“The white girl learns that whiteness is dignity and respectability.” — Marilyn Frye, Willful Virgin
Betty Tompkins’s solo exhibition Virgins at P.P.O.W. Gallery arrives at an apt time of increasing mainstream attention to whiteness as a distinctive ethnicity. Currently, there lacks critical attention to the whiteness of imagery that Tompkins depicts, instead framing Tompkins’s represented sexual liberation in the context of all women. For example, the press release for Virgins states, “Tompkins is best known for her direct depiction of the female body, sexuality, and sexual desire…Tompkins reclaims the imagery, positioning the female body as a strong and powerful force.” To mitigate the violence of implying white women can universally represent all female bodies, I examine what the artist’s depictions of white womanhood does for its existing myths.
Tompkins assigns the title Virgins to her exhibition that includes Fuck Paintings, softly lit portrayals of sex derived from pornographic films. Virgins is more than just an ironic title. It implores the study of virginity as a socially constructed concept to determine the value of a woman to the patriarchy. “Virgin” might apply to the women Tompkins depicts, reclaiming virginity as a meaning that the woman assigns for herself, or act as an attempt to diffuse the meaning of the word altogether. One scholar Marilyn Frye notes, “The word ‘virgin’ did not originally mean a woman whose vagina was untouched…but a free woman, one not betrothed, not married, not bound to, not possessed by any man. It meant a female who is sexually and hence socially her own person. In any universe of patriarchy, there are no Virgins in this sense.” One thinks of Madonna’s 80’s hit “Like a Virgin,” where virginity is redefined instead as a feeling of first-ness, or a new emotional connection.
Within the context of America’s white supremacist patriarchy, though, white womanhood is accompanied by a perceived need to protect its good-willed virginity in order to preserve the white womb’s potential for creating more white men. Society’s instinctual drive to protect sanctity of white womanhood was a motivation for lynching African American men, is a privilege that protected marchers at the Women’s March on Washington from arrest and conflict, and is what perpetuates negative racial stereotypes of other races. Mamta Motwani Accapadi writes, “While White women have been depicted to be the foundation of purity, chastity, and virtue, Women of Color have historically been caricaturized by the negative stereotypes and the historical lower status position associated with their racial communities in American society…the problem for White women is that their privilege is based on accepting the image of goodness, which is powerlessness.” In rejecting the myth of the “proper” white woman, Tompkins generates an autonomous power for white women that begins detaching them from an illusion of goodness that the patriarchy has created.
While the myth of saintly white womanhood is an important one to dismantle, Tompkins’s Fuck Paintings should be examined within these limits. After all, what liberation do these images of lightskinned heterosexual penetration give to the East Asian body, which is already over-eroticized in the public imagination and highly trafficked as sex objects? How do these closeups of genitalia, which never decenter whiteness as the pinnacle of beauty and desirability, serve black women, who are too often depicted as “fallen women” or self-silenced, as historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham asserts, “to demonstrate the lie of the image of the sexually immoral black woman” (262)?
Lorraine O’Grady says in Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity, “The female body in the West is not a unitary sign. Rather, like a coin, it has an obverse and a reverse: on the one side, it is white; on the other, not-white or, prototypically, black. The two bodies cannot be separated, nor can one body be understood in isolation from the other in the West’s metaphoric construction of ‘woman.’ White is what woman is; not-white (and the stereotypes not-white gathers in) is what she had better not be.” Tompkins’s crusade against censorship of female nudes bears resemblance to feminist movements that almost exclusively serve white women, such as Free the Nipple. Meanwhile, racialized bodies have a harder time taking back the violent depictions of their bodies rendered by the white gaze, as recently seen in exhibitions such as Kelley Walker’s Direct Drive or Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016) at the Whitney Biennial.
So do Betty Tompkins’s paintings specifically serve Beckies? Becky, defined loosely, is slang for the very conventional Caucasian woman that seems to have little awareness of what privileges white womanhood affords. Beckies do not recognize the toxicity caused by their assumed virtuosity. By mixing the sacred with the profane, Tompkins makes public what was once taboo fantasies of white womanhood that, ironically, strive for whole personhood — one that grants white women full independence in their lust and sexual conquest.