Chatting with Petra Collins About Her Menstruating-Vagina Shirt
Here is the most controversial menstrual-blood-themed T-shirt of all time, by Petra Collins. Image via American Apparel.
My friend Petra Collins—who has done all sorts of wonderful photography work for VICE, along with the all-female art collective she founded and curates, the Ardorous—caused an entertaining storm of controversy this week. Petra designed a T-shirt for American Apparel with a simplistic line drawing depicting a masturbating, menstruating woman with pubic hair. All sorts of people who can’t handle female sexuality have called the shirt “vile,” “disgusting,” “gross,” and “icky,” while adding “ew wtf” for good measure. Petra’s $32 T-shirt has been written up by the Daily Mail, the Huffington Post, Time, and a whole bunch of other blogs and media outlets who are trying to “figure out” the controversy.
In order to have a rational and intelligent conversation about a drawing on a T-shirt that is making a bunch of crazy people upset, I gave Petra a call on Skype last night and we talked it out.
VICE: What do you think of the media storm you’ve started?
Petra Collins: It’s really awesome. I’m not surprised. It’s exactly what I wanted because it totally proves my point…
And what is your point?
That we’re so shocked and appalled at something that’s such a natural state—and it’s funny that out of all the images everywhere, all of the sexually violent images, or disgustingly derogatory images, this is something that’s so, so shocking apparently. The graphic on my shirt is a line drawing, too. It’s not even a full-on image.
Yeah. In Grand Theft Auto V, I can chase an elderly person down the street and shoot them 60 times with an assault rifle. I could literally do that for hours if I wanted to. No one cares. And yet your T-shirt shirt is the worst thing ever.
Yeah. The worst thing ever.
How did you react when the headlines started rolling in?
If you want to know my literal reaction, I was laughing really hard. I called my sister and we were both just like, “Oh my God.” Deep down it really saddens me, but it’s also awesome that I’ve just trolled the mainstream media.
I did a very short interview for City TV—they took a two-second sound clip and I don’t even remember what I said—that they edited with peoples’ reactions on the street saying, “Oh that’s disgusting,” and stuff like that. Except for one dude who thought it was awesome.
I just saw an American Apparel ad on the City TV website.
[Laughs] The headline they used was, “Does this T-Shirt Graphic Go Too Far?” Talking to these news anchors is the best. The woman was talking to me in her news anchor voice and trying to avoid saying “vagina” and I would say, “Oh, the masturbation, vagina, and pubic-hair tee?” She had trouble saying it back to me. Vagina is such a scandalous word.
It’s kind of good and it’s kind of bad. The conversation that this shirt creates cannot fit on television. It can’t fit on television because there’s not enough time—and it would just never make it to air. So they cover it in this way where it’s like, “Whoa! Has this T-Shirt Gone Too Far?” What does that mean? What if it did go too far? What then? Burn all the T-shirts?
[Laughs] And the fact that it’s a drawing, too. Getting down to the basics of it. It’s literally a line drawing. So simple.
Who actually drew it?
My friend Alice Lancaster [Alice is also a member of the Ardorous]. She was obviously laughing so hard, too. We went back and forth about what we wanted—I told her I wanted a girl masturbating from a certain angle. She kept saying, “This is hard. I’m going to have to take a selfie and draw it.” She was like, “Can you take a selfie?”
Is that how she ended up drawing it?
I don’t know what happened, but we had a lot of trouble. It’s hard to get a selfie that’s accurate for drawing.
A lot of work went into this bloody-vagina line drawing.
Yeah, it was really hard! She actually gave me three drawings, and so I took those three drawings and made them into one, then watercolored the blood on.
Do you wear the shirt in public?
Yeah, of course.
Was American Apparel instantly into the shirt when you showed them the drawing?
Yeah! There were no questions about it, which was really cool.
Did they react at all?
We had to figure out how to place the graphic on the t-shirt but other than that they were just like, “Cool, thanks.” That was basically it.
That’s a great contrast to all of this controversy.
I’m getting some crazy Instagram comments, too.
Why don’t you read me some of the most awful things people have said?
OK! Most of the people who follow me know what they’re in for. They’re cool and normal. But this one girl went off: “What the fuck? Why the fuck would anyone wear a bleeding, gaping vagina and asshole on their chest? [For] hipster points? Thanks, American Apparel once again.”
