4-2 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.mother.4-2.1 | Moore, Wig­more, and Esan PDF

The artist inter­view in this dossier is an exam­ple of col­lab­o­ra­tive work between an artist and a writer. It is a show­case of how pop­u­lar cul­ture can be re-appro­pri­at­ed. The inter­vie­wees are the co-cre­ators of the card game Super­strumps devel­oped to address the issue of stereo­typ­ing of women. In the inter­view, they recount the process of cre­at­ing the game involv­ing oth­er women from their local com­mu­ni­ty. This exem­pli­fies how a strat­e­gy for resist­ing and reclaim­ing iden­ti­ties under­mined by neg­a­tive labelling is devel­oped. Their views are strong­ly shaped by their fem­i­nist prin­ci­ples. The inter­view acknowl­edges the com­plex nature of iden­ti­ties, the chal­lenge of media rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship between media and audi­ences is revealed.

L’entretien dans ce dossier illus­tre bien le poten­tiel des col­lab­o­ra­tions entre artistes et écrivains. On y voit com­ment la cul­ture pop­u­laire peut être réap­pro­priée. Les par­tic­i­pants ont créé ensem­ble le jeu de cartes Super­strumps afin d’aborder la ques­tion des stéréo­types sur les femmes. Dans l’entretien ils revi­en­nent sur le proces­sus de créa­tion du jeu dans lequel des femmes de leur com­mu­nauté locale se sont impliquées, et à tra­vers lequel a été mis en place une stratégie de réap­pro­pri­a­tion des iden­tités déval­uées par des représen­ta­tions néga­tives. Leur point de vue est forte­ment influ­encé par leur principes fémin­istes. L’entretien tient compte de la nature mul­ti­ple des iden­tités et du défi posé par les représen­ta­tions médi­a­tiques ; au bout du compte c’est la rela­tion sym­bi­o­tique entre les média et leurs audi­ences qui émerge.

Syd Moore and Hei­di Wig­more in Con­ver­sa­tion with Oluyin­ka Esan | Uni­ver­si­ty of Winchester

The Card Game with a Mission

Play­ing cards have long been a pas­time in much of the world. Their ear­li­est incar­na­tions have been traced to Chi­na, but cards have trav­elled and mor­phed in their appear­ance since then.  Once made like chips in Chi­na and then appear­ing as cir­cu­lar shapes in India, cards as we know them are prod­ucts of Euro­pean coun­tries (Spain, Italy, and France). They have been a pop­u­lar source of enter­tain­ment since the 14th Cen­tu­ry and have been adopt­ed for var­ied uses—diverse folk games, gam­bling, div­ina­tion, and for­tune telling. Cards have also been adopt­ed for edu­ca­tion­al pur­pos­es and for sales pro­mo­tion. Com­plex­i­ty of pro­duc­tion and high cost may have restrict­ed patron­age in ear­li­er times, as is evi­dent in the ves­tiges of court life seen in stan­dard packs—representations of king, queen, jack (knave), and the jok­er. With improved tech­nol­o­gy, the aes­thet­ics of cards have improved. Mass pro­duc­tion has helped to make play­ing cards more afford­able and there­fore more wide­ly avail­able. Under reg­is­tered trade­marks like Top Trumps (UK), and Bicy­cle (USA), some play­ing cards fea­ture diverse rep­re­sen­ta­tions of life in con­tem­po­rary cul­tures. They are even col­lectible. Some cor­po­ra­tions cus­tomise play­ing cards to pro­mote par­tic­u­lar brands and issues. Since social mar­ket­ing also employs tac­tics used in prod­uct mar­ket­ing, it is lit­tle won­der that Syd Moore, a writer and media lec­tur­er, and Hei­di Wig­more, a visu­al artist and lec­tur­er, elect­ed to design play­ing cards as a medi­um to address the labelling of women—stereotyping, one of society’s peren­ni­al con­cerns. They con­ceived of the game, devel­oped the cards, and brought it to pub­lic atten­tion through events with­in their local­i­ty in Essex and then to the 2011 Women of the World (WoW) Fes­ti­val in London’s South­bank Arts Cen­tre. How­ev­er, being fea­tured on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 is per­haps what brought them nation­al attention.

Fig. 1

In this inter­view these two cre­ative women, Syd Moore and Hei­di Wig­more meet with me in Essex, Eng­land around Syd’s kitchen table. They describe the process of devel­op­ing the Super­strumps project, dis­cuss the ratio­nale behind the ini­tia­tive, the process of select­ing the labels for the char­ac­ters fea­tured in the game—through whom we explore some mother-figures—and appraise the suc­cess of their mis­sion; is it being accom­plished?  Through­out this inter­view we are able to share in the empir­i­cal expe­ri­ences of these women who have been able to use the media for spec­i­fied ends: to push back against estab­lished female stereotypes.

Super­strumps is the reg­is­tered trade­mark for their play­ing cards meant for two or more play­ers. The cards are dealt even­ly among play­ers. Unlike the stan­dard pack, which has four suits, it fea­tures thir­ty social­ly recog­nis­able (female) char­ac­ters, each car­ry­ing labels used to type women. Each card out­lines spe­cial pow­ers that the char­ac­ter can boast of, as well as a range of oth­er labels by which they may be known.  These labels high­light par­tic­u­lar behav­iour traits to which its bear­ers are reduced. Each card (char­ac­ter) has numer­i­cal vale.  This is com­put­ed based on scores assigned to attrib­ut­es asso­ci­at­ed with women, though more essen­tial­ly with moth­er­hood – Nur­ture, Strength, Inde­pen­dence and Resource­ful­ness.  The numer­i­cal val­ues for each of these allow play­ers to com­pare the hand they are dealt, by so doing, deter­mine who wins the game.  Many of the tropes fea­tured in the game have his­tor­i­cal­ly defined women, and in many cas­es con­tin­ue to do so.  As stereo­types tend to do, the labels car­ry neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions, but Super­strumps co-cre­ators call on play­ers to “have fun, reclaim the labels, and ‘trump the mass media’s tun­nel-visioned per­cep­tions of women everywhere!’”

