why emma sulkowicz is more than a 'mattress feminist'

In a new interview, controversial academic Camille Paglia dismissed Emma Sulkowicz’s ‘Mattress Performance,’ as a “masochistic exercise” in being a victim. Here’s why we don’t agree.

by Emily Manning
30 July 2015, 6:41pm

Earlier this year, Columbia art student Emma Sulkowicz concluded her highly publicized performance piece Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) when she walked at the university's graduation ceremony with the same mattress she'd carried all year to protest sexual assault on college campuses, following her alleged rape by fellow student Paul Nungesser. Less than a month later, Sulkowicz released a graphic video project, Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol, which sought to confront its viewers about perceptions of victims, intentions, and desires. Although the validity of Sulkowicz's accusations has been called into question, her art activism helped ignite a nationwide discourse about the widespread mistreatment of rape cases on college campuses. But not everyone is impressed with her work. Least of all, controversial feminist academic and critic Camille Paglia.

In a new interview, Salon picked Paglia's brain about a variety of topics including Hillary Clinton and Bill Cosby. The conversation steered towards a cultural shift back to political correctness, and Paglia cited Sulkowicz as an example of such "reactionary reversion." When asked how she'd grade the student project, she responded, "I'd give her a D!"

"Perpetually lugging around your bad memories-never evolving or moving on! It's like a parody of the worst aspects of that kind of grievance-oriented feminism," Paglia stated, before slamming Columbia for its permission of Sulkowicz's piece. "[The university] enabled this protracted masochistic exercise where a young woman trapped herself in her own bad memories and publicly labeled herself as a victim, which will now be her identity forever. This isn't feminism-which should empower women, not cripple them...It demonstrates the total degradation of once eminent and admirable educational institutions to caretaking nursery schools."

Wow. There's certainly a lot to unpack in that sentiment, but let's start with a strong counterpoint made by ArtNet: "While Carry That Weight served as a reminder of Sulkowicz's alleged rape, the work was meant to point out the shortcomings in the school's justice system—not to proclaim her status as a victim." Earlier this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed Enough is Enough -- a bill requiring all colleges in the state of New York to adopt a series of comprehensive procedures to combat what he and Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi referred to as the "sexaul assault epidemic" -- into law. As the state's legislative session neared its end, Gov. Cuomo aggressively rallied around the policy with awareness campaigns featuring Whoopi Goldberg and Lady Gaga. Before its passage, California was the only state to have affirmative consent measures on the books.

Given that Sulkowicz's performance brought Columbia's treatment of rape cases into the national spotlight, it's pretty safe to assume that her work helped spur the state into enacting this positive legal change. This doesn't really seem like perpetually lugging around bad memories or an action that cripples feminism, but something to be proud of. Yet Paglia continued: "Now we have people emerging with Ivy League degrees who have no idea how little they know about history or literature. Their minds are shockingly untrained. They've been treated as fragile emotional beings throughout their schooling. The situation is worsening year by year, as teachers have to watch what they say and give trigger warnings, because God forbid that American students should have to confront the brutal realities of human life."

But isn't that what Sulkowicz did? According to the National Institute of Justice, fewer than 5% of forcible sex offenses are reported to law enforcement officials. When Sulkowicz filed her complaint against Nungesser in 2013, it prompted two fellow female students to speak out as well. And although the issue of consent between Sulkowicz and Nungesser remains unclear, she confronted her alleged rape -- a brutal reality of human life -- in a way that no one could ignore.


Text Emily Manning
Image via WikiMedia Commons

sexual assault
Emma Sulkowicz
Camille Paglia
think piece
mattress performance