I’m always scared of people reporting me on Instagram because I don’t want to lose my profile so I have to block a lot of these people. Oh here’s a good one: “Next to actually seeing a girl shit, this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen. The woman is the most remarkable creation on the planet, but some lady things they go through… I’m not trying to see on a T-shirt. This is just mind-blowingly disgusting. This shirt on any beautiful body will instantly be a deal breaker, I’m sorry! But any publicity is good publicity right?”
Why do you think people get so grossed out by bodily functions that they take it too far and start oppressing people?
Menstruation—and also pubic hair—really freaks people out. There’s pubic hair in the drawing, which I guess is super shocking to people, even though I cannot get over that. I feel like I’m so sheltered in a way. I always forget that people are so close-minded.
Grown women are taught to repress their postpubescent body or hide it. When you start puberty and you start growing hair you’re taught to shave it, because no one’s supposed to see it. With your period, it’s something that you conceal—no one’s supposed to know. It’s almost pedophilic—and I don’t want to throw that word around. But this feminine ideology we have, of the woman being a prepubescent girl, is how we’re taught to change our bodies.
I guess your T-shirt is the perfect visual symbol to combat that attitude, isn’t it?
Yeah. I was really inspired by… you know those really gross novelty shirts that make it look like you have boobs? I just wanted to reappropriate that and create a feminist, more aesthetically true drawing on one of those T-shirts that everyone can have.
Cool. I found it weird that people were mad about the pubic-hair thing as well. I didn’t even consider it controversial, like, oh, people are mad about that too?
I was really lucky and I got to guest-lecture in Allyson Mitchell's first-year feminism course at York University [Petra is 20 years old]. I was showing my work, and I have those images I took that are really—I feel like you’ve seen them—they’re just of my underwear with a multi-image filter and there’s pubic hair coming out.
I didn’t even think that my pubic hair would shock people but the class literally went into an uproar. I had so many girls being like, “This is disgusting, why do you have to show that?” It was really interesting to me that it shocked and disgusted people so much to see that.
Petra's artsy pubic hair. Image via The Ardorous
That is interesting. Clearly, you’re exposing people with this shirt, because anyone who’s offended only has one thing to say: “It’s gross.” But why is it gross? Are people just afraid of vaginas? Is that what it is?
[Laughing] Yeah, totally. It goes back to the woman being subordinate and the man being dominant in sex. Women are supposed to be submissive, we’re not supposed to be in control of our sexuality, so I guess it’s scary when a woman goes through puberty and gets hair and is able to take control of herself and her body.
It’s also so weird to me that female masturbation is totally different than male masturbation. Male masturbation is celebrated in movies and culture. In American Pie or whatever it’s something that’s talked about, whereas female masturbation just isn’t a thing.
Let’s talk about the 16-city tour you did with Tavi Gevinson from Rookie magazine where you got to bring young girls together and talk about things like this. Have you been contacted from fans of yours—that you maybe met on the trip—who get what you’re trying to do?
Yeah, it’s so cool to see so many smart, intelligent young girls. Recently, I started a club for girls at this school called Seed that I used to go to, and we’re creating a place where teenage girls from 12 to 18 can go hang out and talk about whatever they want.
We held the first one last year, toward the end of the year, and 50 girls showed up. It was the craziest two hours of my life. It was the most heartbreaking and also the most heartwarming experience—because all these girls were able to sit and talk to each other, and talk to all of us, about everything that they can’t really talk about, and all of the things they do have to hide. So I have been getting a lot of positive feedback from these girls and it really makes my life. It’s the reason I do this work. Last year I had a mom come up to me and talk to me about how much I meant to her daughter, and I will still cry thinking about it.
That’s amazing. I feel kind of emotional now. That’s cool. So what’s your message to all of the people who you’ve offended?
Honestly, if it’s stressing you out that much and you’re so uptight about it, you should probably masturbate and you’ll feel better—and then think about it again.
Jerk off and then decide.
Yeah, because then you’ll be happy—this goes especially for the girls who are really upset about it. Just put your hand down there and figure it out for yourself.
Follow Petra on Instagram: @petracollins
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire
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