#MeToo, the analog way: Survivors tell their stories with ‘The Clothesline Project’

A bilingual installation on violence against women at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

CREDIT: Photo by Kevin Allen/Courtesy of National Museum of Women in the Arts
CREDIT: Photo by Kevin Allen/Courtesy of National Museum of Women in the Arts

The notecards are pink. Not the tongue-in-cheek, more-salmon-than-sweet millennial pink, not fairy princess pink, not the hushed, ballet pink favored by everyone from Elif Batuman to Ivanka Trump. They’re hot pink. Neon. That bright, Mean GirlsLegally Blonde, exclamation-pointed pink. Loud and aggressively girly.

They hang from string in parallel rows, clipped up by clothespins like laundry from the line. Questions in Spanish and English are typed across the top:

“Have you ever experienced violence or harassment as a woman? What happened?” 

“¿Has denunciado o denunciarías el maltrato o acoso como mujer? ¿Por qué?”

“As a woman, where do you feel safe? Why?” 

“¿Qué has hecho o qué podrías hacer en contra de la violencia hacia las mujeres?”

“As a woman, how did you or how could you regain your joy after experiencing violence or harassment?” 

The answers are sublime and wrenching and defiant and ordinary. One woman wrote that, to reclaim her joy, she “accepted it” — harassment and violence — “as a part of life and tried to ignore it as much as possible. (It’s been pretty depressing.)” Another approach, articulated magnificently: “I masturbated to the thought of my own supreme beauty.” One woman was raped “at the young age of 16. Hurt never goes away.” “I am a survivor of domestic violence,” one wrote. “I was raped, beaten, gaslit, robbed, and invaded. I survived. I told the truth.”

There were 450 cards on the wall the day I visited “El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, a site-specific installation that Mexico City-based artist Mónica Mayer first implemented back in 1978 to spark community conversations around the way women experience violence that she has since taken throughout Mexico, South America, and the United States. In its Washington home, the exhibit is about a ten minute walk from the White House, which is currently occupied by an alleged sexual predator.

Melani Douglass, NMWA’s director of public programs, told me about the color choice when I visited the exhibit the Friday before Thanksgiving. (In our Advent Calendar of Alleged Male Abusers, that’s post-Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, and Al Franken, but pre-Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and John Lassater, to give an abbreviated list.) Pale pink was an option, but if the walls hadn’t been dark, the cards would “fall into the white.” Hot pink “pops,” she said. “And it forces people to step outside of their need to classify, and to totally define: pink, woman, weak, soft, gentle, cute. There’s no way you can look at some of these stories on some of these pink cards and think it’s cute. This is serious work.”

“There’s no way you can look at some of these stories on some of these pink cards and think it’s cute. This is serious work.”

The exhibit is built to provide maximum agency for people who have had agency stripped from them at least once, or maybe all the time, in these insidious, almost-invisible ways. If you visit, you don’t have to write anything. Then again, you could answer every question. You could stay there for hours. You could breeze right through. You could sit in this little antechamber space, where signs on the wall explain the exhibit’s backstory and purpose, without ever confronting these testimonies. You could participate online if you decide you want to be seen without being seen.

“I’m a survivor of sexual assault,” Douglass said. “So to me, it is very important that the space offers a certain amount of care. That people can come and have levels of entry. They may decide to participate. They may decide not to.”

She’s seen a whole range of engagement with the project, which at present feels a little like “#MeToo Live,” even though it predates both the original Me Too movement started by social activist Tarana Burke in 2007 and the hashtagged revival, popularized by actress Alyssa Milano in mid-October as waves of women came forward to announce that they, too, had been victimized by Weinstein.

Douglass knows Burke and remembers how it felt to hear that “me too” all those years ago. “It was the first time as a survivor that… there was a phrase that was long enough to connect, but short enough to actually get it out.” When the hashtag flooded social media this fall, Douglass said, “The scale of it was just overwhelming. But I also feel like, a lot of people feel that scale of being overwhelmed every single day by themselves.”

The questions on the cards come from the specific community where “The Clothesline Project” temporarily resides — this time, from workshops sponsored by NMWA with activists in D.C. and Baltimore — and participants write their own answers and add them to the display. Some questions repeat, but others are unique to each setting, surprising even the artist: Mayer hadn’t ever seen a question about reclaiming joy make its way into the installation until this D.C. stop. It struck me that the dialogue around sexual violence, understandably so, is often justice-centric: How do we hold abusers accountable? And in this context, it’s like emotional triage. Joy can like a frivolous thing to think about.

“At least, speaking from my own experience, those moments of joy are even more intensified” if you’re a survivor, said Douglass. “Because you have seen the depths of your own suffering, or your own anguish. So to not have joy is more of a death sentence, you know? It’s important that it’s included. And it’s an important question to ask people. What is the active pursuit of your own joy? And to remind people that that’s a part of the process. It’s a part of why we’re here.”

In our conversation, Douglass acknowledged the project’s limitations. “It’s not a courtroom. It’s not a therapists’ couch.” There’s a resource page for survivors on the museum’s website and on site, but the museum does not provide survivor services directly.

So far, there’s one card that “stands out to me the most,” Douglass said. It reads: “Unfortunately, I’ve been raped 3x. I’m ok though.”

CREDIT: Jessica M. Goldstein
CREDIT: Jessica M. Goldstein

“That’s so layered,” she said. “That gets so deep into what we’re told about healing, what we’re told about being a woman, what we’re told about pink, this whole, ‘whatever you do, make it cute, or clean it up.’ And it just speaks to the vastness of the healing process… In a very short comment, someone talks about this tragedy and then you see how they’re even trying to process it. People could sit around for days and try to unpack that one card.”

“It leaves you with a lot of questions,” Douglass went on. “And we need those questions. Because if we’re going to heal as a society, if we’re going to really transform things… we’ve got to ask some hard questions. There’s going to be a paradox of things, where on one page someone can speak of being raped three times and say, ‘I’m okay,’ that’s a paradox. And what do we do with that, when that is the reality of what we’re working with? These are some extremes that we’re trying to heal from.”

“El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project” is on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., through January 5, 2018.