The under­ly­ing mis­sion of Super­strumps is to pro­voke deep reflec­tion and talk­ing points on the labels with which women are tagged. The cards pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties to chal­lenge and rene­go­ti­ate exist­ing val­ues and by impli­ca­tion review the bal­ance of pow­er in gen­der rela­tions. The game has focused atten­tion on the need to reclaim the neg­a­tive stereo­types that have hith­er­to robbed women of their esteem in soci­ety. Born out of some form of an ethno­graph­ic research process—even if the cre­ators don’t acknowl­edge it as such—the game can be adopt­ed as the basis for com­par­a­tive stud­ies of women’s expe­ri­ences in dif­fer­ent cul­tures and soci­eties. Sim­i­lar strate­gies can also be used to sup­port a range of prac­ti­cal efforts aimed at tack­ling social exclu­sion of vul­ner­a­ble women in par­tic­u­lar, but also more gen­er­al­ly. Wig­more and Moore also see the wider prospects for employ­ing sim­i­lar play and humour based col­lab­o­ra­tive strate­gies in tack­ling oth­er forms of social injus­tices beyond those con­fronting women. The mer­it of Super­strumps can­not be mea­sured by its very mod­est com­mer­cial suc­cess, rather by the wider appli­ca­tion of its prin­ci­ple, which allow play­ers a chance to reflect on the social con­di­tions that allow for the per­pet­u­a­tion of tra­di­tion­al and ulti­mate­ly lim­it­ing female stereo­types. In this bat­tle of wits, where they are pitched against wide­ly-cir­cu­lat­ed media rep­re­sen­ta­tions of women, the cre­ators of Super­strumps may yet hold the trump card.

Here is the sto­ry of Super­strumps as told to Oluyin­ka Esan (OE), by its cre­ators Hei­di Wig­more (HW) and Syd Moore ℠.

* * *

OE: Why do you think the mass media are respon­si­ble for the par­tic­u­lar imag­in­ings of women that Super­strumps seeks to reclaim?

HW: As a visu­al artist I am very aware of how pow­er­ful visu­al cul­ture is in impact­ing people’s per­cep­tion of the world and of themselves—advertising, most of all.  It is visu­al cul­ture bom­bard­ment, as I per­ceive it, from the mass media. Con­sid­er how adver­tis­ing images con­struct female iden­ti­ty, because women’s images are used to sell absolute­ly every­thing. The preva­lence of women’s images in the visu­al mass media has been not­ed since I was at school; cer­tain­ly the prac­tice has become more per­va­sive in the last two or three decades.

I am sure Syd will give more details on this but, hav­ing both been lec­tur­ers in ter­tiary edu­ca­tion, we became increas­ing­ly aware of the impact of the media through our young female stu­dents.  In the con­text of Fine Art we were find­ing a major­i­ty of female stu­dents want­i­ng to work on projects about eat­ing dis­or­ders and body image, and they were them­selves mak­ing the con­nec­tions between that and the world of media and advertising.

SM: Con­sid­er some of the known prac­tices dur­ing the great age of tele­vi­sion [1950s through to the ear­ly 1980s]. As an author of ghost sto­ries, I am quite inter­est­ed in Rod Ser­ling, who was a civ­il activist and also the cre­ator of The Twi­light Zone [1959-1964]. My research revealed that some of his frus­tra­tions were with not being able to rep­re­sent racism in the Amer­i­can South, or focus on women’s issues.  These lim­i­ta­tions were not nec­es­sar­i­ly imposed by the TV net­works, but by the adver­tis­ers and the spon­sors of the pro­grammes. They would actu­al­ly read the scripts and delete any­thing con­tro­ver­sial. If you had a woman in a spe­cif­ic role, some­thing beyond the domes­tic envi­ron­ment, they would change that. I think this kind of shap­ing hasn’t stopped.

There is an idea that TV reflects soci­ety.  It doesn’t.  It reflects what the patri­archy or those in con­trol want us to say and want us to aspire to.  Con­sumer cul­ture has cre­at­ed what we see on screens today and def­i­nite­ly in mag­a­zines as well.

When I was lec­tur­ing in Pub­lish­ing I had to tell my stu­dents about such issues. Take the case of Cos­mopoli­tan, which was going to pub­lish an issue in the 90s on anorex­ia. It was pulled because of Ver­sace, who was then going through the hero­in-chic fash­ion style. That par­tic­u­lar piece was pulled to keep the adver­tis­ing. When you tell stu­dents this, they are shocked and they can’t believe it. But as you start to reveal and draw atten­tion to the busi­ness machi­na­tions behind media process­es, stu­dents begin to realise how manip­u­lat­ed the pub­lic is.  And cer­tain­ly women’s images are incred­i­bly manipulated.

When I was research­ing the Essex witch-hunts, for my lat­est nov­el Witch Hunt (2012), one of the books I read was The Age of Sex Crime (1987).  The author, Jane Caputi, draws par­al­lels between the 16th and 17th-cen­tu­ry witch hunts and 20th-cen­tu­ry adver­tis­ing, sug­gest­ing that the ide­olo­gies of the witch hunt con­tin­ue to sur­round us in new forms—one man­i­fes­ta­tion being adver­tis­ing images of women as vic­tims, bound and gagged, tor­tured, even sur­round­ed by flames, which she links to the witch-hunts, and to the con­tin­ued sex­u­al­i­sa­tion and demo­niza­tion of women to sell prod­ucts to women.

OE: So it seems that women’s images have for­ev­er been exploit­ed in one way or the oth­er, in dif­fer­ent time peri­ods, regard­less of which visu­al medi­um has been privileged?

SM: Yes, I would say so.

HW: Yes I would say absolute­ly. From my point of view, the inter-rela­tion­ship between art and adver­tis­ing is a key ele­ment in under­stand­ing 20th-cen­tu­ry con­struc­tions of female beau­ty and iden­ti­ty. Cer­tain fem­i­nist artists have attempt­ed to revise, take back, and re-appro­pri­ate the female body, but it seems that the female form in advertising—as far as I am concerned—has not been reclaimed, which I sup­pose is where Super­strumps comes in.

