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Feminist Video and Performance Art Thrives on TikTok

Teens are dancing to messages from their abusive exes, continuing the legacy of artists like Ana Mendieta and Suzanne Lacy.

From Tenley Earles’s post

In between the looping clips of cute animals and glammed-out glow-ups which fill TikTok, Bella Dorlando’s video stood out. It’s a single shot of herself dancing to a tearful voicemail from her ex-boyfriend, asking her to take him back after he confessed to cheating. She looks unbothered, loosely twirling her arms and body-rolling with a solemn look on her face. His manipulative pleading has no power over her. Not long after she posted the video to her account @trapmoneybella, it quickly caught on. “Dancing to Voicemails from My Ex” became an absurd yet empowering meme which resonated with thousands of users who liked and shared, or who even made their own TikToks. Dorlando told MEL Magazine that her reason behind dredging up the voicemail was simple: “I thought a lot of girls would relate.” A second part of the video would soon follow. 

User Tenley Earles told Rolling Stone that she was inspired by Dorlando’s video to make her own dance to a voicemail of her ex scolding her for wearing leggings at school. “So many girls DM me saying, ‘I’ve been through the same thing,’ and some are saying, ‘I’m literally dating someone like this now and this showed me I needed to get out.'” She then made a follow-up video outlining the warning signs of an abusive relationship. 

Like the trend of girls using TikTok banding together to create a whisper network to out predators lurking on the app, the roots of these videos are as old as feminism itself. With these simple yet effective snippets, the dancers are claiming some form of control over what’s happened to them. Their dancing and unaffected expressions mock their aggressors, publicly demonstrating that they no longer hold sway over their lives. Other users have posted their own voicemails, danced to someone else’s audio with their own choreography, or used the platform’s Duet feature to dance in solidarity with another poster. 

As the public discussion of gendered violence has become much more mainstream in the era of #MeToo, more and more people are sharing their experiences. One recent book on feminist artists surveys how they’ve addressed sexual trauma over the decades when this issue wasn’t as prominent and survivors were often silenced. One example is the work of artist Suzanne Lacy, who created many works related to gender violence. In 1977’s Three Weeks in May, she documented each reported rape case in Los Angeles County with a stencil of the word “RAPE” in bold red letters on a yellow city map. Then, for each instance, she added nine lighter stencils, representing the statistical nine cases of rape that go unreported for every reported case. Her performance piece from the same year, In Mourning and In Rage, took the media to task for ignoring everyday violence against women while sensationalizing coverage of a serial killer on the loose. 

Suzanne Lacy, Three Weeks in May, 1977; detail (© Suzanne Lacy; photo: Grant Mumford)

A few years prior, Cuban artist Ana Mendieta was rocked by the news of the rape and murder of Sarah Ottens, a 20-year-old nursing student who attended the University of Iowa, her alma mater. Less than a month later, Mendieta invited several friends over to her apartment. When they arrived, they found the place in disarray, the artist bound to a table with her pants around her ankles and blood on her backside and legs. Untitled (Rape Scene) was a shocking performance piece that stunned her audience into sitting down and talking about violence against women. 

Feminist video artists and TikTok users have more in common than one might initially think. Their creations are usually DIY projects with little-to-no budget, made solo with maybe some friends or family members roped in to help. Back when feminist film art began, it was DIY out of necessity. Many couldn’t create in male-dominated art spaces, much less the rigid boys’ club of the studio system, so they learned the craft independently and developed their own system of distribution and exhibition to share their work with others. 

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, as the means of production became cheaper thanks to the falling prices of equipment and the emergence of video, more filmmakers from marginalized communities were able to create art on their own terms. Now, with the proliferation of phone cameras and in-app tools provided by platforms like TikTok, just about anyone can become a filmmaker and exhibit their own work. The influence of feminist video art on modern social media can also be much more direct, as an ‘80s short inspired a recent TikTok meme. A sound bite from Cecelia Condit’s 1983 short Possibly in Michigan became an unlikely viral sensation, as users reworked the absurd dialogue through their own interpretations, like a choreographed routine or using subtitles to change the meaning of the audio. 

Artists continue to address gendered violence in their work today. In South Africa, Lady Skollie took a simple yet effective approach to call out rapper Okmalumkoolkat’s insincere apology after serving time in jail for sexual assault. Frustrated by the music industry’s non-reaction to the situation, she circled and underlined the numerous times he references himself in his handwritten public statement/apology, underscoring the absence of any mention of the victim. 

With social media, it’s easier than ever to share our experiences with bad exes or to listen to others. For better or worse, callout culture and social media users’ propensity to tell all has made it easier for anyone to share their experiences, find community, commiserate with other survivors, and potentially warn others. These public performances on TikTok essentially act like consciousness-raising discussions from the early days of the feminist movement, wherein women gathered to share and listen to each other. These young women now have plenty of us talking, all while reclaiming their narrative in their own unique way. 

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