Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Redress through dress

“I question the effectiveness of the collective gesture of wearing denim in ‘protest against erroneous and destructive attitudes about sexual assault’.”

Today is Denim Day in the US. For some reason, I was thinking it was tomorrow, probably because SUNY Purchase, where I work, is acknowledging the campaign over a two-day period. At any rate, I am coincidentally wearing denim because I am helping install a show of student work at the library, which is bound to make for a messier day than usual.

Organized by Peace Over Violence, the 11-year-old campaign was sparked by outrage about an Italian Supreme Court decision to overturn a rape conviction, based on the reasoning that the victim was wearing “too tight jeans and she must have helped her attacker remove them.”

Let me publicly admit that on occasion I find myself falling prey to the messages women are told by society, including self-blame for harassment. About a week ago, I was riding the train to the Bronx in the evening. A young man asked if he could sit across from me. I said yes, and when he slid into the seat, he brushed his leg against mine and said, “Oh, sorry, I touched your leg” as if to emphasize what might have otherwise seemed like an honest mistake. His friend hopped into the seat beside me, told me I was cool, and held out his fist. I reciprocated with a tap, thinking this was the best strategy in an odd situation, and then he grabbed my hand and kissed it. When I got my hand back, I busied myself with making notes on a printout of a call for submissions. It was for a show about female sexuality, which made me feel self-conscious. Then he told me that if anyone tried anything with me, he’d stand up for me. I got up earlier than necessary for my stop and he said, “Ooh, she scared.” I hate to say it, but I immediately wondered if I had brought on the incident by wearing a dress. This is the kind of skewed thinking that Denim Day attempts to redress, and that is commendable.

Much of my art is about female sexuality and the perception of females based on clothing, so this issue is close to my heart. However, I question the effectiveness of the collective gesture of wearing denim in “protest against erroneous and destructive attitudes about sexual assault.” I am all for consciousness-raising and solidarity, but a number of questions come to mind. With the widespread popularity of denim, will participants blend in with denim-wearing people who aren’t even aware of the campaign, making Denim Day appear more supported than it really is? Does the campaign run the ironic risk of implying that clothing is a factor in assault by using clothing as the solution? Does the campaign fall into the same category as the recent viral campaign on Facebook wherein women posted the colour of their bras to supposedly promote awareness of breast cancer? That is, by taking a small action, will participants sleep better at night believing they have made a difference?


Peace Over Violence Summer Newsletter, 2008. Online.

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