From the Surrealist Feminist to the Selfie Movement

An Essay by Miniature Malekpour

Surrealism can be described as a vortex of free-thinking, a world that dives into the unconscious, discovering “the uncanny,” all while instilling political esthetics into art and other activities. Andre Bréton and the Surrealist Movement in the early 1920s studied the discourse of “the uncanny” through subconscious thoughts, fantasies, and dreams. The Surrealist philosophy was to explore the human condition and the liberation of the mind—with the purpose of combating capitalism. Oblique, intellectual, and breathtakingly creative, Surrealists were nevertheless far from perfect when it came to how they treated their muses, that is, the women in their lives including lovers and associates. In a word, in one form or another, they were misogynists. This movement that encouraged adherents to “liberate their minds” also exploited women. One cannot help but consider feminist theorist Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze; the Surrealists had an extreme, wild obsession with women as sexual objects and putting their own sexuality on display, something which Andre Bréton called “moral exhibitionism.” For example, in Bréton’s 1928 semi-autobiographical 1928 book Nadja, he represents the female character as a mentally ill woman, when in fact it was Bréton who suffered from his own narcissistic ideologies, imperiling Nadja (whom he was romantically involved with) by treating her as simply an insane prop, and exposing her sexuality for personal artistic practice which focused on capturing his own ideologies. This then created a relationship between the experience of both fantasy and the expurgation of the female subject- opening a discussion that concerned both the Surrealist movement and Feminist theory. Was the experience and theory relevant to the movement? Yes, for there were quite a few female Surrealists that existed as the movement tracted movement, and this turned the misogynistic scene created by the men on its head. These women were seen as feminists for defying the ideologies of the Surrealist Movement. Two of these women were Leonora Carrington and Claude Cahun.

Claude Cahun was a French Surrealist photographer, a Marxist enthusiast, and a psychoanalytic aficionado. Cahun raised the bar for other Surrealist women who followed her footsteps into the sphere of the unconscious, such as painter Leonor Fini, artist Edith Rimmington, and fashion designer Rei Kawakubo who was inspired by Cahun’s exploration of the critical voice of gender and the Surrealist’s intoxicating art. Cahun’s fierce participation in Surrealism included exploring the labyrinth of homosexuality (which at the time was a confusing dichotomy between homosexual desires that were acted up or simply being attracted to the same sex with). This was because the movement not only defended Bréton’s heterosexist lucidity of connubiality, for Breton’s concept of purified heterosexuality relied on the notion of purity- basically establishing his homophobic nature. Furthermore, male homosexuality was denounced multiple times by Bréton in published sessions of the male-only meetings of the movement. Cahun’s exploration of the lesbian subject in her work was not only an act of disobedience to Bréton’s homophobic naïveté or even ignorance of the hetero during those closeted years of the 1920s and 1930s, but opened the door for female sexuality to be explored outside the misogynistic box. Yet, she was highly admired and respected by many, including Bréton. Her work, a series of self-portraits that tip-toed along the axis of gender positioning in the late 1930s, saw Cahun combine feminine and masculine guises. This created the precincts between the fantasy of the self and outward identity, as Cahun exercised her photographic work to process the crisis of the definition of terms around sex and gender and the “photographic image”; writer and political activist Susan Sontag defined Cahun’s portraits as “fantastic disclosures of the subject” (1977). Her work became the backbone of feminism in the Surrealist context and the center stage of the historical restrictions on Surrealism’s discourse of sexuality, which strongly retained itself exclusively in the esoteric periphery of Surrealist politics, shaken and transformed into a gender-bearing snapshot. These self-portraits not only inspired the strength of female sexuality but rejected the negative view of homosexuality and cross-dressing. Cahun’s exploration of this gender-bending paved the way for fashion designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Rei Kawakubo to apply the same esthetic, in the 1960s and the 1990s, respectively.

