Director Pamela Tanner Boll follows five women who struggle to balance a family life with an artistic career in the documentary, Who Does She Think She Is?. I use the word “career” lightly because these women are barely making ends meet. We live in a country where artists are treated like the homeless, pushed to the margins and largely ignored. In one telling scene, the director takes to the streets and asks pedestrians to name five female artists. Frida Kahlo isn’t mentioned, but Jada Pinkett Smith is (I’m not kidding), and everyone else just laughs with embarrassment at their own ignorance. Toss in a little gender inequality and motherhood and you’ve got yourself the plight of the female artist.
Undervalued, unappreciated, and unrecognized, female artists are still trying to break into the boys' club, otherwise known as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), The Met, and the National Gallery. Some like to pretend that we live in a “post-feminist” era, with women earning equal pay and no longer living under an oppressive patriarchy. Well, those people need to wake the fuck up. Only 4% of shows at the MoMA are by women. The National Gallery of Art is comprised of 98% male, 99.9% white artists. Women make up 80% of art-school classes, but only 20% of professional artists. (These statistics are courtesy of the Guerrilla Girls, everyone’s favorite anarcho-feminist art group. The group makes only a brief appearance in the film, but its statistics add a cultural context for these women’s stories, which take place primarily inside home studios and at the kitchen table.)
Who Does She Think She Is? challenges not only the exclusivity and misogyny of the art world, but also the mommy stereotype. Each artist in the film is a mother. Maye Torres, a talented sculptor, lives in the New Mexico desert with her two teenage boys. The family subsists on Maye’s salary of $24,000 a year. “I always thought it was a hobby to kill time and stress,” says one son of his mother’s artwork. “But my mom’s going to be world-renowned. I’m pretty sure it will happen soon, like before I hit 20.” I never thought I had a maternal bone in my body, but I swear I felt my ovaries move when I heard those words.
And then there’s Janis Wunderlich, the Mormon ceramicist who juggles five children in a chaotic household. I was familiar with Wunderlich’s work prior to the film, but her family life contextualizes her art. She creates grotesque, hobbit-like figurines with large heads and wide, weary eyes. These monsters are frequently two-headed, with clingy children crawling up their backs and sometimes protruding from their stomachs and mouths. It's an interesting mix of the macabre and the playful -- think Peter Rabbit meets Guillermo del Toro. "I feel, as a parent, I have a good side and a side that just wants to punch them back if they’re doing something naughty," says Wunderlich. "That second head is the side of me that I don’t really like. I put the struggle here in my sculptures." Some of Wunderlich’s children are too young to recognize the complexity of her work, but her eldest daughter is aware of the conflicting roles of mother and artist. "My friends will come over and there’s, like, a naked person on the kitchen table. I wish my mom was less, um, graphic sometimes," she says.
Who Does She Think She Is is the kind of film that won’t make it outside art houses and feminist theory classrooms, which is a shame, because it serves as a kind of manifesto for anyone, regardless of gender, who values art as necessary to the human condition. Yes, art is central to feminist movements, but it is also what may bring us out of this male vs. female dichotomy. The art world, like any creative circle, shouldn’t be based on networks and money, but focused solely on the work. And when a woman decides to create life and create art, the two forms of reproduction shouldn't have to be mutually exclusive. As Torres says at the end of the film, "It’s not about choosing art over anything — it’s choosing who you are."