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The Power of Pink and a Bloodstained Black Lives Matter Movement

The Power of Pink and a Bloodstained Black Lives Matter Movement

Accompanying the headline of Vanessa Friedman’s article “When Politics Became a Fashion Statement,”[1] was a photo of Ieshia Evans, strong and lean in her flowing summer dress, calmly facing the heavily armed anti-protest police forces. Taken in July, moments before her arrest in Baton Rouge, after the murder of Alton Sterling, it was only a matter of hours before the photo went viral, was cataloged as “legendary,”[2] and became one of the most widespread images of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016. No wonder Friedman chose it to begin her review of the most important moments of 2016, in which she recognized the importance of clothes in making political statements.

Like many other images used in media coverage of BLM protests, the image of Evans reveals a strong implicit combat between vulnerable civilians and armed police forces, extirpated, almost, of their humanity by their anti-protest gear, which is so often juxtaposed to the extraterrestrial costumes of Storm Troopers. Unlike many other images of the movement, however, this one portrays a feminine young woman, facing her fate in hands of the policemen that arrest her. Its power lies, as Friedman herself recognized in an earlier article, in the summer dress—a garment so distinct from clothes that are typically associated with protest movements, that it allows the viewer to recognize herself in the photo. The summer dress—with its spaghetti straps and black-and-white fabric—is a garment worn by virtually every woman. It does not “suggest rebellion or activism, but rather humanity: everyday life, and everyday closets.”[3] But the summer dress, too, is the fashion antithesis of how activists of the BLM movement are often represented in the media.

A brief look at the media coverage of protests in Ferguson in 2014, Baltimore in 2015, and Baton Rouge in 2016, all reveal similarly blatant images in which civilians and state forces oppose one another—violence underlying every one of them. The message is clear: protests related to the BLM movement are openly associated with abuse, coming both from the defenders of a society with unequal power relations, and from the few members of a neglected group that have turned to violent acts as their only escape. Featured photographs are typically composed of moving bodies—often dark-skinned, often dressed with clothes seemingly too large, often covered in sweat—shown parading the streets, hands and signs up, mouths open half-chant. Common accessories, beyond the conical loudspeakers that attempt to make their voices heard, include bandanas— widely tied to cover the face—and gas masks. Surrounding them are cloudy vapors from smoke bombs and tear gas, from where the police forces emerge as supernatural, otherworldly creatures. And, in many cases, the individuals portrayed are experiencing their own arrest.

Such dire images of combat between BLM activists to protect the rights of black people, sparked after the fatal shootings of black men by members of the police, in which even relatively feminine women like Evans herself are masculinized by the underlying violence in the images, stand strikingly in contrast to the rather happy images of protesters at the Women’s March on Washington (WMW), which took place on January 21, 2017. Organized after the election of Donald J. Trump as 45th President of the United States, the march was created by a group of women who joined forces “to stand together in sisterhood and solidarity for the protection of our rights, our safety and our environment…”[4] Despite being one of the largest political protests the world has ever seen, with at least 500,000 people marching in Washington and more than 60 sister marches organized around the world, the power of the images of the Women’s March stand in stark contrast with the rawness of those associated with BLM movement.[5] It is the clothes of protesters, the most visual aspect of their identities, which create the strikingly contrasting messages.

Looking at the media reportage on the WMW and the sister marches, it is easy to see that most protesters seem to have chosen to wear casual clothing, comfortable enough to wear for hours while parading the streets, and warm enough to protect them from the cold winter weather. However, and in contrast with BLM protests, there are common sartorial elements in that can be easily devised in various groups of protesters: some choosing to wear highly stylized, fashionable clothes;[6] others wearing group costumes; and most wearing touches of pink in their accessories, the most important one being the Pussyhat.

The sea of pink garments in the Women’s Marches provides the most striking comparison with the clothes of BLM protesters—so normal that they tend to be unnoticed.

Made with pink yarn, and with pointed top corners resembling cat ears, the Pussyhat became popular in the months prior to the WMW, as “a means to make a unique collective visual statement which will make activists be better heard.”[7] Disseminated through the Pussyhat Project, the hat aimed to reclaim the negative associations of both pink and the word pussy. Pink, so often associated with the qualities of canonical femininity—tenderness, compassion, love—and seen as symbol of the weak and fickle, and pussy, the derogatory term for female genitalia that became protagonist in the presidential race, were both re-signified to become symbols of empowerment, to create feelings of strength and power among protesters.

The visual impact of the Pussyhat has become the main characteristic of images featured in media reportage of the march: a brief look at the photographs illustrating the gathering crowds in Washington and other cities, showcase seas of pink-headed men and women.[8] But the color pink was also visible in signs, a variety of accessories worn by protesters, and even made appearances in full, head-to-toe outfits. Most protesters, it seems, wore even the slightest hint of the hue: even the outfits of protesters wearing full costumes,[9] as well as those with less stylized outfits, composed of black winter jackets, jeans, and sneakers, would have likely been incomplete if not by the addition of a pink scarf.[10]

The sea of pink garments in the Women’s Marches provides the most striking comparison with the clothes of BLM protesters—so normal that they tend to be unnoticed. Its symbolic significance, in the happy empowerment of unified groups of women, is even more striking, when compared with pieces of clothing that have, at moments, come to symbolize the Black Lives Matter movement: on one side, the hoodie that is claimed to have earned Trayvon Martin his murder in 2012;[11] on the other, the blood-stained Dr. Martens combat boots, in some cases with the words of black victims of police brutality, designed in protest by Pyer Moss in 2015,[12] which turn even more interesting when their tough, somewhat industrial look is compared to the handcrafted, inherently feminine nature of the Pussyhat.