Cahun’s self-portraits exposed the complexity of the unconscious. The leitmotif of her work was what became known as “The Snapshot”—self-portrait as masquerade. Decades later, selfies evolved as an adaptation of Cahun’s feminist Surrealist self-portraits, but masked her axis of the true and the self. By adding her desire-machine, traveling along the yellow brick road of sexual and gender fluidity, her ideologies behind the discourse of sexuality in Surrealism encouraged designers like Saint Laurent, whose designs preserve “snapshots” like those Cahun created—such as “Le Smoking,” in which women dressed as men. His plans uncovered the elucidating paradoxes of everyday life—a contradiction we see in runway shows and (not hating on Anna Wintour but) the Met Gala, where “surrealism” is found in all kinds of outfits worn by celebrities—but Saint Laurent played with the gender-bending snapshot for intellectual reasons, in-framing a political aesthetic behind his work.

Claude Cahun’s Self-Portrait (1930s) Source:
Yves Saint Laurent—Le Smoking (1960s) Source:

For example, back in 1999, Brad Pitt and Rolling Stone produced a “scandalous” photoshoot in which Pitt wore a blue-sequined dress. Most recently, the controversial Harry Styles Vogue cover shoot faced backlash, with a side of malicious comments for literally just wearing clothing which belongs to women (mostly coming from the right-wingers). Thus, even popular celebrities are playing with fire when crossdressing. In this way, we fall back into the same old structure that has always been implored by the conservatives, the right-wing, the communists, the faux bourgeois, or those who just call this kind of gender play a cry for attention or a publicity stunt.

Brad Pitt for Rolling Stone (1999)
Harry Styles Vogue Cover (2020)

Going back to the 1930s, fashion and Surrealism played a large part in the cultural revolution of the decade, spreading beauty when the Great Depression was taking Europe by its “Seroquel-ity.” One designer who stood out and shocked the male-dominated fashion world was an Italian, Elsa Schiaparelli, whose shocking, confrontational, and yet enticing malformed style, showing a clear Surrealist influence, secured her place in fashion history. As a provocateur, her attitude towards exploring feminine identity was seen in her eccentric designs, overshadowing more conventional designers such as Coco Chanel, her bitter rival. Schiaparelli’s Surrealistic touch not only provoked the society she was engaging with; her avant-garde designs gave life to the desaturated lives of women who would take care of the men who had returned from the first World War, working in factories to support them. By looking at her designs, a sense of beauty was injected into the lives of these worn-down women, even if shocking at times. To this day, her work still has the power to shock those who see it, but it has also pushed other designers toward the outrageous, such as Lady Gaga’s super-controversial “Meat Dress” at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. Schiaparelli’s collaboration with “madman genius” Salvador Dali led to the famous “Skeleton Dress” is just one of the many examples of this eccentric attitude, which has some resemblance to the madness of Franc Fernandez who designed the infamous “Meat Dress.”

Lady Gaga—Meat Dress (2010) at the MTV Music Video Awards. Source:
Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali’s “Skeleton Dress” (1938). Source:

You can see the Skeleton Dress’s spirit of the avant-garde and the uncanny in the outfits of modern-day celebrities, as exemplified by Lady Gaga. Schiaparelli’s shocking and wildly fantastic designs combined with her attitude toward feminine identity and the ideology of creating beauty not for money but to show how powerful women can be, especially during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, after both World Wars, the alienation of culture—due to the rise of capitalism, saw workers lose control over their product—which caused or influenced Schiaparelli to make the decision to stop making her spectacular creations, which nevertheless continue to influence many.

However, it does trigger the question of the difference between avant-garde cultural fashion and the “fake plastic trees” in fashion we see today. In 2021, selfies do not necessarily engage any of the ideological stances of the Surrealist Feminists. Likes on Instagram are now based on the rubric of otherness—the more insane, deviant, strange and of course, nude, the more likes. This does not apply to every Instagram/Twitter influencer. Artists such as the cacophony of Diamanda Galas, or the disturbed abjection of the Viennese Actionists, even the dada nihilism of Tristan Tzara are the total opposites to “the fake plastic trees” culture. But, this culture does unfortunately heavily lean towards a plastic charade of the selfie culture, which leads us to question the motives of what is for show and what is for pay. What is the political, esthetic investment of desire in these selfies we see daily? Cahun’s “Snapshot” or, in other words, the self-portrait, (re-invented as the anti-feminist selfie most of the times) has now become ravished in this system of inflections, by use of filters and tons of makeup, harnessing the attractive, explosive force of patriarchy, the libidinal pull of an object to be possessed, fucked, consumed or somehow inhabited and “turned into” at the expense of oneself. Once the makeup is removed, the selfie generation retreat back into their cave of insecurity and anxiety, beset by mental health issues and body-shaming aimed at them by men and women.

