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“Striptease to Save the Trees”: In Defense of Ecofeminist Activism


Just like any type of new feminist current, ecofeminism has had its fair share of critiques. The movement is grounded on the relation between women’s oppression and environmental exploitation, both in a material perspective (women’s economic and social position in society and climate change) and on a spiritual (intrinsic women-nature connection). The latter approach, known as spiritual or cultural ecofeminism, has faced some criticism from ecofeminists themselves — particularly from those who focus on the material aspects of ecofeminist values rather than spiritual — since the cultural link between women and nature is often based on a supposed shared state of victimhood and reproductive abilities, which is perceived as reductive. Activist and performer Dona Nieto, known as La Tigresa, whose activism borrows from spiritual ecofeminist imagery of the Goddess and Mother Earth, has also received similar critical responses. However, English professor and environmental studies scholar Stacy Alaimo has offered a reevaluation of her documentary Striptease to Save the Trees, where she performs topless to some loggers cutting down forest trees next to Montgomery Woods State Park in Mendocino County. La Tigresa’s extravagant performativity has the ability to expose and subvert the patriarchal conceptual linkages between women and nature.


According to ecofeminist writer and activist Greta Gaard, “the root of ecofeminism is the understanding that the many systems of oppression are mutually reinforcing” (Gaard, 1997, pp.114). Cultural ecofeminism stems from radical feminism, which, historically, has reacted to the devaluation of women and of characteristics culturally considered to be feminine —care, nurture, and emotional intelligence— by proudly celebrating these traits. To this agenda, environmental discourse is added as one of ecofeminists’ core concerns. This rather spiritual approach is more focused on affecting culture and consciousness, changing the dominant ideas around women and nature by uplifting them. The movement draws its imagery from ancient goddess-worshiping civilizations, according to which Earth is a living organism and humans are fully part of its ecosystem.


Figure 1. International Women’s Day protest in Melbourne, Australia in 2019


Spiritual ecofeminism is known for being the most controversial approach, even amongst other ecofeminists and feminists. One of the critiques is that it is questionable whether accepting and embracing certain “feminine characteristics” is feminist at all: many feminists see it as reinforcing patriarchal values and reducing women to a monolithic identity, disregarding matters of race, class, sexuality, and other aspects that suggest how fragmented the category “woman” is (Carlassare, 2000, pp.99). Moreover, most of the connections drawn between women and nature are based on reproductive abilities, an association that is dehumanizing and regressive for the movement as a whole.


An example of how this controversial approach is put into action is La Tigresa’s performance in the documentary Striptease to Save the Trees. In October 2000, La Tigresa stripped topless in front of loggers to protest against the cutting of an ancient redwood forest in Mendocino County, California, and marched next to logging trucks while reciting her own poems through a megaphone. The protest was recorded on a hand-held camera and was made into a short seven-minute documentary, with the addition of folk music as a background incorporated with harp music played by the only other woman present in the documentary who accompanies La Tigresa on her protest. La Tigresa invokes women’s connection to nature to dramatize the actions of the loggers and to call for empathy towards the environment.


Figure 2. La Tigresa protesting topless in front of loggers.


The first form of identification between women and nature, common in cultural ecofeminist beliefs and activism, appears in her own name, La Tigresa, the Spanish term for “female tiger”. Nieto clearly uses the image of the tiger to recall qualities like strength and fierceness, which characterize her activist persona. The choice of the tiger to convey such an image is significant, since associations of tigers with women, especially mothers, are already quite common, as exemplified by the English expression “tiger mom”, which refers to a strict and protective parenting style. This particular title is noteworthy because of the connection and affinity between women and tigers it implies: La Tigresa will protect the forest just like a ferocious tiger would protect her cubs. Some ecofeminists, like radical feminist philosopher Susan Griffin, emphasize solidarity between women and animals in so far as they are both equally exploited and dominated groups. Therefore, to Griffin, the bond between animals and women is one of alliance, and the conceptual blurring of woman-animal boundaries is used to give women a companion in their feminist struggles (Griffin in Alaimo, 1994, pp.139). This position is often criticized for imagining women as a fixed identity and for dismissing race, class and cultural differences which make any association with “women” imprecise to the point of being harmful, since it is impossible to have a single, perfectly established definition of “women”. Furthermore, depicting women and animals as companions solely because of their oppression victimizes both of them, and “supports the historically ingrained position of women and animals as the Other to a male subject” (Alaimo, 1995, pp.140), further reducing their identity to mere subjects of oppression and casting them as inferior.


The second aspect of La Tigresa’s performance worth analyzing in light of ecofeminist discourse is the language she uses while reciting her poems and her “womanfesto” to the loggers. Her speech is rich in spiritual ecofeminist imagery, ranging from identification of women with nature and vice versa, which is reflected by the use of the first-person pronoun “I” together with words semantically linked to nature, as in “I have been deforested” or the more explicit “I am the Earth”, to invocations of women as goddesses of nature (“I am the goddess”) and to reproductive abilities (“the cradle of creation”). This type of interconnection is what many feminists and socialist ecofeminists criticize the most: if even just drawing connections between the two categories of “woman” and “nature”, which are often misinterpreted and over-simplified, is considered counterproductive, grounding these links on reproductive abilities and subordinate positions in relation to power systems becomes demeaning and regressive.


Figure 3. La Revolución de los Girasoles (The Sunflower Revolution), project for Escuela Quinta Esencia, Argentina.