OE: Do you mean that adver­tis­ing in the 20th Cen­tu­ry keeps going back to those images, those sig­ni­fiers that peo­ple can relate to? Sig­ni­fiers that can re-echo images that peo­ple are famil­iar with, but which then seem to per­pet­u­ate those “errors” that had been made in rep­re­sent­ing women in the past?

SM & HW: Yes!

SM: And that’s what we are try­ing to do with Super­strumps, real­ly. We want to lit­er­al­ly say, “Stop! Let’s look at these and let’s reclaim them.” Take the Essex girl.

Fig. 2

The Essex girl as a stereo­type is an 80s concept—the unin­tel­li­gent promis­cu­ous girl of the late-20th Cen­tu­ry.   But the def­i­n­i­tion of ‘extreme­ly promis­cu­ous’ is a mat­ter of seman­tics!  I’d hope that social­ly we have moved on from that.  We are in the 21st cen­tu­ry now.  Is she promis­cu­ous or can we say she is sex­u­al­ly lib­er­at­ed?  You know, it’s the way you want to look at it, and Super­strumps is about say­ing “No!” to these con­sis­tent echoes, these con­sis­tent stereo­types, which fol­low women around.  It’s about recon­struct­ing them.

OE: I sup­pose the oth­er thing you are doing when you high­light the Essex girl is to call atten­tion to oth­er tropes. You are say­ing, let’s look beyond Essex, and see how wide­spread this type of labelling can be found. Could this stereo­type not be applied to some­one any­where else?

SM: Yeah, like the Jer­sey girl.

OE: We seem to blame the media for sell­ing us these ideas, but how cul­pa­ble is the fam­i­ly, since it is the pri­ma­ry social­is­ing insti­tu­tion? How cul­pa­ble is that insti­tu­tion in fur­ther entrench­ing these images?

SM: Very, unfor­tu­nate­ly. But going back just briefly to media the­o­ry, con­sid­er the Uses and Grat­i­fi­ca­tions mod­el ver­sus the Frank­furt School’s Hypo­der­mic Nee­dle mod­el of media influ­ence.  In the 50s it was all about the hypo­der­mic nee­dle. One school of thought was that peo­ple were sponges, and the media, the hypo­der­mic nee­dle, would just inject ideas and images for peo­ple to think about and peo­ple would pick them up. Then there was the Uses and Grat­i­fi­ca­tions the­o­ry, which looked at how peo­ple used media—how they inter­act­ed with the media.  Some peo­ple use it for one thing and some for anoth­er. I think there is evi­dence of both these the­o­ries in prac­tice.  In terms of the “Hypo­der­mic”, we don’t have sub­lim­i­nal adver­tis­ing over here in the UK, but we have con­stant rep­e­ti­tion. Adver­tis­ing mes­sages quick­ly become famil­iar. So if peo­ple become famil­iar with see­ing women adver­tis­ing domes­tic prod­ucts in the con­text of the kitchen, nobody who sees adverts like that then stops to say, “How dare you?” any­more because we are so famil­iar with it.  At the same time, we do pick and choose. Every­body picks and choos­es. Again, it’s about aware­ness. It’s about being aware of what you are seeing.

As a moth­er I think it’s real­ly impor­tant to artic­u­late and to dis­cuss these kinds of things with my son. Last Thurs­day, I woke him up with “Hap­py Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Day!” So we talked about it all the way to school, and I said, “If you had to draw a pic­ture today, to cel­e­brate the achieve­ments of women, what would you draw?”  He said, “I think I would draw a woman going to bed ear­ly.”  And I said, “Real­ly?  And he said, “Yes.  You always say if you go to bed ear­ly, it’s an achievement.”

OE, HW, SM: [Laugh­ter.]

SM: Then I thought: “Well, actu­al­ly, yeah.” And then I said, “What about women doing some­thing real­ly great, what would they do?” Then he said, “Well they could be a doc­tor,” and I said, “Excel­lent.” And then I said, “How about a woman Prime Min­is­ter?” And he went, “Don’t be sil­ly, only men are prime ministers!”

HW:  That means we have a lot more work to do.

SM: Yet he’s my son!

OE: How old is he?

SM: He’s just turned 9. So I actu­al­ly said, “Woo, there has got to be a change.  But that’s what he’s picked up from the images and cul­tur­al mes­sages in his environment.

HW:  What I would say to this is that I have a mas­sive issue with the media. My issue is the fact that we have no choice and we are bom­bard­ed with visu­al images, and we know that our con­scious state is a minute frac­tion of our being. The uncon­scious is far, far, far greater than the con­scious. So my issue is the sub­lim­i­nal absorp­tion of this sort of con­stant drip feed of con­struc­tions of iden­ti­ty, that are not around and are pro­ject­ed on to us, and I think it’s become par­tic­u­lar­ly insid­i­ous for the gen­er­a­tion of kids that are just now com­ing of age.

My son has just turned 18. When I come across sta­tis­tics about the amount of hard-core pornog­ra­phy, the vio­lent images and the vio­lence towards women, that boys of my son’s age will have seen and that has been and is eas­i­ly avail­able to them now via media-tech­nol­o­gy, com­pared to a gen­er­a­tion ago when boys would share a dirty mag­a­zine in a school yard—sorry to use that cliché—the con­trast com­plete­ly hor­ri­fies me. And what hor­ri­fies me more is our pow­er­less­ness in inter­cept­ing these per­va­sive mes­sages.  I can do noth­ing about it. I can’t stop him see­ing this stuff.  And, I know he has seen it because they all have, and they have done so from a very young age. We don’t yet know what dam­age this is doing to young minds.

OE: And where would they have seen this stuff?

HW: On the Inter­net. You might try to con­trol that at home, but you can’t con­trol what they are see­ing else­where, and it’s so very eas­i­ly acces­si­ble to them.

SM: This is some­thing Hei­di talked about at the WoW [Women of the World 2011] fes­ti­val: how what’s seen as soft porn is now eas­i­ly accessed in these lads’ mags, pub­li­ca­tions like Nuts, FHM.  A few years ago, when my son had start­ed to get out of his pram, these mag­a­zines were not on the top shelf. They were at his eye lev­el. He and my nephew used to laugh when they saw a naked lady. They would laugh and say, “Look!” Now they don’t. These are famil­iar sights to chil­dren. It’s become the norm to see images like that in the media.

