“Pink Sneakers and Pussy Hats: The Performative and the Political” featured in Performance Philosophy

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“Pink Sneakers and  Pussy Hats: The Performative and the Political”

Article published in Performance Philosophy’s 5th Birthday compilation:

 It is impossible to consider the future of performance art without wondering how it fits into a larger political world. We have seen, through works by artists like Suzanne Lacy, that performance has the possibility to ignite conversations about political issues. “Three Weeks in May” (1977), an early work by Lacy, addressed the rape epidemic in Los Angeles. This ambitious project showcased maps pinpointing locations where rapes had been reported and provided spaces for women to tell personal stories of violence. “Three Weeks in May” is a landmark work because it merged the aesthetic and political realm, with Lacy serving as both creator and facilitator. The conclusion of the work yielded new and more open forms of communication in LA and crisis hotlines were more widely publicized. The project was re-created as “Three Weeks in January” in LA in 2012 and was re-envisioned that same year Storying Rape: Shame Ends Here  at the Liverpool Biennial.

When thinking about “Three Weeks in May” and other works by Lacy, it seems natural to consider them both ‘performative’ and ‘political.’ Lacy identifies a social issue and then takes an artists approach to tackling it. She engages in discourse in non-traditional ways, looking for participation and engagement outside of elections, town hall meetings, and speeches.

But what I believe we should be considering today is how political actors are using performativity as a means to describe our shared world. That is, how do the tactics of artists and politicians overlap, squash, and maintain political discourse. Normative political action has changed to meet the needs of instantaneous communication driven by diverse media outlets and the theatrical, interactive, and performative have been incorporated to deliver messages. While Lacy’s use of performance in “Three Weeks in May” to discuss rape was innovative in 1977, it seems a standard form of political business now. The performative translates from medium to medium, contracting and expanding based on format and audience. Performativity is memorable. It is necessary for political success.

An example of political performativity includes former Texas State Senator Wendy Davis. Davis filibustered for 11 hours in pink sneakers to oppose a very strict bill that would dramatically reduce the number of abortion clinics in Texas. (Portions of the bill were ruled unconstitutional at the Supreme Court in 2016. See Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.). The act of filibuster – a performance of speaking, on topic, for an extended period of time – is a feat in itself but Davis’ performance took the filibuster to another level. Davis’ pink sneakers epitomized Davis’ strength and served as an icon for the struggle to protect women’s health. In fact, Washington Post’s article about the filibuster had the second title of “the shoes were meant for filibusterin.’”[1] In the same way that the maps created by Lacy for “Three Weeks in May” served as documents for the series of performances, Davis’ sneakers remained as a remnant of Davis’ political performance.

But while the works of Lacy and Davis are inspiring and have brought awareness to important women’s issues, we must remember that performativity alone is not a replacement for dialogue in an institutionalized setting and, furthermore, that political action is different that being a spectator of political performance.

I was reminded of this while watching the events surrounding the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017. Positioned as an important event in the history of the women’s movement and a direct response to the inauguration of Donald Trump and his attitudes towards women’s health and violence, 500,000 men and women marched on Washington to remind the administration of the values and power of its constituents. The event itself was a performance of epic scale. The physical act of marching was supplemented by celebrity appearances at rallies. Pink pussy hats worn by protestors embodied the plea for accessible women’s healthcare. The rallies extended beyond Washington with over 5 million people participating in cities through the world and via television or social media.

But the question now becomes – what happens next? The March on Washington teaches us two things:

First, staging a political performance does not guarantee tangible change. Less than one month after the march, Senator Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) was silenced by Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) for not stepping down while reading a letter by Coretta Scott King during Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing. Her refusal to comply with McConnell’s enforcement of a rarely used Senate rule generated the meme “nevertheless, she persisted.” This phrase went viral and became a battle cry for the treatment of women in government. Four months later, Senator Kamala Harris (California) was talked over by Senator John McCain (Arizona) during James Comey’s testimony on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. How could the treatment of these leaders happen so soon after the march on Washington?

Further, how has the March assisted women legislatively? Congress is working to pass a healthcare bill that defunds Planned Parenthood, despite a parade of pink hats. It is clear that the march alone is not enough. That is to say, performativity and its success at visibility alone cannot change the political environment.

The second lesson that the March can teach us is that convening or following on social media cannot replace political action. Performativity, in its very essence, assumes or considers its relationship with some kind of audience. Through the exchange between performers and audience members we can come to understand plurality but it cannot help us to protect it.

Performance – in all its forms – is a way to move towards the political, to prepare yourself to be informed and equitable political actors – but it cannot replace political participation prescribed by existing institutions, even if those very institutions are under scrutiny.

The lessons that Lacy, Davis, and the Women’s March teach us is that performativity, either by artists, politicians, or citizens, have the power to incite awareness and passion for a cause in non-traditional and highly visible ways. Lacy was able to make positive changes in Los Angeles. Davis put a spotlight on the inequities of women’s health legislation. The March demonstrated the power of the collective. But despite the political nature of their performances, they cannot be a substitution for the type of political action of citizens.

After these performances happen, what next? Being a witness to politics does not make you a political actor; you are just a member of the audience. Performing a cause does not make you its champion if you cannot support it in tangible ways.

 

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