Mad Women: Not So Bad, Really

Does anyone remember the moment in Mad Men when Peggy encountered a beatnik/artist type named Abe, and it seemed that she had met an intellectual match?  Do we also remember the disheartening moment when enlightened Abe balked at Peggy's feminist approach to their well-intentioned discussion about civil rights? "Who needs to champion womens' rights in this day and age?" he argued.

This episode evoked a generally familiar dilemma--how do we voice our expectations and disappointments without it becoming a point of contention about who really needs attention? One of the worst aspects of this attitude is that it tends to position various social groups against each other. (In Mad Men, Abe was arguing for African-American rights while dismissing womens' rights).

It's enough to make you mad.  But is anger the worst thing to feel in the face of such blunt ignorance? No! It actually can lead to bright, satirical, and pleasant illustrations about experiences that aren't easily represented nowadays. The intersection of race and gender identities is engrossing for its constant tendency to be so narrowly understood yet increasingly visible and inspiring.

The other day, I had a heart-stopping moment, in which I reviewed the work of an artist and felt that we were having the same conversation.  Isis Rodriguez, whom was brought to my attention by a professor, had caught my eye before at a gallery show when I had just arrived to San Francisco. Her statement relates her preferred medium for expression, the cartoon, and Rodriguez explains that:
I feel like a therapist when I draw because I consider the cartoon’s attitudes and behaviors important before I make it art. Women are a special interest to me because they are stereotypes of sexual power. Thru observation, I’ve notice that their sexual power is the always in a state of conflict. I feel compelled to identify the conflict and to resolve this conflict, to make things better. This is how I make art.
Some feelings that arise when we encounter stereotypical attitudes is indeed anger.  How do we work that one out? In art? Rodriguez's series, My Life as a Comic Stripper, blends the humor, line work, and scale that is most often associated with comics with imagery that confronts the typically submissive roles attributed to women in Art History.  My favorite image, No More!, is an image that embodies the image of an emboldened woman that resists such objectification. It doesn't mince words and puts the female character in the role of the avenger. In addition, the slang term for vagina, pussy, is reimagined as a protective animal that is anything but inviting to the viewer:

No More!. 1996. Acrylic Gouache, Ink on Bristol, 10"x12".

This image also resembles the midcentury sirens that existed in film noirs--unstable money-grubbing temptresses that were poised to destroy the last shred of the (male) protagonist's integrity. Whoa, that sounds bad, doesn't it? Um, it sort of is on a psychological level. Sexy women equals trouble isn't the nicest association. Overall, it adds an increasingly real layer to hypersexualized (and brainless) depictions that we tend to just accept--here, there's a sense of payback to be had. Yeah!

Finally, Rodriguez's approach to her own cultural identity as a self-described "Mestiza" was refreshing for its honest discussion about forming identities around languages. She stated that,
I was never taught Spanish because my parents were told by the school districts that learning both languages would confuse me, and that I would not excel in school. My parents wanted the best for me and decided I should learn English instead. Later, as a teenager, I took Spanish classes but never had people to practice with. So I only know Spanish in fragments and oftentimes I get confused with certain words that sound the similar. For example jamón and jabón. Jamón means ham. Jabón means soap. I wanted to use English and Spanish to create some funny puns that speak of my own struggles with language.
This is a common result of neighborhood/regional hostilities regarding race and "identifiers," such as skin color and language (in this case, Spanish).  Using it as a point of connection with others is a still rare apparition in popular art.

But it's changing, continuously and all around. Think of the sweet complexities that ran throughout Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, a coming-of-age animated film set in Iran. Or Patti Smith's recent autobiography, Just Kids. Both of these examples embraced the rockier aspects of living as a woman, and trying to find a place for ourselves over time. But don't forget Marjane's endearing but well-founded personal call to arms, set to the tune of "Eye of the Tiger" or Smith's intense quasi-ecstatic tales of darkness and struggle. It's all alright, and comes our beautifully sometimes.

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