Article by Erika LeBlanc /
The Digital Sublime: Technology, Feminism, Media (Blog) /
April, 2013 /
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In “The Men’s Gallery: Outdoor Advertising and Public Space”, Lauren Rosewarne (2005) argues that the unavoidable nature of highly-sexualized public advertising and the architecture of public spaces contribute to the social exclusion of women, and fuel fears of sexual violence, limiting women’s movement through these spaces. As is reflected in the reports and images which provide data for this paper, Montreal displays numerous examples of these highly gendered public spaces and architectural structures which are alienating to women.
Public advertisements in Montreal, like in most urban centres, exhibit a visual assault of sexist imagery which portray hegemonic expectations of beauty and heteronormativity. Furthermore, there are many architectural structures in Montreal, such as un-lit tunnels, which can make women feel unsafe in certain areas. However, Montreal has also recently seen an increase in feminist response to these exclusive public spaces, in the form of two yarn-bombing collectives, Yarn Bombing Montreal and Maille à Part. This paper will address how Rosewarne’s theories can be applied to urban landscapes in Montreal and suggest how this masculine narrative can be countered with a craftivist disruption of these urban landscapes through yarn bombing, as well as through digitally mediated resistances.
This paper utilizes qualitative data collected from the Montreal neighbourhoods of Outremont, St. Henri, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Pointe-Claire, Côte-des-Neiges and St-Anne-de-Bellevue by the students of Concordia University’s 2013 COMS 472/521 class.
Urban Landscapes, Gender & Advertising in Montreal
As was noted by most of the groups who collected data in the various neighbourhoods of the city, Montreal’s urban landscape is particularly gendered. Many of the groups observed a myriad of businesses which were geared toward women in a variety of neighbourhoods. The Côte-des-Neiges group in particular noted an onslaught of businesses intended for women. Within an 8 block radius on Queen Mary Rd., they counted fifteen nail spas, eight hair salons, six female-oriented clothing stores and a women’s only gym (Gaujean et al., 2013). Although the Ste. Anne de Bellevue group asserted that the neighbourhood was not overtly gendered, they also documented that a female-oriented salon stood next to a male-oriented barber shop (Lozano Castro et al., 2013). I would argue that this separation of genders and the naming practices of a female “salon” and a male “barber shop” still contributes to a climate of gendered expectations of female beauty standards. Businesses of this type are problematic in that they publicly capitalize on hegemonic expectations of feminine beauty, which exclude women that do not fit into these ideals. Furthermore, the Point-Claire group noted that the Fairview shopping mall was gender-neutral (Arcand et al., 2013). I would argue that shopping centres tend to be highly gendered, as they are often plastered with sexist advertising. This is especially true for the lingerie company La Senza, a store which the group noted in this particular mall (Arcand et al., 2013). La Senza’s advertising practices are often called into question as they use highly sexualized images of women in lingerie to attract a pre-teen to teen market for their products, often utilizing pin-up style imagery which will be discussed as especially problematic later in this paper.
More disturbing were the examples of overt sexist imagery in public advertising in Montreal. As Rosewarne (2007) argues “sex in advertising is too often a euphemism for women in advertising, largely because the bulk of content incorporates images of women” (p. 314, emphasis in original). This is likely true in most urban centres, and Montreal is no exception. The Notre-Dame-de-Grâce group observed a disturbing instance in which a mannequin was used (in various states of dress and un-dress) on the side of busy, industrial St. Jacques Street to draw attention to a car wash (see Figure 1). The St-Henri group similarly documented a window display of limbless mannequins with extremely large breasts, wearing little clothing, being used to advertise wigs (see Figure 2). In a world that freely uses the sexualized female form for capitalistic gain, it is still particularly disturbing to witness this reduction of women to inanimate objects, to be used and dressed as they see fit to draw attention to their business through the male gaze. Most disturbing, however, is how of this type of highly sexualized advertising sets a standard of complete indifference to the reduction of women to objects of sexual desire.
