Jess de Wahls: banned from the RA shop. Credit: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty

June 22, 2021   5 mins

It took 250 years for the Royal Academy of Arts to embrace women as something close to equal members. It took eight complaints for the RA to trash a female artist’s reputation and pull her work from its shop last week. The problem was not with the work itself, unless you’re the kind of person who is virulently offended by roses, dahlias and butterfly peas. The problem was with the woman.

Jess De Wahls is an embroiderer, and the RA used to stock a range of her iron-on patches in floral designs, all ready to turn your favourite jeans into a work of art. For De Wahls, this was not a particularly big deal. The RA’s order was small, and as someone who sees herself outside the mainstream art world (“I don’t give a fuck about art institutions — I’m a trained hairdresser,” she says), winning the Academy’s approval held limited cachet.

For the RA, though, it seemed to be a success: it had just reordered her patches when the trouble started. And the trouble started because of a small number of people for whom it was unconscionable that De Wahls should have anything at all. De Wahls, they claimed, was a transphobe, and simply by having her work in its shop, the RA was condoning hatred of trans people. The RA contacted De Wahls, informed her it had received complaints then apparently panicked, and pulled the stock.


And what had De Wahls actually done to make herself untouchable? In 2019, she published a long, considered essay laying out her thoughts on gender identity. “My hope is that this will help you, the reader, the viewer, to understand my conclusions about this subject,” she wrote. “And I will tell you them candidly so no mistake can be made in misunderstanding or misrepresenting me.” As anyone who has ever ventured an opinion on gender could tell you, this was always a vain hope given the torrents of bad faith that run through this subject.

So it didn’t matter how precise De Wahls was when she wrote: “I have no issue with somebody who feels more comfortable expressing themselves as if they are the other sex (or in whatever way they please for that matter).” It didn’t matter that she described her own close and supportive relationship with her father, who lives a gloriously gender-nonconforming life in heels and lipstick. It didn’t matter that De Wahls, who was a child in pre-unification East Germany, drew parallels between the chilling propriety of gender-identity dogma and the constant self-censorship demanded by life under the stasi.

What mattered was that she had said no, and no amount of thoughtfulness or articulacy can make female refusal inoffensive. “I can not accept people’s unsubstantiated assertions that they are in fact the opposite sex to when they were born and deserve to be extended the same rights as if they were born as such,” De Wahls stated, and in doing so she asserted both an internal and an external boundary: a boundary that said she would not automatically treat male people as though they were female, and a boundary that said she would not think of male people as though they were female.

Perhaps not all the horror this elicited was genuine. Some, surely, came from fellow artists who were glad of a way to hobble a competitor in a fierce market. But the taboo she broke was so profound, the RA found it inarguable once it was brought to its attention. “The RA is committed to equality, diversity and inclusion and does not knowingly support artists who act in conflict with these values,” it said in a statement. Although you can still buy a book about child-rape enthusiast Gauguin and prolific mistress-abuser Picasso.

Or maybe “equality, diversity and inclusion” simply aren’t on offer for a Tahitian teenager who ends up at the wrong end of an artist’s syphilitic penis. There’s an argument which used to be made (and thankfully isn’t so much anymore) than an artist’s special role in society sets him (always a him, in this argument) beyond the norms of bourgeois decency: if it cost Picasso “the blood of those who loved him” (in the words of his granddaughter Marina) to produce that tasteful cubist nude so you can hang a print of it in your living room, then so be it.

That, clearly, is an abhorrent position. More convincing is the argument that art itself should be permitted to shock. It’s a tradition that the RA has made itself home to. Back in 1997, it offered the Sensation exhibition. This was where you could see Marcus Harvey’s “Myra” — a portrait of the murderer Hindley, compiled from children’s handprints. It also included one of Marc Quinn’s “Self” sculptures, which recreated the artist’s own head using ten pints of frozen blood, and the Chapman brothers supplied child mannequins with phalluses attached to the face or anuses for mouths.

All of this is much more disturbing than De Wahls’ beautifully detailed flowers. There was genuine outrage, not just a few huffy messages: protesters vandalised the Hindley portrait. But the RA stood by it. When challenged about the distress caused to the families of Hindley’s victims, the then-chief of exhibitions said the portrait “raises interesting questions
 about the exploitation of children in our society”.  A quarter of a century later, it seems the RA would now be more likely to take the side of those throwing eggs at Harvey’s work than to defend artististic expression.

But then, De Wahls is a woman, and historically the RA has always found decency a useful weapon for excluding women: it deemed women too delicate to take part in life drawing classes except as models, and so denied them a complete artistic education, which in turn justified keeping them out of any significant role in running the Academy. (As artist-activists the Guerilla Girls demanded in 1989: do women have to be naked to get into a gallery?) Not until 2011 did any woman achieve the rank of Professor in the RA, and it took another five years before Sonia Boyce became the first black female Academician.

In the past it was offensive for a woman to see a human body; now it’s offensive for her to name it. Decorum has always had a handy way of falling more heavily on women. The genius of gender identity doctrine has been to reinvent etiquette as politics. To assert the inarguable fact that humans are born with a sex and have that sex for life — regardless of how they dress, act or feel about themselves — is the most scandalous thing De Wahls could have done in 2021.

No one is really offended because they believe her statement to be untrue. Everybody knows, functionally, that sex is real and significant: even the most assertive of gender identity ideologues finds that genitals do not exist on an unknowable spectrum when they’re actually in bed, and they can all somehow figure out which kind of person should be called a bigot and denied an income. They are offended because a woman is not supposed to say the things De Wahls did. A woman today is not even supposed to acknowledge that she’s a woman, unless it’s to prostrate herself with guilt for her supposed “cis privilege”.

Some privilege, to have your reputation trashed and your work deemed toxic on the strength of eight complaints. De Wahls — who could surely bring a compelling libel case here — has so far only said that she wants an apology from the RA. And while the RA has refused to defend or even discuss its decision making, public opinion seems to have swung behind De Wahls, who says she has been inundated with supportive messages and direct orders through her website.

But for every woman able to stare down her bullies with the resilience of De Wahls, there are dozens for whom the ostracism and the financial penalties are too much to bear. Gender identity doctrine is a kind of sexism that, by making sex unnamable, places itself cleverly beyond criticism. It’s the same old misogyny, refined and perfected, conveniently emerging just as feminism succeeded in making direct sex discrimination untenable. The Royal Academicians of the past, with their frantic contortions to resist the “female invasion”, would surely have nothing but admiration for this new way to keep women down.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.