The gurls: a multilayered selfie by Petra Collins
I was recently part of a round-table discussion about modern feminism and pop culture for Wonderland mag. Talking with me were three amazing ladies: artists Petra Collins and Phoebe Collings-James, and sex writer Tea Hacic-Vlahovic (aka “Sugar Tits”). You can read our conversation below. Tea wrote the intro :)
Phoebe, Karley and I met for the first time in Milan several years ago, when we were less blonde, more fat and Petra was still in diapers. We’ve collaborated with each other overseas but this is the first time we’re all together in Petra’s apartment in NYC (because hers has a stripper pole). It’s an important moment, like when Geri left the Spice Girls.
Karley Sciortino is the brain behind Slutever. She’s written and made videos for magazines like Purple, Vice and Dazed, is currently writing a column called “Breathless” for Vogue, and has interviewed all your favorite porn stars. Phoebe Collings-James hates when people mention her looks before her work, but she’s so beautiful you don’t want your boyfriend to see pictures of her until you have to tell him that story of when you bought hair extensions in London and saw her face on the package. She could be a supermodel but instead she’s a successful artist, using sculpture, illustration, performance, video and mixed media to provoke viewers into existential crisis. You can find her blogging on CUNT TODAY between exhibitions and probably fighting crime at night. Petra Collins is the new it girl of photography, if “it” stands for “incredibly talented.” She recently gained fame for her menstruating vagina t-shirt and a self-portrait featuring pubic hair which caused worldwide hysteria, but mostly she’s known for taking photographs that make you wish you could go back in time and attend whatever high school exists in her mind. I’m Tea Hacic-Vlahovic, known as “Sugar Tits” on Tumblr, the columnist for Vice and Wired Italy who makes too many fart jokes and an above-average Tweeter, according to my mom.
Tea: Have y’all seen Gaga’s new video? It got millions of views the first night and half were mine. She’s the only celeb I’m jealous of after Rihanna.
Phoebe: Rihanna is incredible because she just has fun, doesn’t give a fuck, and also talks openly and honestly about sex and why girls should use condoms. She doesn’t beat around the bush, she’s like, ‘make sure you’re respecting yourself and having a good time, but also be protected.’
Karley: Without being like, “wait for the right person!” It’s an important message–we all know we should be safe, but we’ve also all been in the situation of, “fuck, I forgot to use protection again.”
Phoebe: I don’t think I’ve ever done that sober.
Tea: I don’t think I’ve ever had sex sober! Unprotected sex is like drunk-eating: “I’m going to hate myself tomorrow but I don’t care, ha, ha!” I’m always worried I have some disease, regardless of getting tested.
Karley: Sexually successful women should worry about that! There aren’t enough good sexual role models like Rihanna.
Petra: Just listen to Rihanna’s lyrics. She says, “I love it, I love it, I love it when you eat it” over and over again. I made a piece dedicated to that for my solo exhibition.
Karley: I’m writing an article about compulsive sexual behavior and talking to this psychologist about how the media never shows hypersexual women having happy endings. The slutty character in movies always gets punished–she either gets murdered, raped or ends up alone. The harlot is never the hero.
Tea: And that often proves to be true in real life. Like the Duke porn star who got ousted by another student and responded by writing eloquent letters about why she’s empowered by sex work and how it’s unfair that people watch “college girl” porn but don’t want those girls in college. She had to drop out because she was getting death and rape threats.
Phoebe: I participated in a talk recently about Page Three, to discuss if it should exist. A woman on the panel teaches preteen boys and asked them about the girl in an issue and they said, “I’d bang her and ditch her, she’s hot but not a girlfriend,” and that’s so problematic.
Tea: It’s a classic double standard. He’d never date a stripper or prostitute but he frequents strip clubs and prostitutes.
Phoebe: Has writing about your sex lives and using sexuality in your work affected people you dated?
Petra: I modeled for Richard Kern a bunch of times and I remember when this one bondage photo came out, my ex boyfriend was not happy at all. He shamed me so hard, like, “this makes me less attracted to you because everyone can see it.” He was mad because it wasn’t just for him.
Karley: I surround myself with highly intelligent, liberal guys and I wouldn’t date someone who doesn’t support what I do. I feel the problem is those who don’t know me. Everyone knows I’m a sex writer and have seen pictures of me naked, but most of them have never read anything I’ve written. In a recent piece about me in the Sunday Times, the first paragraph’s like, “she’s peed on guys, had sex with a Hasidic Jew and been a dominatrix!” I know it’s all true but so is, “she wrote an in depth piece about transgendered oppression.” They didn’t add that because it’s easier to just say I’m a wild ho.
Phoebe: Have you seen Nymphomaniac I? I met one of the actresses and she said all the hype was terrifying her parents so she just made them watch it and when they did, they understood it and were proud of her. The idea we have of things we don’t know is always more extreme.
Karley: Nymphomaniac is a good example of a woman who’s hypersexual and ashamed about it. She’s telling her life story and feels so guilty. The guy she’s talking to asks why, stressing that she just went after things she wanted and got them. She insists she hurt people along the way, which is true, but if the anecdote were, “I’ve been ruthless in my career and screwed people over but now I’m successful,” that narrative wouldn’t have been so shameful.
Tea: I didn’t watch that because I feared it might send troubling messages and piss me off. Like, why is it that in GIRLS the only likable characters are boys?
Phoebe: Lena gets so much criticism. Last year some magazine wrote a headline, “the New Face of Feminism” and under it was the cast of GIRLS. That’s when a black blogger started #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. I don’t think she was blaming Lena Dunham, but she was a part of it. What’s interesting is it didn’t turn into a huge fight. Everyone’s response was really eloquent.
