You might think that a young, energetic, feminist artist who makes the type of work that includes putting a pair of glasses on her vulva and making it “sing” on camera would consider herself sex-positive. You might assume that the only kind of woman who would sign up to be on a reality television show about dating would be desperate, some kind of famewhore, or maybe, at best, pretty dull. It’s possible you’d also wonder if a girl who uploads videos of herself to YouTube, shamelessly dancing for unknown audiences, would actually be fairly comfortable in her own skin. To all of these, Ann Hirsch would have you reconsider.
A video and performance artist, Ann Hirsch examines gender in pop culture through what she calls “immersive research” through technology. Her work could be considered fairly autobiographical, mapping and archiving a history of technology as it relates to growing up as a woman online. Yet it can also feel at times as if Hirsch is “a voice. Of a generation,”1 where the personal becomes the universal, attempting to humanize women’s and girls’ real, lived experiences. Though the work is often not explicitly participatory, Hirsch’s videos and performances capitalize on the role of the viewer as complicit: the very moment a viewer engages with the work marks the place where her work leaves the realm of the strictly feminine.
After her lecture at Maine College of Art and a night of critiquing women’s portrayals of themselves in pop music videos, Ann and I got together to talk about feminism in the digital age.
Jenna Crowder: I’m curious about the audience you see for your work. When I see it, I feel like the work is for me, but when I’ve talked with women older than I am who didn’t grow up on the internet, they seem hesitant. Does your work manifest itself best for younger women or women who grew up online?
Ann Hirsch: I think it is mainly for women my own age. I mean, it’s for everyone, but I think they get it and understand it the most. I’m just making work for every stage of my life. Probably the teens will relate most to the Playground project, because that was about when I was a teenager and they’re probably having really similar experiences to that right now with Snapchat or whatever. When I’m a 60-year-old woman I’m going to make art about what it means to be a 60-year-old woman, and 20-somethings might not like that work at that point. So my work follows me and my own trajectory. My mom and I, for example, had completely different experiences growing up, so I couldn’t imagine, for example, that she would understand where I was coming from. It is a little specific to a generation.
JC: For me, and it seems for you, online display is not that big of a deal.
AH: Yeah, some older feminists are among the people who have the biggest reactions against the work. They fought so hard to not be sexualized so they see it as regressive; they have a hard time seeing how I’m using that — not for the sake of abusing it, but for the sake of talking about it. Using it as a mechanism to talk about these issues that still exist. Because those same issues that they were wrestling with — they did good work on them, but they haven’t disappeared. They’ve mutated. I mean, the internet has just, like, amplified so many of the same issues that they were wrestling with and now they’re distorted. But I think, you know, as this stuff keeps going on and keeps happening, more of these women, these older women, have started to come around more to it and understand that this is a part of culture that needs to be addressed.
JC: How does your work humanize women and yourself in particular?
AH: I wanted to show the vulva and the vagina in a way that it’s not normally seen. I wanted to show it with…hair! I wanted to show it in an unflattering way. With glasses! There’s a video called Vagina Karaoke, where my vagina become my mouth and my vagina is singing. So you see this spread-open vagina, and you don’t normally see it in that way, but that’s what it looks like, that’s what it is! Imagine if a man is down there, that’s what he’s seeing! The way that we see women’s bodies is evolving. With the Scandalishious project, I could not do that project now. That wouldn’t be particularly interesting. That was very much a project of that time and in that moment and it changes very quickly. Scandalishious was very much a project about what it meant to be a woman online in 2008. Horny Little Feminist was what it meant to be a woman online in 2015. In 2020, it’s going to be a completely different thing. I feel like I’m always responding to the current atmosphere and I don’t believe you can look at art outside of its contexts. Remember 2008? It was very different than our world now even though it wasn’t that long ago! It was fucking different! You don’t understand how shocking it was for people to see me put videos of myself dancing online. They were just like, “You’re gonna get killed! What are you doing?” People thought I was insane and out of my mind. But now, who the fuck cares if you do that? Everyone does that. But at the time, “Someone’s gonna stalk you and murder you! You’re basically a prostitute!” [Laughs.] It was so taboo to put your body online back then.
JC: Something I’ve been struggling with is the idea that I am, we are, allowed to express our sexuality, allowed to—
JC: Yeah, right?
JC: —to just be in control of it. I struggle with the idea that, as women, we’re often seen automatically as sexual, as sexual before anything else.
AH: Well, I don’t think women are in control of their sexuality. I think that it’s a weird empowerment myth. And that’s why I hate the term empowerment; I said that in the lecture. I don’t believe in it. It’s a fucked up term. We’re not in control of our sexuality. We’re not. I think that every woman is trying to navigate that space, but they don’t know how, don’t know if it’s possible. I think everyone has their own path to being who they are. This is my path.
