I’ve always been obsessed with female dissidents. In the annals of literature and pop culture, these women were my heroines — Joan of Arc, Jo March, Anna Karenina, Mulan, Offred. I consumed their stories with fervor, roused by their refusal to be demure and submissive, inspired by the fights they waged against the norms of their respective time periods.
In 1985, a real-life stirring of feminist rage was brewing in the American art world, armed with wheat paste and posters. A troupe of anonymous women donning gorilla masks took the streets in true literary heroine fashion, and took matters into their own hands. In many ways, they are the precursors of the modern day #MeToo and Time’s Up movements — they called out those in power, publicly embarrassed their oppressors and, above all, they actually worked.
The Guerrilla Girls, as they called themselves, became unlikely vigilantes and social justice warriors for their unorthodox tactics wherever discrimination lurked. In their prime, they were self-branded as an exclusive, glamorous girls’ club and developed a cult-like following of artists, feminists and activists. Though they were originally formed to combat the top-down discrimination from white men who dominated the art world, they have also been instrumental in bringing about progress in representation in Hollywood and same-sex marriage through their assertive, in-your-face artwork. The Guerrilla Girls produced posters, billboards, performances, protests, installations and prints bearing names, statistics and scandalous images that shocked the public into action and awareness.
One of their most famous billboards depicts a nude woman clad in a gorilla mask gazing confrontationally over her shoulder. In bold print, the piece begs the query, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” and cites the fact that “Less than 5 percent of the artists in the Modern Art Section are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female.” One of my personal favorite Guerrilla Girl works is a satirical list of the advantages of being a female artist, including “working without the pressure of success,” “not having to be in shows with men” and “not having to choke on those big cigars or paint in Italian suits.”
With the perfect amalgam of humor, sass and social truth, Guerrilla Girls put feminism on display in the streets. When I look at one of their posters, I am instantly drawn in to read more closely and am left with a deep lingering sense of injustice.
Now, more than three decades later, the tectonic plates of gender hierarchy are shifting once again. Both within and outside of the art sphere, the Guerrilla Girls taught modern day feminists to be unapologetic and unafraid of waging war against an unjust system. In retrospect, the Guerrilla Girls were prescient in their causes, having taken aim long ago at such issues as gender inequality, racism and internalized biases that are once again at the forefront of the public conversation.
One glaring difference, however, is that the Guerrilla Girls were, and remain to this day, anonymous. Taking on monikers of female artist predecessors, such as Frida Khalo and Käthe Kollwitz, and never appearing publicly without wearing gorilla masks, the Girls sought to focus attention on the issues at hand rather than their own personalities and identities. In contrast, today’s movement has seen countless scores of women come forward with their own narratives and messages for their attackers and oppressors, far less daunted by the prospect of showing their faces and publicizing their names. Victims became survivors, who in turn became silence-breakers and symbols of empowerment.
To me, this represents a significant leap forward in the increased sense of self-determination that grips the feminist community. What’s more, the Guerrilla Girls used humor and ostentation to get a reaction out of an ‘80s art world that was vastly indifferent to topics of feminism and diversity. Today, this tactic is not as necessary; the dissident conversation has not only spread out of the art sphere but also, women increasingly feel safe and strong enough to speak openly and honestly about their experiences, no longer hiding behind masks, nicknames or displays of irony.
In many ways, their populist approach to art and dissent cast feminism in a fresh limelight by the late ‘80s — they made the intersection of female art and political activism seem not only acceptable, but also indispensable.
They paved the way for similar groups and movements that have popped up throughout the decades, all the while remaining incognito puppet-masters. They changed the way I think critically about art and the way I perceive feminism today.
The Guerrilla Girls set the stage, and now we’re standing on it, with the whole world watching.
Catherine Yang is a sophomore majoring in communication. She is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “State of the Art,” runs every other Wednesday.