In “Pin-Ups in Public Space” Rosewarne (2007) extrapolates on her theory of the masculinization of public space, urging us to treat sexist outdoor advertising as seriously as we do sexual harassment. She argues that pin-up style images in particular should be linked to a type of sexual harassment, as they have a historical masturbatory connotation. She argues that it is this connotation that makes their public usage especially disturbing and alienating to women. The Outremont group observed an example of the use of pin-up imagery in an Old Milwaukee beer ad (see Figure 3). Following Rosewarne (2007), it could be said that the repeated use of an image of this sort in public creates a hyper-masculinized landscape, which contributes both to sexual harassment and the social exclusion of women from public spaces.
Finally, I would like to address Rosewarne’s (2005) discussion of how public landscapes can also contribute to a gendered fear experienced by women. Although Rosewarne problematizes sexualized advertising as the proponent of this fear experienced by women, in the research conducted around the city of Montreal, this fear was mostly observed in architectural structures. The Notre-Dame-de-Grâce documented how the isolated, dimly-lit Melrose Ave. tunnel has been dubbed the ‘rape tunnel’ by local residents (Lakeev et al., 2013b, p. 3). Rosewarne (2005) specifically notes that “women’s fear of crime is the threat of rape” (p. 73), so clearly the Melrose Ave. tunnel contributes to this gendered fear of public spaces. The St. Henri group also noted that the architectural structures of the neighbourhood contributed to a gendered fear and documented a disturbing event during the data collection in which one of the members of the group was verbally sexually assaulted under a dark, isolated overpass (Ali-Adeeb et al. 2013c) (See Figure 4). As these examples indicate, the urban architecture of Montreal also contributes to the alienation of women from the public sphere in that it creates fear and limits the mobility of women through these spaces.
Yarn Bombing and Feminist Resistance in Montreal
As the previous section has shown, sexist imagery and problematic architecture contribute to the masculinization of urban landscapes and the subsequent alienation of women from these spaces. What then, can be done to disrupt this masculinization and to reintroduce a feminine narrative to public spaces? Jacqueline Wallace (2012) argues that yarn-bombing provides this interruption. She states: “Yarn-bombers seek to disrupt daily patterns of life through the staged intervention of installing knitwork on the inanimate structures of urban life…” (Wallace, 2013, paragraph 13). What is particularly jarring about yarn-bombing is how it re-appropriates an activity (knitting) which has been devalued as “feminine” and “domestic” and inserts it into the unusual setting of an urban landscape. Yarn-bombing thus questions the dichotomies of public/private and feminine/masculine.
Bratich and Brush (2011) historicize the devaluation of craft-work as a consequence of industrialization and capitalism. However, by 1990’s with the DIY ethos of third-wave feminism and its appearance in ‘zines such as BUST, knitting underwent a feminist revolution – it was now being presented as trendy and politically progressive (Groeneveld, 2010). Although the politicization of knitting coincides with third-wave feminism, Wallace (2012) notes its association with the second-wave’s history of subversive feminist craft-work in the 1970’s and 80’s. Wallace (2012) also addresses Quebec’s particular connection with craftivism when she discusses the 2001 protest at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, where amongst a violent scene, protesters sat peacefully knitting. Yarn-bombing is an extension of this type of peaceful protest, as it disrupts the normal urban landscape, which in Montreal is exclusionary and alienating for women. In the Outremont neighbourhood of Montreal, examples of knit-bombing were present on Park Ave., just on the cusp of the Mile-End district (see Figure 5).
As none of the other groups documented examples of knit-bombing in areas which varied in socioeconomic status, it should perhaps be noted that the Mile-End neighbourhood is generally viewed as extremely progressive and artistic. It has also undergone a recent gentrification, which could perhaps explain the knit-bombing’s presence in this specific neighbourhood. Groeneveld (2010) problematizes the increased cost of knitting and the leisure time required to participate in this type of activism, as these factors can exclude working-class or poor women. Despite these issues, I tend to agree with Groeneveld (2012) that we should not “dismiss the political possibilities of crafting on the basis of who seems to be crafting…” (p. 265, emphasis in original). Due to the fact that yarn-bombing tends to be an anonymous activity, as it utilizes city-owned space, it may not be possible to fully map the demographic that participates in this type of activism. Furthermore, simply its ability to disrupt the hegemonic power structures that permeate public space makes it a valuable feminist action which ultimately seeks a more equal division of power.
