On Wednesday evening at the FLAG Art Foundation, men and women — though mostly women — gathered to read from a list of 1,000 words and phrases characterizing women. The descriptions were pulled from Betty Tompkins‘s project WOMEN: Words, Phrases, and Stories, for which she circulated by email and through social media the following request: “Please send me a list of words that describe women. They can be affectionate (honey), pejorative (bitch), slang, descriptive, etc.” She conducted this experiment twice, in 2002 and 2013; she was, as she stated at the event titled “Words on WOMEN,” “curious to see whether language had changed.”
While Tompkins didn’t offer her results, from the slew of words and phrases — each painted on its own canvas, filling the gallery’s two large walls — it seems safe to say, not really. Glenn Fuhrman, the founder of the FLAG Art Foundation, was quick to note in his opening remarks that most of the descriptors, which came from an equal number of men and women from around the world, are severely negative. He likened the way we direct our messages online to “missiles,” with people not really taking the impact of their words into consideration. The point of the evening’s performance, he said, was to restore meaning by voicing these words aloud.
Upon arrival, I was directed to a table where stacks of words were arranged in alphabetical order. Shuffling through them to pick my 20 words to read, I came across sweet phrases (“dear loved,” “aching to touch her”), a surprising number of French ones (“mon coeur,” “mon petit chou”), some fairly puzzling ones (“Fairy who appears at a relative’s death”), but mainly a lot of slander — the four most sent words were “bitch,” “cunt,” “mother,” and “slut.” I tried to select a range of words within the span of a few minutes: words that I found creative (“kinetic”), ones that I have often said (“wifey”), and ones that felt all too familiar (“used,” “taken”) and hurtful (“NO,” “sad,” “weak”).
By far, the most arresting performers —artists, writers, arts professionals, and one self-described “dandy” — were those who appropriated the words in personal ways, whether sarcastically or earnestly. One woman labeled herself a “flirt,” slipping the elastic band from her hair, then a “ditz,” followed by casually unbuttoning her dress, and ended as a “dumb blonde,” swaying her hair in an exaggerated manner. Another woman inserted “I” before each phrase: “I’m a widow”; “I’m beautiful”; “I’m always faking it.” A man chose words that reminded him of his first girlfriend, Nancy, such as, “soft,” “smart,” “assertive angel,” “slut #1,” and concluded with, “she is a dream. I change my mind”; whereas a woman selected terms that her ex-boyfriend used to say to her, mainly “bitch,” “bitch,” and “bitch,” occasionally peppered with something like, “ravishing.” One woman, after uttering “douchebag,” added, “somebody called me that last week.” Audience members, myself included, almost always responded by laughing, whether from genuine amusement or discomfort wasn’t exactly clear.
There were also a few people who felt compelled to give introductions or disclaimers that all said something along the lines of, “the most important people in my life are women.” In sharing how much they valued their mother, daughter, sister, or best friend, these speakers, it seemed, wanted to protect their loved ones from the insults circling around us in the room. While a reasonable impulse, I couldn’t help but feel slightly annoyed by what felt like reassurance.
Then there were people, like me, who had selected words at random only moments before the performance — and it was generally clear who these people were. We were the ones who didn’t quite know how to read our words, where to place emphasis, whether to be funny or mocking or serious, whether our raised eyebrows and slight inflections were sufficiently conveying our opinions. The main conundrum seemed to be: do I try to invoke or defy the person who sent in these words? The word “virgin,” for instance. Do I read that with surprise, praise, or pity?
Surrounding us were Tompkins’s paintings, the words rendered in all caps and various sizes so that they seemed to shift and recede as if in conversation. The canvases read like loud assertions, alternatively making me feel proud and empowered, or scolded and degraded. I imagined the hypothetical situations that inspired this exacerbating sense of contempt or occasional awe. But neither the voice in my head nor the others onstage could quite embody or channel the hatred of those who originally articulated these aspersions and actually meant them.
“Words on WOMEN” took place at the FLAG Art Foundation (545 West 25th Street, 9th Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) on March 23. Betty Tompkins: WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories continues at the FLAG Art Foundation through May 14.