SLUTbag, Narelle Desmond
Narelle Desmond, SLUTbag, 2008.
Walking into the Unfinished Business: Perspectives on Art and Feminism exhibition at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) I was automatically drawn to Narelle Desmond’s SLUTbag. I have a penchant for pink and such a direct use of a slur is confronting. But it is the juxtaposition of the two that is most confronting. The pencil case itself is a symbol of childhood and innocence. The colour pink, in a wildly problematic generalisation is associated with young girls (I will leave the issues of aligning colour with gender for another day). Yet contrasted against this youthfulness and naivety is a word imbued with such aggression, judgment and shame. It would be nice to pretend that young girls and the word slut are two mutually exclusive categories that never have an opportunity to interact - but they aren’t. More than ever slut shaming is an issue that requires our consideration.
I would argue that many of us owned a pencil case like this at some point of our childhood. Half the fun was sourcing the letters of your name and inserting them into the little plastic pockets. It was a way of asserting our identity. As a child when you haven’t yet developed a true sense of self and you are still deciding who you want to be when you grow up, a name grants a huge sense of pride. As does a pencil case, so branding it with your own name was one of few authoritative acts. Upon consideration, this sense of self provided through a name doesn’t diminish with age. Adults too have a deep association with both their name and their initials. Just take a look at the highly successful company The Daily Edited, which individualises bags and accessories with the customers' initials. Essentially, their products are a glorified version of these pencil cases. *Cuts to me sporting a pencil case on a string.* Similarly, I, along with many girls wear a necklace with my initial or name on it. Why? Am I suddenly going to forget how I spell my own name? (I mean I sure hope not, if I don’t know it nobody will and ordering my Boost juice will be an absolute palaver). So why do we form such a deep-rooted connection to an assembly of letters that our parents presented us with? There’s definitely a Shakespeare quote begging to be used here – what’s in a name, roses etc. I believe that it is because in a world in which we can be so confused about so many elements of our identity, a name is a constant pillar.
I am a Celia, but I could have very easily been an Isabel, Madelaine or if primary school Celia had her way, I would be named Rachel after my OG girl crush Rachel Green. Despite the strong affiliation I feel to my name, the reality is that I would have grown attached to any. Being branded a slut on the other hand can have a multitude of damaging consequences.By emblazing the pencil case ‘slut’ perhaps Desmond is highlighting the reality that we wouldn’t wish to publically identify ourselves as this word, so why are we so willing to think it of ourselves or of others. Or perhaps the opposite. Maybe Desmond is reclaiming the word. Maybe this word has been abused for too long, thrust upon females in a derogatory manner and over-imbued with negative connotations. In reclaiming the word, overtly identifying as a slut is an act of ownership and control. Whatever way you would like to read it, the result is the same. We need to drastically edit how we use the word and stop using it as a means of eliciting feelings of shame, isolation and devalued self-worth.
Attacking ones’ character and reputation based on their sexual activity – or the presumption of their sexual behaviour is a whole lot of wrong. It is gendered bullying, sexual harassment and a demonisation of female sexual agency all rolled into one. Furthermore, slut shaming facilitates a climate in which victim blaming can exist. Bottom line slut shaming is inherently sexist. Sexist in that the double standard that exists between girls and boys is huge. Boys are congratulated, while girls criticised. Boys will be boys, girls will be sluts. And the sad part about this is that this is being perpetuated by women. Girls are calling fellow girls sluts for wearing something deemed ‘promiscuous’, acting in a provocative manner or engaging in sexual acts they personally don’t agree with. This is nothing but a huge disservice to ourselves, in that we are creating a climate in which this vernacular becomes fair game. Whilst it is by no means our responsibility to be teaching anyone, particularly men, the basic premises of respect, we should be leading by example. If for anyone, for ourselves. We should be building each other up, women empowering women, girl power etc. etc.
I went to an all girls high school, in Year 9 we had a social with the boys from our local brother school. In the days after photos from the night were projected in class for us to look at. The dress I wore was short. There is no denying it, it was my sisters, I am taller than her - it was short. But I felt gewwwd. Going through the slideshow a photo of me came up and surprise surprise the dress looked short. Somebody yelled out ‘short dress!’, admittedly in a very jovial way and I took zero offence. The dress was short. Yet in an environment of 16-year-old girls this could have easily turned nasty. But it didn’t. In response to the girl yelling out ‘short dress’ my teacher yelled back ‘long legs!’ I didn’t appreciate it at the time but serious respect to her for refusing to allow a conversation about what I was wearing turn into something else.
Girls can be savage, I know this because I can be and I have been and I can’t say with honesty that I will never be again. I am guilty of using this language, the words leave my mouth without me truly acknowledging what it is I am suggesting. The word slut has become so ingrained within our vocabulary, that we have become desensitised to its consequence. But we have got to be aware of the language we are using and the consequent messages we are propagating. So, next time you feel inclined to make a negative judgement on somebody based on their appearance or how they choose behave, just stop. Find something positive. Alternatively, don’t say anything at all.
1. Rewire my naughty little brain to stop using that word in a denigrating context.
2. Call out slut-shaming when I hear it.
3. Read Amber Rose’s essay ‘I am done with people asking me about ‘My Brand’ of Feminism'