The Guerrilla Girls' Comic Politics of Subversion

Article excerpt

This essay explores the visual rhetoric of the Guerrilla Girls, a group of feminist art activists based in New York. Kenneth Burke's related concepts of the comic frame and perspective by incongruity provide a particularly fitting conceptual foundation for examining these specific strategies and the Guerrilla Girls' rhetoric in general. The analysis focuses on three rhetorical strategies used by the group: (1) mimicry; (2) an inventive re-vision of history; and (3) strategic juxtaposition. By demonstrating the means by which strategies of incongruity operate visually, this essay illustrates how visual rhetoric functions as both a site and resource of feminist resistance.

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   THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING A WOMAN ARTIST

   Working without the pressure of success.
   Not having to be in shows with men.
   Having an escape from the art world in your 4 free-lance jobs.
   Knowing your career might pick up after you're eighty.
   Being reassured that whatever kind of art you make it will be
   labeled feminine.
   Not being stuck in a tenured teaching position.
   Seeing your ideas live on in the work of others.
   Having the opportunity to choose between career and motherhood....
   Getting your picture in art magazines wearing a gorilla suit.

The preceding excerpt, taken from a 1988 poster plastered throughout the streets of lower Manhattan, satirically encouraged passers-by to consider the so-called "sunny side" of institutionalized sexism (Guerrilla Girls, 1995, p. 53). Created by the Guerrilla Girls--a feminist collective of women artists and art world professionals--this sardonic chronicle of art world double standards has been translated into more than eight languages and immortalized in feminist literature and pop-culture postcards. The poster's litany of contradictions illustrates both the spectrum of sexism that women artists face and a principal strategy of the Guerrilla Girls' rhetoric: perspective by incongruity.

The growing literature on Kenneth Burke and dramatic frames well establishes the potential for perspective by incongruity to function as a discursive tool for enacting social change (Allen & Faigley, 1995; Carlson, 1986, 1988, 1992; Christiansen & Hanson, 1996; Dow, 1994; Powell, 1995). According to Burke, perspective by incongruity works by "a constant juxtaposing of incongruous words, attaching to some name a qualifying epithet which had heretofore gone with a different order of names" (Burke, 1954, p. 90). The use of terms, images or ideologies that are incongruous reorders--even remoralizes--a situation or orientation in a process akin to consciousness-raising (Dow, 1994). This essay is indebted to much of the literature on dramatic frames and seeks to further contribute to the study of marginalized (specifically feminist) discourse by examining how strategies of incongruity engender a comic politics of subversion. My analysis focuses on three strategies found in the rhetoric of the Guerrilla Girls: (1) mimicry, (2) an inventive re-vision of history, and (3) strategic juxtaposition. I argue that the organizing logic for these strategies in particular, and Guerrilla Girls' rhetoric in general, is the technique that Burke labels perspective by incongruity. I foreground strategies of incongruity because of their potential to both denaturalize and restructure a particular context, ideology, or sedimented meaning through "comparison, re-classification, and re-naming" (Dow, 1994, p. 229). Even though perspective by incongruity structures the Guerrilla Girls' rhetoric, its more general function is to create a comic politics of subversion and is, therefore, closely linked to Burke's discussion of the comic frame, The Guerrilla Girls' rhetoric, then, demonstrates how planned incongruity not only pokes fun at the failures of the social structure but also offers a comic corrective to such failings.

Many critics have recognized the symbiotic relationship between perspective by incongruity and the comic frame in Burke's work (Christiansen & Hanson, 1996; Dow, 1994; Gusfield, 1986). …