An Essay on Lesbian Feminism and Art

Shayla Hickerson
11 December 2018

Lesbian Feminism and Performativity in Art

The art world is defined primarily in phallocentric terms. Male artists tend to be the pioneers of art movements and the creators of identifiable techniques. Consider the Art history canon; the influential names include a list of dead, white cisgender, heteronormative, genius males. Female artists are omitted from the list, which invites people to conclude that there has been no woman artist who has created considerable artwork in the past. In reality, there have been many women artists. The public lacks information on the female artist because women usually practiced by using their partner’s or father’s name in order to be taken seriously in the public sphere, or they have been writing out of historical texts. By the mid-twentieth century, women began fighting the artistic oppression. Women artists yearned for artistic liberation and demanded that their voice be heard. The emergence of lesbian feminism presented a platform for women to recreate their identity outside of the male gaze, and define their identity by separating themselves from their male counterpart. Coral Short, Dayna McLeod, and Shawna Dempsey in collaboration with Lorri Millan explore their identity as women artists through performance, which allows them to document their lesbian feminist jouissance as the creator and creation wherein the removal of the male gaze redirects the female subject to be displayed by the feminine eye.

The performativity of gender is enforced by a social script that manifests through the body. The visibility of gender that reflects either male or female personas dictate social acceptance; when an individual embodies an unconventional identity, outwardly acceptance becomes difficult to grasp. For example, institutionalized scripts provide us with the tools to interact with others based on preconceived notions of gender. Heteronormative, cis-gendered women have been depicted under the male gaze, whereas “lesbian women have been additionally marginalized not only by having their sexuality deemed ‘aberrant’ or ‘abnormal’, but also by having it represented in visual images as an object for male erotic investigation” (Robinson 540). Although the lack of lesbian identity within scripts allow individuals to better constructs an unconventional identity (the lack of framework omits the need to reject a given framework in order to identify without social pressures), there is a prevalent struggle within lesbian identity. Typically, according to Coral Short, lesbian women will embody the persona of caretaker. They will put the needs of others first, losing their sense of identity and ultimately, beating themselves up – whether it be physically or emotionally. Short utilizes performativity to embody a lesbian script separate from the male gaze in order to emphasize the self-harm and validate lesbianism.

In her performance, Stop Beating Yourself Up (2015)(02:00:00), Short utilizes the intersection of sport and performance to emphasize the necessity of self-nurture among queer women who have a tendency of ‘beating themselves up’ metaphysically and literally. Over the duration of 2 hours, Short is observed in a boxing ring, in boxer attire, fighting an opponent that is herself. After enduring continuous punches to her body, she experienced a minor concussion, and numerous bruises and cuts. Short manipulates the concept of body as performativity to emphasize that “it is about (…) internal struggles that we have as queers and feminists, um, how we are really really harsh on ourselves internally (…) so it was like a super visceral call to be more gentle with ourselves” (Short, “Don’t Beat Yourself Up”). Short suggests that through queer identities, many women tend to put the needs of others first. Consequently, they oppress their own needs. Short validates self-worth and self-nurture regarding queer women by displaying the trauma in order to acknowledge impact of neglect. Once there is an establishment of acknowledgement, then queer women will have a foundation upon which to create change. In order to heal the internal and external bruises from beating themselves up, one must acknowledge the bruises. One must acknowledge their stories; their struggles. Since institutional scripts marginalize lesbian identities, queer women are not provided the skills to nurture their identities. The skills are cultivated from within themselves, explored through development, and expressed through jouissance. Then, queer women embody the learned nourishment through performance.

The lack of queer representation arguably stems from the presumed purpose of the feminine persona. Regarding gender roles, women are primarily child-bearers, caretakers, nurturers and sexual objects to appease the needs of men. They were never given a reason to care for themselves because their duty was to tend to the needs of others, even sexually. Similarly, women embody a form of visual pleasure for men. Even when women began entering the workforce, they were employed as beautifully young, approachable women. Many women feared losing their job if they were considered undesirable. A large, driving undesirable force is inevitable aging. Considering that institutionalized texts are established by hegemonic men, feminine ideologies are limited and inaccurate in their representation, but “(…) the potential of performing acts to transform normative gender and sexual relations were extremely fruitful in setting a framework for new ways to think about images as enactments of particular embodied subjects (rather than, necessarily, frozen fetishes for the male viewers’ delectation)” (Jones 472). Through lesbian feminism, women are enabled to record their experience and share a script that ultimately challenges the hegemonic texts. Women document their bodily changes, their journey through aging, and their existence outside the influences of the beauty myth.