Karley: So it was about how women of color are often excluded from “mainstream” feminism.
Phoebe: They talk about class as well. GIRLS didn’t do anything wrong but I felt like Lena started reacting to the pressures to make it more multi-cultural and when she did it became even more offensive. I don’t think she should have been criticized in the first place because she made the show based on her life and about a very specific group of people.
Petra: It’s almost worse when there’s a fake multi-cultural situation. It often makes caricatures of people.
Phoebe: If you’re making a sitcom it should be diverse but if you’re trying to tell a real story that’s going on it should be told as it is.
Karley: And it’s a story about annoying, white, rich girls!
Petra: They’re horrible characters and they’re supposed to be.
Tea: People should learn to step down rather than get defensive over something they don’t know. Like when Femen’s all, “be free, take your clothes off!” I was always naked in Milan but nobody was going to kill me for it. You can’t just tell someone to be free when you don’t understand what freedom means to them.
Phoebe: Experience is valid. You can still bring that into critique but essentially you can’t tell someone that it doesn’t feel a particular way to walk around in their shoes.
Karley: When people argue about whether something is offensive or racist, if the person experiencing it feels it’s offensive, it is. There’s no reason why people would want to create false oppression. Not everyone’s struggle is the same. The struggle of a 25 year old white girl in America is not the same as a 25 year old girl of color in America.
Phoebe: A good example of the hashtag is, “when piercings, tattoos and pink hair are on a white girl it’s quirky but on a black girl they’re ghetto.”
Karley: Another was, “When Femen gets to decide Muslim women’s attire.”
Tea: I respect all people but I don’t respect religion. If your religion oppresses me or others, why should I? America’s constitution was based on separation of church and state, so why are we all tiptoeing around Catholics and Mormons when their policies hurt me? When a pharmacist can deny me birth control because of some book he reads?
Phoebe: Respecting religion is tied into respecting people.
Tea: But it affects everyone negatively. Most religions express the concept that women should cover up because men can’t help themselves otherwise. Isn’t that insulting to men as well?
Phoebe: If you look at rape culture and the idea of asking for it, it’s the same everywhere. Either you’re showing flesh or acting in an irresponsible way.
Tea: That’s why there’s nothing more punk than a slutty girl. It’s the most rebellious thing a girl can do. Even Courtney Love said Miley was punk rock in a weird, sex way.
Phoebe: Who wants to fuck Miley? She’s obviously pretty and has an amazing body but I feel the way she’s sexualized herself isn’t to inspire desire. Like, you never heard boys wanting to screw Madonna, which is partly why she’s so powerful.
Tea: Miley’s not serving the male gaze. What she’s doing is similar to what you do, what Molly Soda does by posting nudes, what Petra does with her photos. You can see Katy Perry shooting icing out of her tits but she does it in an infantile way. The way men want us to be sexual: unintentional yet intentionally for their pleasure. I’ve taken my clothes off in every club in Milan, not because it would attract attention from men, but the opposite. They were embarrassed for me and afraid of me. Men are confused by girls acting sexy for their own sake. Of course, when I did the same thing at strip clubs, they loved it.
Petra: I’ve had so many weird confrontations with art boys because I feel I am one of those hot, often naked, non-submissive sexual powers and I’m entering their little boys art club. They don’t know what to do with me!
Tea: They’re especially threatened by you because you’re taking photos of naked girls and actually saying something by doing so. So many men are “photographers” but all they do is bland Black & Whites of Tits & Ass. And they usually make it creepy.
Petra: When I was younger I would get in situations where guys would take these photos and it escalates until you feel like you have to keep going further even if you don’t want to.
Tea: All my shoots with hetero men ended in sexual harassment. Yes, everyone should see my butt but not everyone should touch it. Of course I’d rather have a girl photograph me!
Karley: You’re stealing the men’s jobs.
Tea: Speaking of which, the internet’s been accused of “killing subcultures,” since everything can be found online, meaning nothing is exclusive. Do you think the new subculture is Internet Girls? Like Petra, Molly Soda, Tavi, Slutever, etc.?
Phoebe: I remember trekking to Brighton for Le Tigre and seeing JD had a mustache, which was a revelation at the time. But when you think how many people were listening to them or cared that she had a mustache, it’s nothing compared to the amount of people who have seen Petra’s pubic hair come out of her knickers! Your impact is massive yet welcoming. The internet invites participation while subcultures are elitist. Tumblr is grassroots.
Tea: And most subcultures exclude women. In my experience, you must be a girlfriend or groupie to be accepted into a music scene. To be taken seriously you have to be “one of the guys.” You have to be sexless or strictly for sex. I read a great piece in Rookie about how music preferences and opinions of girls are considered irrelevant. Whatever teenage girls like is “silly.” But now we have girls speaking for themselves and creating their own audiences online and it’s clear they’re shaping our preferences, changing the way we communicate on social media and influencing how we dress, talk and behave. They are cool.
Phoebe: It’s so easy to connect on Tumblr with people who think the way you do. How is someone who doesn’t know how to approach academic text supposed to read the Second Sex? Now a teenage girl’s blog can teach you as much.
Karley: And you don’t even need text! Sometimes things are better said without words, like Petra’s work, which translates profound messages through images. I think new feminism is less about talking about what to change and more about just doing it. Like, I know Beyoncé sampled that feminist speech and that’s great but it’s not as powerful as Rihanna’s attitude. Just be a smart, brave, badass bitch.
Petra: We don’t have to wait to be accepted anymore. In university everyone was like, go to school, wait to graduate and then wait to get invited into your field. I didn’t wait or ask. My whole career exists because I connected with other girls on the internet. Tavi started Rookie on her own! That’s how I did my collective art show. Like, “I have no platform for this so I’m going to make it myself.”