“The wish to attain as much connection with as many people in the world is an attempt to make up for the void created by that intense love.”
It’s been four years since the invention of my alter ego Jennifer Vanilla, the culturally absorbent prototype from the made-up world of Planet Jennifer. In that time, Jennifer has starred in her own public access television show, run laps around bars and concert venues (it’s her pre-show warmup routine), been followed by paparazzi (that she hired), and in a twisted expression of healthy narcissism, made an art form out of relentless self-promotion. Now, it’s 2020, I’m in year one of grad school, and I’m asking a lot of questions about Jennifer. How much of her is me? Does she help or does she hurt? Was she always this White? (1)
To begin to answer these inquiries, I reunited with my former therapist, the psychoanalytically-minded Adolfo Profumo who once remarked offhandedly, as we circled a New York City block on his smoke break and passed by a family from the neighborhood, “The child is the female phallus.” He also, on several occasions, told me to grow my own phallus. So I did. I named her Jennifer Vanilla.
Becca: Jennifer Vanilla has always been a highly social event. But as I convert this performance project to be more formally socially engaged, I want to do a retrospective and analysis of the project thus far, to really unpack what Jennifer Vanilla is. What were my impulses about? Why did I invent a separate character for myself? Basically, I want to take Jennifer Vanilla to therapy, so to speak, so that I can, in a way, move on from my own personal needs that originated the project. I want to settle the performance-driven aspect of it and push it towards being more of an idea, rather than a person. I’m hoping this will create some bridges to further iterations of the project that aren’t specifically about me.
Adolfo: And you would like for me to share memories that I have of our work?
Becca: Well, drawing from what you remember of me and my life during the time that we had together, if any connections come to you about why I might have made the choices that I did around this character. I’m also interested in your knowledge of psychoanalysis, and different ways that people find escape.
Adolfo: I accessed your name on Google and I saw you dancing in Times Square. It was quite delightful. I don’t remember who said it, but there is something of the Messiah in each of us. And so I think you’re pursuing your messianic…you know, we have to heal the world. Tikkun Olam, to heal the world, is a goal in the Jewish community, ideally. I think that to serve in a way that’s humbling and inspiring is fantastic.
Becca: I have, in a joking-but-make-it-fashion way, co-opted familiar phrases and slogans, some of them religious sayings, and substituted the operative word (God, for example) with “Jennifer.” As in, “Jennifer is my Copilot.” “Jennifer Save Us All.” Basically implying that there is a godliness about Jennifer. She’s a goddess of sorts. I glorify her, but I also see her as a kind of social custodian holding a big ring of janitor keys and filling in social gaps, the places where there aren’t connection. The only way that I have known how to do that so far is through performance, which tends to, so I’m told, elicit a lot of joy.
Adolfo: Yes, it’s very joyful. To take ourselves seriously and also not to take oneself seriously, it’s so vital, right? It’s a delicate balance to strike. Especially for an artist, because as artists we get so self-absorbed and self-centered and we can’t laugh at ourselves.
Becca: Yes. She came about as a funnel for my humor, and as a way to give myself permission to be big and bold in ways that I felt I wouldn’t be brave enough to do on my own, just as myself. It’s sort of a mask, or a costume.
Adolfo: Well, a mask and a costume, maybe there’s something reductive [about that]. It’s a manifestation of yourself. The self is a multifaceted diamond. It’s a manifestation of your diamond.
Becca: I guess I’ve compartmentalized it more than that. It’s been an exploration of my own psychological underpinnings, dredging up issues that I’ve had—guilt, shame, shortcomings, unexpressed wishes, longing for power— and creating an outlet for them through a “separate” entity. But really, you can see it like a map lifted from my own biography and transposed onto her. For example, the origin story of Jennifer Vanilla is that she’s from Planet Jennifer, and was born inside of a dewdrop atop the leaf of the tallest tree on the highest mountain in Jenniferia (a region of the Planet). She had no name, she was just an energy. And then she heard a name calling in the distance: “Jennifeeeer.” And through a kind of primordial intuition, she realized the name was for her. She gained consciousness and drifted down to Planet Earth, and came to life inside of me.
Adolfo: Yes, thank goodness.
Becca: [Laughs] It makes sense, if I was to analyze that, thinking about the way that I was conceived, with a turkey baster and a contract between two adults in a completely nonsexual exchange (2). Another detail, by the way, is that Jennifer Vanilla has no genitalia.
Adolfo: Ah, how interesting.
Becca: I was attempting to desexualize her. At the very beginning, she was very feminine presenting—she had a long fake ponytail, she exclusively wore pink. I was cosplaying a level of femininity that I myself have never been able to successfully embody (and have regarded at times as my own personal tragedy), because it’s really an unattainable goal. And so it was a kind of armor, declaring that she had no genitalia, was therefore impenetrable and perhaps even unconquerable. It was a preemptive disemboweling of the male gaze, and an attempt to take away that knee-jerk response to femininity: to conquer. At the same time, I thought of her almost as a doll or a toy, brought to life by witnesses, by spectators.
Adolfo: If I may offer interpretation—I never pretend to be right, but as much as I understand that idea of sexlessness, there might be a castrating attitude connected to that. If I cut off a specific part of me, if I cut off the potential for achieving or engineering a certain action, then I am also, on the surface, freed from the weight of that action. From all that the action in and of itself entails and contains and demands of me as a person. So, I would monitor that closely to make sure that, as creative as it is, it’s not possibly self-limiting. Castrating is too strong a word, it’s also very male invested, so, a limiting, a constraining, that kind of track.
