Here’s this week’s Media Mix, about the arrest of artist Rokudenashiko. For the column I spoke to American filmmaker Anna Margarita Albelo, who was in Tokyo to screen her movie, Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf?, at the Tokyo International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
What is the point of the vagina costume?
I wanted to talk about the fear of the vagina, the fear of powerful women, and the fear women have of their own sexuality. The character in the film is wearing the vagina costume in the beginning and has been doing so for a while, and it’s eclipsing her. The main character is a filmmaker and at the start of the movie she’s at the bottom of the barrel. The only way she can make money is by screening her movie in art galleries and dancing around in her vagina. She hasn’t addressed her problems, but she equates a lot of them to her love life and sexuality and the way it’s perceived.
I know you’ve used the costume for promotion of the film. Did you wear it in Japan?
No, I didn’t. And it’s funny, the second Nashiko was arrested my Facebook wall starting getting post after post from all over the world about her arrest. Since I released the movie, anytime there is anything to do with vaginas, people send me stuff. When I was writing the movie a friend of mine made a very simple vagina costume–the one in the film was made by a costume designer–and the film is based on a time when I was making a documentary about collective filmmaking and living in a garage. I saw the costume and I wanted it. I used to perform in Paris under the name La Chocha, which is “vagina” in Spanish. When I was bored I’d put on the costume and go to the supermarket or walk down the street or even go to the lesbian bar, and the reactions, both positive and negative, were really strong. The negative ones I’d get across the board, walking down the street, like women saying, “We’re more than a vagina.” Those were the kind of extremes. It was rare to get the chance to have that kind of discussion with all types of people. And that’s the sort of thing that has happened with Nashiko’s work, as well as with my film. There’s much more going on than the funny comedy side–the kayak or the little dancing vaginas. But for us it’s a serious way of working out a process. If you talk about it seriously you relegate it to a category and then they’d never talk about it. I love comedy for passing information. And Nashiko’s work is also fun. The reason her news circulated all around the world is that it made people laugh, despite the fact that here is a woman, an artist, who was put in jail, and who for the first 24 hours couldn’t call anyone. She was trying to defend her work. Several days later I posted about the penis festival in Japan, or the way pornographic manga artists advocate for freedom of speech with regard to pedophilia. I understand that they came into the store in Tokyo that had a lot of her work, and to her home and a gallery, and took all her art work. So there’s a big double standard, and it’s becoming more urgent
In Spain, they’re voting to reduce access to abortion to very few occasions. Same thing in France. There was a vote on marriage equality, but when it comes to artificial insemination you still have to have a male partner. You can’t be a single woman and get fertilization. You can do that in Belgium. You can do it Denmark. But you can’t do it in France. These things were part of the package, and some women, lesbians included, want to have children but don’t have male partners.
Well, at least they don’t have to be married. In Japan, to get IV fertilization you have to be married.
Right. So there’s still a strange kind of resistance to the arrival of equality between men and women.
In that regard, is art more powerful than polemics?
Absolutely. There are three words–vagina, lesbian and feminist–that still have a really hard time overcoming their negative connotations. We still can’t liberate those words. Terms like queer and gay have been liberated, but those three words are still bad words to most people. When we submitted the movie to iTunes, negotiations dragged on, and we knew it would from the beginning. We were advised by many people in the film business in Los Angeles to reconsider using the word “vagina” in the title. The alternative title was, I Am Afraid of Virginia Wolfe. And I said, “Intellectually, it’s in the ballpark,” but I said no. The point is to put this out there in the discussion. I mean, feminism has evolved a lot, but even among young women it has a bad rap. I’m working on a documentary for Canal Plus in France about feminism and pop culture, and in two hours I collected quotes from Beyonce, Madonna, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Juliette Binoche, all saying, “I’m not a feminist, but…” But what is the real meaning of feminism? It’s equality between men and women.
Why do you think they object to the word?
They’re objecting to the connotation of the word, and reacting to social pressure of what people want you to think feminism means.
So there’s a stereotype attached to feminism.
Absolutely. And I think it started in the 70s. Like Lady Gaga: “I love men.” Taylor Swift, too. “I like men, and we get along…” I mean, I’m paraphrasing badly. And in my notes I wrote that feminism has become such a negative word. Men obviously, but women also equate it to the female version of misogyny. Feminism means you hate men, you’re angry, you’re political, you want something like female supremacy. And that’s not the case, but the “angry feminist” is something from the 70s, and somehow the status quo has managed to maintain that idea. And that’s why during the Q&A after the screening, when people say how funny the film is, I always say I’m a feminist, I’m a lesbian, and I want to liberate these words. And they think, “Oh, we just saw a feminist movie and didn’t realize it,” whether they’re men or women. I almost want to say, “It’s feminist but it’s not political.” And that’s the problem we’re facing. Why does it turn people off? If I say this is a feminist film or a lesbian film, then it gets relegated to categories and pushed out of the mainstream. For me, of course it’s a lesbian film because its main characters are lesbians. But we’re still in the battle of the chicken or the egg. Do we want to be proud of our cinema or our politics? Do we want to go as mainstream as possible? We want to talk about these aspects in different ways so more people get a chance to know about it. Because the ultimate goal is to have more people see your work.
Did you meet Igarashi-san?
Yes, I did, for about five hours. It’s funny, because she was saying that police put out her real name, her real address, her real telephone number. She wants to be known professionally as Rokudenashiko, so it’s another interesting point. How much power does she have as an artist?
The police referred to her as a “self-proclaimed artist,” which implies they don’t necessarily think she is an artist.
We talked about that a lot. Today I’m going to see some works by Louise Bourgeois, and her story is interesting, too, and I told Nashiko about it. There’s a lot of similarities. In her early career she did a lot of what was considered crafts, because that’s how people relegated it. And it wasn’t until she made the spiders that she was taken seriously as an artist, and by that time she was in her late 50s. It’s hard, because some women artists and filmmakers want to address women’s issues, but it becomes a Catch-22. Some women don’t want to do it because they don’t want their work to be relegated to the category of women’s art or women’s movies. Men don’t have to worry about that. There has to be women in the forefront of that movement, and I think Nashiko is. I was in Cannes this year and Jane Campion was on the jury, and right at the start she made a speech about women in film and complained about percentages and what have you. She said ten years ago she would have been apprehensive about making such a speech, but still there’s nothing happening. She’s still the only woman director who has won a prize (at Cannes). Right now is an important time. What do we say when we do get the attention? More important, what is the continuation of our work?