Feminist Art Activism: Research & Commentary
My autobiographical lens from my intersection, shared experiences of the social, maternal, and sexual expectations and experiences of the American millennial woman, the research and commentary on feminist intersectionality, supplemental historical lens, and my research bibliography.
When I first began integrating my own feminist commentary into my art as an undergraduate composer at Florida State University, it came from a place of personal experiences, inspiration, and fascination. I found myself attracted to certain mythological goddesses or feminine tropes, but not in a way that emphasized beauty, grace, or softness. I composed a piece for English horn and fixed media in 2018 called “Siren,” that explored the dark, the grotesque, the deadly side of the sirens, instead of the beautiful and seductive quality of the siren song. At the time, I did not know why. It was an almost indignant approach, as if I was some declarant female composer who could, in fact, write music that was beyond “pretty.” As the only female composer in my class of undergraduate composition majors, my music did not have the luxury of being absolute. It was programmatic because it was mine, inseparable from my identity as a gender minority. But after, and through, ongoing personal traumatic experiences as a victim of sexual assault, I lean into the programmatic nature of femininity and my music, but curate it how I want it seen, from the autobiographical lens of my experience.
During the earlier years of my undergrad, I had leaned into my role as the girl in the program and wrote the pretty music expected of me. The expectation of women composers to write ‘pretty’ music stems from long-held gendered perceptions of masculinity and femininity in musical language. The semiotics of masculine and feminine themes infiltrate listeners’ ears, critical commentary, and music theory curriculum, even today. Women’s historian Amanda Harris postulates that the lack of female composer recognition in the 20th century, even by feminists themselves, “is indicative of the efficacy of accepted notions of the gendered nature of creative musical brilliance.” Not only did the lack of recognition stifle the advancement of women composers throughout history, it perpetuated a prevailing semiotic understanding (created by men) of what the feminine sounds like, musically speaking. Adolf Bernhard Marx, 19th century composer and musicologist, coined the signifiers of binary themes in a gendered manner by stating that the primary, triumphant, memorable theme is of a ‘masculine’ quality, and the secondary, softer, derivative theme is that of a ‘feminine’ quality.
With an increase in interest and participation in composition by women at the turn of the nineteenth century, “George Upton’s Women in Music, published in 1880, [...] sought to trivialize and undermine the achievements of what was considered an alarming number of new women composers in the realm of ‘serious’ classical music.” This semiotic understanding of feminine music and the “denial of women’s creative abilities in music” persisted into the 20th century. Psychologist Carl Seashore, in research conducted for his 1940 article “Why No Great Women Composers” and 1948 book In Search of the Beautiful in Music, “claimed that due to their passive nature women could never be creatively equal to men.” These ideas regarding the creative capacity of women and the expectation of an antiquated feminine aesthetic continue to persist in music analysis and appreciation today. By accepting antiquated signifiers for music in this gendered way—socially, academically, theoretically, compositionally—we influence and perpetuate sexism in music on the sides of both the creator and the listener.
I reject this. I know of its damaging effects not only as a researcher but as a participant. As a young woman composer, I wrote the pretty, secondary, derivative, weaker music because I felt constricted to these gendered semiotics of music. These ideas have the dangerous power to infiltrate the minds of young women and lead them to believe they, themselves, are the secondary, derivative, and weaker sex, wherein their beauty is their only redeeming quality. I believed this. This infiltrated my mind as a young woman even to the point of believing if a man considered me beautiful, I ought to submit to him. This mindset left me feeling paralyzed and powerless in the face of sexual assault and harassment in multiple traumatic experiences at the ages of 21, 23, and 24.
The first of these experiences triggered a turning point in my identity, my mission, and my music. It fueled me to compose music of power and resilience, challenging the idea that feminine music is only beautiful. I made it ugly and strong. My “Siren” song was dissonant and powerful, with more depth and intellect than I had ever composed. I emphasized the power of the sirens in the myth, rather than their beauty, because in the moment of my sexual assault, I felt powerless. When I had not yet been able to put this goal into words, Fernanda Navarro encouraged me to consider that the strong, the powerful, the dissonant could be “feminine” too. This sparked my mission to continue to use my work as a means to recontextualize femininity in music and beyond.
I bring this identity and mission as a stronger and more experienced feminist and composer to my master’s degree at the University of North Texas. Through two years of research, composition, and autoethnography, I have a more thorough breadth and scope of feminist art, criticism, and history. As a woman, I have had the misfortune of another sexual assault and learning more of the experiences of my fellow women on college campuses and beyond struggle with their own trauma of being a sexual assault victim. My research and my experience have given me even more precision of intention and autobiographical perspective. My goals in creating feminist music are to recontextualize feminine tropes and modernize gender perceptions to a place where “femininity” exists as a word that includes strength, power, and resilience, so that women, and society as a whole, can believe that femininity can be as strong as it is pretty, secondary to none, and derivative of no man.
Expectations for American Millennial Women
Beyond the intersection at which I identified myself in Chapter 1 and the personal experiences that continue to motivate my feminist mission, I find myself in good company as a millennial American woman finding her way in a society of hypersexualization, body-image pressures, marital and maternal expectations, and problematic perceptions of “respectability.”
