You are on page 1of 15

Perspective by Incongruity and the Comic Frame:

The Rhetorical Platform of The Guerrilla Girls

Adam Mawer

CS 322 B Gender, Communication and Culture

Dr. Suzanne Rintoul
Wednesday November 21, 2012
Wilfrid Laurier University

Mawer 1
Throughout the 20th century, gender roles underwent significant changes. Once, a woman
could not vote; now they can. Once, women experienced discrimination and harassment while at
work; now we have laws that prohibit sex discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Only
recently have men begun to do housework and have an active role in raising their children; two
centuries ago, this would be unheard of (Wood, 68). Changes such as these do not happen
overnight. Instead, they are the results of rhetorical movements that alter our socio-cultural
understanding of gender.
Rhetorical movements are collective, persuasive efforts to challenge and change existing
attitudes, laws and policies (69). In the United States, rhetorical movements to define womens
nature and rights have occurred in three waves. The first wave roughly transpired from 1840 to
1925 with the right to vote as the primary issue. Spanning the years between 1960 and 1995, a
second wave of womens movements fought to draw attention to gender inequalities. Finally,
while many branches of second wave feminism remain active, a third wave of feminism has
emerged. Third wave feminism includes women of different ethnicities, disabilities, classes,
appearances, sexual orientations and gender identities (87). Working to end violence against
women is one example of many issues currently undertaken by third wave feminists. While,
historically, womens movements have been chronologically divided using the wave metaphor, it
is important to note that it has its limits. Themes and issues present in the first wave remain
important issues to third wave feminists. Likewise, some of the goals and tactics of third wave
feminists echo those of radical feminists during the second wave (69).
Radical feminism was born out of New Left politics that protested the Vietnam War and
fought for civil rights. New Left women did the same work as their male peers and risked the
same hazards of arrest and assault. However, New Left men treated women as inferiors,

Mawer 2
expecting them to make coffee, type news releases and be available for sex. Disgusted by mens
refusal to extend to women the democratic, egalitarian principles they advocated for minorities,
many women withdrew from the New Left and formed their own organizations (73). An example
of such an organization is the Guerrilla Girls who relied on an innovative rhetorical platform to
call attention to the oppression of women and to demand changes to a womens place in the
social, political and creative realm. It will be demonstrated that, through the utilization of a
comedic frame, the Guerrilla Girls employ the rhetorical structure of perspective by incongruity
in their attempt to confront the myths of institutionalized sexism.
The Guerrilla Girls are an anonymous group of feminists once devoted to fighting against
sexism within the institutionalized world. In 1985, the Guerilla Girls formed in response to New
Yorks Museum of Modern Arts (MOMA) exhibition An International Survey of Recent
Painting and Sculpture which showcased 169 artists. Of those displayed, only 17 were women.
The museums press release for the exhibition stated Any artist who is not in the show should
rethink his career (emphasis added). The founding Guerrilla Girls spoke out against the
museums statement and lack of female artists by placing posters throughout the Soho district of
New York (Withers, 285). In the tradition of anonymous do-gooders like Robin Hood, Wonder
Women and Batman, the Guerilla Girls wore gorilla masks and assume the names of dead
female artists during protests and public speaking engagements (Guerilla Girls, Our Story).
Throughout their existence, the Guerrilla Girls have used rhetorical protest art to express their
ideals, opinions and concerns through billboards, posters, stickers and small flyers. In addition to
their protest art, the Guerrilla Girls have also published several books including The Guerrilla
Girls Beside Companion to the History of Western Art and The Guerrilla Girls Illustrated Guide