JC: Do you think men are in control of their sexuality?
AH: I think men are more so, but there definitely are still so many burdens and so many repressions on men. When I was talking about Marriage Moguls2, a part of Marriage Moguls was predicated on understanding the male ego, and the male ego is completely shaped by who they’re having sex with and learning how to understand that. And it’s just so fucked up that a man’s self-worth is determined by who he’s sleeping with, what she3 looks like, how many women he’s sleeping with — that’s very twisted.
JC: I’m also thinking about how commonplace it is now to put your body online, whether it’s YouTube or Instagram or whatever, and thinking about the currency of likes and views with the idea that women are in control of their sexuality, or think they’re in control.
AH: And I don’t think showing yourself is for everyone. But for me being visible isn’t always about your body being visible. It can be your words. I want women to express themselves in whatever way they feel is good for them. A lot of women just have a tumblr or just a blog or words. That’s a huge part of it: being able to express yourself in whatever format is good for you. In my ideal world, all different kinds of women would show themselves, but the reality of it is, why would you do that if you’re just going to get trolled?
JC: Which seems like it — women showing themselves — will happen more often with more women voices, right?
AH: I hope so. I don’t know. We really oscillate between bleakness and hopefulness. Sometimes I’m like— I look at the Black Lives Matter movement and it gives me hope. It’s amazing. But then I watch the Republican National Convention and if Trump is going to win we’re fucking fucked. It’s frightening. If Trump wins this election, ugh. It’s just brutal.
JC: So if I insert your work alongside pornography — I don’t know if that’s fair or not, but I’m sure a certain percentage of your audience also views porn — how do you see your work in light of that? I find your work really funny and amusing and playful, and you’ve talked about the idea of humanizing women, so I’m curious how this manifests as a totally different viewing experience.
AH: Yeah, definitely. For me, like with the Horny Little Feminist project, that project is specifically meant to be a juxtaposition to pornography; it’s supposed to be viewed with pornography in mind. And for me it’s trying to create an alternative voice for women’s bodies, just something different. At the end of the day, people are going to jack off to what they’re going to jack off to. It’s not like—
—so I also hate the phrase “subverting the male gaze”; I’m sorry, you cannot subvert the male gaze! That is impossible. So it’s never like I’m subverting the male gaze — if anything it’s just expanding it and my hope is that by expanding it, you expand it so the male gaze becomes sexually aroused by the humanization [of women]. For a girl, we become sexually aroused if we see a man that’s intelligent, who’s funny. In an ideal world, the same would happen for men: they would see a woman who’s funny, who’s smart, kind, and that would get them hard. It’s more like expanding the male gaze than subverting it.
JC: That is maybe the most realistic thing I’ve ever heard, and so refreshing actually—
AH: I hate subverting. It doesn’t exist — you can’t!
JC: I think a lot about entitlement when I think of pornography. There seem to be conversations we can never have about porn, even as feminists. That in order to be a cool feminist, you have to be okay with porn—
AH: Yeah, I’m totally sex-negative.
JC: It seems as if people feel entitled to porn — primarily men — but specifically entitled to women’s bodies in general. When you mentioned in your talk that 50% of video content on the internet is pornography, I was really struck by that. And the idea that it can be such an obvious lens for how men are viewing women.
AH: Yeah. I know. I have a very big problem with sex-positive feminism. I think at one point there was a lot of conversation going around about sex-positive versus sex-negative feminism, and the reason you haven’t heard as much about it recently is there are other more dominant issues going on. But for me, sex-positive feminism posits that if you like something sexually, that means it’s good. I do not believe that at all. I can like something sexually, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. It’s like trashy reality TV: I love trashy reality TV, but it’s fucked up. It’s manipulative and exploitive. And I feel the same way about porn. I like watching porn, but it’s fucked up: it’s manipulative and it’s exploitive. It’s violent. The vast majority of it is violent and degrading towards women. There is some porn that’s “better”, but the vast majority of it is fucking horrible.
JC: Is there any hope that women can just be women in all of their identities and all of their individual sexualities that’s separate from their bodies?
AH: I think it is possible. Porn is a small piece of a much larger issue: violence against women has to stop. That has to stop.
JC: Do you see that as the biggest piece?
AH: It’s just awful. It’s just so prevalent. It’s constant in our lives. It’s a mentality. People are just like, “That’s the way it is.” Very, very much so and it’s really sad. That’s the number one thing that needs to change. It’s linked to pornography, for sure. Violence against women has to become non-sexy. And we have to teach people that it’s not sexy. I did this piece for my first solo show in New York: inside this kids’ fort there were these videos of films I grew up with. I call it the eroticization or the domination of women. Take Aladdin: Jasmine is in chains, she’s Jafar’s fucking sex slave. In Star Wars, the third of the originals, Princess Leia is Jabba the Hutt’s sex slave! In Cinderella, her step-sisters are ripping off her dress in this heated rage. It’s like this weird rape scene. We’re literally teaching our children that violence against women is sexy. It’s very fucked up.