Mikki Kendall is a New York Times best-selling feminist author, researcher, and speaker who challenges the constructs of “respectability” in her 2020 book Hood Feminism: Notes from Women a Movement Forgot. Kendall presents “respectability” as a problematically-constructed social rubric meant to validate certain racist and sexist ideologies. “Who will be heard, of who will have the agency, the autonomy, and the respect, is heavily informed by the lens of respectability.” Upon reading this quote, I was so moved it became part of the text recited and recorded by myself and the dance cast for the final piece in my thesis showcase, “At My Intersection.” Kendall goes on to describe the problematic nature of respectability constructs by highlighting how “respectability requires a form of restrained, emotionally neutral politeness that is completely at odds with any concept of normal human emotions.” “Respectable” women are the women of Adolf Bernhard Marx’s derivative secondary feminine themes, completely at odds with my (or Mikki Kendall’s) embodiment of femininity.
Furthermore, commodification of the female body and certain hypersexualized features present other pressures on women to look and act a certain, or respectable, way. As if existing in male-dominated spaces isn’t stressful enough, the fear of being constantly commodified under the male gaze creates invisible barriers and obstacles for women to advance. My collaborators Eboni Johnson and Hannah Ottinger and I explore the effects of the male gaze in the piece, “I See You,” presented in a three-dimensional 360° interactive video that features interview clips of young women describing their experiences with the pressure of the male gaze.
Maternal expectations imposed on women can even strip us of our bodily autonomy and individual human rights. In a 2019 interview on CBS Miami, Florida House Speaker José Oliva repeatedly referred to pregnant women as “host bodies” responsible for bringing another life to term. I walked in the 2017 Women’s March in Tallahassee to the Florida Capitol building. It brings shame upon our efforts that two years later, the Speaker of the House in that very Capitol building called women’s bodies—my body—a “host.” This quote recently resurfaced in the discourse surrounding the 2021 bill on the restriction of abortion rights for women in Texas, wherein the idea of women as “host bodies” is representative of the imposed and potentially nonconsensual maternal expectation of women—to the very extent of their own dehumanization. In this context, I use the term nonconsensual to include motherhood, both in expectation and in practice, that is forced or thrust upon women who did not on their own accord choose to become mothers. Conversely, when motherhood is consensual, as in chosen, the feminine and maternal power and strength and beauty of motherhood is a thing of wonder. This woman should be celebrated, not reduced to a mere “host” performing a biological task. My piece, “Dust,” celebrates this power and strength of womanhood and motherhood by including extracted text from Uma Menon’s poem, “The Universe, a Woman.” Menon describes maternal power as divine and beautiful with language that commands respect for the role of mother. While not a role I have played nor desire, being a mother is an experience I admire from my role as a daughter and aunt and friend to incredible mothers, the voices of which can be heard embedded in my musical productions of “Dust” and “At My Intersection.” This is another example of the expansion of my autobiographical approach to include that of my collaborators lives and identities.
I also expand my autobiographical lens with supplemental historical research into the American women’s suffrage movement and women’s rights activism in the 19th and 20th centuries. My piece for solo viola, premiering live during my thesis showcase, “Portrait of the American Woman,” is autobiographically inspired and enhanced by a historical lens.
The piece celebrates the 50 year anniversary of the Women’s March of 1970 in New York City, which was, in turn, a celebration of the 50 year anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. From my own march on the Florida Capitol in 2017, back to the Women’s March of 1970, back to the ratification, and further back to the Seneca Falls Convention, “Portrait of the American Woman” is an expression of the strength and resilience of the American woman.
Congruent with my autobiographical approach, the identities of my collaborators expand the biographical perspectives from which these pieces are composed. In doing so, I honor their individual identities and experiences alongside my own with respect to our varying intersectionalities. I have been fortunate to collaborate with individuals with diverse backgrounds and identities of race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, and location. The following two quotes from choreography collaborators Cami Holman and Miranda Zapata on the piece “At My Intersection” demonstrate the power of collaboration in creating more depth to our art and activism by celebrating our various intersections.
By starting with assumptions of the dancers' identities from the outside in, we have worked through ideas of self vs the collective, power vs empowerment, and modes of intersectionality that have brought us to a place of building a collective identity of BIPOC dancers.
The collaboration with composer, Aleyna Brown, parallels the ideas of holding space for the individual/self while being a part of a collective with shared experiences and social categorizations. It is for us, the dancers, an audible representation of these ideas and we are the physical embodiment.
Cami Holman, choreographer
This collaborative dance making process seeks to encompass the solidarity between Black and Mexican Americans living under a white supremacist culture through coexisting within our relational differences. Working alongside Aleyna Brown amplifies how intersectionality is a key component to radically imagine the world we strive to create. It is through incorporating the dancers’ voices on the track that preserves community without erasing the individual. The audible representation along with the physical embodiment represents an act of resistance towards a world that no longer serves the needs of humanity.
Miranda Zapata, choreographer
Cami and Miranda, as women of color, as mothers, as activists, as artists, combine and expand my own feminist mission to include voices and perspectives I am honored to share through our co-creation, “At My Intersection.” The piece premieres live on the evening of my thesis exhibition, alongside other multimedia elements, detailed in the next chapter.
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