The feminist memes by Polish artist, Marta Frej, feature women of all ages including school girls, grannies, athletes, and mothers engaging in ordinary tasks. But don’t be fooled, the messages included in the memes are powerful and revolutionary. Sleeping Beauty hangs a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign, female firefighters ‘extinguish sexism for the good of nation’ and, in another, we see Frej herself taking off her t-shirt accompanied by the text: ‘This is not a striptease, this is not a performance. I’m just getting undressed’. The problem of accepted everyday sexism in Poland makes it difficult for women to be seen as human beings, rather than objects of male pleasure. ‘The main thematic focus is female sexuality, marginalized or built on obscene stereotypes – a wife, virgin and angel vs. a lover, whore and devil,” observes Frej in her book published with Polish feminist writer Agnieszka Graff.
Initially her works were only published on her Facebook page (which boasts nearly 150,000 followers), however, on a wave of growing popularity, Frej began printing the memes onto canvas, exhibiting them in galleries across Poland.
With women as the central subject, Frej’s engaging memes are a response to the recent political climate in Poland. Since the 2015 elections that secured a win for the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Jarosław Kaczyński, the government has worked closely with the Catholic Church to tighten control over women’s bodies. This has been evident in the changes introduced since the elections including the withdrawal of state financial support for IVF and the restriction of access to contraception.
The stricter the government’s regulations, the bolder the women in Frej’s memes become in asserting agency over their bodies and their sexuality. That’s why Frej’s art increasingly becomes the flagship for all kinds of feminist activism in Poland. For example, in response to the 2016 nationwide Black Protest for reproductive rights, Frej created a mural in Warsaw expressing her support. Frej has also responded to global activism in her meme inspired by the anti-harassment campaign #MeToo (‘Ja też’ in Polish). The main appeal of her memes lies in the way they combine politically charged messages with images of ordinary situations and cultural references. In this way, Frej’s memes speak not only to ivory tower feminists and gender and sexuality scholars, but also to ordinary women. Further, by declaring herself a feminist in a country where the government has launched a ‘crusade against gender’ and where feminism has been equated with communism or even Nazism, Frej challenges those tactics, practices, and ideas that make women repress their own sexuality, empowering them to celebrate it instead.
Frej’s memes are openly anticlerical. The 2016 government proposal of a near-total ban on abortion found its way into a meme portraying a group of Catholic Church patriarchs. Presented in the style of a family photograph, yet almost black in color, the meme read: ‘About women, we know everything’. In an even more provocative image, the leader of the Catholic ruling party, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, sits in front of a woman, with her legs spread wide over a gynecological table. As he faces her crotch he says with an innocent expression: ‘ Regarding birth control you have no say… ’, a sentence which rhymes in Polish. The colors add to the message. In contrast to the candy-colored pink, yellow, and green images of women and girls, the memes portraying politicians and priests are dark, almost black, conveying a sinister atmosphere associated with an abuse of power.
For Poland’s ruling party, doing away with women’s reproductive rights is part of its patriarchal attempt to resurrect the traditional figure of the Matka Polka, an ideal version of womanhood that was reinforced during Poland’s long history of occupation. Behind the newly introduced family planning policies looms the unwritten project of enforcing a strictly heteronormative and Catholic model of the family, with the Polish woman-as-mother at its center. The government encourages women to have more children by offering 500PLN for each child every month, a sum that is nearly seven times more than the previous benefit payment. In November 2017, the Ministry of Health launched a video campaign urging Poles to breed like rabbits, supposedly to improve the country’s demographic. At the same time, the state dictates the ‘proper’ way a woman should become a mother by depriving certain single mothers of payment. Likewise, the public Polish broadcaster, TVP, the main outlet of the government’s propaganda machine, has been shaming women who, instead of preparing dinner at home, protest in defense of democracy in front of the parliament.
In one meme, Frej introduces herself as a woman who ‘like[s] men… [has] a happy sex life… [and is] a feminist’. With these statements, she directs the focus away from the needs of her husband and children and towards her own body and desires. And indeed, in another meme, Frej puts the selfless Matka Polka to rest by drawing an inscription ‘the tomb of the forced Matka Polka’ on what resembles the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, urging Poland’s women to follow her lead.
A New Activism
One theme touched upon in Frej’s memes is shame, a powerful emotion used to discipline girls and women, especially within Christian rhetoric. In one meme, a grandma shares a piece of wisdom with her granddaughter, ‘Shame is overrated. It consumes a lot of your time and doesn’t leave any interesting memories…’. In one interview, Frej observes: ‘I create [memes] so we, women, wouldn’t have to curtsy’. A curtsy can be viewed as the ultimate symbol of female obedience, bowing to others, proving to be ‘good girls’ in order to gain acceptance. Recognizing shame as a powerful sexist tool to control women, and ridding oneself of it, is the first step to abolishing patriarchy and gaining control over one’s own body.
In a country that shames women, is afraid of feminism and gender studies, as well as makes efforts to sanction heteronormativity, gender roles remain largely unquestioned. And given that sexual education has been deemed ‘too risky’ to teach in schools, discussions about birth control, masturbation, and consent have been relegated to social media – such as the SexEdPl campaign launched by supermodel, Anja Rubik – and to communities of artists and public figures. For this very reason, Frej’s memes are not only important, but also necessary for extinguishing sexism in contemporary Poland.
Aneta Stępień is a lecturer in the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies in Trinity College Dublin, where she coordinates Polish degree programs. This article was originally published by Notches.