Arts·Point of View

'Feminism is the new black!' Why one artist pokes fun at feminist theory and performative activism

Madelyne Beckles's work is a fascinating and tongue-in-cheek look at feminism in the age of #MeToo.

Madelyne Beckles's work is a fascinating look at feminism in the age of #MeToo

Madelyne Beckles. Still from Theory of The Young Girl, 2017. (Courtesy of Gallery 44)

"Didn't you know? Feminism is the new black!"

This is one of several eyebrow-raising declarations that Madelyne Beckles delivers in Arrangements, currently on display at Gallery 44 in Toronto.

Beckles has been attracting attention in the art world through her collaborations with photography "It Girl" Petra Collins, including Fuck Boi Funeral at Art Basel Miami in 2015 at In Search of Us at the MoMA last year.

Arrangements, however, is a solo exhibition. It's a fascinating exploration of feminist theory, performative activism and an ever-growing generational divide.

You'll find the show inside 401 Richmond, a large, multi-use complex downtown. Beckles's videos are displayed in glass cases in the corridor, so anyone on their way to other galleries, offices, shops or even the bathroom will be confronted with her moving images.

A young woman dramatically applies pink lipstick on one screen. On another, she stands topless in a kitchen examining the instructions on an Aunt Jemima pancake box. On the final screen, she can be found smiling and dancing frantically with a copy of Audre Lorde's Sister Outsider in her hand.

Beckles's work is purposefully sensational, juxtaposing seemingly disparate references to make observations about the way we consume and perform.

I met the artist at Gallery 44 last week, and she told me more about her work as we walked through the installation. 

"They all kind of use feminist theory in this double way of parody and critique," she told me. "They all speak to that slippage between making fun of theory and white feminism and academia, but it's also crucial to the work."

Now based in Toronto, Beckles studied art history and women's studies at Concordia University. While there, she became fascinated with theory and began developing work inspired by the texts she was reading.

Beckles's video Theory of the Young Girl has a faded and aged look reminiscent of something that has been taped on VHS.

"I'm so happy, I could give a shit about being free!" she shouts on screen.

She tells me that her original idea for the video was a PSA about feminist theory, "like something you'd see in school, similar to 'Hugs Not Drugs' kind of thing." 

Everything in the video is powder pink: backdrops, costumes and props — including pink hairspray bottles, pink nail polish, pink lipstick and pink deodorant. They're the tools of the trade in high-stylized femininity.

Madelyne Beckles, Theory of The Young-Girl, mixed media video installation, documentation from the Chromatic Festival (Montreal), 2017. (Courtesy of Gallery 44)

Beckles's own exaggerated performance is an explicit critique of the beauty ideals that are engrained in young girls —along with the illusion of choice.

"I'm gonna do what I want with my hair!" she says while twirling a strand with her finger. What "she wants," however, has already been decided for her. Her ideals, her desires — and her shopping list — have been dictated by advertisements, magazines and movies.

The video was largely inspired by the book Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl by French collective Tiqqun. First published in 1999, it is a scathing critique of consumer society and its targeting of young women to become socialized into the ideal lifetime customers.

"It's really in line for when I was growing up, which was also the height of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton — that kind of pink, plastic Playboy vibe that really informed my understanding of my own gender."

Says Beckles: "It's re-contextualizing this super-feminized imagery that we're really familiar with and is very appealing because of its bright confectionary nature."

Her video Womanism is a Form of Feminism Focused Especially on the Conditions and Concerns of Black Women was created using her webcam, her books and the various backdrops provided by her MacBook.

"I was really just drawing from call-in commercials on late-night television — these abstract dreamy places that I felt was a funny juxtaposition with this hard theory."

In Beckles's work, the number to call is 1800-FLIRTY-FEMINIST, and the artist can be seen beckoning seductively with a finger as a cascading waterfall appears behind her.

"Are you tired of sleeping when you see the world becoming more woke?" the voiceover asks.

Beckles is seen against various backdrops posing with books such as bell hooks's Killing Rage:Ending Racism and Rosemarie Tong's Feminist Thought as a voice says, "With today's brand of feminism, you no longer have to compromise looking cute." 

It's a fascinating statement to consider in the days following the Women's March. Last weekend, hundreds of images flooded my news feed — a virtual parade of fierce poses, witty signage and t-shirts adorned with political slogans.

"They're all books I read in my undergrad and I made it right after I finished [in 2016]," Beckles said as we stood in the corridor watching the video.

"I was trying to play with that canon of works that I had to read, but also pick apart the canon and what a canon is and how feminist canons have been commercialized recently and meant for quick consumption via Instagram and Tumblr." 

At one point in the piece, a bump and grind era R&B song plays, and Beckles is suddenly clad in a patent leather mini-dress, slapping her behind with Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex.

I have to confess, my eyes widened, and I recalled the almost religious reverence that my women's studies professors had for this seminal text. I quickly realized that my discomfort is part of Beckles's intention. She is not only poking fun at the superficial performativity of today's feminism — she is also dismantling the absurd pedestals and moral superiority that came with second-wave feminism.

In her latest video, The Whole Woman, Beckles combines visuals from a durational video she made in 2015 with words from Germaine Greer's The Whole Woman. Wearing only underwear, she appears in a kitchen making Aunt Jemima pancakes.

"When I was reading this book I just kept thinking of this footage of a Black body making Aunt Jemima pancakes. It speaks to domesticity and this kind of melancholy in fulfilling your gender role. The Whole Woman is a really dated problematic text. I kind of had this hate/love relationship with it and these quotes are pretty absurd and very abrasive. I couldn't tell while I was reading the book if she was scolding women or here for women or she was completely condemning us."

A few days after I spoke with Beckles, Greer made headlines for her critiques of the #MeToo movement and dismissal of its political potential. She is one of several older feminists who have made pointed distinctions between the work that made them so revered and the heroes and hashtags that have mobilized a new form of activism today. This cleavage between generations has seen many former feminist heroes dethroned from their pedestals. And right now, Beckles's work is a compelling and timely examination of feminist theory in this current moment of transition and re-examination.

Madelyne Beckles. Arrangements. To March 17 at Gallery 44, Toronto.


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.