Saturday, August 31, 2013

Girl-Child Power

Complete with ethereal and captivating images to illustrate the text, an upcoming children’s book aims to change the next generation’s notions of gender through art and literature.

Looking through one of the many feminist pages on Facebook last week, I found a link to a Facebook page called ‘The Girl God’. I was first attracted to this page for the beautiful and whimsical illustrations that went with the text, written by Elisabeth Slettnes. However, as I later read in the about section, I soon realised that this was all part of a project based on an upcoming book by Trista Hendren called ‘The Girl God’.

Intrigued, I sought out the author and the artist, in order to discover the motivation behind their powerful work. She described ‘The Girl God’ to me as a project “to empower women and girls”, this book is described as a children’s book that “celebrates the Divine feminine”. Hendren created this work for her daughter, whom she could see was already affected by the patriarchal structure of society. She believed a male-dominated worldview would eventually hinder her daughter’s self-esteem as well as her opportunities in life.

Hendren used this book as a tool to spiritually relate back to her daughter in words she could understand. Even at five, Hendren said, her daughter “could not relate to the male image of God.” As well as this, Hendren found that in the education system, the male centered textbooks being used in her daughter’s school did not contain material her daughter and other young girls could relate to, which Hendren argues has a negative impact on girls as they grow up. She hopes that if “we start teaching our children a broader history at home, they will begin to ask questions of their teachers that will eventually force change.” Hendren collaborated with the incredible artistic talent of Slettnes to delineate the message of her 40-page book. 

What struck me about the images from the Facebook page was the sheer brilliance and gaudiness of the dancing colours, all depicting an unfamiliar kind of female spirituality. Hendren said most of the artworks in the book were first based on the storyline. She said it worked well because Slettnes is “such a prolific and talented artist”, and was already dealing with the themes she wanted to cover in the book. She added, “When I saw her art, it was perfect.” When I asked Slettnes what her artistic style was, she said that she thought of it as a mix of surrealism, particularly magical surrealism. She said she has heard people say it looks like a world of art “that is full of spirituality.” Her choice of medium is acrylic and oil on canvas. She works with mixed media and creates what she calls “akvarellcollage”. In addition, she likes to add pieces of material to her paintings such as feathers, pieces of mirror, and pearls.

Not only will the book appeal to children but the quotes used alongside the narrative and images mean it will captivate older audiences too. The quotes are by feminists like Maya Angelou; they challenge our assumptions about gender differences that are taken for granted and the myth of equality. I think it is important in this way to highlight male domination in many aspects of society to the next generation, so that these accepted notions do not continue to be internalised as ‘natural’. Hendren focuses on how our male-centered spiritualties have a negative impact on women.

The project’s focus on spirituality and the effect this has on every society, I believe, is important because it questions the popular view that the feminist movement is just an essentialist cry for the rights of a small group of white middle-class women. Instead, the project calls for the recognition of the interests and rights of all women. It rightly assumes the position of worldwide patriarchy as a determining force that exists in every culture, partly rooted in the natural inclination towards spirituality that women are associated with. The illustrations by Slettnes echo the text and works well with it to reiterate its message.

It’s time for women’s association with spirituality to be regarded once again with awe instead of suspicion. Illustrated with examples from the Bible, translated in the interests of men, Hendren notes “Women have a history that has been systematically suppressed.” She calls for a “woman-centered” spirituality. This book is about women reclaiming the power that has been taken from them in centuries previously, and thereby correcting their experience of today. Women’s association with the spiritual has not liberated them like it should have, but has resulted in absurd acts like witch hunts and their access to certain rituals in some religions denied. What is refreshing about this book is that it highlights the fact that it is not religion itself that makes its relationship with women uneasy, but the tyranny of the patriarchal structure that used it for its own purpose. 

The Girl God’s Facebook page is continuing this self-published book’s legacy and is inspiring other females to spread its message. It is important that art is not only aesthetically appealing, like Slettnes’s work is, but also challenging in terms of the discourses it disseminates. ‘The Girl God’ shows brilliantly the raw social and spiritual power of Art. This currently little known project is one I hope gets all the publicity it deserves.

~Katy Gregory,

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