Feminist Artist Betty Tompkins’ New Project Exposes The Way Society Describes Women

We’re experiencing quite the matriarchal moment in culture right now, which started in January at the Women’s March, and has been raging all year in opposition to the hate, bigotry, regression and fear coming out of the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. Whether it is women’s reproductive rights, immigrant rights, LGBTQ issues or healthcare, we are witnessing an exciting time in America.

With the onslaught of recent high profile men such as Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein being ousted from their jobs due to major sexual assault, harassment and rape allegations, there is a sense of women starting to gain a sense of power and reclaim their narratives that have for too long been controlled and diminished by patriarchal standards.

With the rise of #MeToo stories flooding social media conversations, it’s impossible to ignore the damaging culture and perception of women that have been allowed to fester for generations. It warrants a deep-dive examination into what people actually think about women and how women are talked about outside of empowerment campaigns and slogans. An artist that is doing this is New York-based Betty Tompkins, whose work over the years has been seen as controversial and radical.

She once created a series of paintings and drawings of giant genitalia in the 1970s, inspired by pornography, that was was rejected even by some feminists. With any great artist, there is a deeper message to their work and perhaps what Betty was creating a few decades ago wasn’t as fully appreciated as it should be, especially given recent revelations about how women are treated in certain industries.

A more recent project of hers that has been shown all over the world is ‘Women Words’, where Betty takes iconic images and art work and overlays them with descriptive words about women, crowd-sourced from the public via email. In an interview with Elle UK, she says her request received responses from all over the world, and some of the answers were shocking, but also not entirely surprising.

The original idea came to her in 2002 and was born out of her frustration with critical discourse at the time. She received responses from 1500 people who sent her words and phrases about women. The project came to fruition properly in 2012 after a discussion with a fellow artist about the use of language.

“I decided to do 1,000 paintings of the words. I began to wonder then if language had changed – 11 years had gone by, things were supposedly different – so I sent another email out, this time promising people anonymity, which I hadn’t before. I don’t know if that’s why, but I got so many stories back. ‘Wench’ was more popular than it had been before. But the four most repeated words were exactly the same: bitch, cunt, slut and mother. Isn’t it crazy!” she said.

There is a lot to unpack from each image, phrase and words, and a couple have stood out to Betty in particular.

“There was one guy who had written ‘the only thing that would make her more beautiful would be my dick in her mouth’ and I thought, who is this guy? You have to laugh. Someone else had written ‘heck, most people don’t like women’ and I thought ‘okay, let’s think about this one!'” she said.

Audiences don’t get to find out whether the words were submitted by men or women, and Betty says that was entirely intentional given the way sexism, misogyny and violence are not just perpetrated by men in the way we think.

“Embedded misogyny is a real thing, as we’ve seen. These serial abusers, harassers, rapists, have often had help – women helped them. And we have to start to ask how, how did this happen? It’s something I’ve been aware of for a really long time but I’ve only recently begun to get articulate about it in my work,” she said.

Commenting on the current movement exposing sexual predators most notably in the media, Betty shares her own experience of this as a young artist.

“When I was in college a Professor of mine had said to me, the only way you’re going to make it as an artist is flat on your back. This is an incredible thing to say to a 20 year old. It remains in my mind sexual terrorism. The first time I went to see a dealer in New York, it popped into my head going up in the elevator, I got so scared, then when I got out, I went to the bathroom and threw up instead of going into the gallery,” she recalled.

The sexism and exclusion of women in the art world has been well-documented and spoken about by a number of female artists. And while the feminist movement back in the 70’s may have missed the opportunity to utilize Betty’s work as a form of rebellious conversation around the control of women’s bodies and sexuality, there could well be a “house cleaning” happening in the art world with narratives and messages like hers.

“I’ve been told that on a scale from conservative to way out, I’m past away out. Which is a surprise to me because all I do is get up every morning and do what I want!” she told Elle UK’s Charlotte Jansen.

In the current moment of women rising up, not apologizing for their anger or autonomy (especially around sexuality and reproductive rights) there is so much to learn from Betty Tompkins’ ‘Women Words’. We’ve shared some of her images from her series throughout this article, but you can see more in the Elle UK article, and on her Twitter account.




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