The strong visual impact of thousands of individuals marching together, their bodies adorned with at least a slight touch of pink, is flawless—and it can be proclaimed one of the largest successes of the Women’s March on Washington. It reflects union and suggests the strong power of people in a democratic regime. But, in comparison to the also visually striking, though implicitly bloodstained, images of the Black Lives Matter movement, it reminds us that solidarity, beyond fashion, needs active individuals that reclaim their lives and their rights from increasingly powerful governments. In another viral photo, a brown-skinned, candy-eating woman wearing a military jacket holds a sign reminding us that “white women voted for Trump,” while a group of three blonde, fair-skinned, Pussyhat-clad women in the background seem too busy posing their activism for social media to notice.[13] The image reminds us, inevitably, of the huge racial divide inherent in our societies, which is yet to be overcome. But it also reminds us that activism and solidarity, when made collective through the use of widespread garments—be it the pink Pussyhat, a black hoodie or bloodstained combat boots—can become strong symbols of resistance, helping us empower one another, and bringing us together, as humans, to peacefully, though not passively, fight against an increasingly violent society.

 

Notes

[1] Vanessa Friedman, “When Politics Became a Fashion Statement: The Year in Style 2016,” The New York Times, published 13 Dec 2016 [accessed 7 Feb 2017], https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/fashion/the-year-in-style-politics-dressing.html.

[2] “Baton Rouge killing: Black Lives Matter protest photo hailed as ‘legendary’,” BBC News, US & Canada, 11 July 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36759711.

[3] VF in “A Sundress in an Age of Riot Gear,” NYT, Sunday Review/News Analysis, 18 Jul 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/18/opinion/a-sundress-in-an-age-of-riot-gear.html.

[4] Bob Bland, Facebook statement, Women’s March On Washington: Origins and Inclusion, 20 November 2016 [accessed 3 February 2017], https://www.facebook.com/events/2169332969958991/permalink/2178409449051343/

[5] Perry Stein, Steve Hendrix & Abigail Hauslohner, “Women’s marches: More than one million protesters vow to resist President Trump” The Washington Post, 21 January 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/womens-march-on-washington-a-sea-of-pink-hatted-protesters-vow-to-resist-donald-trump/2017/01/21/ae4def62-dfdf-11e6-acdf-14da832ae861_story.html.

[6] See for example the second photo (“A protester in the Woman’s March on Washington, January 21, 2016.”) in the photo gallery accompanying the article: Sarah Larson, “Scenes from the Women’s March on Washington,” The New Yorker, 22 January 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/sarah-larson/scenes-from-the-womens-march-on-washington.

[7] “Mission,” The Pussyhat Project, accessed 10 February 2017, https://www.pussyhatproject.com/.

[8] See for example the first photo in: Perry Stein, Steve Hendrix & Abigail Hauslohner, “Women’s marches: More than one million protesters vow to resist President Trump” The Washington Post, 21 January 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/womens-march-on-washington-a-sea-of-pink-hatted-protesters-vow-to-resist-donald-trump/2017/01/21/ae4def62-dfdf-11e6-acdf-14da832ae861_story.html; and photos 1 and 6 in the gallery: “Women’s March on Washington,” CNN, 21 January 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/21/us/gallery/womens-march-on-washington/.

[9] See second photo (“A woman chants at the Women’s March on Washington”) in the gallery: “Women’s March on Washington,” CNN, 21 January 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/21/us/gallery/womens-march-on-washington/.

[10] See for example the photo of a group of protesters with signs walking on the streets of Washington DC, by Damon Dahlen for the Washington Post, http://img.huffingtonpost.com/asset/,scalefit_970_noupscale/5883f7cf1c00002e00d9373b.jpeg.

[11] See for example second photo in the gallery accompanying the article: Sara Sidner & Mallory Simon, “The rise of Black Lives Matter: Trying to break the cycle of violence and silence,” CNN, 28 December 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/28/us/black-lives-matter-evolution/.

[12] Charlie Lankston, “Black designer hits back at police ‘brutality and racism’ with powerful collection of blood-spattered clothing – and starts his NYFW show with horrific footage of police violence, including Eric Garner’s death,” DailyMail.com, 12 September 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3232258/Black-designer-hits-police-brutality-racism-powerful-collection-blood-spattered-clothing-starts-NYFW-horrific-footage-police-violence-including-Eric-Garner-s-death.html.

[13] Brooke Obie, “Woman in Viral Photo From Women’s March to White Female Allies: ‘Listen to a Black Woman’,” 23 January 2017, http://www.theroot.com/woman-in-viral-photo-from-women-s-march-to-white-female-1791524613

 

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