The Female Gaze

We asked women at Watkins for their perspectives on what it means to be a female artist in this era.

The Female Gaze

By Ron Wagner

Tiffany Abreu the person and Tiffany Abreu the artist wanted to be a filmmaker. Tiffany Abreu the woman didn’t know if she could—or should—until two years of societal sea change left her feeling more empowered and optimistic about her future than ever before.

“The worry that I always had going into this industry is not only am I a woman but I’m a young woman of color,” Abreu, a junior at Watkins and the president of the Film School Student Council, says. “I’m African-American on my father’s side, and I am Hispanic on my mother’s side. There are so many things stacked against me in that way, but with the #MeToo movement I felt like I didn’t need to worry so much about being a woman anymore. I feel that’s something people are more aggressive about now in standing up for, which is really, really nice. It’s made Hollywood a more appealing place to be.”

As has been well-documented, in late 2017 the viral #MeToo hashtag ripped the curtain away from decades of stories describing sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, but it was only one way the country heard women roar. Months before, the Women’s March on Washington earned the distinction of being the largest single-day protest in United States history, and when the dust settled on 2018, women had gained more political power than ever before by winning a record number of elections at every level from coast to coast.

Abreu is one of six current or former Watkins students we asked to weigh in on this moment of social upheaval. Their answers revealed the depth and strength of the biological kinship that binds them while highlighting the newfound liberation—and responsibility—they feel to forge their own paths as individuals in a society that increasingly reflects instead of contains them.

“We are stronger than ever and speaking up more than ever in history, and the benefits of that are felt immensely,” says Lindsey Laseter, a 2010 graduate in graphic design. “I’ve just had my first child—a daughter—and I want so many things for her. I’m encouraged and believe she’ll have more support than ever.”

Laseter, an associate creative director at MStreet in Nashville, believes Madeleine June, born in December, will have more support because she’s actively helping to build an infrastructure for it. In 2017, Laseter founded a local chapter of Ladies Wine & Design, an organization dedicated to supporting female creative directors, and in less than two years it has grown into monthly series that consistently sells out.

“I had been craving a connection to the broader creative community, especially females, as I was working with only males at the time,” she says. “It’s been incredible to see how people connect and open themselves up so honestly. It’s a chance to discuss the unique challenges we face as female creatives, and, most importantly, hear that we’re all dealing with the same struggles.”

Campbell and Raybin, Watkins College of Art

One of those struggles was growing up in a world that made little attempt to cater to girls in popular culture. Jaime Raybin graduated from Watkins in 2006 with a degree in fine art and is currently showcasing a feminist project, “Ms. Bigfoot: A Fanfiction,” inspired by the exclusion she felt as a child.

A video collaboration with R.D. King, it “tells the story of an alienated teenage monster truck who undergoes a feminist awakening through writing fanfiction.”

“In the 80s and 90s, there was a lot of really cool stuff marketed to boys like video games and cartoons. These mostly had a single token female character who was not shown to have an inner life in the way that the main male characters did. As a girl growing up during this time, I didn’t see a real part for me to play in this universe,” she says. “Instead of feeling excluded and opting out, I used my imagination to give the minor female characters their own storyline. I think this is a common experience for kids who don’t see themselves represented in things they want to be part of. The fanfiction subculture serves this function on an internet scale—it is a way for marginalized young people to write themselves into mainstream stories that they’ve been excluded from.”

And that marginalization extends past sex. Another benefit of women growing increasingly comfortable in society is that they’re free to confront other barriers to their progress and acceptance, such as not being white. Sierra Campbell has done just that with her photographs, and it changed her life.

Many of Campbell’s pictures are self-portraits exploring themes of interracial relationships and self-acceptance. An African-American, Campbell is married to a white man and has spent much of her life grappling with being told her natural appearance wasn’t beautiful or even acceptable.

I grew up [hearing] that dark skin is ugly. Being the darkest woman in my family, I felt like I was bottom of the totem pole.

“I grew up with (my grandmother) telling me and herself that dark skin is ugly. Men are better than women. So for me, being the darkest woman in my immediate family, I kind of felt like I was bottom of the totem pole,” Campbell says. “I thought that was in a way her being helpful, but as I got older I thought, okay, I got it, nothing about me naturally is acceptable and I feel really weird and bad about this.”

Campbell, who graduated in 2010, expressed those feelings with a courageous senior thesis, “A Deep-Rooted Lesson.” Turned out, the deeply intimate images reflected the experiences of many, which she learned through conversations with black women who saw the exhibit.