Although it seems like there is a lot to criticize about Striptease to Save the Trees, Alaimo also proposes a few arguments in La Tigresa’s favor. Firstly, despite the controversy the documentary has provoked, the performance responds to the desire for an “ethical recognition of nature” and to the “political appeal of visibility” (Alaimo, 2010, pp.19 and 21). The media and public attention that La Tigresa was able to achieve must be taken into account, especially since most forms of cultural ecofeminism are perceived as being too abstract. This performance shows how spiritual approaches can effectively turn into action and have a significant impact. Secondly, the association between nature and women is only the first, superficial layer, the cover-photo the activist uses to frame the documentary and its intent. Although the subject of the short film is La Tigresa protesting, the audience is not positioned as the target viewer of her performance. Instead, they are given what Alaimo defines as a “female position” (Alaimo, 2010, pp.22): their point of view corresponds to that of the camera, which follows La Tigresa from behind and is part of her “parade”. But the spectator is not watching her, they are looking at her being watched by others, the loggers, who are the actual target of her performance. This makes the viewer feel complicit and like a participant in her resistance, as if they were walking with her through the woods.


Moreover, despite the accusations of depicting women and nature as passive victims of patriarchal dominance, her vulnerability only appears to be helpless. La Tigresa stages a performance of which she is the protagonist, author, and director, and therefore holds all the active positions in the documentary and in its production. The loggers are mere silent witnesses of her performance, and on top of that, both they and the audience are deprived of any voyeuristic pleasure. The camerawork mostly shows her back, without focusing on her bare breasts and thus preventing them from being sexualized; it negates any pleasure for the male gaze by not staging La Tigresa as a subject that is meant to be watched. The loggers barely look at La Tigresa — the camera pointing directly at their faces and zooming in makes them visibly uncomfortable and self-conscious of being watched, and it does not allow them to sit back and enjoy the performance as a normal spectator would. A man can be seen laughing at the extravagant display, but his facial expression quickly changes into discomfort and annoyance, further demonstrating that even though La Tigresa potentially exposes herself as a sexual object, she has not been stripped of her agency, only of her clothes.


Figure 4. March during COP24 in Katowice, Poland, 2018.


Lastly, the performative aspect per se of La Tigresa’s activism should also play a role in a critical analysis of her documentary. Thinking about performance and considerations about drag practices made by gender theorist Judith Butler as examples of subversive acts, environmental humanities scholar Catriona Sandilands stresses that an act of affinity between women and nature could potentially destabilize both concepts instead of reinforcing them through an act of “queering”. “To "queer" the subject through public appearance — a form of drag — is to destabilize the assumed expressiveness of any performance of identity, and to highlight the performative qualities of identity itself, revealing precisely the constitutive limit of the subject position” (Sandilands, 1997, pp.23). La Tigresa’s extravagant approach is, in Sandilands’ terms, queering the relation between women and nature adopted by ecofeminism by using traditional preconceptions of the two categories instead of the explicitly subversive metaphor of drag. The exaggerated representation of “Mother Nature” at the same time embraces and makes a parody of this controversial concept, and its inherent irony is the element of subversion that ecofeminism needs in order to destabilize the categories it is using from within.


In conclusion, performativity is a vital aspect of La Tigresa’s activism, and it represents a way to expose the contradictions surrounding dualistic conceptual associations between woman and nature from the inside. Striptease to Save the Trees does not perpetuate patriarchal values by reproducing such connections, on the contrary, it reveals the contradictions inherent in them, and in doing so escapes the contradictions that ecofeminism is criticized for.


Bibliographical References

Alaimo, S. (1994). Cyborg and Ecofeminist Interventions: Challenges for an Environmental Feminism. Feminist Studies, 20(1), 133–152. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178438


Carlassare, E. (2000). Socialist and Cultural Ecofeminism: Allies in Resistance. Ethics and the Environment, 5(1), 89–106. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27766057


Gaard, G. (1997). Toward a Queer Ecofeminism. Hypatia, 12(1), 114–137. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3810254


Nieto, Dona. (2002). La Tigresa’s womanifesto: Or Why I Go Bare Breasted into the Forest. Earth Films. treesit.org/campaigns/strip_pages/strpwomanfesto.html


Nieto, Dona. (2002). Striptease to Save the Trees. Earth Films.

https://archive.org/details/PenelopeAndrewsStripteasetoSavethetrees_2


Sandilands, C. (1997). Mother Earth, the Cyborg, and the Queer: Ecofeminism and (More) Questions of Identity. NWSA Journal, 9(3), 18–40. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4316528


Sandilands, C. (1997). Wild Democracy: Ecofeminism, Politics, and the Desire Beyond. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 18(2), 135–156. https://doi.org/10.2307/3346970


Visual Sources

Cover Image. (n.d). Pachamama, Peruvian mythological figure. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://selfsustain.com/blog/an-international-womens-day-reflection-on-ecofeminism/


Figure 1. Friends of the Earth International. (2019). International Women’s Day protest in Melbourne, Australia. Retrieved from: https://www.globaljustice.org.uk/blog/2020/03/womens-activism-time-climate-and-other-emergencies/


Figure 2. Nieto, Dona. (2002). Striptease to Save the Trees. [Still]. Retrieved from:

https://archive.org/details/PenelopeAndrewsStripteasetoSavethetrees_2


Figure 3. Nyflot, Hilda (2023). La Revolución de los Girasoles. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cnw6sd6O2g8/?hl=it


Figure 4. Aim, Martyn. (2018). People marching for COP24 in Katowice, Poland. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/intersectional-environmentalist-ecofeminism



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