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Pussyhats: Identity Politics and Political Art

by Sylvie Schwartz

Angela Peoples holding sign at Women’s March on Washington. Photo by Kevin Banatte, obtained via The Root.

via Getty Images/ Glamour

When people gathered at Women’s Marches around the world on Saturday, January 21, many of them were wearing pink pussyhats. According to the project’s website, these handmade, rectangular hats were meant to “provide the women of the Women’s March on Washington D.C. a means to make a unique collective visual statement which [would] help activists be better heard.” Begun by two women in California, the project was also meant to provide a way for people not physically able to attend marches to be involved in the protest by making hats for other attendees. The pattern was developed because it was easy, whether knit sewn or crocheted, and because the rectangular shape of the hat, when worn, created cat ears on the wearer, forming a response to Donald Trump’s infamous quote, “grab them by the pussy.”

There is a lot about the pussyhat that is commendable. Creating a means for those not able to be present at protests to contribute nonetheless is important and beautiful. In this way, the hats make protesting more inclusive to those who those whose disabilities or inability to travel may prevent them from attending the protests themselves. They also bring people together and give protesters something to work on before the protests take place. These hats also fit into a long tradition of craftivism and a DIY ethos that utilizes craft materials that have historically been marginalized as feminine therefore frivolous and mobilizes them as a political tool. Historically, much political art takes on unconventional mediums to further their statement, such as the 1988 AIDS wallpaper installation by the artist collective General Idea which consciously utilized a form associated with femininity and, subsequently, homosexuality to draw attention to the epidemic. However, craftivism, as explained by its chief proponent, Betsy Greer, uses craft as a silent, visual form of protest that can act in conjunction with or as an alternative to traditional protest posters and rallying cries. Craftivism is the product of collaboration, of discussion, of bringing political activism into the hands of the people, all of which are increasingly important under the present political climate in the United States and around the world.

However, there is also a lot that is problematic about the pussyhats. What immediately comes to mind is that it’s transmisogynist: not all women have pussies. Yes, the concept originated in Donald Trump’s quote, but that doesn’t justify the exclusion of a community likewise threatened by the hate that Trump and others have engendered. In the same vein, if we’re going with the reading that these hats are symbolic pussies, the pink color suggests their belonging to white women and thus leaves out those of every other race. Though nothing on the project’s website suggests that the pussyhats should be read this way, the implication is there whether it is intentional or not, and the concerns and critiques that it raises are valid and need to be addressed. The widespread acceptance of this interpretation in itself, even without the support of the website, points to the extent to which cisnormativity and white privilege are engrained in our society. This lack of intersectionality was likewise reflected in many of the posters made for the protests. In the face of an administration that espouses hate and mongers fear and distrust, protests like the ones held on January 21 should be encompassing, instead of giving one issue the privilege of being their singular focus.

As a symbol, pussyhats are a good starting point for an anti-Trump movement, but going forward we can do better. The question becomes: how can we make political art more inclusive? One solution might be to create political art and political symbols based on what we believe rather than who we are. However, this is easier said than done as the two are frequently tied up in each other, and, in many cases, injustices disproportionately effect a particular group of people and that needs to be acknowledged. In a protest as unifying and as successful as the Women’s Marches, where people of all genders, races, socio-economic classes and walks of life participated in unprecedented numbers, the art that it produces should reflect the diversity of the participants and of the range of issues it seeks to address. The pussyhats, rooted at their inception in what we believe, are well intentioned and effective at getting people involved. They fall short where their associations with a particular group, to the exclusion of others, cry louder than their message. 

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