Take late designer Karl Lagerfeld, famously a misogynist. He only used the skinny and conventionally beautiful as his muses, and shamed women who did not fit the ideal “model size,” saying in 2012 about singer Adele that “she is a little too fat.” Lagerfeld recognized society’s mask but also what lies beneath it well enough to promote his work (which does not redeem him). In his own words: “I am a caricature of myself, and I like that…It is like a mask. And for me, the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long.” Fashion is a hybrid of feminism, misogyny, and the remains of Surrealistic motifs. Thus, anxiety has become an enormous issue in the younger generation due to modern technology and social media pressure.

Masking one’s identity contributes to the fluctuating spirit of the “plastics,” the social media fiends, who seek the liberation of desire, fame, and attention, or to keep it short, “The Plastic Movement.” The plastic trajectory all comes down to the masquerade—plastic surgery is the anti-feminist gender-masking strategy of the plastics. A whole industry benefiting from the fake and the hunt for clout—more and more so of late with the advent of social media; this mask has become a societal condition. However, this condition goes back to the Surrealist Movement; the perfect example one can offer is “The Debutante” (“La Dame Ovale”), written in 1939. The short narrative revolves around a debutante who does not want to attend the opening Debutante ball of the season. She seeks comfort at a zoo, which she frequents regularly, as her friends are animals instead of girls her own age; she identifies with the animal rather than the human. While conversing with her friend, Hyena, she convinces Hyena to attend the ball, in disguise, in her place. They go back to the debutante’s room, and after coming up with an elaborate plan, Hyena kills the maid of the house and chews off the edges of the maid’s face to use it as a mask. She devours the rest of the maid but keeps a few bones that she places in her fleur-de-lis bag for when she gets hungry at the ball. She is finally exposed at the ball due to the smell of the bones. Even though she is wearing a disguise and her true outside identity is then revealed, she must face the social hierarchy’s looks and gossip. The moral of the story is, even though Hyena wore a mask, she was still belittled by the guests, and there was no need for a mask, for she was content being herself.

Carrington’s satirical take on English upper-class rituals is a great example of what patriarchal systems want women to conform to. Rituals such as the one in “The Debutante” or the “selfie ritual” embody the same patriarchal class system’s ownership of women and their bodies. “The Debutante” has motifs that fit well in the social media world. Gen Z (a specific subset) is confined by absurd and violent codes, and the pressure of beauty and gaining followers leads to murder, suicides, and mental health disorders. Women’s minds and bodies suffer from the expectation that they will be violated and put on display.

Social media platforms provide users with various filters, a variety of masks, an assortment of disguises for the “debutante” or the Hyena. Unfortunately, this shatters the illusion of what is real and what is not. This situation stands to brainwash the youth and turn them into “plastics” that might be recycled for generations to come, within the same esthetics and ideologies, masking real femininity. The “Plastic Movement” includes famous cyber-fashionistas, highly superficial influencers, bloggers, and clout-chasers; however, not all of the above are the same—we are not throwing every single social media influencer into the same Hansel and Gretel oven together. With the pressure on teenage girls and young women to use cosmetics at such an early age, perhaps an injection of healthy mind and soul is the cure women genuinely need to break free and be themselves. “The Plastics” are the modern muses of money-seeking companies and brands; but perhaps the “Plastic Movement” has always existed, especially within the Surrealist context, except they were called something else: the muse. They are both passive in the fact that they feel obliged to pose, but the Surrealist muse did not seek the clout, the Surrealist men did. The plastic masquerade has outlived its original founder, still causing concern for the Feminists of today.

In this light, a battle between the plastics of “The Plastic Movement” and the artistic intelligentsia (and protest movements) is taking place. They interact down the valley of the selfie culture—cheered on by social media platforms. The turf of the superficial must be protected, but how? And will it only just get worse?

Miniature Malekpour is a current Ph.D. candidate at the Australian National University. Her work has been published in multiple international Peer-Reviewed Academic Journals and Magazines. She is currently a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine. She prefers to write under a pseudonym, Seven Autumns, for fiction. Twitter handle: @minamalekpour

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