Mawer 3
to Female Stereotypes. In 2001, the Guerrilla Girls split into three independent organizations:
Guerrilla Girls Inc., Guerrilla Girls Broadband Inc. and Guerrilla Girls On Tour! Inc.
Much of the Guerrilla Girls protest art operates within what Kenneth Burke describes as
the comic frame. The essence of the comic frame is that it makes people students of themselves
in that they reach what Burke describes as maximum consciousness (Burke, 171). Burke
explains The audience, from its vantage point, sees the operation of errors that the characters of
the play [society] cannot see; thus seeing from two angles at once, it is chastened by dramatic
irony (171). Through the comic frame, one can recognize ones own or societal faults and work
to correct them. The comic frame accepts the present hierarchy but seeks to correct its
discrepancies. It challenges the status quo by presenting a corrective ideology which confronts
and demonizes the failings of the operating ideology (Powell, 87). The use of comedy has a way
of defusing tensions and making communication possible. For Burke, the comic frame functions
as a middle ground: It is neither wholly euphemistic, nor wholly debunking hence it provides
the charitable attitude toward people that is required for purposes of persuasion and cooperation
(Burke, 172).
While much of the Guerrilla Girls rhetoric is informed by the comic frame, the strategy
that gives it structure is known as perspective by incongruity. Burke describes perspective by
incongruity as setting one assumed truth into an incongruous or inappropriate situation to
undermine its truthfulness (Allen et al., 162). This method relies on Burkes notion of piety.
Piety, says Burke, is the sense of what properly goes with what (i.e. men and fine art). By
combining or contrasting incongruous ideas, we shatter pieties (162). In other words, by
mixing an ideological correctness together with another of a different ideological stripe, the two
call each other into question. It is, then, likely that the less powerful ideology will act upon the

Mawer 4
other in such a way as to reduce its power; the piety will thus be shattered. Even though
perspective by incongruity structures the Guerrilla Girls rhetoric, its more general function is to
create a comic politics of subversion and is, therefore, closely linked to Burkes comic frame
(Demo, 134). The Guerrilla Girls rhetoric, then, demonstrates how intentional incongruity not
only mocks the failures of the social structure but also offers a comic corrective to such failings
This can be observed in the Guerrilla Girls use of mimicry to disrupt the phallocentric
order of the fine art world. Luce Irigaray outlines the subversive potential of mimicry as an
avenue for disrupting the phallocentric order. By self-consciously adopting an exaggerated
version of traditional femininity, feminists convert a form of subordination into an affirmation
and, thus, begin to subvert it. For Irigaray, the challenge of mimicry is to expose the incongruity
of a normative standard without being reduced to it (Irigaray, 75-76). The Guerrilla Girls name,
appearance and visual style all illustrate how feminists can subvert a static definition of
femininity through mimicry (Demo, 142).
Like other marginalized groups that reclaim the names and descriptions used against
them, the Guerrilla Girls reclamation of the term girl, and all things girlish demonstrates
how mimicry functions as perspective by incongruity. In an interview, Guerrilla Girl Frida Kahlo
explained, Calling a grown women a girl can imply shes not complete, mature or grown up.
But we decided to reclaim the word girl so it couldnt be used against us (142). This
repossession is not limited to the groups name, however. The Guerrilla Girls signature colour is
pink and is heavily featured in their protest art and published materials. For example, in a 1986
poster targeting art collectors (Appendix A), the Guerrilla Girls combined a pink background
with smoothly crafted script, deferential language and (frowning) flower at the top (142). The

Mawer 5
posters complacent tone and script mimicked the relationship between femininity and passivity
while, at the same time, violating that vary association.
The Guerrilla Girls further challenge the social equivalence between femininity and
masculinity with their playful and comedic blurring of binaries. Systems of representation
regarding gender, race and sexuality are turned upside down by the groups jungle drag (143).
According to the Guerrilla Girls Frequently Asked Questions on their website, the decision to
use the mask as a disguise came only after an original member misspelled guerrilla as gorilla.
Founding Guerrilla Girl Kathe Kollwitz recast the spelling error as an opportunity to challenge
the male/female binary by deeming the misspelling the source of the groups mask-ulinity
(Guerilla Girls, FAQ).
The groups masks, like its members, are diverse. Some are ferocious, fangs exposed,
while others appear to be smiling (Appendix B). The aggressiveness suggested by the
guerilla/gorilla association and the masks beastly qualities stands in direct contrast to regulated
femininity (143). The groups attire may range from anything from all black clothing to fishnets,
short skirts and stilettos. The mix of masks and drag allows the Guerrilla Girls to go wild with
the structures that have defined femininity (143). Therefore, the Guerilla Girls comedic mimicry
leads to incongruity resulting in the unhinging the social relationship between femininity and
The Guerrilla Girls also use the comic frame and perspective by incongruity to address a
so-called lack of great female artists within the fine art world. Indeed, a key question for the
Guerrilla Girls upon their formation in 1985 was Why havent more women been considered
great artists throughout Western history? As a response, in 1998, the Guerrilla Girls published
The Guerrilla Girls Beside Companion to the History of Art (Appendix C), which surveys

