Protest is dangerous, but feminists have a long history of using humour, pranks and stunts to promote their message

Protest was dangerous in feminism’s formative years.

The suffragettes in the United Kingdom initially began by trying to persuade and educate to win women the right to vote.

When that didn’t work they became frustrated – and, by 1903, radical.

By the 1910s, they adopted militant tactics, with women on hunger strikes being force-fed in prison.

It climaxed in 1913 when Emily Wilding Davidson, holding the suffragette flag, stepped in front of the horse of King George V at the Epsom Derby.

Her funeral, reportedly watched by 50,000 people, gave a global profile to the women’s right-to-vote campaign.

But while protest was very dangerous for first-wave feminists, subsequent Western activists often adopted pranks.

There is an adage that feminists and women aren’t funny. However, the history of activism reveals humour as a successful strategy for change.

Here are four great contemporary feminist pranks that demonstrate the power of humour for advocacy.

1. A chain reaction

On March 31 1965, feminist activists Rosalie Bogner and Merle Thornton walked into Brisbane’s Regatta hotel, chaining themselves to the foot rail of the front bar.

They were protesting the exclusion of women from Queensland public bars.

The police were called, smashed the padlock, and told them to leave. They refused.

After some bemused and sympathetic men gave them glasses of beer, the officer gave up, telling the women to have “a good time” and “don’t drink too much”.

They inspired women nationally to do the same. Laws had changed across Australia by the early 1970s.

According to historian Kay Saunders, it was the “beginning of second-wave feminism” in Australia.

Read more: Brazen Hussies: a new film captures the heady, turbulent power of Australia's women's liberation movement

2. Guerrilla Girls

In 1985, the New York activist group Guerrilla Girls began their quest to counter the art world’s sexism, racism and inequality. They used gorilla masks to remain anonymous and emphasise that the message was paramount, not the activist.

Guerrilla Girls famously erected posters and placed stickers protesting the lack of women in art galleries, asking “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?”

Humour and statistics enhanced awareness, got people involved, and illuminated issues such as how few women of colour have their work exhibited.

Since the Guerrilla Girls began four decades ago, their messages have continued to spread and hold institutions accountable. They have expanded their mission to important causes such as poverty and war, while continuing to change the art world’s attitudes and to merging art and politics.

But the gender imbalance in art galleries is still a global issue. This is currently being countered with initiatives such as the National Gallery of Australia’s Know My Name campaign and efforts to write women back into art history.

Read more: Why weren't there any great women artists? In gratitude to Linda Nochlin

3. Switcheroo

In 1993 the Barbie Liberation Organization undertook a Christmas prank, swapping the voice boxes of 50 Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls.

G.I. Joe now said “I love to shop with you” or “Let’s plan our dream wedding”. Barbie hollered “Dead men tell no lies” or “Attack!”.

With an aim to teach children about stereotypes, the spectacle made a huge media splash for the cause.

The tactic is known as “shop-dropping”. The activist bought, altered and then dropped the dolls back on the shelves.

The organisation arranged for children to comment to the media on gender stereotyping, and the press reported there were hundreds of dolls instead of just 50.

Although impact is hard to measure, the prank created unprecedented media attention leading to the visibility of the organisation’s issues based video. It questioned the status quo regarding what girls can do and should think, promoting social change in exposing how toys shape ideology.

It revealed the impact of gender stereotypes and their insidious sexism; the way war toys are role models; and the need for playthings to be more inclusive and diverse.

Mattel, the company that makes Barbie, did not react, but later released toys indicating it had received the message. These include the Inspiring Women series featuring the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Ella Fitzgerald and Jane Goodall.

Read more: My talk with Jane Goodall: vegetarianism, animal welfare and the power of children’s advocacy

4. Sausage fest!

At the 2016 Australian Film Institute’s premier event, the AACTA Awards, protesters from Women in Film and Television NSW blocked the red carpet dressed as sausages and chanting “end the sausage party”.

The event was livestreamed on Facebook after security gave them access, thinking they were part of the event.

The women were protesting for a quota system to improve the number of women working in the film and television industries.

They wanted to highlight a lack of feature film judging transparency, the low proportion of nominations for women, and how few films were directed and driven by female creatives.

Only 20% of Australian-funded feature films have a female director. AACTA does not fund films and it is therefore the broader industry that urgently needs to lift female participation.

Since the sausage prank, AACTA entry forms also ask about the diversity of the filmmakers, triggering producers to reflect on inclusion in their films.

AACTA has also changed its eligibility rules, engaging with Women in Film and Television to expand eligibility beyond just films that received a theatrical release.

This reduced barriers to entry; opportunities for women and diverse filmmakers are more frequently in independent or low-budget sectors, which don’t always attain release in commercial cinemas. This change in eligibility was reported as allowing greater inclusion and diversity.

Recognition across society has come from a long line of feminist pranksters. But slow progress means there is still a long way to go to achieve equality and equity.

Read more: Women aren't the problem in the film industry, men are

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Lisa French, RMIT University.

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Lisa French does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.