Artists Phyllis Gorsen and Judy Gelles were surprised to hear that men still tell women to smile. They were shocked with how women were spoken about in this year’s political climate. They were perplexed that beauty phrases from their mothers were still applicable in 2017. Naturally, they decided to do something about it. As Gorsen gathered artists such as Nancy Hellebrand, Ekaterina Popova, Gelles, and more, they collaborated to create Sex Symbol—an exhibition “representing symbols of sex from a woman’s perspective.”
AD: What was the inspiration behind Sex Symbol?
PG: I think there’s a lot more highlighting of women’s issues coming to the forefront— whether it’s sexual aggression or misogyny or just comments that were happening during the election. I think a lot of those concepts and ideas—which were a little bit more subversive—kind of came to the surface. The political climate was the last of it to spring it out. I think women in general have been getting more of a voice in recent years, and the things that happened in the political arena were somewhat shocking that they were so accepted. It was so ignored. I think women expected something more to come out from that than what did.
AD: Judy—what was the inspiration behind being a part of this exhibition?
JG: [My] The Words from Home series are words that I grew up with from my mother. She might not have said it exactly, but she would say the phrase “never go out without lipstick.” She would always say, “do you have your lipstick on?” And I think she felt that it made you look sexier. But these are words that a lot of people heard from their mothers. It wasn’t just me. It was the times, but I think what I’ve learned is that even though I heard it from my mother during the 50s, here we are in 2017, and the phrases are still very apropo today. So things haven’t changed that much.
AD: What would be more examples of things that you still hear in 2017 that you heard from your mom in the 50s?
PG: My whole life I heard strangers, some strange men, say “smile! You should smile more!” I was on Instagram not that long ago and two different women said, “strange men said to me to smile.” And I was like, God that’s still going on? I couldn’t believe it.
It all extends from something that I always think about, and that is that women are judged so much. And it’s not just external. There’s this push to always look pretty and look attractive, but there’s this internal urge also. It’s something that I think about because we are always worried about how we appear. More than men do, and more than men are.
AD: Right. There’s always some sort of visual effect when it comes to women.
PG: I’m not sure if it will ever be solved. One of the pieces I did was a bra and panty. For us, it’s undergarments. It’s part of the daily uniform. However, you can’t go into a mall without seeing the floor-to-ceiling pictures of these highly sexualized women in bra and panties. So it’s both. I’m not making it a statement that this is good or bad. It’s just something that is curious to me that women’s undergarments have this other element to it that men’s do not.
AD: What message do you want people to leave with after visiting the exhibition?
JG: One of the things I think of is just to be aware of all of the messages that we get and where they come from. You know, we get it from advertisements, we get it from our parents. I mean there’s an article on the paper today—in the Philadelphia Inquirer—having a dress code in some of the high schools that girls can’t wear sleeveless tops to show their arms. I mean, this is 2017. It’s just interesting, and the messages are all there.
These messages stay with women all through life. I mean, my mother at 96 was putting on her lipstick in her assisted living every day. So it doesn’t end at a certain age, the whole sexuality thing. It just goes on forever.