If right-wing groups single out your work as an example of what’s wrong with the world, you must be doing something right. Since last November, Liv Strömquist’s drawings of women with period stains on their pants have been displayed in a Stockholm metro station as part of an ongoing art exhibition. But, over the last 10 months, right-wing groups have thrown paint at the images and conservative politicians have used them to attack government spending.
“A populist right-wing party have been using this art as an example of how tax money is being spent in a horrible way in Sweden,” says Strömquist, an artist, writer and activist based in Malmö. “[They] used these pictures in their propaganda, where they said, ‘If we get power, this type of art will not be in the subway. If you vote for us, we will have pre-modern art with oil paintings of boats.” She laughs. She’s used to seeing the absurd side of the patriarchy.
There are no oil paintings of boats in Stromquist’s new book, Fruit of Knowledge: The Vulva vs The Patriarchy, a hilarious, enraging and fascinating comic-book exploration of how ideas of female genitalia have been used to oppress women, as well as anyone else who doesn’t fit into the binary gender system. Part history, part polemic, it all stems from Strömquist’s teenage conviction that periods were something to be ashamed of.
“When I hit puberty, I had a lot of body shame,” she says. “I felt very embarrassed about menstruation.” One memory in particular stands out. “I was in my classroom and had a lot of menstrual pain. I needed a painkiller, but I was too embarrassed to tell the teacher that I needed to leave the classroom.” Strömquist was so overcome with pain that she fainted in class. “I thought about this episode years later and I was like, ‘What was wrong with me? How is that possible to be so embarrassed I couldn’t even ask for a painkiller?’ So, I was interested in digging into this subject.”
In the anglophone world, there’s a tendency to think of Sweden as a sort of feminist paradise. Strömquist isn’t so sure. “I think that we have come some way, but we are not there yet,” she says.“I think Swedish feminism has focused a lot on equal pay and childcare and things that are about welfare issues, but things about the body are still a little less investigated.”
Strömquist is determined to balance this out. Carefully researched (and with copious footnotes), the book points out how widespread willful ignorance of our genitalia really is. For example, why is the word “vagina” commonly used instead of “vulva”? “It’s still a big problem that you don’t have a proper word for this,” says Strömquist. “Vagina is only referring to the hole, so you also have the clitoris, the outer labia and inner labia, and that area isn’t part of the word ‘vagina’.” That may not seem like a big deal but, as Strömquist points out, if you don’t have a handy word for something, “it’s oppressive, because you can’t refer to it… I think [having this language] is really important.”
She also points out how this refusal to acknowledge how complicated bodies can be reinforces a rigid binary gender system. “Biology itself is not binary,” she says. “There are quite a lot, as I write in the book, of kids who are born with [ambiguous genitalia], then the doctor decides what sex they should be. There you can see a very strong example of the culture being so strong it wants to interfere with biology… Nature is not binary enough, so we must change it, even with surgery.”
This may sound like heavy stuff, but with her charming artwork and deadpan humour, Strömquist makes feminist theory and history fun. When she reveals that the image of a naked woman included on the 1972 NASA space probe was changed to remove a line indicating a vulva, she imagines the potential reaction of aliens horrified by the hint of female genitalia. She mines a lot of humour from the misogyny of the past, including the completely insane incident in the 1960s in which academics insisted on digging up the 400-year-old corpse of Queen Christina of Sweden because they were convinced that her lack of interest in fashion and her political determination meant that she had some sort of genital “malformation” (“Imagine a group of 14-year-old boys gathered around a video game console in a darkened basement rec room,” Strömquist writes. “That is the level of hypnotic power Queen Christina’s genitals wielded over this gang of geezers”).
Strömquist is particularly good on the topic of how women’s sexual dysfunction and inability to orgasm is dismissed even by professionals as just one of those things, while the male orgasm is seen as a crucial part of sexuality
This delve into the past reveals a lot of deranged misogyny, but in a weird way it also offers hope. In many stories and images from the pre-Christian and even early Christian world, women displaying their vulvas is depicted as a powerful thing. “When you look at fertile goddesses from Cyprus, these wonderful little stone figurines, you… can’t see anything like it in our contemporary culture,” she says. Attitudes can change for the worse – and the better. “If you notice that these things are cultural, you can also change them because you see that [our contemporary views] are not a fact.
Strömquist is particularly good on the topic of how women’s sexual dysfunction and inability to orgasm is dismissed even by professionals as just one of those things, while the male orgasm is seen as a crucial part of sexuality. “[We] think about sex as something biological, but it’s something cultural to a very large extent, like ‘What do you consider intercourse? What is sex?’” she says. She points out that culture has defined “having sex” as penetrative sex, “not that both parties have an orgasm. But you could just as well have that as a definition of sex.”
Strömquist’s work has caused a lot of debate and discussion in Sweden. Much of the response has been positive – she says she’s heard from a lot of people who found her subway drawings “very nice; they feel very liberated and see it as an opportunity to talk about menstruation with kids”. She thinks that comics are a particularly good visual medium for women activists. “You don’t need any money to do it; you just need a pen and a paper,” she says. “I don’t have to adapt so much to what someone else thinks.” She laughs. “I can be as radical as I want.”
Fruit Of Knowledge: The Vulva Vs The Patriarchy by Liv Strömquist is published by Virago