JC: I also want to talk about shame. You mentioned that in the videos in which you’re putting your vulva on screen, you’re doing that because you were ashamed of it. So what’s your relationship to shame and how does it motivate you?
AH: Shame has always guided me. I hate it. I hate feeling ashamed and I have, my whole life, felt ashamed of so many things. Once I became an artist, I was just sick of it.
JC: What sorts of things did you feel ashamed of or by?
AH: Everything. If you had met me when I was a teenager, you would not think I was the same person. I didn’t talk to anybody. I was very introverted, very shy. Most of my classmates barely heard me speak. I was ashamed to even be myself. At the time, I didn’t know who I was. I tried to blend in and failed because I wasn’t that kind of person. At some point I was just very sick of it. I realized I could only be myself by just sloughing off all the things I felt ashamed about, and a lot of that in the beginning was just voicing my opinion.
In college, I think that’s when I started to become more confident and be who I wanted to be. I was just tired of feeling afraid of things, or be a certain way, or do a thing I wanted to do. So I just started making those things my artistic practice. But even then it was also a way of still avoiding doing those things, I did it for my art, “It’s not me, it’s my art.” Like with the Scandalishious character, it was the only way I could be that part of myself.
I was on a panel in L.A. recently — it was all women who put themselves out there online. I think I was the only white woman on the panel. All the other women were very prominently putting themselves online, one in particular, and most in the tech industry — blogging — so using their real identities to put themselves online. They were talking about all the trolling they were getting, all the bullshit that they had to deal with and how to cope with it. I said that I never do that stuff as Ann Hirsch, I always do it as my art and that’s a way of dealing with all that stuff. There was this one woman who makes all these very political blogs and she gets people calling her things all the time, that people are going to murder her. And I was thinking, she is so much braver and stronger than I am, but at the same time — she must be younger than me, maybe early 20s — I think you’ll only be able to put up with this for so long. You can’t sustain that forever, it’s brutal. It’s so hard to be at the brunt of people’s misogynist, racist words. Having it be my art allows me to do that kind of stuff without having to take it so personally.
JC: So what’s the silver lining? Where’s the hope? Is there any, besides people dying off?
AH: The real conservatism exists because we are making progress. I do think that. I do genuinely think that things have to get a lot worse before they get better. But I think because they’re going to get so bad, something good will come of that. There will be a turning point, but we’re not there yet. It’s coming. People will be ready for things to get better. They’ll allow it because they’ll just be fed up. It’s so bleak.
And that’s another thing. In 2008, no one would call themselves a feminist. But shit was not bleak like it is now. The world was pretty chill. [Laughs.]
JC: Which is funny, because I remember thinking in 2008 that shit was pretty bleak. But I do tend to think things can’t get much worse—
AH: I think it has to be bad enough. Right now, people can still live their lives. It has to get to a point where people’s daily lives are affected a lot. A lot of people. And white people’s lives, because [society doesn’t] care about non-white people, sadly enough. It has to get to a point where you can’t ignore it. Where you can’t just close Facebook and see it disappear. And it’s gonna be some really bad shit for it to get to that point. Occupy Wall Street was really important because it showed white people what it meant to be a minority. Black and brown people have been treated like shit forever and white people never understood that until Occupy, when it happened to them. I could see Trump creating a state in which I would be on a terror list. They could look at my website, they could look at my art and be like, this woman is a fucking feminist and fuck her, put her on a terror list. Laura Poitras, for example, she is like an enemy of the state. And it doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch for me to imagine that for me under Trump. I think it has to be more stuff like that. For me it’s not that far of a stretch. Vimeo will barely host my videos. My [former] webhost wouldn’t host my videos — enemy of the state!
JC: Every time I talk to someone about this it always ends like this.
AH: Bleak. But some men get it, and that’s what gives me hope.
Ann Hirsch: Sharing Love is on view at at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art through August 12, 2016.
You can see more of Hirsch’s work at http://therealannhirsch.com/.
Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art
522 Congress Street, Portland, ME | 207.699.5025
Open Wednesday–Sunday 11am–5pm, Thursday 11am–7pm. First Fridays 11am–8pm. Free.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
- “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation.” — Hannah Horvath, as played and written by Lena Dunham on HBO’s Girls. ↩
- “I wanna start a self help group that’s the opposite of pickup artists and id call us “marriage moguls” id teach women how to find a husband”, https://twitter.com/nnhirsch/status/738281388437209088 ↩
- Most of the time, Hirsch talks about her work in heterosexual terms and can often be viewed that way as well. ↩