Goodbye Emma

Emma Bee Bernstein, a 23-year-old feminist photographer, died a couple of weeks ago. Jess and I both had the privilege of meeting her through her innovative project GIRLDrive, which we’ve blogged about previously. Emma and partner-in-crime, Nona Willis Aronowitz, hit the road and interviewed and photographed young women talking about their relationship to feminism. It morphed into a book which will be released on Seal Press in the near future. Read more about both Emma and Nona here.
I met Emma only twice, but her presence left a real impression on me. She had a quality of wild aliveness–animated about philosophy and art, dramatic about the ins and outs of her young, exciting life, literally bursting. She was beautiful, charismatic, dressed like a person who understood the playful capacity inherent in fashion, who liked to subvert people’s expectations about appropriateness or trendiness. The last time I saw her and Nona, Emma had just read my book, and showered me with the most generous and seemingly authentic praise. I remember leaving the meeting feeling ten feet tall. Emma, this bright young engaged artist, had called me a philosopher. I felt like my words were important.
I can only imagine that Emma made a lot of people feel this way–like their presence, their take on the world (feminism, art, music), their words, were deeply important. I love her and Nona’s project because it defies so many people’s expectations about the young and cynical. It asserts that, indeed, young women are still interested in the open road, in communing face-to-face with strangers and friends alike, in intellectual journeys, in this transformative and unfinished movement called feminism.
She wrote the following, when asked to respond to the idea of intergenerational feminism for a panel at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art:

There is good news: young women artists are revolutionary. They are making works that deal fervently with gender and sexuality, that deconstruct beauty standards, that unveil the veiled. They revel in the grotesque, the cosmetic, celebrity culture. They poke fun at themselves. They show us their obsession with the “feminine”, but it is pop essentialism, deadpan gender. They do not care if you think they are vapid sluts, clad in designer trends. They look with a female gaze, they have autonomy, they are not marionettes. They are, indeed, artists who are feminists. Young women thinkers will say they are gender revolutionary before they are feminist-identified, and just as they seek to explode the binaries of sex, they mix-media and ideology, creating a patchwork of consciousness that is as thoroughly contemporary as it is politically feminist.

I like to think of her reading those words. That they were about “young women”–abstractly speaking–but, most specifically, about herself. She was that revolutionary, that joker, that deconstructer, that unapologetic sexual being, that autonomous seer, that binary exploder, that conscious, political feminist theorist and activist. She was that friend. That daughter. That sister. That artist. That innovator.
Emma ended her own life. It’s almost impossible for me conceive of someone that alive now being dead. But I have to believe that she needed release in some profound way that even her beautiful family and friends, that even her relationship to art and feminism, couldn’t provide. It’s not romantic. It’s unacceptable. It’s also a reminder that life is a fragile, fragile thing, a choice that we each make every single day. When Emma was alive, she made the choice fiercely and with her whole being. I thank her for the lesson.
For New Yorkers, there will be a service on Wednesday, December 31st at 10:30 am, at the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel at 630 Amsterdam Ave (at 91st Street).
More links:
Nona’s take
her dad’s take
photographs of Emma
Emma’s photographs
her whole essay on intergenerational feminism

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