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Interview: Arvida Byström

published on 23 September 2014

Photographer and artist Arvida Byström discusses gender, feminism and Tumblr in a candid interview with Lou Stoppard.

Photographer and artist Arvida Byström discusses gender, feminism and Tumblr in a candid interview with Lou Stoppard.

Lou Stoppard: Why do you think 'girly', childish aesthetics - pink, stickers, glitter and frills - are so popular at the moment?

Arvida Byström: I think it's because loads of females (particularly white females, sadly enough) have more power today than ever before in history, so I'd say people are reclaiming and appropriating this aesthetic and bringing more seriousness and status to it.

LS: Tell me about your work. Is it a part of this movement or does it come from somewhere else?

AB: I'd say I come out of a moment, no one is an isolated genius. Or at least I don't believe in that cliché. The internet, and especially Tumblr, have been really important to me. Loads of people taught me stuff about feminism there, and they also called out my 'whiteness' and stuff. I'd say there are loads of people there who are finding these aesthetics of our childhoods or the things we felt we couldn't be a part of and reclaiming it and bringing it to a new, more open queer level.

LS: You say people called you out on your whiteness. What do you mean? And what did that teach you?

AB: Well basically it taught me I'm very privileged. I think it has made me humble when it comes to any success I gain. Like, I may be a girl, but I'm a fairly normative looking one, and white and all, which means I'm very welcome in many situations and circles. Now when I'm working with others, I try not to work only with white people. Since I have certain amount of respect within the creative industries I have the power to show work I like and it would be very sad if I only highlighted white people. But many people do because people are unconsciously racist. Then in my private life I try to listen to poc (people of colour) and their stories and not to question them if they feel they've been treated in a racist way.

LS: Do you see yourself as someone who is reclaiming femininity?

AB: Yes, in a way.

LS: But is there an oddness to grown woman emulating the looks or styles of children or pre-teens?

AB: So I am a believer in that idea that one isn't born a girl, one becomes one. When it comes to age it's pretty much the same. There are certain things people usually start to do at certain ages, like walking and talking, getting their periods etc. But when it comes to social behaviours there is loads of evidence that shows society creates different ideas of what it is ok to do at what stage in life. Say for example when it's ok to have sex (which really varies in different countries, religions etc), when you are too old to wear a crop top and that when you are 60 you shouldn't talk about sex or be sexual. So there is nothing biological about kids loving pink. These aesthetics were really important to my childhood, they both affected me in positive and negative ways. I just feel there is so much power in it. Just in the anger loads of people have towards pink and girly stuff and how people don't take it seriously. It's weird and interesting. I guess the oddness to me is how an aesthetic can be so tied to a certain age.

My point is that I would prefer the world to be filled with glitter and fake princesses rather than cars and guns.

LS: You say that you 'become a girl' and girls don't like pink because of some biological reason, so do you think that it's in any way wrong then to champion things (pink, glitter etc) that are essentially forced onto girls to fit with society's gender traditions and expectations? Girls are pushed into certain identities by being targeted with pink dolls and bears not cars or trucks. By celebrating pink are we celebrating that?

AB: Well, yes we are celebrating that. But my point is that I would prefer the world to be filled with glitter and fake princesses rather than cars and guns.

LS: Would this current girly fascination have occurred without the internet?

AB: Yes, it was around with the Riot Grrrls right? So yes, it was around already I'd say.

LS: Do you see parallels then between Riot Grrrl and what is happening now? Or do the ideas and looks come from different places and perspectives?

AB: Yes, of course. But it's that thing with thesis, antithesis and syntheses. So things are slowly evolving but we wouldn't be here without the Riot Grrrl movement, the second wave feminist, black power and gay movements or without the suffragette movement in the early twentieth century.

LS: What does it say about the state of feminism today that smart woman are dressing themselves up like fragile dolls in clothing that resembles traditional, submissive femininity?

AB: I would say it's not traditional submissive femininity. Like, I'm reading loads about selfies at the moment because i'm going to have this talk with a Swedish blogger who's blogging about the making of gender in photography. So we're gonna have a discussion about selfies on Fotografiska (a Swedish museum for photography). One argument about the selfies on Instagram is that the stream and account of a person will always show a bigger picture than just one selfie. It will show that person's history, which makes that selfie less of an isolated, objectifying photo. I kind of feel the same with people wanting to represent themselves in girly dresses. If there actually is a person and not just a cardboard flat character in a movie dressing in girly stuff, then I think people will see that it's actually physically possible to act in loads of interesting ways in a pink dress.

LS: Why are you so drawn to Tumblr as a medium?

AB: I kind of touched on that before. I don't hang out there as much as I used to. But I've been online for a great while, you know, being one of the first generations to grow up with the internet. I always been introverted and the internet has been a great way for me to communicate my art and teach myself about politics. Tumblr was just a great way to meet more people and learn more and also a very powerful way for me to put together an aesthetic world without having to shoot all the photos myself. It's nice and collective like that.

LS: What do you hope your work says to young women?

AB: That everyone, regardless of gender, can be fabulous and be serious in pink, glitter, dresses and make up. And that all bodies are beautiful.

LS: Do you think the girly trend is exacerbating the idea that girls are inherently different to boys, that they like soft, sweet things etc?

AB: Well to me it's not about girls. I want to work more with different genders - I already do sometimes. I really don't think girly aesthetics are biologically tied to a gender.

LS: How do you want to be seen, as a woman?

AB: Not as a woman. But as a person, who in some situations might be identifying herself as a woman, with loads of different sides. Competent sometimes, in need of help others. Sometimes happy, sometimes depressed. Sometimes pleasing, sometimes with no intention or interest in making people feel comfortable. Just simply a person with many different sides, like everyone.

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