McLeod expresses her jouissance in her performance, I Live for Menopause (2018)(00:04:15), wherein she challenges the imposed sense of fear with womanly aging and embraces the transformations which include menopause. Historically, there is a lack of texts that portrays a positive outlook on womanly aging, yet “in I Live for Menopause, Dayna McLeod uses her queer, aging, body to confront ageism with humour to imagine a menopausal future that is full of promise. Based on Lady Gaga’s 2013 Applause, Montreal musician Jackie Gallant scores a slamming dance track full of throbbing beats, synth, and underwater majesty” (McLeod, “I Live for Menopause”). McLeod challenges the notion that as women age, their beauty diminishes and thus, they will be replaced by younger and prettier women in the public sphere, including the workplace. A woman, in every stage of development, is beautiful. Menopause is a gift which should not be feared. Aging is a beautiful transformation that women should readily have the ability to embrace. Yet, social norms have established negative notions regarding women aging. Simply by existing, queer women embody political, activist jouissance; their bodies transform into vessels that mark their positive experiences through aging.

Thus far, queer women have lacked a script representative of their experience; texts are highly influenced by hegemonic ideals, suggesting the feminine as being an embodiment of male pleasure. Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan practice lesbian feminist jouissance in their performances, Lesbian National Parks and Services (1997) and Mary Medusa (1992)(00:05:00), to provide a script based on a wholly feminine experience in order to combat the phallocentric ideals of feminine identity. The feminine persona that is displayed in institutional and social texts assumes a submissive, docile, naive form, and the gender ideologies are a result of reinforced performativity. Since “bodies participate in social action by delineating courses of social conduct – the body is a participant in generating social practice” (Connell and Messerschmidt 255). Performativity reinforces gender which dictates how others will not only view an individual, but it also dictates how individuals will be treated through socially gendered segregation. Lorber explains why women artists used the emergence of Lesbian Feminism in the 1970s to create their own identity, and for many of them, that meant leaving their husbands and/or boyfriends “because intimacy with a man undercuts a woman’s independence” (Lorber 163).  A woman knows her localities and intersectionalities as the Self, yet her identity is defined by her respective counterpart. Thus, she becomes the Other. In order to establish a script representative of the feminine perspective, a script that accurately reflects the feminine, it is imperative that the ideologies are presented by women. In order to identify as the Self, Dempsey and Millan challenge the hegemonic script. They identify the lesbian identity and provide a script based on a feminine gaze.

In recent times, texts have displayed lesbian personas as overtly femme or butch. Dempsey and Millan provide a comedic script that opposes the institutionalized phallocentric understanding of nature and identity by demonstrating a lesbian perspective in their performance, Lesbian National Parks and Services. Both the artists embodied their script throughout their residency at Banff Center. During the weeks of the residency:

In full uniform as Lesbian Rangers, Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan patrol parklands, [challenged] the general public’s ideas of tourism, recreation, and the “natural” environment. Equipped with informative brochures and well-researched knowledge, they are a visible homosexual presence in spaces where concepts of history and biology exclude all but a very few. (Dempsey and Millan, “Lesbian National Parks and Services”)

Through their performance and with the aid of their brochures, Dempsey and Millan challenge the understanding of lesbian identity while contradicting the imposed male script provided by institutional national parks.

Furthermore, in their performance Mary Medusa, Dempsey and Millan invite viewers to challenge the feminine gender norms by re-telling male dominated narratives through a fresh, new feminine experience;

This piece is one of Dempsey and Millan’s Archetype Performances in which familiar characters examine the lessons and images from the stories, myths and codes that have shaped us. Dempsey and Millan subvert these icons accepted meanings and re-tell their tales from a contemporary female perspective. (Dempsey and Millan, “Mary Medusa”)

The performance challenges accepted views of feminine demeanor and identity. Instead of a docile, virgin figure, the performers display a feminine persona that is sneaky, dark and sexy. The persona ultimately reflects the concept of control. Transnationally, gender norms are a result of power. One script takes precedent. Consequently, hegemonic men obtain power which results in a social order wherein women become oppressed and their voices are silenced. Yet, Mary Medusa creates a setting where women have power. Medusa herself becomes an emblem of power, with her ability to turn men into stone. Here, her appearance is repulsive to men; they cannot even look at her, and thus she has the upper hand. She has control, although Dempsey and Millan note that control circulates. They flip the coin and additionally explore the woman that loses control. If Medusa’s snake heads all turned on each other, her disposition would be reflective of a woman that is out of control – all of which is a frightening matter. Similarly, jouissance provides women artists unprecedented control. In terms of performance art, Dempsey and Millan exemplify the obtained power by presenting a feminine persona that is butch (National Parks and Services), and presenting a persona that is wild, sexy, dark and sneaky (Mary Medusa). In challenging the hegemonic script that defines feminine identity as docile and submissive, women obtain unlimited control because the reconstruction of feminine ideologies relies on the exploration of jouissance.

