Photo courtesy of theuntameableshrews.tumblr.com
This month I had the privilege of interviewing members S and J from the wildly popular (and rapidly growing!) feminist street art collective The Untameable Shrews. We chatted about online activism and the exciting projects the group has planned, among other things. Big thank you to S, J, and the Shrews in general for all the brave, inspiring work you do in the name of women everywhere!
OLIVE: First off, I’d just like to know what your story is with feminism. When did you get into it and why?
J: I’ve only come to feminism in the last 18 months and have done so with great gusto, although I have been heading in this direction for quite a few years. I come from a visual arts background. The tipping point for me was working as a receptionist in the sex industry and being in an abusive relationship.
Before this point I was pro-sex industry and pro-porn, that was until I saw what was involved in both. I worked at a high-end legal brothel in Melbourne which had porn playing on large screens in every room that I could not escape. Porn is degrading, exploitative and can be only described as violence against women on film. The men that came into the brothel wanted exactly what they saw in porn. They wanted women to look like pre-pubescent teenagers, blonde, large breasts, no pubic hair and they wanted to enact what they saw on screen. They wanted to pay extra for no condom and they demanded anal sex. Choking, biting, hair pulling, abusive language and they would even spit on the women. Abuse and sexual assault was/is an accepted part of prostitution.
S: I came to feminism via tumblr. It immediately made so much sense to me, my confusion quickly dissipated and I could understand what was going on in the world so much more clearly. It’s been nearly 5 years since then, and I’ve never looked back.
OLIVE: When you have an opinion or a belief these days, the natural (and easy) thing to do is just take to Twitter or Facebook. Of all the sometimes wonderful, sometimes maddening ways to have your voice be heard, what made you turn to street art?
S: The advantage of street art is that you can’t no-platform a street artist. We do it anonymously and secretly, without permission, whether people like it or not. Street art has historically been a voice for the disenfranchised – it’s an accessible way to get a message across to the public. Women rarely get a platform to share our ideas with the public, so street art is an excellent way of getting around that.
Granted, social media can do the same thing, but the Internet is already so flooded with social commentary that whatever you put out online has less of an impact than it would offline. Street art is real, tangible, and right in front of your face. Feminist street art also lets people know that feminists are real, and we’re in your neighbourhood – we’re your friends, teachers, relatives, classmates, people you interact with on a day-to-day basis. It forces people to face the reality that feminism exists and we’re not going to be bullied into silence.
OLIVE: I’ve been thinking a lot about what activism means in this day and age recently, and I’ve been struggling to figure out when online activism feels productive and when it does not. I guess I’d just like to know what your thoughts are on internet feminist activism. Do you consider it “real activism”? And do you think it has been a more positive or negative force for modern feminism?
J: Online activism is a new tool that takes activism to a whole new level. There is no replacement for actual real life activism but social media can not be dismissed. It is a very powerful medium that has given a voice to women who have never had one. You can spread the word fast, reach out to women and communities all over the world.
S: Social media has its pros and cons. On one hand, without social media I doubt I would have ever become a feminist. It’s also a great tool for organizing real-life activism.
On the other hand, online activism can also take away from real-life activism. I feel that nowadays people who care about social issues are more inclined to share meaningless slogans online ad-nauseum than participate in any meaningful analysis or activism. Ideally I would like to see online activism and real-life activism complement each other but I don’t think that’s often how it plays out in reality.
OLIVE: What, in your opinion, is the most pressing issue facing young women today, either in your country or in the world in general?
J: I think the most pressing issue we face is male violence against women and women’s pay inequality. Porn and the sex trade is male violence against women. Women need to be paid equally and have equal opportunities so they never have to resort to working in porn or prostitution.
S: I really believe that pornography is the biggest threat to the safety and well-being of young women today. We’ve seen the evidence that porn contributes to rape culture and pedophile culture, and young women bear the brunt of the damage. Emergency rooms are reporting record numbers of teenage girls with prolapsed anuses because their porn-addicted boyfriends have pressured them into anal sex. The porn problem is growing exponentially as the internet-porn industry brings porn into the homes of more and more young men – the average age for boys to access porn is 11 years. I feel genuinely scared for future generations of girls as this problem gets worse. My desire to protect those girls from the progression of porn culture is a huge part of what fuels my passion for radical feminist activism.