Mawer 6
women artists from ancient Greece forward (144). The rhetoric style of the book uses the comic
frame to mix humour with historical fact. The history by incongruity engendered by the groups
re-vision of history violates the conventions (pieties) that have made the term women artist an
oxymoron within the history of art (144).
The book juxtaposes short biographical sketches of artists overlooked in surveys of art
history with cartoons, top-ten lists and believe it or not quotations that dramatize the formal
and informal barriers women artists have faced throughout time (Guerrilla Girls, 1998, back
cover). As a rhetorical work, the book is structured to disrupt our sense of what properly goes
with what (Burke, 74). By attaching comic titles to serious subjects and a sarcastically
whimsical tone to art history, the Guerrilla Girls mock the artistic cannon and provide
ammunition for all the women who are or will become artists (Guerrilla Girls, 1998 p. 9).
Beside Companion also serves to recognize the social and institutional conditions for
producing great art through a series of fictional conversations with current and dead female
artists. These conversations dramatize the struggles faced by women artists because of their
gender and, occasionally, race. In addition to being historically accurate, these imagined
recollections not only publicize but personalize the history of discrimination absent from most
surveys of art (Demo, 146). The implied message by these conversations is that the history of art
has been a rigged game as a number of customs, laws and culture has shaped womens lives
over the years. Therefore, the Guerrilla Girls foreground the social and institutional barriers that
legislated womens artistic silence (146). The history by incongruity fashioned by the Guerrilla
Girls comic and personal approach to history both challenges and answers the question Why
havent more women been considered great artists throughout Western history?

Mawer 7
The Guerrilla Girls also employ the comic frame and perspective by incongruity to
address forms of normalized inequality both inside and outside the art world. Much of the
groups protest art is composed using a technique called juxtaposition. Juxtaposition brings
together in a state of tension the discourses of two or more status groups (Allen et al., 159). The
technique of juxtaposition works on a number of levels within the Guerrilla Girls visual
rhetoric. As Kimberly Powell notes, groups use juxtaposition to reorganize the social order by
placing conflicting commitments of the system side by side (94). The Guerilla Girls
accomplish this through three (3) forms of juxtaposition.
First, the group often couples quotations from high profile individuals and leaders with
ironic headlines that underscore the incongruity of right-wing stances on rape, abortion and
homosexual rights (Demo, 147). For example, the Guerrilla Girls 1992 poster with the headline
LESBIANS, pairs an image of Justice Clarence Thomas at 1991 hearings with an exert of his
testimony as quoted in the New York Times (Appendix D):
Im not going to engage in discussions of what goes on in the most
intimate parts of my private life or the sanctity of by bedroom. They
are the most intimate parts of my privacy and will remain just that.
Reluctant to leave the implications of such juxtaposition up for grabs, the Guerrilla Girls provide
their own conclusion: Clarence Thomas claims that a persons sex life is none of the
governments business.
Second, the Guerrilla Girls juxtapose images with rhetorical questions to denaturalize
conventional frames of reference (147). For example, one of the 1991 posters produced by the
group in opposition of the Gulf War juxtaposed an image of a female solder (Appendix E) with

