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Web Event #1: A Question of Accessibility

yj13's picture

If a feminist work falls in the forest and nobody can understand it, can it still be called feminist?

The picture shows a pretty common scene in my life, that being my choosing an outfit to wear for the day. How I present myself largely depends on how I’m feeling, and also how I wish to be perceived. Some days I prefer more androgynous dress, other times I’m aiming for something “cute” or “pretty”, and other times I go some other style entirely, or just throw my hands in the air and reach for what’s comfortable and familiar.

The question that crossed my mind as I put this on display and peeked at the other portraits around me: s this a true anti-self-portrait? Does it showcase a part of me that may not be obvious to the outside observer, something that can give them some larger insight into me or my world?

Not really, to be frank. In my anti-self-portrait, I played it safe. My appearance is by far not my largest concern. It’s a frivolous worry amongst my other experiences and concerns and baggage. But its what I chose to express. Being able to put something meaningful out into the world, through a visual arts piece or through writing or through any medium honestly, that requires a certain amount of willingness to be vulnerable. That was a qulity I saw and admired in the other artworks that surrounded me, the sheer amount of emotions (both raw and refined) seemed to trump my own creation by a long shot. Each work had something in common in that is was created with a specific purpose and message in mind.

Now, how much of that message is received and understood is another matter entirely. How “obvious” was each work, and does that really matter in a feminist sense? The answer is a resounding yes; accessibility is an important and relevant consideration in our studies, and is a topic that has been and will be debated for probably as long as we have feminist studies. Jeanette Winterson in her Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, gives us this quote:

“A poem, a piece of fiction of any value is not instantly accessible. The reader, like the writer, has to work, and as long as work remains a four letter word, the average reader will not understand why they should struggle through their leisure time....What we cannot do is judge a book by how little bother it gives us....”

I found myself moved by this argument If a work reads like a summary of itself, than the reader is not forced to slow down and try to understand the material. They can relegate themselves to a passive role and simply observe the material without taking in any additional or deeper meaningful understanding. When our class discussed Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, one classmate commented that the story was so easy to understand that they just breezed through it, reading it like a leisure book rather than having to take the effort and ruminate on the frankly deep and complicated subjects. The topics of extremism and class and cultural revolutions are inherently multifaceted, and the attempt to make this work understandable for all audiences inevitably dilutes the content. This seems to be a sign of oversimplification being the price to pay for accessibility; Sartrapi makes a concerted effort to guide the reader through her feelings, her country's history, and the facets in her life outsiders have no way of understanding.

Returning to the classroom project, in our class discussion of the anti-self-portraits, one of the coordinators had this (paraphrased) exchange with one of the artists:

“Do you feel like someone viewing your anti-self-portrait would understand the full meaning behind it?”


“Are you alright with this?”


This encapsulates a point that I find to be very poignant in the discussion of accessibility, and that is where the responsibility lies with meaning in a work. Making a piece more honest and perhaps less digestible requires the observer to work for meaning rather than having it be given to them. The pieces in our exhibition that struck me the most were the ones that made me stop and think. Ones that weren’t necessarily clear and concretely explained. There were quite a few pieces that I gravitated towards, and I found myself examining them, reading them , and watching them repeatedly because each viewing had something new to offer. Those were the ones that captured my attention, first, and those that I felt gave me something to ruminate on and learn after the experience was over. Reflecting on those works again, I know that there were some aspects I didn’t understand; maybe a hidden theme or the reasoning behind a certain choice of words.

While purposefully trying to make oneself accessible can be harmful, hiding behind overly complicated language and uninterpretable symbolism and language can be just as ineffective in conveying a message. Diction and syntax can be used to hide oneself Muriel Rukeyser's “The Poem as a Mask” describes her own transition between this “masked” form of writing and the more forward and frank style she developed later in her career:

it was a mask; when I wrote of the god, fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone down with song, it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from myself.

Being entirely unapproachable not only prevents outsider understanding, but also doesn't allow the creator to . It's easy to hide behind complicated language in fear of being too accessible, but even stating oneself clearly can require some interpretation and effort by the observer as long as there isn't any figurative hand-holding. In essence, expressing oneself honestly is more in line with feminism as I know it than crafting one's thoughts and ideas to make others more comfortable. Meaning is best derived from being vulnerable, putting out your true feelings but not hiding them in masked language or taking the observer by the hand.


Rukeyser, Muriel, and Adrienne Rich.Selected poems. New York: Library of America, 2004. Print.

Winterson, Jeanette. Art objects: essays on ecstasy and effrontery. New York: Alfred A. Knopf :, 1996. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

No more masks!

You layer the question of accessibility here with the question of reception: if the artist doesn’t “play it safe,” but makes herself vulnerable, how much of her message will be received and understood? Although you trace the dangers of dilution and oversimplification, as possible costs of making one’s work accessible, what is really more interesting to me is the counter position: that making “a piece more honest and perhaps less digestible requires the observer to work for meaning rather than having it be given to them.” If something’s hidden, the viewer has to ruminate; if the artist is honest, the reader may be made uncomfortable….

All this presumes, of course, that you understand yourself, and can (if you choose) MAKE yourself accessible. I’ve been quoting to lots of your classmates this week from the work of Elizabeth Ellsworth, for whom the “self” capable of the kind of rational performance most often sought in classrooms is itself illusory: “The fact of the unconscious ‘explodes the very idea of a complete or achieved identity’—with oneself through consciousness, or with others through understanding.” Using the film studies notion of “mode of address” to talk about who the teacher and the curriculum “think students are,” Ellsworth describes the “eruptive, unruly space between a curriculum’s address and a student’s response (as) populated by the difference between conscious and unconscious knowledge, conscious and unconscious desires.” Rather than suggesting ways to bridge this gap, Ellsworth argues that it is to be preserved as the space of agency and of learning. If such a thing as a “perfect fit” were possible, it would in fact guarantee that no learning would happen.

Along these lines, you garnered two gold questions from your writing partners: Must we settle for our representations being misunderstood? And whose responsibility is it to make the work accessible?

pipermartz's picture

My largest concern is not my

My largest concern is not my appearance either- it's how others will pull apart my identiy, my personality just by stairing at the cloth covering or not covering my body. Either way we will experience the judgement because we are always somehow vulnerable. Must we settle for misunderstanding of our anti-self portraits, of our physical representation? How can we tell who is hiding behind their clothing, their masks and who is not?

kwilkinson's picture

The responsibility of access?

I think it is really difficult to navigate accessibility in feminism.  I still struggle with how I make myself accessible everyday.  There are many times when I am not trying to ramble or "over-complicate" things for the sake of others.  I want to be accessible and open to my peers, but often times I feel that if I make things too simple what work is really getting done?

That being said, I am very interested in your arguments surrounding responsibility.  I guess my questions is whose responsibility is it to be accessible?  Is it marginalized people?  Is it the majority?  Who has to reach out first?