Martha Mosse: The Slut, the Spinster and the Perfect Woman at TEDxCoventGardenWomen (Transcript)

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Full transcript of award-winning performance and visual artist Martha Mosse’s TEDx Talk: The Slut, the Spinster and the Perfect Woman at TEDxCoventGardenWomen conference.

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Martha Mosse – Performance and visual artist

Good morning. My name is Martha Mosse. I’m a feminist performance artist. My work is about control and oppression, but also about breaking the boundaries of our prisons. In particular, the indefensible prisons of our bodies.

Looking back, I realize I’ve always been a feminist. I just hadn’t labeled it yet. My first realization of gender inequality was when I was 18. And I was travelling through the desert in Dubai with my parents and brother. We were going to a literary festival. I fell into a conversation with a highly-respected female war correspondent, who started telling me a story about several years earlier when visiting a traditional household in Afghanistan.

Upon arrival, she was told to go into the kitchen and help the women cook dinner, while her two male junior film crew members were invited to relax with the men in the main room. After hours of cooking, preparing a huge feast, the women pushed the platters beneath the beaded curtain that separated the kitchen from the living room, the women from the men.

After the men had finished eating, they pushed the trays back beneath the curtain, and it was only then that the women were allowed to eat what remained.

I cried when I heard that story. I cried, because I realized suddenly how pointlessly unfair and limiting the world can be. I also cried because I was acutely aware that this was now it: that once you have recognized gender inequality and the need for feminism, you can’t unsee it.

I began identifying myself as a feminist in my second year at university when writing my dissertation. The essay was an analysis of the labels ‘slut’, ‘spinster’, and ‘perfect’. For it, I read many of the great classic and contemporary feminist texts: The Second Sex, The Female Eunuch, The Beauty Myth, Living Dolls. It was through reading these books and thinking these thoughts that I suddenly began to feel braver. I felt more able to voice my opinions, and I felt in good company.

It was also through doing this research that I started to develop my current performance art practice. I recognized the danger in certain labels, and I wanted to explore and highlight this danger in relatively neutral environments. As most people are unaware of what performance art actually is, it exists outside of a label.

So, my work analyzes the danger of these three specific labels. And they are the reason why I will always label myself a feminist.

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I’ll start with ‘perfect’. Perfection masquerades as a compliment. It poses as an achievable idea, but it is a lie to aspire to. So much of both the historical and contemporary economy has relied upon the ideal. The fashion and beauty industries flaunt falsified examples of the perfect skin, eyes, lips, hair, bum, nails, tan; none of which any woman has, but all of which, apparently, we need.

The health and fitness industry relies upon women and men being dissatisfied with how they look. So they develop workouts that claim to get you the perfect body.

But what is a perfect body? I contend that perfection is subjective. It’s different for everybody. So how can total physical perfection be possible? It can’t be, right?

The danger with advertising an impossible ideal as achievable is that it only encourages and makes women and men feel like failures. But even if you are lucky enough to have been born with the genes that can even begin to approach the physical ideals of perfection, the next hurdle for you to overcome is the threat of remaining unmarried.

So, my next label is spinster. For a woman, as she ages, it is thought that she is decaying. Her body clock is ticking, and as her looks fade, apparently, her purpose, her possibility of finding happiness is lost.

The man equivalent of a spinster, a bachelor, is depicted as enjoying a party lifestyle and high-rise appartments. He can perfect his now swarf and silver-fox-looks with expensive beauty products and charm women half his age.

A spinster is pitied. She is condemned to sit alone surrounded by cats, mourning the loss of her youth. No matter how happy or successful she is, Hollywood superstar Jennifer Aniston is continually portrayed by the world’s media as sad or failed because she hasn’t yet had a baby. The intention is that if a woman hasn’t married or have children, then she has failed at being a woman.

To be ‘left on the shelf’, as the phrase goes, is often assumed that a woman must have done something wrong in her younger life, or that she must be wrong. There must be a reason for that. Perhaps, she was a slut. The slut is an overly promiscuous woman who fails to fit into society’s narrow parameters of ‘sexy’, but not ‘too sexy’. Judging by media representations, women should dress elegantly, show some skin, wear red lipstick, don’t work.

Mainstream pornography, which is widespread, is continually bombarded with sexual scenarios where the woman has sex even if she doesn’t want to or isn’t ready. The soft and hardcore porn industries advertise sex as so immediate and so unintimate, that younger generations of boys and girls are starting to think that that is how it is done.

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Yet, despite these oversexualized images of women in porn, in lux mags, in music videos, in a national newspaper, when a woman follows this example in real life, she’s mocked, criticized, verbally, or even physically, abused. Once again, she fails. And the failure is her fault.

According to an Amnesty survey, one in three people blame a woman for being raped. They ask if she was drunk, if her skirt was too short, if she was too flirty, because, as if any of this means that she loses the right to the control over her own body.

SlutWalks, a kind of performance art, are trying to reclaim the word, but it remains part of the backlash against female sexual liberation and the control that it gave women. The word ‘slut’ segregates women from men. It segregates women from women. It dehumanizes and objectifies us all.

The labels ‘slut’, ‘spinster’, and ‘perfect’ are commonplace. They offend, limit, and intimidate women. They take away the power and pass along the control. The blatant sexist messages contained in each are so ingrained that most people, I hope, are unaware of the hurt, fear, and isolation that they breed. They keep women caged. They keep the status quo.

It’s because of labels like these that I find it so vitally important for women and men to identify themselves as feminists. Neither of my parents ever conformed to traditional gender roles. They both brought my brother and I up. They both worked. So, my brother and I grew up in an unlabeled house. I currently own two power drills. I built my first piece of flat-pack furniture when I was six. And I still use these skills in my performance art practice today.

My favorite room in the house is the kitchen. When we allow labels to limit us, then men and women, boys and girls fail to achieve their true potential. But sometimes, asserting an identity can encourage us to be who we wish, act as we want to be. In my case, an artist. A performance artist.

Feminism is not a reductive label. Do not let a hostile media persuade you that we cannot be feminists or that we should not be feminists. It’s not a reductive label. It is an invitation, a celebration, an opportunity. It has encouraged men and women from across the world to be braver, louder, more independent. It has forced enormous financial, political, human rights, and social change.

Feminism is about fairness and equality of opportunity for all. So aren’t we all feminists?

I’m Martha Mosse. I’m a feminist performance artist.

Thank you very much.