OE:  So what you’ve done with Super­strumps—hav­ing appraised the medi­as­cape and recog­nised the problem—is that you have cre­at­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties for dia­logues, for chats with chil­dren, or with oth­er mem­bers of a fam­i­ly. Was that why you opt­ed to cre­ate the card game?

HW:  That’s a real­ly inter­est­ing point. Actu­al­ly, pre­sent­ing the whole issue as a game is a care­ful path that we’ve trod. For it to be a game, which it is, sug­gests that it is fun and friv­o­lous and hav­ing a laugh. But actu­al­ly, some very seri­ous issues are pre­sent­ed.  I think we agreed right from the begin­ning that the game form would take it to spaces and places where these debates would not nec­es­sar­i­ly be had, and peo­ple might not even realise that through play­ing the game they were actu­al­ly engag­ing with these issues.

SM: So it opens the debates.

HW: Yeah! We also found ear­ly on that there is an are­na through play; there’s an open space there. And of course it means that even quite young kids, with­in a safe con­text, can play this game at a very basic lev­el of just play­ing the game and look­ing at the images. The lev­el with which you engage with the game depends on your inter­est, your edu­ca­tion, your under­stand­ing, and your awareness.

SM:  We real­ly didn’t want to be preachy.  We both feel that if peo­ple start telling us what to do and preach­ing at us, we are like­ly to be defi­ant or just walk off.  So to open the sub­ject of rep­re­sen­ta­tion up to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble, we want­ed to make it engaging.

HW: I grew up with 80s feminism—what some might con­sid­er hard-core rad­i­cal stuff. I did my first degree in the 80s, and fem­i­nists from that era were and are some­times accused of being over­ly stri­dent. I can total­ly under­stand. I was also like that.  Some­times it doesn’t take much for me to get like that again. But I have come to recog­nise through cer­tain female artists, for exam­ple Sarah Lucas, that there is an awful lot of pow­er in humour and play­ful­ness. And, actu­al­ly, Syd and I are both humor­ous women. [laugh­ter]

SM: We like to have a laugh!

HW: The peo­ple of Essex, not just the Essex girls have a good sense of humour. [laugh­ter] And there is a par­tic­u­lar sense of humour here in Essex that we have tapped into—both of us being from this area.

The aes­thet­ics of Super­strumps is like the 1970s’ girls’ mag­a­zine, which is reveal­ing.    Those 70s girls’ mag­a­zine were full of atti­tude, loads of atti­tude, declar­ing as it were that: “We’re going to go out there and have some fun. We’re going to do stuff.  Nothing’s going to stop us from doing what we want to do. We’re loud, we’re proud, we’re colourful!”

SM: But then again, I think also in the 70s a lot of fem­i­nism, and the way fem­i­nism was dis­cussed, was kind of alien­at­ing for a lot of women—certainly in the 60s as well. It alien­at­ed the housewives.

HW: It was very mid­dle-class, very white middle-class.

SM: It alien­at­ed the work­ing class as well. This Super­strumps ini­tia­tive is about try­ing to engage a broad audi­ence, about being inclu­sive and just say­ing, “Come and have a laugh.” “It’s fun­ny.” “Come and join in.”

OE:  So, if it is as you have said, that anybody—regardless of class, age, race, nationality—can bring any num­ber of respons­es to the game, is there a way that these could be col­lat­ed and com­pared, as a way to assess the con­cerns dif­fer­ent groups bring to the issues sur­round­ing women’s representation?

HW:  Well, one thing is that the whole project came togeth­er through the direct respons­es of women. We host­ed an event. We put out an open call to women of all ages, through social net­work­ing, through email and through the local paper, to invite them to come to this event. There, we pre­sent­ed atten­dees with the idea that we had for this game. We pro­vid­ed visu­al images stereo­typ­ing dif­fer­ent kinds of women tak­en from the mass media.  We asked the par­tic­i­pants to respond in a cou­ple of ways. We gave them some time to just wan­der around the space to look at the images and to make respons­es on post-it notes.  We encour­aged them to write down what­ev­er they want­ed to say about these images. The reac­tions were very raw and very imme­di­ate and that had an influ­ence on the images that I, as the artist on the project, end­ed up choos­ing and appro­pri­at­ing for these dif­fer­ent types. We also asked the women to actu­al­ly give numer­i­cal val­ues to var­i­ous attrib­ut­es, which are …

SM: Nur­ture, Strength, Inde­pen­dence, Resource­ful­ness. And basi­cal­ly we said to them, “If 50 is the aver­age, score the char­ac­ter on each of these attrib­ut­es going high­er or low­er than the average.”

HW: We gave them the stereo­types that we had been work­ing with as a list, but with­out the images in that instance. They were work­ing in small groups around tables, and we had loads of wine; it was very, very loud. We were com­plete­ly blown away by the women’s lev­el of engage­ment and their very strong opin­ions about the way they were being rep­re­sent­ed. They real­ly want­ed to talk and there were some who were quite adamant, get­ting into fierce heat­ed debates. We col­lect­ed their feed­back and the rank­ings they had giv­en the var­i­ous labels.  The numer­i­cal grad­ing was espe­cial­ly con­tentious because we had asked each small group to offer a numer­i­cal val­ue for each of the dif­fer­ent stereo­types.  Things got real­ly, real­ly tricky there­after.  Get­ting a con­sen­sus on the final numer­i­cal val­ue to use was tricky, yet we need­ed the numer­i­cal ranks for the activ­i­ty that gets play­ers active­ly involved in the game. That said, the rank­ing activ­i­ty remains one of the more periph­er­al aspects of the game. What’s most cru­cial to our ulti­mate mis­sion are the images and the spe­cial pow­ers and the AKAs (the also known as).  We realised ear­ly on that there were all man­ner of oth­er labels that could be placed onto each stereo­type, terms that are cul­tur­al and con­text spe­cif­ic, which is where the AKAs comes in [See: Super Strumps Char­ac­ter Chart].

OE:  Did the women help you with that?

SM: Yes they did—a small­er group of inter­est­ed parties.

