One of the unexpected consequences of publishing a book about vaginas is that when friends or acquaintances encounter anything to do with the female anatomy, they forward me a link. “Saw this and thought of you” never used to be quite this disconcerting.
And so it was that a friend forwarded me a link to a video. “Here’s some vaginal knitting for you”, she emailed. Now I know knitting, like quilting, baking, and scrapbooking, is enjoying a renaissance. And the idea of subversive stitching is growing more and more popular. For Casey Jenkins, the vaginal knitter, it’s empowering – to stitch is to campaign.
Jenkins is a “performer craftivist” from Melbourne, Australia, whose Vaginal Knitting video has gone viral over the last week or so, attracting more vitriol than praise. In the three-minute film, the softly-spoken Jenkins patiently explains why in her performance piece, Casting off my Womb, she’s been knitting every day for 28 days with skeins of wool carefully inserted into, and then drawn out from, her vagina.
“If you take a good hard look at a vulva, you realise it’s just a bit of a body,” she declares, adding that “when I’m menstruating it makes knitting a hell of a lot harder because the wool is wet.”
The video is not graphic, but comments boards are full of viewers expressing disgust not at the project per se, but at the fact that, in Jenkins’s words, “The performance wouldn’t be the performance if I were going to cut out my menstrual cycle.” So the wool is sometimes stained brownish red – an honest, visual reminder of the reality of women’s bodies.
Keyboard warriors worldwide are using the now familiar and well-rehearsed whining of people threatened by women’s bodies, and by a kind of art that’s a million miles from Norman Rockwell or Jack Vettriano. But Jenkins’s art is what art should be: challenging and confrontational. Art has a duty to be political; to make us uneasy and challenge our world view.
Jenkins’s vaginal knitting is a witty intervention in a well-established artistic tradition that I write about at length in my book on the vagina. In the mid-70s, the artist Carolee Schneemann caused controversy with her New York performance piece Interior Scroll. Schneemann balanced precariously on a table in an exhibition hall. She was naked, daubed in paint and, as if removing a tampon, began to pull bit by bit from her vulva a 36" long scroll, the contents of which she read to her audience.
In this act Schneemann was acknowledging the power of the female body both to shock and to produce meaning. In its fluffy white wool, Jenkins’s own “scroll” is far softer than Schneemann’s hard-edged, concertinaed paper. “By linking the vulva with something that people do find warm and fuzzy and benign and even boring”, Jenkins states, “and by just knitting for a long period of time, I hope that people question the fears and negative associations they have with the vulva.”
Schneemann and Jenkins, like many other female performance artists, self-objectify. And it’s this autonomy, perhaps – doing it on their own terms – that threatens so many of those weasel-worded commentators. These women present their own bodies to a culture which on a daily basis scarcely blinks at the pornographic and misogynist objectification of the female body by men.
The casting off of Jenkins’s title is clever and powerful, too. It’s a knitting movement, of course, but it also, in the artist’s refusal to be ashamed of her menstruation, recalls her body’s regular shedding of endometrial cells, as the uterine lining itself is cast off and renewed.
If commentators squirm when the wool turns red, then so much the better – that last taboo of the menstruating body is one that should be challenged.
This is explicit art, but not in the sense that gets right wingers scuttling to the hills in a frenzy of moral panic. After all, it’s the Latin word explicare, meaning to unfold, which is the source of our own words for “explicit” and “explicate”.
The self-referential, autonomous and self-determining unfolding body is a beautiful one, and it’s one which threatens a culture which seeks to control how women see their own bodies and those of others. Ellie Land’s recent short film Centrefold has shown how most women don’t know bodies undergo elective labiaplasty procedures in order to conform to the porn stereotype – when in reality there is a huge range of different types of vagina, as artist Jamie McCartney showed recently in his 400 Vaginas project.
“Normality” has been redefined in a dangerous way to the point where what’s healthy is viewed as equating to abnormality.
Vaginal knitting isn’t likely to catch on as rapidly or widely as the video of Jenkins has done. It’s not a craft we’ll see women doing on the London Underground any time soon, but it is an effective riposte to a culture which still deliberately sets out to makes women ashamed of the healthy, quotidian authenticities of their bodies.