On the occasion of the MenstrUAL festival, a 2-day student-led event hosted by Post-Grad Community aiming to celebrate and raise awareness of the environmenstrual movement, LCC PhD student April Meichen Lu writes about her practice which explores the perceptions of female genitalia through graphic narrative.
Everything that occurs around women could have a chance to become an issue, menstruation, leg hairs, vulva, tits, intercourse, orgasm, etc. The variety of female body issues inspired my feminist thinking from an illustrator perspective.
While I was doing my MA, I once read a news piece talking about a female model receiving rape and death threats for showing off her hairy legs in an Adidas advertisement. As a foreigner I am interested in Western individuals view of female body hairs. And I’m curious about why women received death threaten because of the part of their body while men are showing their hairy legs confidently in summer? Based on the issue I made a series of newspaper-type illustrations to describe the influence of women's leg hair in the Western patriarchal society (see figures 1). After that, I intend to explore different type of female body issues, especially the female genitalia issues.
In many myths, the threatening aspect of the female genital is symbolised by the vagina dentata and the concept of the vulva continues to be seen as a source of danger and fear in the modern world. Barbara Creed (1993) has examined the notion of vagina dentata from conventional Yanomamo, Chinese and Muslim cultures; and myths such as the goddess of Melanesia and references horror films such as ‘The Hunger (1983)’and ‘Vampyres (1974)’in which audiences are given detailed shots of woman’s open mouths with fangs and bloody lips, the graphic image of the vagina dentata. Jessica Johnson’s comic book ‘Vagina Dentata (1993)’ graphically depicts the phallus character stuck in the toothed vagina character during intercourse (see figure 2).
In the visual art field, some artists use substitutes torepresent the vulva because of their similar shapes or identities. The contemporary artist Loie Hollowell creates abstract biomorphic paintings that suggest sexuality. In ‘From the Beginning (2017)’,Hollowellemploys the mandorla shape to represent vulva imagery (see figure 3) that can be compared with the Modernist artistGeorgia O'Keeffe’s painting of enlargingflowers such as‘Red Canna (1924)’, which is widely understood as representing female genitalia (see figure 4). However, feminine symbols, substitutes and euphemisms obscure the direct expression of the female genitalia, conveying a thought to the public that the vulva should be replaced in some way.
It has been defined by Dr. Sharp that, in the contemporary society, many girls and women have fundamental misunderstandings about their own genital appearance. They request labiaplasty to create a smooth genital surface, just like a barbie doll or to create a standard shape of vulva from internet pornography. Actually, there is a huge variety in labia size, shape and color and there is certainly no one normal way for them to look.The British artist Jamie McCartney’s artwork ‘The Great Wall of Vagina (2008)’ properly proved that there is no standard shape of vulvas (see figure 5).
As a Chinese woman, I also have my own genitalia issues. I could hardly say the word vagina before I came to London and started to research Feminist Art. This word was a taboo in my country, and all the knowledge I had about my sex organs was self-taught; Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues(1998) showed me that I was not the only woman who lacked awareness about her own genitalia. Influenced by Carolee Schneemann's vulvic space theory, I began to explore female genitalia in the graphic novel field. In my graduation project, Intercourse with My Vulva, I first tried to weaken the shape of the human body and focused on building a female genitals character and creating a graphic novel that reflects the most common feminist social issue, 'rape', with a vulva as the protagonist (see figure 6).
Individuals’ responses to my work inspired me to further develop the application of the vulva character in graphic novels and image narrative. As a female illustrator, I intend to explore feminist thinking and the use of female genitalia in graphic fields. My research is in the field of autobiographical graphic narratives, which are non-fiction narratives in comics form often produced by female creators that first emerged in the mid-1960s in the U.S., and is a term is defined by Hillary Chute in her research (2010). In my practice, the vulva characters will be constructed from my vulva because I will not define a standard character of all female genitalia; and I will use autobiographical narratives telling the story of my genitalia based on my experiences.
My practice-based research is focused around two aims, the first one is how to use the vulva as the main character in graphic narratives to investigate perceptions of female genitalia. Secondly, how to create new insights by applying female genitalia to characters in graphic narratives and challenge both the erotic and taboo stereotypes of vulvas in graphic images. This research contributes to challenge the stereotype of the vulva's historical, symbolic representation in graphic images and awaken the consciousness of female self-acceptance through directly visualising the vulva character.
Chute, H. (2010). Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia University Press.
Creed, B. (1993). The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis.LONDON: Routledge.
Ensler, E. (1998). The Vagina Monologues. New York, NY: Random House Audible.
Jones,A. (1998). Body Art: Performing the Subject. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kristeva, J. (1982). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.New York: Columbia University Press.
Schneemann, C. (2003).Imaging Her Erotics: Essays, Interviews, Projects.Cambridge: MIT Press.