HW: We had a brain­storm­ing exer­cise.  Four of us from Essex, while on a train jour­ney, tried to work out just how many female stereo­types we could think of. In an hour we came up with over 250!

SM: Just four women on an hour’s journey!

HW: You try it for men and you are strug­gling to get over 20. So that was one of the rea­sons we came up with the AKAs, because we realise that some of the names over­lap with each other.

SM: So the ear­ly process was a very com­plex activ­i­ty. We felt that we were tread­ing through a mine­field. We found some women, one or two women friends, who very ear­ly on, felt very, very uncom­fort­able with what we were doing.

OE: Why was that?

HW: Because we were deal­ing with stereotypes.

SM: Their fear was that we were pro­mot­ing stereo­types.  That we would be prop­a­gat­ing stereo­types by using them in the game.

HW: For instance, The Strum­pet, its AKA is The Bad Girl, Slag, Slut, Bike, Hussy, Slap­per, as in Tart, Trol­lop, Scar­let Woman, Floozy, Lush. So obvi­ous­ly we are deal­ing with these real­ly spite­ful, very neg­a­tive ter­mi­nolo­gies. But it was like lanc­ing a boil: get every­thing out!

SM:  We didn’t want to shy away from those words because they are out there.

HW: Yes, because they are dif­fi­cult to tack­le. But then again, the whole thing was about look­ing through the stereo­types to the pos­i­tive qual­i­ties that are masked, but you have to go the whole way. Some of our friends felt so uncom­fort­able using this terminology.

OE: Do you think the 30 char­ac­ters are ade­quate in rep­re­sent­ing women?

HW & SM: No.

OE: So the AKAs actu­al­ly expand the range of char­ac­ters that can be includ­ed in the game?

HW: There could be so many more but we had to bring it down to 30 because of the logis­tics of mak­ing it a pack of cards and mak­ing it a game.

SM: And of course the more we got into this, the more we realised what a huge sub­ject it was, and this can only ever be a kind of very ear­ly pro­to­type.  Actu­al­ly, we just saw this as a launch pack.

We launched this project at the WoW fes­ti­val, which was a fair­ly diverse crowd of mid­dle-class women. What we dis­cov­ered very quick­ly was that a whole series of oth­er kinds of cards was required. We have start­ed work­ing on the teenage pack. We have already start­ed going into schools.  We had a fan­tas­tic fact-find­ing after­noon where we asked young peo­ple to give us the stereo­types used for women in their gen­er­a­tion.  We opened this up to boys and girls to gain access to the teenage stereo­types and terminology.

We also had some real­ly great con­ver­sa­tions at WoW with women of colour and women from oth­er cul­tures.  Far from feel­ing alien­at­ed by this pack—which was one of our concerns—they were inspired and ener­gised. We found our­selves say­ing we’d like to have oth­er packs come out of this.  We spent time talk­ing to oth­er women and ask­ing them to tell us about the stereo­types from their cul­tures.  We would not nec­es­sar­i­ly have come across some of the labels men­tioned. And the teens—they spoke anoth­er lan­guage. We had such a laugh!  We’d nev­er heard of most of the labels. And what we very quick­ly realised is that stereo­types are not only spe­cif­ic to dif­fer­ent cul­tures but also to the sub­cul­tures with­in those groups.  So, per­haps there will be more to come. And we have always want­ed to cre­ate an inter­na­tion­al pack.

HW: We do, yes. We’ve had women from oth­er parts of the world who come across us through the web­site.  They’ve emailed us from places all over the world. We write back say­ing, “Oh yes, tell us the names that get thrown around.” And that’s been real­ly fun to hear. I say fun, but some of them are shock­ing. Then there are the sim­i­lar­i­ties, aren’t there?

OE:  Aha, that’s a point I’d been won­der­ing about. How uni­ver­sal are these tropes, these types that you’ve identified?

HW: That’s tricky to answer at this stage. One thing is that being an artist I am inter­est­ed in arche­types, and obvi­ous­ly the arche­type is his­toric and embed­ded in cul­ture. In this pack of stereo­types, you’ve got the ancient arche­types, so we’ve got the vir­gin, the whore, the moth­er and so on. I will sug­gest that in most cul­tures these arche­types exist and there­fore stereo­types come out of those.

SM: From the feed­back that we’ve had, large­ly from Euro­peans, we know that a wide audi­ence of peo­ple can relate to many of the stereo­types fea­tured in Super­strumps.  If you get into Asia or oth­er con­ti­nents, I think you will uncov­er loads of stereo­types, but I am not sure they are going to be the same as those that we are famil­iar with.

OE: It might be fas­ci­nat­ing to see how the gaps close around some of these rep­re­sen­ta­tions that we find. It might just be that there are more sim­i­lar­i­ties than dif­fer­ences in the expe­ri­ences or prej­u­dices against women. To be more pre­cise, it would be inter­est­ing to see the com­par­i­son in the expe­ri­ences of moth­ers around the world.

SM: That would be real­ly interesting.

OE: This game also pro­vides an oppor­tu­ni­ty for dia­logue and a tool—even a research tool—for oth­ers to assess what is going on in dif­fer­ent areas of the world.  So, yes! Well done for get­ting this con­ver­sa­tion going. Shall we now look at some of the cards and the types you’ve cre­at­ed?  I see some of them have been labelled as mums.

HW: Yes there are, yes!

OE: Which ones are these?

SM: There’s a Yum­my Mum­my, The Sin­gle Mum …

HW: Earth Mother.

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

SM: A lot of the oth­ers, as well.  I would say The Bat­tle Axe was prob­a­bly a moth­er at some point.

HW: She is assumed to be.  As for The Super Woman, one of her AKAs is Work­ing Mum.  But a lot of the oth­er stereo­types, well, we don’t know whether they are moth­ers or not. [Holds up anoth­er card.] This, The Ball­break­er might well be.

SM: I think a lot of them are wives. I think The Ball­break­er is def­i­nite­ly a wife, because to be a ball­break­er she has to break someone’s balls [laugh­ter].

OE:  I think The Cougar could be a mother.

SM: Yeah, The Cougar could be, yeah.

