"Unchained" Explores The Power of Womanhood In Its Many Different Forms
LA-based creative Alexa Penn has an eye for detail and a voice for the masses. Using her creativity to bring awareness and harness support for all types of people, Penn says her body of work, whether personal or not, “embodies this strength, a sense of independence, and empowers people against adversity. [Her] approach to fashion challenges the norm, accepts the individual, and provides a platform for celebrating us all.” If it wasn’t already obvious, this is one mission statement we can get behind without hesitation. Perfectly timed for Women’s History Month, Penn has a new photo project up her sleeve that we’re now premiering on Milk.xyz: “Unchained”. Exploring the power of womanhood and its ability to overcome Western beauty ideals, “Unchained” embodies the spirit of female empowerment and breaking down gender norms. We sat down with Penn to talk more about what womanhood means to her, how she ensures diverse casting, and the specific challenges that women in film face.
Why do you think it’s important, as an image creator and content producer, to feel the responsibility to represent all types of people regardless of race, sexual orientation, disability, or body type?
For me, I think it’s important for all kinds of people to be represented in the industry so that they feel like their stories are being told and that their lives are important. If we stay in this lane of seeing the same white, cisgender, straight person in the media we are telling everyone else that basically you do not have power or the possibility to make it big, or you are not beautiful enough because you look different from me. I have a rare auto-immune disease called Juvenile Dermatomyositis. Nobody would know that just by looking at me, but when I was at my worst, having gained so much weight from the medications, I remember that I felt so ugly because I didn’t look like all these girls I had looked up to anymore. It really affected my self-esteem for a long time, but then I grew up and into myself and made this decision that fashion, photography, and the art world can have the power to help me, not hurt me. There’s a revolution happening right now in the industry, and I hope it continues so that little girls don’t grow up feeling hurt or have so many harsh expectations for themselves.
What does being a woman mean to you?
Being a woman means that I am the most powerful person in the world right now, but it also means I have a world full of sisters who have it a lot harder than I do. My fight isn’t over if other women are still hurting too.
How can artists use their work to create a more transparent and meaningful narrative?
I think it’s all about continuity. Representing different forms of identity isn’t something that can be “trendy” for the moment because people are “bored” of seeing the same thing. POC, disabled, plus-size, queer, trans, gender-neutral are NOT the exception but should be integrated into this industry. This narrative of including all forms of life needs to be regularly assessed. Artists, designers, and its audiences should take on the responsibility of checking themselves and each other to establish permanent roles for all individuals in the industry, rather than only representing them for only one season or one magazine cover. That’s when the industry will be more transparent. I’m just tired of seeing that one girl representing a whole world of women. Yass you go girl, but come on let’s flood the streets of Paris with some thicc ass women!
How can people practice these values in their daily life?
By staying educated! Remain in the know and continue the conversation. It’s really important to take the time to sit with people and listen to their experiences so that we can learn from them. By putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, you learn to empathize with what they are going through. Another thing is ownership! If you’re called out for something you said because it hurt an individual or a group, you have to learn why it was wrong, apologize, and actively do better. Support people! That’s what everyone should do.
You noted that “Unchained” specifically challenges the roles of women in film—how did you accomplish this through your photographs?
For this shoot, I was particularly drawn to how women and POC’s are typically portrayed in Western films. Women are only seen as the damsel in distress and POC’s are often casted as the enemy. So I was like “f*ck that”! Ladies and POC make the world go round! I really just played against those stereotypes by allowing the girls to strip down at the end of the day and tapping into their psyche. I told Helya to laugh all the pain away while she held a gun, and that image is so insanely powerful. Ultimately, hire more female directors and writers! I’d bet big money that content will get much more interesting.
What was the casting process like for this project?
Some of these girls are my friends and some I reached out to on Instagram! Casting is really hard because I have a small group of peers in LA and I get shy reaching out to people I don’t know, which is something I need to work on. I like to just share when I’m shooting and my beliefs and my shoot details with people, so if they want to model or be a part of a project, they know that I’m always someone they can reach out to! I want to continuously be more and more inclusive, so if you know of anyone who wants to model or play dress up, DM me!
Is there a specific woman you look up to in the media?
Ugh I have so many, but I love Trace Lysette. She’s a trans woman and activist from the TV show Transparent. She recently accused Jeffrey Tambor, the lead star of the show, of sexually harassing her on set. I thought that was brave because she is risking her career to help other trans women speak out against their perpetrators. She also just makes the funniest videos on Instagram of her talking to her plants. She’s just a badass and her commentary is legendary.
Is there a specific woman you look up to in your personal life?
All the women who have helped raise me are some of the most fearless people I know. They made me, so you know they have to be incredibly strong and patient for that job.
What has been your favorite moment for women this year?
I think all the women running for office. Elizabeth Warren and Maxine Waters not allowing men to reprimand them or cut them off. Danica Roem became the first openly transgender woman elected to the US state legislature. She won against Republican, Bob Marshall, one of the lawmakers who tried to push for the Transgender Bathroom Bill. Karma is everything!
Art Director: Alexa Penn
Assistant Art Director: Skyler Terrebone
Stay tuned to Milk for more pioneering women creatives.