Art, Activism and “The Ideal Woman”

Artist, Norman Chernick-Zeitlin discusses privilege, sexism and summer in East Hampton and how defacing school property at his Jewish day school was actually a form of activism.


Ma’yan: Today is the first day of fall.  This beach scene looks like a close to the summer.  What’s going on in this image?

Norman Chernick-Zeitlin: It’s a representation of something I saw on the beach last summer in East Hampton. I was sitting on the beach surrounded by the usual East Hampton crowd of young Deloitte employees older couples reading novels and families when I noticed  two girls sitting kind of apart, in neon bikinis.  And one looked at the other and said “we would look so cute eating Popsicles right now”.  It was a funny thing to overhear someone say–to see those girls so consciously thinking about the show they had to put on. The background is kind of blank, because there didn’t seem to be a specific target for their “cute” performance of eating Popsicles.

Ma’yan: Is it sad or funny? 

NCZ: Both.  And kind of “cute”.  

Ma’yan: What other kinds of cartoons have you drawn?

NCZ: All kinds of satirical cartoons about things going on around me.  I went to high school at Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox day school.  I drew the teachers, classmates, situations I’ve experienced. It was a way of communicating stories with my friends during class.  Except for when it was on the walls.

Ma’yan: What was on the walls? 

NCZ: I drew a cartoon of “the ideal woman”.  It was an over-exaggeration of the ideal aesthetic for women at that time:  a naked, emaciated woman who looked like she’d had all liquids, all life, sucked out of her.  I drew it on desks and in stairwells. It was meant to expose the bodily effects of expectations for how women had to look.  This was 2005, the time of Paris Hilton and Nicole Ricci, who were both emaciated, and the expectation was that women had to look like that.  But now that you are allowed to have a butt things are looking up?

Ma’yan: Why did you choose to draw this on high school walls?

NCZ: A lot of girls in our high school were suffering from eating disorders.  Everyone was under a lot of pressure to do well in school, to get into ivy league schools, to be skinny, to dress in clothes with the right labels, to be Jewishly observant in just the right way— basically to be perfect.  Girls used to walk around tired from starving themselves; from not sleeping from studying so much. 

I wanted teachers and students to see a portrait of how our school environment, and our culture in general, was capable of making women physically weak.

Ma’yan: How did the administration react?

NCZ: Eventually I was called into the office.  This is ridiculous but I told them that I was a communist and wouldn’t make extra work for the janitors.  I don’t know if they believed me.  I guess now I’d claim this as activism and not shy away from authority.

Ma’yan: So this was a kind of activism?

NCZ: It was a kind of public criticism.  It was a way of raising awareness about unfair pressures that female students faced.

Ma’yan: The cartoons we’ve discussed are set in environments of privilege: the beach in East Hampton, a private school on the Upper East Side—how does class and privilege factor into your social criticism?

NCZ: Do we have enough time for this? There was a pervasive cluelessness about wealth and privilege and inequality in high school and certainly in East Hampton.  (Or maybe a wilful ignorance?)

Anyway, having privilege did not preclude these girls from feeling the effects of sexism.  I’m not saying that their struggle is greater than or as great as the struggles of people from less privileged backgrounds.  But this environment created a lot its own kinds of pressures for women and girls.

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