The fun, the freedom, and the feminism of Petra Collins' new book 'Babe'
Feminism is oftentimes characterized as grand statements for and against certain things. For body positivity, against Photoshop; for women taking leadership roles, against bossy. But the actual day-to-day of being a woman or a girl is the real meat of living feminism: The makeup or no makeup routines in the morning, the way we treat and talk about our bodies and other women’s bodies in real life and online. Those small scale, instinctual habits become over time the armor we don to present (or not present) femininity, against a culture that still refuses to acknowledge the variety, the messiness, and the work inherent in maintaining and performing woman- or girlhood.
Luckily, there are now plenty of female-identifying artists peeling back these time-honored facades and showing people the unvarnished reality behind the patriarchy’s polished feminine fantasy. One artist in particular has set the tone for a certain kind of introspective, dreamy, but never concealing female gaze: Petra Collins, of Rookie Magazine and female art collective The Ardorous.
Collins, both in her personal and now commercial and fashion work (for magazines like i-D and brands like Levi’s and Me and You), presents nothing less than the interests, desires, and conflicts inherent in being a woman. There are bumps, bruises, and blemishes on view in her work, but there’s also a sense of intimacy dominated by and documented by women.
In her first self-directed art collection Babe, Collins collects her, and other female (and one male) artists’, work, and in doing so presents a full spectrum of images and words both demystifying and mythologizing femininity. With an intro by Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson, who writes that the book’s art creates the atmosphere of “a non-judgmental, Sharpie’d-over, vaguely smelly high school bathroom,” Babe doesn’t proffer an “obvious” or super “aspirational” take on feminism, but implicitly reinforces it and explores how mutable that word can be when practiced in daily life.
The women and girls of Babe, both in the book as subjects and as creators, aren’t immune from the male gaze, but they’re making art for themselves and about themselves. As Gevinson writes, “These works wear constructed girliness with a bit of a smirk, but do not frown upon or collapse from inside of it.” Or rather, femininity is exhausting and exhaustive; it is sometimes fun but never frivolous; it means understanding stereotypes and archetypes and then breaking and upholding them as the occasion calls for it.
Many of the Babe artists comment directly on beauty and style as means of self-expression and world reflection, utilizing photography and illustration and poetry to say something about seeing and being a woman in a world that oftentimes rejects or stifles those realities. Beth Hoeckel’s collages are beautifully composed, but also jarring in their comparisons — lips and flowers and raw meat, maple syrup on waffles as an extension of female fluidity (and fluids). Sandy Kim and Alexandra Marzella also zoom in on bodily fluids, while poet Jenny Zhang caps off Babe with an objectively disgusting but totally gleeful yeast infection fantasy.
The total effect of Babe is to dive into a world run by women and girls who have nothing to hide and nothing to lose, whose secrets are open and whose identities are both specific and full of multitudes. Babe invites viewers into a world where being female isn’t easy or arbitrary, but also isn’t a constant struggle and negotiation. In between its sweet pink covers, you can find every part of yourself you’d sought to silence or stifle; a world that loves you and doesn’t punish you for loving yourself.
You can buy Babe here.