Grace Banks has spent the last few years researching dolls, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the way women represent themselves through art.
Her work has taken on new relevance in light of recent backlash against photographer Terry Richardson and the emerging discussion over harassment under the guise of art.
She explores the representation of women and their bodies in art in her book “Play With Me: Dolls, Women and Art,” which was released earlier this fall.
“When I say dolls in the book, there are dolls but it’s also appropriation of women’s bodies,” Banks says. “I think dolls are really the ultimate objectification of women. I find that quite an interesting feminist concept: there is this element of how you’re seen and how you want to be seen, and I think a lot of young feminists now don’t mind seeming like they’re objectifying themselves. And I think dolls really lend themselves to that.”
Banks, a freelance journalist raised in London with bylines at the Guardian, The New York Times, Interview magazine and more, has long been interested in the intersection between gender and culture, particularly where politics fit in.
“In my writing I focus mainly on the intersection of women, culture and current affairs,” she says. “I’m a trustee of a women’s charity in London who works with a lot of women who have been victims of gender-based violence, so I’ve always had a really political angle to a lot of my work, and I think that goes through to the fashion stuff that I do.”
Of the decision to produce a book on the subject, she says, “I really wanted to make clear that it is a contemporary art book, but I don’t want it to feel snobby.” The book is composed of four sections: blow-up, muse, female gaze and cyborg. She includes the work of artists like Laurie Simmons, Stacy Leigh, Jeff Koons, Zoe Buckman, Vanessa Beecroft and Elena Dorfman.
“I felt that all the work was really riffing on contemporary feminism. To me, the really exciting thing was that the concept was crossing over into the mainstream, so I wanted to bring together a group of artists who are really quite radical and are using quite disruptive methods, that almost go against the grain of how women are represented in contemporary art and contemporary art trends that they’re meant to be a part of,” she says.
She covers the debate the prevalence of social media has introduced, over what is essentially the slut-shaming of women like Kim Kardashian and Emily Ratajkowski, who share revealing selfies.
“I think a lot of the artists are working in that context, and there are a lot of good things about it, in the sense that I don’t think it’s ever going to be bad for women to self-objectify,” Banks says. “I find it problematic that a lot of negative comments are made about Kim Kardashian, but then other women who self-objectify through more literal means like fashion magazines aren’t really criticized. There’s a really interesting gender issue there. Certain women are really criticized for those kind of pictures or posts, and certain women aren’t.”
Another upswing, in her opinion, is the accessibility of social media. “There’s an element to it of being one of the most widely used platforms by women,” she says. “Self representation by women is always going to be criticized to a certain extent. I find it really interesting that social media is a platform that women use so hugely and widely, and yet women are just constantly criticized on it.”
The selfie also allows a woman to be in charge of how her body is portrayed.
“When men represent women naked or in any guise or any context whatsoever it’s called art, but when women do it in a way that is easy for them to do they get criticized,” Banks says.
Which leads to Richardson.
“I think he has gotten away with hugely problematic and probably illegal behavior towards women in the name of ‘art’ for almost two decades now,” she says of the photographer. “His viability as an artistic photographer has never been questioned by the mainstream media who have given him his biggest paychecks — yet his work relies entirely on the exposed female body. And as we know now, one that’s likely to have been sexually harassed or coerced by him. But then if you look at artists like Donna Huanca and Leah Schrager, who use their naked or semi-naked bodies in their work, or celebrities like Emma Watson and Kim Kardashian, all of which have been criticized heavily by the media for exposing their bodies, the double standard is shocking.”
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