Women throughout history who have engaged in creating art have a rich history which includes them insisting that their voices be heard and their creative endeavors be noticed and respected. Female art is often subconsciously regarded as craft, which gives it the connotation that it is less worthy. Original female artistic production included quilts, fine china, and textile art, which eroded the distinctions between fine art and craft. In the 1960s, female artists began to redirect male-defined performance art to explore their own sexualities through nude art. Women began using their own bodies to take back the power they hold from generations of male artists who saw the female body as readily available for interpretation through sculpture and painting. The Guerrilla Girls created their group in 1985, during a time when despite the women’s movement, museums continued to represent only art produced by white male artists. In June of 1984, the Museum of Modern Art opened a grand exhibition called the International Survey of Painting and Sculpture. One hundred sixty-nine artists were chosen to have their art displayed, only ten percent of them being female. The MoMa’s oversight of this pressing issue was just the motivation the Guerrilla Girls needed to begin their famous campaign.
The tradition of female nudes as the subject of art being gaped at since the beginning of time is parodied in the Guerrilla Girl’s poster “Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?”. Underneath that question in a smaller font, a statistic reads “Less than 5% of the artists in Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” After taking a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and keeping tally of the female representation in collections, this is the disturbing statistic the Girls came up with. The supporting image features a reclining seductive nude woman laying gracefully on a bed with her back turned but her face toward the audience. The Guerrilla Girls parodied the famous nude painting of a woman in La Grande Odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) by taking the naked figure laying back in a relaxed position and placing a gorilla head over her face. She holds a suggestive peacock fan in her right hand, the wrist of which is adorned with pearls and bracelets. Feminist critical viewing of this poster applies to the idea of women being painted in sexually submissive, reclining positions, while men in art are often seen in upright positions of power. Feminist critics like the Guerrilla Girls strive to break the stereotypes of Western art culture through rebellious and shocking images such as this one.
The poster “Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?” was originally sanctioned to be shown as a billboard in New York commissioned by the Public Art Fund. However it was rejected due to not being “clear enough” with its message. The Guerrilla Girls simply retaliated and rented advertising space on buses throughout NYC. This failed as well. The bus company cancelled their lease on the grounds of the image being “too suggestive” and that “the figure appeared to have more than a fan in her hand”.  The Guerrilla Girls weren’t discouraged and continued adopting mass-media advertising techniques by posting their posters all over the streets of NYC, gaining recognition.
The Guerrilla Girls, composed of fifty-five members over the last 34 years, always remain anonymous and adopt the names of famous artists such as Frida Kahlo and writer Gertrude Stein. “The Girls always appear in public wearing gorilla masks to focus on the issues rather than their personalities,” Peg Brand explains in her article “Feminism and Aesthetics”. The Guerrilla Girls “proclaim their project of ‘reinventing the F word’ – feminism.” The guerrilla girls disguise themselves with masks because it is easier to take a stand when no judgements can be placed upon them. It can be more empowering to fight for feminism when a barrier is placed between themselves and the rest of the opposing world. A member of the Guerrilla Girls, Zora Neale Hurston, explained that the anonymity “makes us all equal… no1 Chadwick, Whitney. Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls. HarperPerennial, 1995. matter what our positions may be in the real world.” Facelessness also was practical in order for the girls to avoid institutional backlash, which surely could have sabotaged their reputation. Furthermore, the anonymity is symbolic of the history of women in art, poking fun at the fact that most women artists who are now well known went undiscovered during their lifetimes.
Several other artworks included in Guerrilla Girls Talk Back do the same justice as “Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?” by using blatant sarcasm to expose museum discrimination of female artists. One of these is titled “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist”. The thirteen points listed in the poster are ironic in tone and deliberately make known the struggles all female artists face. The number thirteen was intentionally used as it is allegorically an unlucky number. This poster was created in 1998 in response to people calling the Girls “Debbie Downers” and “whiners” for protesting equality within the arts. The people who felt as though the Guerrilla Girls only complained were certainly threatened by the strides the Girls were making in the realm of gender equality. They sarcastically responded by creating a more “positive” poster, with points claiming that advantages include “working without the pressure of success” and “not having to be in shows with men”. The fourth point, “knowing your career might pick up after you’re eighty” refers to artists such as Lee Krasner and Barbara Hepworth and countless other women artists whose contributions to art history were only acknowledged at the very end of their careers.
Another poster published in Guerrilla Girls Talk Back is titled “Dearest Art Collector” (1986). It is written in girly, cursive writing with a bright pink background, including a small frowning flower icon. The choice of writing the letter in this way is also subtly sarcastic, in that it emphasizes the indifference people generally have toward feminism. It uses humor and passive aggression by, in a way, discrediting the entire letter, making it seem less serious and unsophisticated. It is aimed at the expectation that women should always present complaints in a mannerable fashion in order to be ladylike. In the 1980s, art collections became the most sought after force in the market. Many collectors were after the same “hot” artists of the time, competing for generally male artists because of the publicity generated by them, such as Julian Schnabel. Thus, male artists often shaped entire collections. This piece was later recreated in different languages and became valued by people outside of the U.S., making it a collector’s item.
The Guerrilla Girls respond with wit, strong visual language, and collaboration, the “key”, they claim, to exposing racial and gender inequality. Their sense of humor stems from the anger amongst these feminists who bring light to the fact that the artworld is still dominated by males. By wearing gorilla mask, they embody humor and eliminate the stereotype that feminists can only be serious and stern. The Guerrilla Girls’ campaign is entirely composed of rhetoric which dispels female conventions, evident in their motto “fighting discrimination with facts, humor, and fake fur since 1985.” Their posters have been displayed in exhibitions across the world, from Chinatown in Los Angeles to the São Paulo Museum of Art in Brazil.
The Guerrilla Girls marketing tactics were more sophisticated than any feminist campaigns before them. Their group glamorized femininity, and was something every woman wanted to be a part of. It is thoughtfully ironic that only women are allowed into the group, just as men were seemingly only allowed into art museums and collections. The statement can firmly be made that the Guerrilla Girls contribution to feminine representation in art has made the greatest strides compared to any other campaign. Their fierce bravery, humor, and public marketing techniques changed modern art history as we know it, and their legacy and impact will continue to live on with new projects coming soon. Beginning with their most famous poster “Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?”, the Girls created a campaign for women artists and feminists alike for an issue that hadn’t been addressed until 1985. As the Guerrilla Girls say themselves, “We could be anyone. We are everywhere. What’s next? More creative complaining!!”.
Brand, Peg. “Feminism and Aesthetics .” The Blackwell Guide to Feminist Philosophy, Wiley, 2007, pp. 254–265.
Chadwick, Whitney. Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls. HarperPerennial, 1995.
Document 7: Guerrilla Girls, "Dearest Art Collector," 1986, in Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls, by the Guerrilla Girls (whoever they really are) (New York: HarperPerennial, 1995), p. 41.
Manchester, Elizabeth. “'Dearest Art Collector', Guerrilla Girls, 1986.” Tate, Dec. 2004.
Manchester, Elizabeth. “Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?” Guerrilla Girls, 1989.” Tate , Dec. 2004.
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Seiferle, Rebecca. “The Guerrilla Girls Artist Overview and Analysis.” The Art Story, 2 Mar. 2017.