In conclusion, women artists, such as Short, McLeod, Dempsey and Millan, redefine their feminine identity through their technical approach, medium and content. The performed jouissance highlighted by lesbian feminists allows women to tell their story by separating themselves from male influences. The feminine persona displays a fetishism to appease the male gaze, which applies to lesbian identities as well. Arlene Stein quotes Jill Johnston in stating “that a ‘conspiracy of silence’ insured that for most women ‘identity was presumed to be heterosexual unless proven otherwise. … There was no lesbian identity. There was lesbian activity’” (155). The outburst of lesbian feminist movements in the 1970s allowed queer women to use their voice and remind people that they exist outside of sexual pleasure. Yet, the movement was a means for all women to share their experiences. Lesbian Feminism is political. Through the political standpoint of lesbian feminism, women artists are able to use activity to create a lesbian identity that is separate from sexual orientation.

Coral Short highlights the need for self-love in the feminine queer experience, Dayna McLeod emphasizes the beauty in female stages of development and aging, whereas Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan provide a feminine outlook on queer and feminine stereotypes. Lesbian feminism contributes largely to shaping a feminine narrative that becomes reflective of the feminine experience. Similarly,“it has been argued, and indeed it can be shown, that many features in women’s art which originated in the commonly-known disadvantages were turned upside down and transformed into creative instruments when in the hands of women who deliberately installed themselves as the subject and object of artistic expression” (Ecker 17). The jouissance translated through performance art invites women artists to be the performer and performance, the creator and creation, and the identifier and the identity. As exemplified, Coral Short, Dayna McLeod, and Shawna Dempsey in collaboration with Lorri Millan use performance art as a means to establish identity based on notions of performativity wherein their bodies, as queer women artists, become tools of jouissance. Lesbian Feminism is the platform that invites women artists to manipulate performativity and reconstruct the embodiment of gender.

Works Cited
Connell, Raewyn and James W. Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity”. Gender Inequality5th ed., 2012. Pg. 255-263.
Dempsey, Shawna, and Lorri Millan. Lesbian National Parks and Services, 1997, performance, Banff National Park, Walter Phillips Gallery, The Banff Centre for the Arts, Banff, Alberta.
Dempsey, Shawna, and Lorri Millan. “Lesbian National Parks and Services.” Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, Accessed 4 November 2018.
Dempsey, Shawna, and Lorri Millan. Mary Medusa, 1992, (00:00:05), Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg, Manitoba. (Longer version performed in 1993, (00:40:00), Festival du Voyeur, Prairie Theatre Exchange, Winnipeg, Manitoba.)
Dempsey, Shawna, and Lorri Millan. “Mary Medusa.” Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan Accessed 4 November 2018.
Ecker, Gisela. Feminist Aesthetics. Translated from the German by Harriet Anderson, London, The Women’s Press Ltd, 1985.
Jones, Amelia. The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. New York, Routledge, 2010.
Lorber, Judith. Gender Inequality. 5th ed., Oxford University Press, New York, 2012. Pg. 151-164.
McLeod, Dayna. I Live for Menopause, 2018, (00:04:15), colour.
McLeod, Dayna. “I Live for Menopause.” Dayna McLeod, 25 Oct. 2018, Accessed 4 November 2018.
Robinson, Hillary. Feminism Art Theory: an Anthology 1968-2002, Blackwell Publishing, 2008.
Short, Coral. “Don’t Beat Yourself Up.” Vimeo, 5 August 2018,
Short, Coral. Stop Beating Yourself Up, 2015, performance, (02:00:00), Queer Arts Festival, Vancouver, BC.
Stein, Arlene. “Decentering Lesbian Feminism”. Gender Inequality, 5th ed., 2012. Pg. 154-157.
  1. Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. Vintage Canada, Toronto, 1997. Pg. 9-59.
  2. Lorber, Judith. Gender Inequality. 5th ed., Oxford University Press, New York, 2012.
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