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Attacking Patriarchal Norms With Art: We Keep Our Victims Ready, Karen Finley

Karen Finley is an American performance artist, musician, and poet. She is known for her performance in "We Keep Our Victims Ready", throwing her body chocolate to get attention from the viewers and evoke questions about sexual violence and humiliation of women. Apart from that, she worked in several different fields such as installation, video, performance, public art, visual art, entertainment, television and film, memorials, music, and literature. Also, she is the author of eight books. In 2015 her splendid performances brought her the award of Richard J Massey Foundation Arts and Humanities. We Keep Our Victims Ready, first performed in 1990, handles the issue of patriarchal society, cruelty of humankind, and the actions of their selfish ideologies towards the American nation and humankind. The play gathers the idea of the extinction of human nature in society. One of the key elements is showing that society and authority behave women like worthless objects.

(Karen Finley)

Finley’s point of view comes from the hardships which women encounter in society. However, she portrayed overall problems in the American community with sharp analysis. As Victor Bondi touches on this idea in the American Decades: 1980-1989, ‘’Her topics included the abuse and oppression of women, racial minorities, gays, AIDS victims, and the homeless. Often appearing nude onstage as a commentary on society's obsession with female beauty and desirability, Finley used humor and anger to attack Americans' worship of male aggressiveness and power’’ (Bondi, 302). She assaults male dominance and patriarchal ideas and while doing that she observes and gives voice to all excluded minorities. It is a general idea that women should be obeying designed mindset in order to involve in society. She has to be all of the features to become a woman. ‘’No wonder that the entire psyche of women is universally coached to be as desirable as possible, as cute as possible, as boring as possible. It’s survival of the female species’’ (Finley, 1030). Women were wasted while trying to catch up with those standards. Society despises women and makes them feel worthless. Although they break the rules and try to become free individuals in a world with pressure, they could not find a way to wriggle their way out of that environment because of norms. They get lost while adapting to these strict rules that are consistently created by the male gaze. ‘’I walk past the sites in Central Park where women have been raped and murdered… Like the Kennedys how they treated their women treated Marilyn Monroe LIKE SHIT they killed her- left her for dead’’ (Finley, 1031). Based on that quotation, Finley also criticizes forms of injustice against women. Even America's own president does not respect women. Women do not have any life security in parks or anywhere, furthermore consumed by primitive acts of males. In a country that is known for freedom and justice, there is no law to prevent that. ‘’But this country takes all my independency away they are trying to take abortion away and freedom of speech because this country spends more time on this burning flag when our citizen's stomachs are burning with hunger when AIDS babies and victims are burning with fever.’ (Finley, 1032). She criticizes the American chaotic environment and its policy against their citizens, it is explicit that the American government neglects real issues which have to be discussed openly. Rather than taking care of problems that citizens encountered during their lives, Americans only deal with their pride and power on a global scale. They disregard the operation of the system not only towards women but also towards general people.

(Karen Finley) performances "We Keep Our Victims Ready," as part of Cultural Infidels: Film and Performance for Consenting Adults, January 13, 1990. Photo courtesy the Walker Art Center Archives.

‘’It’s my body it’s not Pepsi’s body it’s not Nancy Reagan’s body it is not Congress’s body it’s not Supreme Court’s body it’s not Cosmopolitan’s pink twat body it’s not George Bush’s ugly-conscience never be responsible let the world rot body’’ (Finley, 1033). These are the institutions that perpetually work to ensure that the power of patriarchal dominance works properly. They do not give the value women deserve. Their only aim is to make woman's bodies appetizing for males, and women become depressed because of their own bodies. While oppressive regimes do that, they use media which is the most powerful tool in the modern era. Jan Sewell and Clare Smout reflect that in The Palgrave Handbook of the History of Women on Stage: ‘’Finley’s work has always had at its heart a righteous outrage at abuse dealth out patriarchal, consumer capitalist culture under the aegis of ‘normalcy’. The power sought and expected by men (even men with little money, education or professional status) means that women who dont conform to a controllable ideal are fair game for physical and mental assault, derision, humiliation and outright victimization. Indeed, the deadliest aspect of Finley’s critique may be that assault is often freely visited upon women who do conform to ideals’’ (Sewell, 465). Society despises women and makes them worthless, in this society, the only care is the size of women's breasts and hot- sexy bodies. Even if a patriarchal society does not have the right to say a word, it makes women feel guilty, because they do not resemble the images offered by the media. If we can relate this performance to the contemporary world, using social media especially in America has a huge impact to create to identify women with labelled images.

She also points out some problems from the perspective of the male gaze in order to show how society pressures them about certain topics, such as forcing them to act like a man. The norms that are built by the patriarchal order not only criticize women but also put pressure on men. Males are victimized by the patriarchal view and stereotyping of society just like women. They have to have certain jobs, statuses and families to be counted as proper men. Otherwise, sooner or later they encounter being categorized as ''outsiders''. Finley's anger towards the obligations that are constructed without realization is a challenge to society. ‘’We don’t tell our feelings. We don’t show our feelings. The only feelings we show are NO No feelings at all’’ (Finley, 1036). Finley actually wants to emphasize they do not have to conform to anything related to norms.

(Karen Finley)

In conclusion, despite all these oppressions in society, Finley gathers every person who is excluded from the general world into one pot. ‘’Black Sheep can be family to strangers. We can love each other like MOTHER FATHER SISTER BROTHER CHILD. We understand universal love. We understand unconditional love. We feel a unique responsibility a human responsibility for feelings for others. We can be all things to all people…’’ (Finley, 1043). The term ‘’Black Sheep’’ refers to a person evaluated as bad or worthless in their social circle, because their actions bring shame. They are excluded from the public and their affinity group. In contrast, Finley asserts that they have no shameless actions. The bias of society generates this etiquette, however, it has nothing to do with them. The whole ''Black Sheep'' family become a powerful member of society. Even though all of them are isolated and regarded as a stranger, Finley says that they are not alone. She gives support to all of them and triggers community spirit. In this way, she uses the power of the community to rebel against such oppressions. Every individual has a place to express themselves the way that want. No one has to follow a designed path to express their own character and, Finley supports that idea with her performance of art.


Finley, Karen. A Different Kind of Intimacy: The Collected Writings of Karen Finley, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2000

Bondi, Victor. American Decades: 1980-1989, Gale Research, 1995

Sewell, Jan, Smout, Clare, The Palgrave Handbook of the History of Women on Stage, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019

''Karen Finley'', NYU, retrieved 12 January 2022

Dokuz Eylül University, Ake 3030 Major American Playwrights II, Lecture Notes, 2021

Image References


Didem Bezek
Didem Bezek
Jan 14, 2022

A truly recommendable essay with powerful messages!

Aylin Usta
Aylin Usta
Jan 15, 2022
Replying to

Thank you so much Didem!

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Aylin Usta

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