As Monet Clark‘s performance video “Bunny Girl” (2016) begins, a coquettish Playboy Bunny flirts toward the lens in a blond wig while she stumbles in failing heels down a remote, forested highway. Immediately, we recognize the cartoonish contours of sexualized satire. As the character shakes her platinum curls and adjusts the high-cut costume, she is oblivious to a sublime stand of tall pines framing her figure in the shot. Throughout the piece she will tragicomically sojourn through sequences of fields, trees, and streams. Her pink satin bodice will stain and her stockings will rip. Eventually, we see her pulling herself in her Playboy bustier across a log as we hear urgent news footage announcing environmental catastrophe. Footage of sick and dying seals overlays her image and juxtaposes with her body. The campy figure slips into being an actual, vulnerable, suffering animal.
The work builds upon the feminist performance art — Susie Bright, Nao Bustamante, Annie Sprinkle, Carolee Schneemann — which shaped Clark’s practice in ‘80s and ‘90s San Francisco, but plays a variation on that legacy. More than the male gaze, Bunny Girl is trapped within the myriad toxic interfaces she has with an imperiled ecology.
Could a sneeze really break a costume? “Sure,” she said. “Girls with colds usually have to be replaced.” She gave me a bright blue satin. It was so tight that the zipper caught my skin as she fastened the back. She told me to inhale as she zipped again, this time without mishap, and stood back to look at me critically. The bottom was cut up so high that it left my hip bones exposed as well as a good five inches of untanned derriere. The boning in the waist would have made Scarlet O’Hara blanch, and the construction tended to push all available flesh up to the bosom. I was sure it would be perilous to bend over. “Not too bad,” said the wardrobe mistress as she began to stuff an entire plastic dry cleaning bag into the top of my costume.
Thus wrote Gloria Steinem in her 1965 undercover expose, “A Bunny’s Tale.” The Bunny Girl character embodies issues inherent in Steinem’s narrative: femininity as labor, how gender gets distilled into a wage. But Bunny Girl is a freelance Dante escaped from the Hefner mansion and running amok in the purgatory of the Anthropocene. In heels, she teeters past the promises of the liberal humanist Enlightenment into a precarious present. Deep into her descent, we see her screaming and running away from two nuclear silos. Eventually, she wears a breathing mask while sitting among rows of crops.
Bunny Girl’s extinction is part of the death of the economic boom that birthed the Playboy Bunny: the mid-20th century dream, with its hot binaries now baked into our economy as structural violence and inequality. But why is this particular body our canary in the coal mine? To use the human body as material and medium in art is to call forth our ontological definitions of the human — which is to call forth issues of race, class, gender, first- or third-world nationality, cis or transgender status. An off-screen news report announces a burst dam at an iron ore mine in Brazil as Bunny Girl sobs on a beach, in a Playboy tuxedo choker, her face framed tightly by the camera.
A voiceover from activist and scholar Vandana Shiva, author of the book Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in the Age of Climate Crisis (2008), announces the final scene of “Bunny Girl.” The character struts out onto a cliff, and dances above the sea to “Women of the World Take Over.” To set up Bunny Girl as a victim, then as foil, witness, and finally, symbol of resistance puts this particular body at the center of the environmental crisis — but it is not. This issue cannot be separated from the history of feminist performance art. “My White Feminism,” by poet Juliana Spahr works overtly and self-reflexively with this problem. She writes: “My White Feminism does not know the way out of showing up in the bar, at the grocery / store, at the coffee shop to meet my mundane bourgeois needs with this body, / with these apples not like apples at all, wearing a version of the same boots that / Germaine Greer wears.” Spahr sets a trap for herself and walks right in. She understands how problematic it is for her to perform the “personal is political” of the white feminists who precede her, yet feels entrenched in its lexicon. In the essay “Closing the Loop,” Aria Dean criticizes selfie feminism — feminist performance art’s progeny — by quoting bell hooks: “white feminism has long suffered from a narcissism so blinding that [it] will not admit two obvious facts: one, that in a capitalist, racist, imperialist state there is no one social status women share as a collective group and second, that the social status of white women has never been like that of black women and men.” In an interview about the 2015 twitter phenomenon #GiveYourMoneyToWomen Lauren Chief Elk-Young Bear describes the material relationship between white women and women of color:
White women are the biggest beneficiaries of white men’s historical wealth. … When thinking about wealth redistribution it’s important for white women to look at their position to women of color, and examine how for generations they have also exploited us and gained huge advantages off us.
Bunny Girl opens her legs in the video’s final scene and lazer beams shoot out of her crotch, along with pictures of women such as Angela Davis, Tina Turner, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, Yoko Ono, and Annie Sprinkle. A punky anthem intones, “Women of the world take over; if they don’t the world will come to an end.” It is funny and celebratory. However, “Bunny Girl” seems to suggest replacing the European male perspective — that vantage point from which the modern world and its attendant aesthetics emanate — with a universal female one.
The strength of the piece is the character’s tender process of becoming animal— contrasted with her bare vulnerability and her inscribed sex-worker sexuality. This Playboy Bunny has gone feral from its social role, now potentially available to be with multitudes of other animals and plants. “Bunny Girl” is the product of a biopolitics in which power is not located in the gaze, as it has been for many feminist performance artists, but in the contingency of the body within an increasingly hostile ecology. The video work suggests a possibility of addressing environmental catastrophe and subjectivity from a non-human-centric starting place. Turning feminist performance in this direction borrows its defiant tone to rethink a fresh binary. The work also touches on, but does not mine Monet Clark’s diagnosis of the decade-long “environmental illness” which, according to Johanna Hedva’s “Sick Woman Theory” potentially ties Bunny Girl to people of all genders who physically suffer from political oppressive ecologies. One wonders how a reorientation of the concept of human subjectivity would shift all essentialisms, who and what “women” in the lyrics Bunny Girl dances to can include.