day-of-the-week panties. While those may come in to play for some young ladies (though not all), it is much more a time of confusion—the period when we are first really confronted with our bodies and all that they can, and—under society’s gaze—can’t do. We walk around in these vessels which do things that we have no control over—our nether regions tingle and we’re not sure why, we feel equal parts excitement and shame at the way certain people send us buzzing with adrenaline, our urges confound us and we suspect we must hide them. Coupled with that, we bleed, sometimes quite a lot. Sometimes it really fucking hurts. It isn’t easy, or subtle, or clean—it isn’t in the realm of femininity in which we’ve been taught to remain. Our own bodies start coloring outside the lines and we must suppress them, or do our very best to hide any evidence betraying otherwise.

I’m not ashamed of these things now because time has taught me they’re common, and maturity has allowed me to reflect on my early feelings and actions as more the norm than not. But growing up I was often disgusted with myself, and this feeling was isolating in its capacity to write my experience into a singular narrative with which I believed no others could relate. I rolled around beds with a young male pal and felt all sorts of things that I didn’t understand—taking baths together was of course the apex of these experiences. But the minute our parents voices sounded nearby, I felt my cheeks growing rosy, convinced that I was broken in some way and terrified that they might find out. My toys, especially the Barbie and Ken clan, got up to no good on the regular, hastily rubbing their de-sexualized lower halves upon each other while the adults were out of sight. I learned to seal these memories and more beneath the more palatable ones from childhood.

A few years later, health classes and the various adult women who tried to prepare me for what was to come merely skimmed the surface. My mother, with the best of intentions, told me about my period over a shared sandwich at the local diner, and I left under the traumatizing illusion that my exterior skin would begin shedding blood once a month. I pretended to know what sex was, but lacked full comprehension until the seventh-freaking-grade, when a health video went through all the important motions for us, in great detail—albeit rendered in cartoon. I left that class somewhat queasy, with no desire whatsoever to experience the emotionless in-and-out motion that had just been illustrated for us. We focused heavily on the grotesque images of various STDs, but never dared speak of specific sexual acts like fellatio or masturbation. Even writing these words now I have no doubt that a certain contingent will shudder. We knew exactly what to avoid, but were never taught what to look forward to. Sex—and our sexual urges—could ruin us, but it couldn’t do much else.

What prompted this diatribe was browsing images and an interview related to a new exhibition at New York’s Capricious 88 gallery titled “Discharge” by the young artist Petra Collins. Collins is one of the Rookie girls whose “work” has been praised by Oyster Magazine, among others, and whose bloody vaginal imagery can be seen on t-shirts sold at American Apparel. I don’t find any of this disgusting or shocking, but I strongly disagree that she is, as New York Magazine writes, “deconstructing the ubiquitous ‘clean vision of girl hood.’” [I also don’t find her work very special or interesting on an aesthetic level, but that’s a discussion for another time.] We might be on the same side in terms of the cause we’re fighting for, but her angle (as depicted by her interview answers and the actual body of work on display) betrays a certain naiveté and a still-very limited perception of female adolescence. She honors Rihanna in a lot of her work as a sexually empowered female, which is problematic because in singling out a few of her lyrics, she neglects the abundance of submissive lines that can also be found within “RiRi’s” oeuvre. There’s also, of course, Rihanna’s very public relationship with Chris Brown, which, while she in no way deserves to be shamed for it, isn’t what I would call grounds for idolatry. More important than all of this, though, is the fact that Rihanna is a grown woman, so I find it curious that Collins is looking to her to aid in this supposed disruption of the image of pristine youth, by pairing her lyrics next to images of young girls lying around in their panties.

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This brings me to the images themselves. I ’d venture to guess that not all of these young women have even had sex yet, still submerged in that period where any sexual desires or, simply, questions, are often repressed, making the lyrical juxtaposition even more nonsensical. The images barely reveal the nitty-gritty of girlhood. For an exhibit titled “Discharge,” it is seriously lacking in any of that white crud—in both the literal and metaphorical sense. I see conventionally pretty, white females in cute panties and crop tops, a sliver of boob, a tired gaze, nice butts in denim cutoffs, a stainless pair of panties on the floor, a selfie being taken. Not only is it boring, but it also looks nothing like the realities of growing up female. It looks like just another strain of girlhood fetishization, one familiar to the likes of both Woody Allen and Vladimir Nabokov. It depicts girls who are posturing—smoking cigarettes, wearing lacy underthings—but it delves no deeper than that. What came before this act of theirs began? What’s actually behind it? What’s really going on inside those panties (because they certainly aren’t always that clean)? Without answering those questions, you can’t really claim to be disrupting perceptions of girl hood.

None of what Collins puts forth would have illuminated the universal nature of my feminine-happenings growing up. It in no way would have comforted me, but instead, would have given me another image of G-I-R-L to strive for, to live up to. And just like the virginal favorite, this one avoids much of reality, too. Her best work is a hairy and bloody rendering on a t-shirt, which is not saying much…because, frankly, the shirt itself says little to nothing. The image is cartoonish, a little twisted. It’s made for shock value and those who wear it are yearning to shock—all of which just conforms to the notion that vaginas, and pubic hair, and period blood are shocking and grotesque. That female sexuality is seeped in wow factor, and to be spoken of only in that context. So can we please not call this something that it definitely is not? A status-quo disruptor sending all quaint visions of femininity to hell and beyond? No. It’s a few muted photographs of young girls sitting pretty, or dabbling in adult preferences for tobacco and lingerie. It’s a t-shirt dressed up as a feminist emblem, which will sit on Brooklyn Hipster shelves collecting dust while little girls the world over continue to think themselves out of thoughts they believe they shouldn’t have.

1 reply »

  1. Well…the pics definitely have nothing in common with what i felt like when growing up; they really are too neat and clean. No such thing as describing the feeling i had when i got my period while sleeping at a friends place and what´s more, bleeding over a pyjama she borrowed me…having to tell her and her mum felt SO awful I even feel awkward today when writing this comment. (I don´t think i ever told anyone…)

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