Cancer Sucks: The Honest Death of Tutu the Feminist Performance Artist
On 28 March, the feminist performance artist Tutu passed away after a long, well-documented battle with breast cancer. Eager to comprehensively and honestly document her experience Tutu had enlisted photographer Ashley Savage to document the treatment process. In the Cancer Sucks series Savage photographs Tutu: shaving her hair off in pre-chemo defiance; after early biopsy surgery; during and after chemotherapy; and most notably, naked, post mastectomy looking happy and very much in love with her girlfriend.
This isn’t a fake happy, sugarcoated moment; this is honesty at its most extreme. This isn’t pretending to the outside world that there isn’t suffering going on underneath it all. (The media has constantly been telling us ladies that if we feel pain and suffering, it is because we are weak – remember the Bodyform adverts in the 90’s? If you weren’t ready to bungee jump the second after you got your period, you were clearly using the wrong type of tampon because Bodyform ladies, are always ready to roll...) Instead, This is the empowerment of fighting the pain and fighting the suffering and being proud of the fact that one can will herself to fight when the human body turns on itself in such a visceral way.
Stephanie Theobald’s article in The Guardian about Tutu speaks of the criticisms of the ‘pinkification’ of breast cancer charities and how by cutesy-ing the image of a charity, it does not truly reflect the struggles of a person dealing with breast cancer (using pink as a means to gender identify is wrong in itself anyway, but also wrong considering breast cancer can affect anyone, of any gender identification). Theobald discusses how the pink ribbon didn’t even originate as pink, it became pink after it became corporate, as market research suggested that pink was the colour that was least threatening to people. It makes perfect sense, in this case, that women like Tutu wished to reject such nonsense and send out signals that were really threatening. Signals that showed they were ready to fight cancer!
When writer (and personal all time most-awesome icon of mine) Kathy Acker was diagnosed with breast cancer, she gave interviews about how she felt personally betrayed by her own body. As if the cancer was a violation of her own body’s making, which must take a lot to get one’s head around. So what did Acker do? She made her mind take control of her body once again and purposely violated it herself by getting her labia pierced. Acker was determined to show herself and the world that she was still in control. Sadly she too died of her disease in 1997, but Tutu and Acker never let cancer define them. They showed us that if we don’t feel pink and non-threatening then we don’t have to act that way, we can be like them instead and fight on our own terms. Today, I find this inspiring.