Cute, cuter, Pussyhat?
Two days ago, I attended the Women’s Day manifestation in Gothenburg. As during every (mainly) female protest, I was overwhelmed by the powerful energy and the feeling of complete safety in a huge anonymous crowd. It seems to be a glimpse of how the world could (should!) feel. Also the sheer sight of the protest was overwhelming because almost everyone was wearing a Pussyhat. Many of those who weren’t had draped other spectacular pink-coloured constructions and improvisations on and around their heads.During the manifestation, no speeches were held. Instead, the main message was music. First, a fantastic women-only drum group played and would have gotten everybody moving in most places other than Scandinavia. Afterwards, everyone joined in the collective chant of the new anthem Quiet by LA-based singer Milck. It was a powerful experience to stand amidst 500 women singing out loud and passionately, as if one single voice, "I can’t keep quiet for anyone anymore!".
I was a bit surprised at how much the protest was inspired by the recent women’s movement in the US. I hadn't known that the Pussyhat had become such a thing in Sweden as well. The Pussyhat is an idea that two Californian women came up with after Trump had been elected president in November last year. As a protest to his "Grab-them-by-the-pussy" video and basically his entire existence, they wanted to create a powerful counter symbol to the official caps of his campaign. In contrast to the rather male-looking mass-produced baseball caps, the protest hat should be handmade, locally produced, outrageously female, catchy, witty, and unique. And voilà, it was born. The Pussyhat.
Before the women’s march on the 22nd of January (the first day after Trump’s inauguration), my boyfriend told me very excited about the Pussyhat project. I happen to live in a household in which everyone loves both knitting and politics, so we were immediately hooked (even though there would be no women’s march in Gothenburg). The pattern is extremely simple, so knitting a hat took no time.* I wore mine during a tiny climate-change related manifestation on the 22nd of January. I didn't spot any other person in downtown Gothenburg wearing a Pussyhat but I got a few bright and encouraging smiles by women who looked like they definitely knew what this strange thing on my head was about. I also had this odd thought that people might find it less strange because I pass as Japanese and there is this whole Kawaii-Hello-Kitty cuteness thing which makes it totally accepted to wear pink hats with little cat ears (I realise how crazy this sounds when I actually write it down).
The Pussyhats turned out to be hugely successful during the marches in the US. Pictures showed a vast sea of pink - exactly how the hat's creators had planned it. After the marches (with an estimated three million protesters worldwide and over 500,000 in Washington D.C. alone), the Pussyhat somehow took off. All of a sudden, it was everywhere in the press. It made it to the covers of TIME and THE NEW YORKER, and was celebrated as the symbol of a new movement. The project's homepage has substantially expanded since I last looked at it in January. It now contains a section for media inquiries, FAQ, and knitting instructions in a dozen different languages.
"The problem is – the problem has always been – that feminism is not fun. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s complex and hard and it pisses people off."
Of course, the pink hats are a contested symbol. To many, wearing cheerful Barbie-coloured cat ears does not exactly convey the message of female resistance and feminist struggle that is needed. Writer and director Holly Derr writes on bitchmedia: 'The infantilizing kitten imagery combined with a stereotypically feminine color feels too safe and too reductive to be an answer to the complex issues facing women today.' She goes on criticizing that the whole idea of the Pussyhat ascribes to a very problematic essentialist notion of being female because it implies 'that women are somehow naturally "caring, compassionate, and loving.”' In her impression, the Pussyhat and the feminist movement evolving around it, is 'more a celebration of femaleness than an act of resistance'.
Andi Zeisler's criticizes the increasing commodification of feminism in her book We Were Feminists Once. Published half a year before Trump's election in May 2016, the book calls for systematic change instead of feminist merchandise that satisfies consumerist self-expression instead of fighting for political change. Feminism is not about the products you buy or the celebrities you like, or the haircut you get, Zeisler says: 'The problem is – the problem has always been – that feminism is not fun. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s complex and hard and it pisses people off. It’s serious because it is about people demanding that their humanity be recognized as valuable.' So it doesn't come as a surprise that she is not a big fan of the Pussyhat.
The fact that the Pussyhat "made it" to the Milan Fashion Week within a month after the march seems to perfectly proof Zeisler's point. Watching dozens of skinny models presenting ridiculously expensive luxury fashion with Pussyhats on their heads made me feel like I never wanted to wear mine again**. But I guess that's just what happens to symbols of any kind. It seems like the Pussyhat has already entered the inevitable socio-cultural battlefield of contestation, glorification, appropriation, re-interpretation. But it still made me cringe because it seemed like the hats had in no time turned into the sort of thing that Ivanka Trump might wear if Donald Trump wasn't her father, if you know what I mean.
