In September 2014, Emma Sulkowicz made headlines for carrying a mattress around Columbia University as part of a senior art project. It was a work of endurance performance art intended to protest her university’s lack of response to her reported sexual assault. The publicity she received speaks volumes to her success in depicting the invisible emotional burden carried by the victims of sexual assault in a way which was broadly meaningful. But in light of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and related social changes, it seems appropriate to consider the lasting effects of Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight).
One of the important lessons from Mattress Performance and MeToo/TimesUp is that victims of sexual assault are often not listened to or taken seriously about the attack. Which goes for the rich and famous as well. It is not that these people are just now speaking up; many of them have been working for years to get their stories out. The problem is that society, the media, and often friends and the police largely ignored them. That began to change.
Sulkowicz brought the conversation about sexual assault and society’s response to the fore in ways which have resonated and grown. She experienced success in an area where others struggled and this is an accomplishment which deserves acknowledgment and contemplation. Fortunately, attitudes have shifted and many more victims’ voices have contributed to the conversation. But it is still worth considering the source of Sulkowicz’s success so that others can learn from her example.
A key difference seems to be that Mattress Performance moves past the actual rape and asks, “What now?” The performance was not focused on her assailant or the incident but Columbia University and its refusal to respond in a way that she and many others felt appropriate. What she was drawing attention to is a problem many victims face. Having endured a horrific event and discovered that there is no responsible way to have the situation addressed appropriately, they have few options but to continue on with their life. Given abundant evidence that nobody will help them fix the problems with society, which allowed the violation to happen in the first place, many resign themselves to silence.
Accepting that she could not have the conversation she wanted to, Emma Sulkowicz instead tried to show how not having that conversation made her feel. And succeeded brilliantly. What many people were able to see in her performance is that the shame of the victim is our shame, evidence of how society failed them twice. This contributed to a shift in thinking which prepared people for #MeToo. The victims speaking out are still being met with criticism and resistance, but it is significant progress that they are even being heard. Sulkowicz has made clear that she is not looking to repeatedly tell the story about being assaulted.
Carrying the mattress was an important metaphor. Sulkowicz picked a sizable challenge and succeeded and people love a success story.
In my opinion, the implied message is that she can do it on her own but prefers help. Which may be a useful lesson. We believed that Sulkowicz was capable of walking around Columbia with a mattress because we saw photographs of her doing it. And in the same way, we know that the celebrities speaking up about abuse are capable of leading highly successful lives because we have already seen the evidence of it. But whatever their mattress is, they need to explain it in order for people to offer help (or make it obvious, which can happen).
So perhaps it is worth following Emma Sulkowicz’s lead and moving beyond “me too,” which focuses on victim identity and trauma, to a “mattress conversation,” which focuses on the challenges and successes of life after a traumatic event. This would serve both to help victims have a difficult conversation more comfortably and, in the case of high-profile people, provide useful role models for other victims to follow. Hopefully, a time is close when the victims of sexual assault won’t need emotional support for how they have been shamed and ignored. But until society is ready to make that change, maybe somebody can help them carry their mattress.