HW: Inter­est­ing­ly, some of them are very res­olute­ly sin­gle, aren’t they?  The Bun­ny Boil­er, she’s def­i­nite­ly sin­gle. Ice Queen. Essex Girl is sin­gle. It’s fun­ny, I have nev­er thought about them like that before. This is a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about them. Have you thought of them like that before?

SM: No.

OE: And I sup­pose you could think of The Blue Stocking?

SM: The thing is, quite a few of them could be moth­ers. The Strum­pet and The Career Woman could be. The Step­ford Wife could be. The Spinster’s not, but The Grande Dame could be.

OE: How about The Old Biddy?

SM: Yes, The Old Bid­dy could be someone’s mum.

HW: And Grandmother.

SM: Yes, exact­ly, The Fem­i­nist as well.

Fig. 6

There are a few that are def­i­nite­ly not, but The Bull Dyke could be a mum as well.

OE: And The Drudge?

HW: Oh yeah.

SM: I think The Drudge is prob­a­bly a mum, to be honest.

[HW: Laugh­ter]

OE: Why do you say that?

SM: She’s just been look­ing after everybody.

OE: She’s the carer.

Fig. 7

HW: She’s one of the most inter­est­ing cards, isn’t she? She has been for us. We’ve talked about her a lot because she real­ly is at the bot­tom of the pile. We had this stereo­type and we had these big con­tentious considerations—“Can we use this? I mean we can’t have The Drudge? What can we do? This is dread­ful.” And then we start­ed think­ing about her and what she is. And we just very nat­u­ral­ly decid­ed that she’s called The Drudge because she’s actu­al­ly busy car­ing for oth­er peo­ple, all day long and all night. So she’s clean­ing.  She’s car­ing. So if she’s car­ing for oth­er peo­ple, why is she at the bot­tom of the pile? Let’s raise her. And when we asked women to rate her, there were some big con­ver­sa­tions around, “Well this woman is a care­giv­er, and that is a very noble thing. She’s actu­al­ly putting her own life aside to care for oth­er peo­ple. Why is that not respected?”

SM: There is nobil­i­ty in her sac­ri­fice, as well. She’s actu­al­ly got very strong sta­tis­tics.  When the work­shop par­tic­i­pants ranked her, she came out with a score of 95 for nur­ture. That’s real­ly high. And also in Heidi’s draw­ing, look at her, this is the point that ‘the Marigolds come off’. She’s actu­al­ly [say­ing], (demon­strat­ing the res­olute pos­ture in the draw­ing) “Right, I’m going to stop here for a moment.” [see image of The Drudge]

HW: All women imme­di­ate­ly recognise—without us hav­ing to explain—that none of us are stereo­types: no one woman fits in a sin­gle box with a label on it. By con­trast, we can, all of us, pick up a hand­ful of cards at any time of our life, in fact in any one day, and see aspects of our­selves in those stereo­types.  We’ve had jokes before, Syd and I.  I’ll ask, “How are you?” and she reply, “Oh, I’m a Drudge this morn­ing, but this after­noon, I’m going to be a Ball­break­er, and by the evening a Femme Fatale.” So it’s become a run­ning joke, real­ly.  Essen­tial­ly these are all just dif­fer­ent aspects of very com­plex female identities.

SM: Of course now we do quite flip­pant­ly use these terms. When you say, “I am a ‘Drudge’” what you’re say­ing, is: “I get spent! Nine­ty five per­cent car­ing for every­body else in the house.” Then, you could say, “This after­noon I’m not going to be car­ing. I’m going to get out there. I’m going to do some­thing dif­fer­ent, and then this evening, I’m going to be sexual.”

HW: And if we meet in the evening and Syd’s wear­ing too much lip­stick, I feel quite free to tell her she’s look­ing like a com­plete Strumpet.

SM: Which I real­ly cel­e­brate. I love it. I cel­e­brate that because, if she calls me a Strum­pet, I know that I am [and she begins read­ing from the qual­i­ties list­ed on the Strumpet’s card] “defi­ant, gen­er­ous, lib­er­at­ed sex­u­al­ly, self-deter­mined, and I have loads of charisma.”

OE: So what you’re doing is, in a fun way, reclaim­ing the pos­i­tive aspects of those labels by which we have been known and say­ing to women that indeed it’s all right and inevitable to be a lit­tle bit of all of these things at the same time.

SM: And also, part of the pur­pose of the game is to make women feel pos­i­tive about these labels: to be able to reclaim these iden­ti­ty tropes and to have a retort, have good rea­son to cel­e­brate what they are doing.

HW: Absolute­ly! And the response is in the spe­cial pow­ers. They are the most impor­tant aspects of the cards, aren’t they? We thought long and hard, we real­ly did, and we worked so hard with the lan­guage. We real­ly focused on cre­at­ing pos­i­tive attributes—special powers—for every sin­gle one of these char­ac­ters, no mat­ter how den­i­grat­ed they are in com­mon cul­tur­al dis­course.  In oth­er words—empower them!

OE: Which seems to be the entire aim of the movement—the fem­i­nist movement—let’s empow­er the women, not just for the sake of the women, but for the sake of soci­ety as a whole.

SM: Absolute­ly!

OE: If you had to pick one card to rep­re­sent women at this stage in time, which would it be?

SM: I’d prob­a­bly go for The Essex Girl.  For me, in the cli­mate that we are in at the moment, I’d pick The Essex Girl to rep­re­sent women’s con­di­tion.  She’s den­i­grat­ed.  She’s seen as a sex object.  She’s put down and she’s held down through class hierarchies—she’s per­ceived as low class.  This stereo­type is impris­on­ing. How­ev­er, in response, she is defi­ant.  And actu­al­ly this is how I see, or hope, women are at this stage—that they are defi­ant!  That they are com­ing out like the image Hei­di has used to rep­re­sent the Essex Girl—with one fin­ger in the air, say­ing, “I don’t care what you think, I am going to do my own thing.” Women are start­ing to come out of the kitchen, to speak out. That’s what The Essex Girl is about. The Essex Girl calls us back. She plays hard. She works hard.  She’s sassy and she’s socia­ble. She’s still den­i­grat­ed but she’s doing her own thing with pride!

OE: Go Essex Girl!


