If you had wandered into Sanctuary Theater in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 8, you might have seen a most unusual spin-off of patriotic imagery. As Jimi Hendrix's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" blared over the sound system, performance artist Bridget Irish and her crew, wearing nothing but George W. Bush masks, covered their bums and crotches with red, white and blue paint. Then they swooped, smeared and daubed themselves on a sheet of paper. After a few minutes of Slip'n'Slide action, and a sprinkle of glitter for the stars, "A Flag for Bush" was done.
This was a heady sight for the straitlaced, patriotism-saturated capital. But even more startling for this good ol' boys' town is the festival that brought "A Flag for Bush" to D.C.: "Ladyfest DC 2002", a series of women's performances, workshops and exhibitions whose proceeds go toward the nonprofit D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Organized by women volunteers (including, I should disclose, both TAP's assistant editor and communications manager), Ladyfest DC will continue through this Sunday, Aug. 11.
Ladyfest originated two years ago in another Washington -- Olympia, Wash., which was, like the District, home to a strong feminist punk scene in the early- and mid-1990s. The bands Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, among others, made a huge splash with their fiercely political lyrics and edgy sound, giving rise to what eventually became known as the Riot Grrrl movement of the mid-1990s. And although Riot Grrrl collapsed over political differences, it helped solidify the anger and the cheekiness -- and the fusion of pop and political sensibilities -- that continue to inform third-wave feminism today.
Ladyfest actually grew from the collapse of the Riot Grrrl movement, according to Allison Wolfe, one of Ladyfest's founders and the lead singer of Bratmobile. Wolfe missed the sense of community Riot Grrrl had fostered, the movement's ability to "put the feminism into punk and the punk into feminism." Its message had gotten out, but it had been diluted, she says, stripped of its political context and sold to kids in the form of Urban Outfitter trash-chic, and Spice Girl "girl power." And after an onslaught of testosterone-filled music tours -- such as "Lollapalooza" or "Woodstock '99", which had nearly nonexistent female representation and problems running the gamut from a "show me your tits" attitude to sexual assaults occurring in the audiences -- it seemed high time for a Riot Grrrl revival.
Drawing on the remnants of the movement in Olympia, Wolfe and a team of female volunteers put together the very first Ladyfest in August 2000 . It was a community-run nonprofit event featuring performances, panels and workshops. Designed to "showcase, celebrate and encourage the artistic, organizational and political work and talents of women," according to its Web site, the first Ladyfest was a huge success, raising nearly $30,000 for domestic-violence shelters and women's nonprofits.
Attendees of the first Ladyfest took home its do-it-yourself attitude, the Riot Grrrl ethos of taking over the means of production. Although the original creators of Ladyfest had no intention of putting on another one, Ladyfest wouldn't die, popping up in places as far apart as San Francisco and Glasgow, Scotland, Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Ottawa, Canada.
In addition to fostering a can-do attitude, Ladyfest draws upon an irreverence for traditional feminism and language, as evidenced by its name. The use of "lady" is full of irony, a tongue-in-cheek undercutting of the dainty, moneyed sound of the word with the image of women rebels.
In this, Ladyfest reflects what some have called a third-wave feminist trait: the embrace and reclaiming of traditionally feminine objects such as lipstick and miniskirts, which have occasionally caused controversy among older feminists. But like many younger feminists, Wolfe doesn't see a schism between putting on makeup and talking about politics. Whereas women may once have felt pressured to reject traditional femininity to become more equal to men, many younger women today are subverting and experimenting with that notion -- pairing combat boots with a flowered dress, combining a passion for knitting and pie-baking with a commitment to activism. And just as some women take delight in casting off femme behaviors to embrace butchier, more masculine selves, others emphasize ladylike qualities with the feeling that it's all gender theater anyway. Why not play with another set of toys and props, trade fedora hats for feathered ones?
Despite the popular notion that feminists of different generations can't see eye to eye, many second-wave feminists have evinced strong enthusiasm about Ladyfest, saying that they see it as a continuation of their own work. With that, Ladyfest becomes one more link in a growing chain of women's music festivals -- from the "Michigan Women's Music Festival" to "Lilith Fair" -- and one more manifestation of the ongoing growth and changing face of feminism. As Wolfe says, "Feminism doesn't die. As long as we live in a sexist world, we need feminism." At the same time, she suggests, Ladyfest also reflects many younger feminists' "postmodern way to look at things. You cut and paste, reclaim things, ask, 'Is there any value in this? What's the value?' It's kind of fun. As Emma Goldman says, 'If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution.'"