With further research, it became clear that Montreal has a relatively large community of knit-bombers. Two collectives in particular seem to be regularly active within the city – Maille à Part and Yarn Bombing Montreal. The Facebook group for Maille à Part has 130 followers (although it is unclear how many of these followers are actual yarn-bombers), while the Yarn Bombing Montreal website lists 11 artists belonging to the collective and the group’s Facebook page has 697 “likes” (“Maille à Part”, n.d.; “Yarn Bombing Montreal”, 2012; “Yarn Bombing Montreal, n.d.).
Given these numbers and recent photos of installations uploaded onto these pages it is clear this type of feminist political action is active in Montreal. Both Bratich and Brush (2011) and Wallace (2012) assert that web and mobile technologies are imperative to the craftivist movement in their ability to create far reaching, easily accessible networks. Wallace (2012) also notes that photographs of yarn-bombing taken with cell phone cameras “…become the visual evidence of an ephemeral practice, captured by the yarn-bombers as documentation of their installations…” (paragraph 25). Mediatization of installations becomes important in that yarn-bombing is more vulnerable and less permanent than stenciled or spray painted graffiti, and can therefore easily be removed. This documentation process also transfers the installations from a tactile media to digital media.
As was noted with the online profiles of both Yarn Bombing Montreal and Maille à Part, these digital photos are then shared on Facebook pages and WordPress sites to promote the groups and the installations. Yarn Bombing Montreal has 59 photos of installations within the city, while Maille à Part has 134 photos (“Yarn Bombing Montreal”, n.d.; “Maille à Part”, n.d.). Some of these photos overlap between groups, which suggests that despite the fact that they are separated by language (Yarn Bombing Montreal seems to be predominately anglophone and Maille à Part, francophone), together they create a large network of yarn-bombers within the city.
In yarn-bombing’s digital practices – the creation of networks and online feminist spaces that facilitate feminist activism and the mediatized documentation of these practices – it seems to be intricately linked with cyberfeminism. Inspired by techno-feminist theorists like Donna Haraway, cyberfeminism developed in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s within third-wave feminist discourse as a theory that internet technologies could provide a new medium for feminist practice, as its disembodied nature held the possibility of the erasure of gender, race and class (Gajjala & Oh, 2012; Haraway, 1987; Daniels, 2009). However, these claims have been regarded by some as utopian. Daniels (2009) argues that while cyberfeminist theories have been called into question, she asserts that women use the internet to transform their corporeal lives in a way that questions hierarchical power structures. Yarn-bombers fulfill Daniels’ (2009) cyberfeminist vision in that they utilize internet and mobile technologies to facilitate corporeal, tactile feminist practices which question the power structures that permeate public space.
It is clear from the data presented that public spaces in Montreal are highly gendered. There are numerous examples of gendered advertising which engage highly sexualized images of women throughout the city – from the use of pin-up imagery in beer ads, to the use of large breasted mannequins to advertise wigs. This onslaught of sexist imagery, coupled with problematic architectural structures such as the Melrose Ave. tunnel and dimly-lit overpasses in St. Henri create a hyper-masculinized urban landscape which alienates women and limits their movement through these spaces. But a peaceful feminist resistance to this masculinization is visible in the yarn-bombing that disrupts the public landscape, inserting a feminine narrative.
With this disruption, yarn-bombing publicly questions the hegemonic power structures of gender, domesticity and femininity. Groups such as Maille à Part and Yarn Bombing Montreal mediatize their public, tactile resistances and share them digitally on social media and wordpress websites, which not only document their installations, but also help to facilitate vast feminist networks. These networks can be called upon for corporeal feminist activism, as is clear from Maille à Part’s Facebook photo album which documents their involvement in the 2012 Printemps Érable student protest movement (“Maille à Part”, n.d.). Yarn-bombing is the visual representation of the slogan chanted at these student protests: “À qui la rue? À nous la rue!”
Yarn-bombing is the feminist taking back of the streets from the pervasive sexualized images that attempt to alienate them.
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