HW: I would feel duty bound to pick The Fem­i­nist. We are all talk­ing about reclaim­ing the F-word. The num­ber of strong young females I meet, who in every­thing they are say­ing and doing, as far as I am con­cerned, are pro­claim­ing their fem­i­nism, but then they say, “Oh but I’m not a fem­i­nist.” That’s quite tricky for my gen­er­a­tion. I think that’s real­ly sad that young women are no longer inter­est­ed in explor­ing fem­i­nism. But again, of course, maybe it’s just a label. Maybe we don’t need that label any­more, if we just remind our­selves of what we deter­mined the spe­cial pow­ers are for The Feminist—egalitarianism, ide­al­ism, tenac­i­ty, deter­mi­na­tion, resolve, lib­er­a­tion, rebel­lious­ness, The Sword of Truth.

We had a great con­ver­sa­tion with Bidisha, the writer and broad­cast­er, at WoW 2011. She was talk­ing about Joan of Arc and inter­est­ing­ly I had used an icon­ic image of Joan of Arc from the ear­ly 1930 or 1940s movie as inspi­ra­tion when I was design­ing the image of The Fem­i­nist. I con­sid­ered what to use. A bra burn­er? That is out of date. So, Joan of Arc, look­ing very cool in a suit of armour and a breast­plate, seemed more appro­pri­ate. She’s hold­ing a ban­ner, she’s got her hand raised in the air, she’s a rev­o­lu­tion­ary in this image. And Bidisha was say­ing Joan of Arc had been claimed by the Chris­tians as a Chris­t­ian sym­bol, but Bidisha didn’t see it that way. She said Joan was just a very clever, very sassy young woman, who realised that if she said she was hear­ing voic­es from God, she’d be giv­en a suit of armour. Bidisha said, “Who knows if she was real­ly hear­ing voic­es from God or not?” But Joan used that as a way to super­sede the lim­i­ta­tions placed on her by the patri­ar­chal rulers of her day. I thought that was a bril­liant take on Joan of Arc. My only ret­i­cence about using Joan of Arc had been that she was this very Chris­t­ian icon and that didn’t fit with the agen­da of the game.

OE: I thought maybe you would have select­ed The Drudge. Even though we cel­e­brate The Drudge, we know that that’s where we start­ed from, but you’re say­ing The Essex Girl and The Fem­i­nist bet­ter rep­re­sent where women are now. So there is evi­dence of some progress.

SM: The thing is, maybe The Essex Girl and The Fem­i­nist are our gen­er­a­tion, but I think if you ask my mum, she might actu­al­ly choose The Drudge.

HW: Yes, it might be a mat­ter of gen­er­a­tion.  Fem­i­nists in the 70s were ask­ing for equality—equality of pay, equal­i­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ty. You could say if you want­ed to be slight­ly con­tro­ver­sial about it, The Essex Girl does embody those two things. She’s got dis­pos­able income, earns her own mon­ey, she does as she wants, is very threat­en­ing, of course, and she’s sex­u­al­ly active. She express­es her sex­u­al­i­ty, she drinks like a man [laugh­ter], she has fun like a man.  In many ways, isn’t that what fem­i­nists were ask­ing for? I’m not say­ing I nec­es­sar­i­ly hold that position.

OE: So there has been some ground shift­ing, which brings me to the last sec­tion where we con­sid­er how well the Super­strumps mis­sion has been accom­plished. It seems to me that you have man­aged to gen­er­ate some sup­port for the game, some high-pro­file cham­pi­ons. Do you want to talk about that?

HW: Our great­est cham­pi­on has been Jude Kel­ly, the Artis­tic Direc­tor at the South­bank Arts Cen­tre, London.

SM: We’ve had a fan­tas­tic response, which has been real­ly over­whelm­ing. I mean, that we’ve been able to attract the atten­tion of Camil­la, Duchess of Corn­wall, is fan­tas­tic.  But also, we've had respons­es from peo­ple like Lynne Franks, Annie Lennox, Bidisha, Jen­ny Mur­ray, and Mag­gie Sem­ple. Kathy Lette has been a right cham­pi­on. She took the cards with her on to a peak-time tele­vi­sion show and she wore our rosettes say­ing Feminist.

HW: Sha­mi Chakrabar­ti, Direc­tor of Lib­er­ty, and Rosie Boy­cott, who were ear­ly-wave fem­i­nists in this country—early 70s.

SM: Yes, the cards have gone down fan­tas­ti­cal­ly well. We have lots of celebri­ty cham­pi­ons and well-wish­ers. Just shows you that these peo­ple, who you think, “God, you’re at the top of your trade,” peo­ple who you think, “They must have achieved it,” still see this as real­ly impor­tant to push. Obvi­ous­ly they are still expe­ri­enc­ing prej­u­dice as well, so they want to move the game forwards.

HW: We’ve had some con­ver­sa­tions around this game pos­si­bly being used as a tool in rais­ing aware­ness about domes­tic violence.

SM: Well, not just rais­ing aware­ness, but actu­al­ly hav­ing vic­tims of domes­tic vio­lence play­ing it. So there is no judge­ment about them, but actu­al­ly get­ting them to have some fun and to look at the stereo­types and reclaim those stereo­types that had been used to label them. Maybe get the rosettes to improve their self-esteem as well, just get them to be pos­i­tive about the stereo­types that they had lived with.

OE: So the cards become a means to get them to see where they’ve been and what pos­i­tive val­ues they can take away from these; to help peo­ple move on with­out regret.  Do you fore­see any dan­ger of a back­lash to the Super­strumps and the strat­e­gy inform­ing it?

SM: Some­times what we are doing is real­ly chal­leng­ing to peo­ple and they become fright­ened. They see the images and become wor­ried that the game will encour­age a new breed of women. Per­haps men of a cer­tain gen­er­a­tion are quite fear­ful. They don’t want the sta­tus quo chang­ing because it has been good to them. And that’s where we come in and rock the boat.

