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“Dial down the feminism” creator Alex Bertulis-Fernandes on the aftermath of going viral

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Alex Bertulis-Fernandes

After a particularly poignant comment from a tutor in class, student creative and writer Alex Bertulis-Fernandes made a piece in response that ended up going viral on Twitter. Her artwork, Dial Down The Feminism, was featured in The Guardian, Dazed, Newsweek and Time, and prompted a barrage of online commentary. So what happens when something you create goes viral, and what is it like to experience the aftermath, long after the Twitter world has moved on? We spoke to Alex to find out her perspective.

First off could you explain what happened?
I was in my final term of my foundation diploma in art and design, where you work on a personal project. I was interested in looking at the intersection between art and advertising, and how that can be used to advocate for social change. My tutor and I were talking about my idea to do something around the recent revelations around Harvey Weinstein and sexual misconduct in Hollywood, and he suggested I maybe dial down the feminism a bit. 

What was it about the work that he reacted to?
One of my pieces was a tribute to the Guerrilla Girls, The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist (1988). I did a version that was The Advantages of Being a Hollywood Actress. My art class is predominantly female, and a lot of the work can feature feminist themes, in sheer virtue of the way we experience the world. It’s an issue for us. For a lot of men, feminism is something they can choose to engage with, whereas for most women I know, whether they call it feminism or not, it’s something that directly affects them if they feel they’re not being treated equally.

What was your reaction to your tutor’s comment?
I went home and thought about it for a while. I wasn’t horrified – I know that teacher and he’s always been slightly provocative, but I was exasperated by the comment. So I decided to create something in response to it.

I’d been to the Mother London Not for Sale exhibition of their non-commercial work a few weeks earlier. I loved pieces like the Free the Feed campaign, where they used a giant nipple to try and normalise breastfeeding in public. I’d already started thinking about how I might use physical objects in my work. When I was thinking about the phrase my teacher used, I found myself fixating on the word “dial”, and wondering whether I could actually make a dial. I began to think, if there were a feminist dial, what would it look like? I decided to mock one up. I remembered a phrase “complicit in my own dehumanisation”, used by musician Kathleen Hanna, and placed it on one side of the dial. On the other side of the dial I put the phrase “raging feminist”, because that seems to be the general perception of feminism – one of anger. Although I don’t like the assumption that every feminist is perpetually angry, why wouldn’t we be, when we don’t have equality? I wanted my piece to reclaim the term “raging feminist”.

Tell us what happened next, and why you think the piece resonated online.
I put it on Twitter, because we’re encouraged to share our work, and it went viral. I think there were a few things at play. Firstly, I think the message of the piece resonated with women. Many women know what it’s like to be in a situation in which you’re encouraged to be “less feminist” or “dial it down” in some way – “it” being whatever isn’t considered palatable to those around you. I also shared this piece at a time in which feminism is becoming more mainstream, and we’re learning more and more about how pervasive gender inequality is, even in the western world. So it was quite timely in that respect.

I do think posting the story behind it helped. People love it, especially on Twitter, if anyone’s perceived as being vaguely disrespectful of authority. People love a clapback. It’s simple, and quick and easy to “get” and maybe that’s stemmed from my interest in advertising. My older work would’ve been more text-heavy and complicated. This is stripped back, which helps on social media, where everything is so immediate.

What’s been the good and bad of the reaction online?
The good has been having so many people engage with my work. I’ve been sharing stuff online sporadically over the past few years and got maybe 50 likes, max. It’s difficult to put yourself out there online, you question yourself all the time. So this response has been amazing. People have written to me, and publications like Newsweek interviewed me, and that blew my mind. Plus Mark Ruffalo retweeted it which was surreal. I’m happy it happened, and I’ve been offered opportunities off the back of it. It was featured in Airbnb’s International Women’s Day showcase, and was commissioned by The Sunday Times Style for IWD too. 

I live with anxiety, and my biggest fear in life is disappointing people. Before this happened, whenever I felt anxious I would fall back on the fact it was only a small audience that could be disappointed. So while having a bigger following has been amazing, it’s magnified the pressure and that’s difficult. I’ve had lots of requests for T-shirts, and I want to please as many people as possible with the design and sourcing. The anxiety is something I’m learning to manage; it’s a learning curve. I’ve shared work since then that’s received a lot more attention than it would’ve done before, but not as much as the dial. It makes me wonder, is the new work not as good? Have a peaked already at 23?! Ultimately though it’s been positive.

How did your tutor react to the whole episode?
I showed him the piece before I put it on Twitter. He liked it, he tends to like work that’s provocative or funny. Some people online saw it as a slap in the face to him, whereas he didn’t at all. Once it went viral I think he was a bit nervous, as you would be, but he’s been very supportive. I was lucky in that I never felt I’d be penalised for doing the opposite of what he suggested. Still, I would have made the piece anyway, even if I hadn’t known he’d be okay with it. If you can’t be true to yourself in your art, where can you be?

Alex was part of D&AD’s New Blood Shift London’s class of 2017 , an intense night school providing training and opportunities for young creatives without degrees to break into the industry, and is currently undertaking placements at various agencies and studios. The image of the dial is credited to Matt Gentile of Icon Deposit.