“I thought, ‘Wow, people can talk about the personal stuff too (in their art.)’ I don’t know why, and it’s going to sound dumb, but I just never considered that to be something before going there,” Campbell says. “I thought ‘Why would you show something that people won’t understand?’ But even the personal stuff is all relatable. People think their problems are just theirs, and that’s really so not [true].”

The problem of rarely seeing yourself represented in pop culture is especially acute for young girls of color. Abreu is focused on giving them the role models she never had. “As a girl having grown up in America, there’s a serious lack of strong female characters in film,” she says. “I’m always looking in media for people who remind me of myself, and it’s very hard to find anybody that I could connect to. As a kid I used to watch a lot of cartoons, and it always bothered me that there were never any animated characters who were Hispanic or who were African-American and female. And if there were, it was only ever one and they were stereotypes. Their whole character came down to the minority that they represented instead of them being their own person who also happened to be that minority.”

Abreu is inspired by Patty Jenkins, who became the only woman to direct a superhero movie (2017’s critically acclaimed Wonder Woman), and her first two films at Watkins revolved around female protagonists. Abreu’s dream is to make a movie about the Grimms’ fairy tale “Maid Maleen” and introduce lesser-known minority DC comic book characters like Nubia to the movie franchise.

“My favorite fairy tale is Maid Maleen, which has never been adapted in any way shape or form,” Abreu says. “She has to work her way up and earn her happy ending, and we don’t hear that story. We only hear the stories of women as trophies, women as things to be strived for and not capable for themselves.”

Davies, Watkins College of Art

Watkins junior JoAnna Davies is a fine artist who has gained confidence in the acceptance of the Filipino heritage (her mother is Filipino) and struggles with anxiety she has expressed through her art. Passing that feeling along to other young people is now her goal.

“I felt like being an artist of color but also a woman there are a lot of stereotypes and putting you into a corner. You’re not good enough, or this is what you are. You can’t be anything else. And so, through my art, I wanted to break away from that and show there’s so much more we bring to the table,” Davies says. “There are not a lot of artists who are Filipino or Asian-American at Watkins, so I feel like as an artist going there right now I have the ability to show that.”

Being a woman and a person of color are not two things to Davies. They are the one thing that is she. “They intertwine. They make my identity and I can find inspiration from that, but it’s not just one thing that makes it my identity,” she says. “I’m an artist that is a female, but I don’t necessarily let that distract from my ability to explore my identity. Also, being someone of color, I have different experiences from a lot of people, and I feel like art has allowed me to let people see my experiences but also allow people to relate as well.”

Sarah Parker’s identity as a woman is intractable from her identity as a mother. She recently completed her third semester as an illustration major at Watkins, taking advantage of the youngest of her four children starting kindergarten to resume her education with an eye on one day animating children’s books and creating other art geared toward young people.

“It’s not like I just think about my woman side when I’m an artist. The biggest part for me is just being a mother and an artist,” she says. “For so long all I’ve been is a wife and a mom, so my big thing my first semester was focusing on myself as an artist. To focus on myself as an artist was huge.”

For so long all I’ve been is a wife and a mom, so my big thing my first semester was focusing on myself as an artist.

That freedom to transcend gender identity and focus on anything you choose is the ultimate goal of feminism, Raybin thinks, and the final cultural battle to win. “I think what it means to be a woman is becoming less relevant as society pushes back against rigid gender identity. It is important to redirect the conversation towards intersectionality,” Raybin says. “To be a member of a marginalized group is a good reminder of the importance of standing together with anyone who faces structural inequality … If you’re marginalized and living in a situation designed to serve the dominant culture, look for creative ways to reclaim your psychic space.”

Abreu has done and will continue to do that in a world she thinks is increasingly in her corner.

“I feel like it’s just getting better as far as gender, as far as race. Everything is just becoming more representative, and it has become less nerve-racking to try to work my way up in the industry knowing people will probably make first judgments based on how I look or how I am,” she says.

“I think it’s the role of the artist is to continue making those improvements. As artists, our job is to communicate and bring those new ideas into the world, and that’s what I want to do with my stories. I want to have diverse casts in terms of gender, race, and age, and I want to tell stories that people haven’t seen before, haven’t thought of in that way before … I feel very grateful to have the experience at Watkins that I have had, and I know that everybody in my class is going to go on and do amazing things. I can’t wait to see what films look like 20 years from now with all of these female filmmakers rising up and making their voices heard.”