This reminds me of some­thing that hap­pened at End of Term, which is anoth­er fes­ti­val that evolved as an aspect of Super­strumps, where we actu­al­ly had women dress up in dif­fer­ent fan­cy dress­es to cre­ate new super­heroes.  We’d then pho­to­graph them. I was The Essax, the hybrid of The Essex Girl and The Bat­tle Axe. I had white stilet­tos, white hand­bag, Viking hel­met, and a breast­plate.  On the whole, we had hun­dreds of peo­ple aged between 4 and 86 come to this fes­ti­val and dress up.  We had some young girls who were com­plete­ly trans­formed, and I am not talk­ing about what they were wearing.

HW: We were dress­ing up as a great mas­quer­ade, so you can express your­self through reinvention.

SM: So they were say­ing what their secret pow­ers were.  The moth­er of a par­tic­u­lar 17-year-old said, “Look, it’s as if she’s had a com­plete per­son­al­i­ty change.” This par­tic­u­lar girl, who was vis­it­ing from Ire­land, wouldn’t take her out­fit off, so we just let her walk around in it.  Lots of peo­ple loved the event. But then, get­ting back to your ear­li­er ques­tion about back­lash, there was one guy who came up with his wife.  I think he must have been in his 50s or 60s, and he said, “What’s this about?” I explained to him that it is about reject­ing neg­a­tive female stereo­types and reclaim­ing the pos­i­tive per­son­al­i­ty attrib­ut­es of those same female tropes. And he said, “That’s crap! What you’re doing is shit. You should be ashamed of your­self.” He main­tained this stance, even when he had been told that the event was not to make the women emu­late the stereo­types.  He was look­ing at the images on the cards and he didn’t want to under­stand what this was about.

HW: That sort of thing doesn’t both­er me at all because it sounds like that per­son had some bizarre issues of his own. I’d be more con­cerned about a back­lash from oth­er women. We did have one or two at WoW where obvi­ous­ly there were hun­dreds and hun­dreds of women. Again, I can under­stand why some women will have a gut reac­tion against the idea, think­ing that we are just pro­mot­ing stereo­types. What has hap­pened, when we get that reac­tion, is that we’ve had con­ver­sa­tions.  We’ve asked them to look at the cards prop­er­ly and to avoid react­ing until they have tak­en the time nec­es­sary to under­stand the game and its aims.  But then again, I think that due to many reasons—advertising, mass media, the instant grat­i­fi­ca­tion of con­tem­po­rary con­sumer lifestyles—some peo­ple make imme­di­ate and very strong val­ue judge­ments with­out a full under­stand­ing of this endeav­our as fem­i­nist resistance.

SM: Out of the WoW fes­ti­val we talked to over one and a half thou­sand peo­ple, not to men­tion the fact that I went to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in front of a live audi­ence of thou­sands.  The pro­gramme was there­after avail­able on the catch-up ser­vice on BBC Radio iPlay­er. But out of all those thou­sands of peo­ple that we spoke to, there was only one woman who still felt offend­ed. Her issue was that we shouldn’t be engag­ing with words like slags or slut. Our posi­tion is that we have to engage with them to explain them, to address the relat­ed issues, and then we can move on.  Basi­cal­ly what we are doing is ask­ing peo­ple to engage. That’s it. But she main­tained her posi­tion, even after we had spo­ken with her for about three quar­ters of an hour.

HW: Anoth­er com­mon reac­tion that comes to mind, when you ask about back­lash, is the ques­tion­ing we field about male stereo­typ­ing. It is not a back­lash, per se, but a fair­ly con­sis­tent reac­tion for peo­ple to ask about the male equivalents—which is loaded, for a vari­ety of com­plex rea­sons.  We are not say­ing there are no male stereo­types.  There are cer­tain­ly many. We looked at this, because we knew the issue would come up and we knew we had to be able to talk about this. And when we looked at the stereo­types about men, what was over­rid­ing is that male stereo­types are about sex­u­al prowess, and they are about boast­ful, swag­ger­ing, macho. So in oth­er words, they are actu­al­ly about high esteem rather than low esteem.  The worst thing you can call a het­ero­sex­u­al man is any­thing that per­tains to him being fem­i­nine. So a man dress­ing up in women’s cloth­ing is hilar­i­ous and it is demean­ing. So it still comes back, real­ly, we think, to the same sub­ject: the val­ue of women.

SM: Some women have come back to us say­ing we should do these for men, because men too are now strug­gling to find their place with the changes in soci­ety, per­haps rel­a­tive to the chang­ing roles of women.

HW: We are both moth­ers of boys and we know there are huge issues with under­achieve­ment for boys.  There is mass youth male unem­ploy­ment, so it is actu­al­ly a sub­ject close to our hearts.

SM: We are com­plete­ly sym­pa­thet­ic to this, but we just think, “Hey, come on, guys, if you want to do this, you can do this for your­selves very eas­i­ly.” We must have a focus and know our limits—be aware of how much we can take on.  We are both fem­i­nists, and fem­i­nism and women’s issues are real­ly our dri­ving force.

* * *

No doubt, neg­a­tive labelling affects more peo­ple oth­er than women.  This game inspired by the fem­i­nist prin­ci­ples of its cre­ators is a strat­e­gy that can be used to address oth­er sit­u­a­tions of social injus­tice involv­ing oth­er iden­ti­ty groups. Per­haps the use of neg­a­tive labels is inevitable in media rep­re­sen­ta­tions, so this becomes a bat­tle of wits.  There must be a strug­gle to rethink, reclaim and inte­grate!  Those who are under­mined can still be empow­ered to rethink their worth, reclaim their esteem, assert them­selves, and thus be encour­aged to con­tribute their quo­ta to soci­ety.  That is the log­ic and the mer­it of Super­strumps.

Our sin­cere thanks to Syd Moore, Hei­di Wig­more and the many women who col­lab­o­rat­ed with them on this project.  We are also grate­ful to Syd and Hei­di for shar­ing their time and thoughts in March 2012, and for the per­mis­sion to reprint select cards from the Super­strumps game.  Vis­it the fol­low­ing web­sites for more on the game and their oth­er works: 




Images Notes

Fig. 1 Inter­vie­wees Moore and Wig­more at the Women of the World (WoW) Festival.

Figs. 2-7 Brand Design,  Hei­di Wig­more; Project Co-cre­ators, Syd Moore and Hei­di Wig­more; Card Design, Dan Bailey.

This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.