Mawer 8
WOMEN? The text to image juxtaposition recontextualizes the propriety of the U.S. military
commitment to countries who deny women basic rights (147). Also, while not directly stated, the
poster was produced at a time when it was still uncommon to recognize women as a significant
part of the U.S. military.
Finally, and perhaps most famously, the Guerrilla Girls juxtapose dominant cultural
symbols with their comic brand of feminist aesthetic to expose the hypocrisies of the art world
and social politics (146-147). One billboard in particular showcases how juxtaposition functions
as perspective by incongruity: the Guerrilla Girls critique of the MOMA male to female
exhibition ratio. During the fall of 1989, the group famously posted the billboard asking Do
women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum? (Appendix F). The question was
accompanied by one of the groups lasting icons the gorilla masked odalisque (148). The figure
appropriated from Jean Auguste Dominique Ingress 1814 painting of the Grand Odalisque
(Appendix G) anchors the poster and is positioned in opposition to the punch line reading: Less
than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.
Fittingly, the odalisque in the Guerrilla Girls version dons a gorilla mask. The text and image
juxtaposition and the comedic appropriation of Ingres by the Guerrilla Girls creates an
incongruity that challenges art world claims of gender equality (148).
Interestingly, the fan that Ingress odalisque once held now appears strikingly similar to
an erect penis. A sack-like shape, moreover, is attached to the handle of the fan. Does this image
suggest a castrating, gorilla masked odalisque? (149) This would be logical as Freuds castration
anxiety is a symbolic metaphor for the loss of male power. Such an interpretation would
certainly reframe if not completely subvert the art worlds conception of the submissive

Mawer 9
female. Taken together, all three techniques of juxtaposition create a perspective by incongruity
that exposes the difference between theoretical equality and inequality in practice (151).
In 2009, the Guerrilla Girls sold their collection of protest art and other photos, fan
mail, hate mail, sketches and book drafts to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. The
group was criticized as the Research Institute was founded by the extremely wealthy (and
distinctly male) old tycoon Jean Paul Getty. To entrust Gettys institute with the Girls
subversive archive may seem at best counter-intuitive, and at worst downright hypocritical
(Adams, 9 April, 2009). However, the group has been no stranger to criticism since their
formation in 1985. New York Times critic Hilton Kramer dubbed the Guerrilla Girls quota
queens in reference to their poster campaigns. Art dealer Mary Boone described their
campaigns as an excuse for the failure of talent. Ironically, with public criticism, their posters
began to collect acclaim and collectors quickly tore them down and sold them. In turn, this
provided the group with the funds to get their works on giant billboards (Adams, 9 April, 2009).
In conclusion, this paper has discussed how the Guerrilla Girls, through the comic frame,
employed the discursive strategy of perspective by incongruity to structure their confrontation of
the myths of institutionalized sexism. At their most fundamental level, the groups strategies of
incongruity (mimicry, re-vision of history and juxtaposition) undermine the assumption of
achieved equality (Demo, 152). When framed comically, perspective by incongruity establishes a
frame of acceptance that re-moralizes a situation as we reach what Burke describes as
maximum consciousness. The Guerrilla Girls protest art publicly chastise and seek to
embarrass rather than spark violence (153). By casting our own and societys failures into a
comic light, the Guerrilla Girls are able to address dominant ideologies without destroying them.

Mawer 10
Appendix A

Mawer 11
Appendix B

Appendix C

Mawer 12

Appendix D

Appendix E

Mawer 13

Appendix F

Appendix G

Mawer 14
Works Cited
Adams, G. (2009, April 9). Guerrilla girl power: Have Americas feminist artists sold out? The
Independent. Retrieved from
Allen, J.M., Faigley, L. (1995). Discursive Strategies for Social ChangeL An Alternative
Rhetoric of Argument. Rhetoric Review, 14(1), pp. 142-172.
Burke, K (1984). Attitudes toward history (3rd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Demo, A.T. (2000). The guerilla girls comic politics of subversion. Womens Studies in
Communication , 23(2), pp. 133-155.
Guerrilla Girls. (2010). Our story. Retrieved from
Guerrilla Girls. (2010). Frequently asked questions.
Guerrilla Girls (1998). The guerilla girls beside companion to the history of western art. New
York: Penguin Books.
Irigrary, L. (1985). The power of discourse and the subordination of the feminine. In This
sex which is not one (pp. 68-85). Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Powell, K. (1995). The association of southern women for the preservation of lynching:
Strategies of a movement in the comic frame. Communication Quarterly, 43(1), pp. 8699.
Withers, J. (1988). The guerilla girls. Feminist Studies, 14(2), pp. 285-299.
Wood, J. (2011). Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender and Culture. Boston: Wadsworth.