OLIVE: Have you had any interesting encounters or confrontations with anybody while you were doing your street art?
J: The times when I’ve been out painting over strip club and brothel posters I actually have women and men thanking me and asking if they can help!!! The response is overwhelmingly positive. I’m generally very discreet and mostly I do it alone, in broad daylight. People don’t even notice what you are doing; they are too busy staring at their iPhones usually. We go out in groups sticker bombing, which is so much fun!!! With the Shrews we like to have an element of fun and humour with what we do.
OLIVE: Though you ladies epitomize bravery to me, are there any moments where you do feel fear, especially since the act of making the street art is so public?
S: As much as I’d like to say I’m a tough Amazon warrior who feels no fear, I’ve definitely felt scared at times while hitting the streets with Shrews material. It gets easier over time; when I first started I was paranoid about anyone seeing me do so much as put a sticker up, but now I’ll happily do stickers, stencils, and paste ups in broad daylight in the middle of a busy city.
J: I feel fear most when doing street art around brothels. I had a creepy, sexually harassing phone call one night after a mission. It doesn’t stop me doing it though. The first few times you do it, it is a bit scary but then you get addicted to it. The suffragettes were burning down buildings, we put stickers on walls. We’ve literally been forced to take it to the streets as women are largely excluded from the mainstream media, especially feminists who get attacked for their views. Feminists are being silenced but we will not be stopped, we are not going away.
OLIVE: What do you suggest to the many women who are afraid to be loud and proud with their feminist beliefs, considering the current climate is so hostile towards us?
S: Start small. Practice being more open about your politics by having one-on-one conversations about feminist issues with people you trust. Spend time learning as much as you can about feminism, so when the time for debate comes, you’ll be equipped with statistics and facts to back up your arguments. If possible, connect with other feminists so you’ll have a support network in case you do get harassed.
If you’re a young woman/teenage girl like I was when I first entered feminism, spend some time developing the emotional maturity you need to be able to deal with the almost-inevitable harassment, and learn to assert yourself calmly and clearly even when you’re feeling distressed or attacked. Above all, stay passionate and focused on why feminism is so important. It’s tough to be a feminist, and without strong passion, conviction, and focus, it might not feel worth it in the face of harassment.
OLIVE: What do you suggest to girls who want to do more activism offline?
S: My best suggestion is to find feminist Facebook groups and use them as a tool to connect with other women in your area! Even if you know of just one or two other feminists (or women who you might be able to convert!), you can start organizing feminist activism together. Women are smart and excellent at working as a team towards a common goal, so I believe that even small groups can organize meaningful actions.
If you can’t connect with anyone in real life, you can always do something as simple as buying a marker, scribbling down a quick feminist slogan/statistic somewhere public, taking a photo, and sending it to us on any of our many social media accounts (Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook). It’s a small act of resistance but it’s meaningful; you could be the one to plant that first feminist seed in someone’s mind.
OLIVE: What are your plans for the future of The Untameable Shrews?
J: We have visions to go big, larger scale and more visible projects. The Shrews just published our first zine and have so much content that we could produce 10 zines every month. It would be great to have an actual magazine to rival those shitty women’s magazines in the future. We’re considering projection art and a short documentary film. The growth of the Shrews has been very organic and a lot of fun, we don’t have a clear strategy but tend to make it up as we go along. Our ethos is very punk and DIY.
S: As J touched on, we are awash with exciting new ideas and plans right now!
Thinking in the long term, I believe that small beginnings can make a big impact, and I sincerely hope that the Shrews can play a part in the revival of the feminist movement that was so strong during the second wave. We want anti-patriarchy, pro-woman feminism to make a comeback, and to continue the work that second-wavers started.
Ultimately, the highest goal of any feminist activism is the liberation of women from patriarchy. That’s what we’re always thinking about and working towards. ♦