In the end, wearing my Pussyhat yesterday did feel more like a celebration of femaleness than a political act. But this was beautiful in itself because there are not many occasions where this is possible to such a large extent as during a women's march. Further, celebrating femaleness and political struggle are by no means mutually exclusive. So are knitting pink things and engaging in political activism. There are amazing female activists who have transformed public spaces, in particular male statues (how many monumental statues of female personalities have you seen?) into political statements by gleefully playing with pink yarn. This is about re-appropriating the traditionally female, domestic, and unpolitical activity of knitting and transforming it into a political act. I was part of a Pussyhat knitting circle at the university, and while we were knitting we discussed feminism, identity, belonging, and current politics. My friend Minoo waded through ice cold cold water and audaciously free-climbed a gigantic metal statue of Poseidon (re-named Pusseidon afterwards) to put a huge Pussyhat on his enormous head. I guess it's what you make out of it. If you wear your Pussyhat as a fashionable item only, you are most likely not going to contribute much to smashing patriarchy. But if you make it part of your political identity and wear it while actually smashing patriarchy - great!
And even if there may be lots of women and girls wearing Pussyhats without any radical thinking tucked under it, it doesn't mean that feminism is undermined. Maybe it's because they think it's cool, maybe they want to belong, maybe they simply love knitting, maybe they think that's what it takes to be a feminist. But what if that's not a bad thing? What if that is the best way to attract and nurture new feminists, new activists, new radical thinkers? Maybe the Pussyhat attracts a number of girls and women who are not very political but find their way into feminism through fashionable pink hats? People get politicized in the most different ways, and I think it's idealistic to think that everyone has to undergo a deeply intellectual, Phoenix-like awakening in order to become a legitimate activist or radical thinker.
"The Pussyhat runs the risk of repeating the same mistakes that mainstream feminism should have learned from long ago."
For me, the most critical aspect of the Pussyhat hype is its exclusiveness. Of course, it is supposed to draw a visual line of dissent between the people wearing it and Trump, his supporters, and everything they stand for. But it seems that the Pussyhat runs the risk of repeating the same mistakes that mainstream feminism should have learned from long ago - the claim to express the female experience, to be a unifying factor for all women when in reality it is only the white middle class that is represented. The act of proudly wearing a vagina symbol as a feminist act is mainly present in Western white culture, and although I love most feminist pussy art I can also understand everyone who shakes their heads about it.
Right before the manifestation, there was a series of short lectures at the university. My Swedish wasn't good enough to follow the presentations, so I left after a short while. But I stayed long enough to hear a man giving a lecture about intersectionality and the problems of Förortsfeminism (suburban feminism). By and large, it seemed to be white people talking to white people about problems of non-white people. During the manifestation, I hardly saw any non-white women. The feminist culture here seems to struggle with the same problems as in most other countries where the majority of people is white. Although I find it very uplifting that the biggest charity second hand shop in town decorated its windows with a glittery diverse mix of women in the weeks leading up the the 8th of March, the celebrated feminist diversity seems to be more idealistic thinking than reality.
I believe that a feminist movement that struggles with diversity is not necessarily heading towards more inclusion and participation by choosing the Pussyhat as its new symbol. Quite the contrary: women from different social and cultural contexts may feel even more alienated from the movement because they cannot or do not want identify with the pink cat ears.
So in a way, I feel a bit torn. As usual, things are complex and it is easy to sit at one's desk and criticize others. Also, I have not been active part of Swedish feminist culture so far, so I might do it wrong and jump to unfair conclusions.
But anyways, it will be interesting to see what happens to the Pussyhat. I guess time will show whether it actually has radical potential or whether it will merely deteriorate into a shallow cheerful fashion object. I will keep my eyes open whether I spot any non-white women wearing one, and once I have settled in a bit more, get active in local feminist groups to find out more about Swedish feminism and activism.
What's for sure: the Pussyhats succeeded to turn the manifestation yesterday into a cheerful and colourful spectacle, whereas pretty much every other colour was swallowed by the wet, grey Swedish twilight. And if you have ever experienced a proper Swedish winter day, you know that this is some sort of achievement by itself.
* Well, "no time" in the time-reckoning of a person sitting unemployed on a small Swedish island during a long Scandinavian winter.
** Instead, oh wonderful irony, I got inspired to knit a new Pussyhat with fashionable stripes on the rim.