I think that Jennifer Vanilla is not a character separate from you; it’s a manifestation of yourself. I don’t see it as an escape, I see it as a milestone on your existential path. And I think it does express a personal need, which is a very human need, to connect and to be seen in a caring, constructive way. If I have to free associate from what I remember of your relationship with your father, I think that it might be that your work is manifesting a desire to feel more connected with him, as you had a very intense connection with two mothers, and your father was, in my memory, a fairly distant presence. A physically distant presence, and from what I remember of your description of him, a fairly emotionally distant presence as well, not very communicative. So, your engagement in communicating with the world at large I think manifests a yearning for more direct dialogue or connection with him.
Becca: I’m sure that’s in there. Another thing I was thinking about is my relationship to friendship. I’ve always found the task of making friends to be so nerve-racking. Especially in high school, I remember, I was a very passive player; I never really initiated relationships, they kind of just happened to me. Simultaneously, I kind of resented, and resisted, in a way, my own friendships with my best friends, even though I loved and depended on them. Because they both were committed to our friendships being permanent and eternal. And I felt like I needed freedom.
Adolfo: When you say “I need freedom”—as distant as your father was, your two mothers were very present. You were an only child who received a very intense amount of attention. Not necessarily the kind of attention that made you feel safe in the world, but tons of love, right? And when we have to manage tons of love, we might feel a little overwhelmed. I think we’re afraid of being devoured by the need of the other. Your parents’ own needs were such that you felt, although it was very loving, I think you felt lost in the shuffle. And so the wish to attain as much connection with as many people in the world is an attempt to make up for the void created by that intense love. I think there are ways in which we can love judiciously and ways in which we love very passionately in an overwhelming way, and I think you were overwhelmed by that love.
Also remember, all of your parents were pioneers at the time. What they did was considered—talk about outer space. I remember people saying to me, “Oh these kinds of relationships are not acceptable, they are deleterious, they produce monsters.” So your parents were very courageous pioneers. I think that the act of writing or creating or doing all that you do, is a way also to manage the anxiety created by growing up in a family that was very torn in some ways, emotionally, or attacked from the outside, you know?
What made you choose the name, Jennifer and the last name, Vanilla? I like to think of the meaning of names. What does Jennifer mean? Where does it come from? Does it have a root that I am not familiar with?
Becca: The name popped into my head while I was gazing out the window of the Ava Luna (my old band) van while we were on tour, thinking of funny, fake punk names. Allen Wrench, Jean Jacquet, Steve Grocery. Then Jennifer Vanilla, and it stuck. Ever since I’ve been examining what that was. Jennifer is definitely a very 80’s name (3). It’s the decade I was born in. There’s an angle of childhood dream-come-true, getting to be that girl, some quintessential All American girl, which is an identity that eluded me in many ways. I fetishized normality and felt so far away from it. In terms of the phonetics and the sonic experience of the name, all of those round, resonant, soft consonants—je na fuh —are the exact opposite of my name, which is something I’ve always really hated—
Adolfo: RebeCCa Kauffman.
Becca: Yes, so many hard consonants, and I find it hard to say and it doesn’t roll off the tongue. So there’s that kind of ease to the experience of saying it. And to being it, doing it, hearing it.
Adolfo: And Vanilla. I mean, vanilla. It’s powerful, laden with meaning for me.
Becca: I remember when I first told you the name (in 2016), you immediately asked, what does it have to do with race? Is this about you being White? And I was like, “No, no!” And it wasn’t. But, it was. (4)
Adolfo: How have you continued to think about vanilla?
Becca: I first thought of vanilla as an open-endedness, a blank screen. And I mean that in the sense of a crystal ball, a divination tool that would permit you to see whatever you wanted to see, or a mirror in which you could see yourself reflected. The persona is crowd generated, crowd supported. It’s fully related to this feedback loop of identity formation/confirmation through being witnessed. Starting from my relationship to my moms, and existing via and in response to the attention that they showered on me. Then becoming a performer and being tied into that codependency between performer and spectator; needing an audience to activate you. The Performer’s Dilemma. Which led to this cartoonish scenario of Jennifer Vanilla essentially entering into a collaboration with the audience to nourish her and inform who she is.
Adolfo: I think my association with vanilla is—what is the American expression? “It’s very vanilla…” It’s something that’s not aggressive, that’s safe enough. It’s almost a: “I’m okay, I’m good. I’m not gonna devour you. I’m not gonna attack you.” It symbolizes a wish. It’s almost like a smile, rather than showing your teeth.
It might contain an attempt to contain an aggression, right? So I’m going to repress all my aggression instead. Jennifer Vanilla dances in Times Square, but maybe behind Jennifer Vanilla, instead of dancing so delightfully, you could dance screaming, “Motherfuckers” to all those who are watching. Filling the communication with expletives.
Becca: The concept of conflict is something that I’ve been thinking about with this project. I myself and the project by extension are very conflict averse and conflict avoidant.
Adolfo: Vanilla is conflict avoidant for me.
Becca: Yes, absolutely. But with the large scale social, cultural, global upheaval that has erupted in the past seven months, it’s clear that conflict is unavoidable, and necessary for progress. I thought it was possible to be effective while operating outside of conflict. But I wasn’t thinking about the relationship between conflict aversion and my privilege as a White person, really, until this year.
Adolfo: You have actually had a lot of conflict in your life, but you can afford the luxury of detaching from it or artifying it, rendering it art.
Becca: Yeah, but largely that conflict didn’t derive from my identity being problematized or under attack systemically, or in public spaces, the way it does for marginalized groups. I have a responsibility not to hide from conflict. Maybe that means making work that’s antagonistic and more confrontational.
Adolfo: That’s very exciting.
Becca: What Jennifer Vanilla has been is protagonistic work. I had this idea she could be a universal protagonist, and that I could generalize her in this way to make her an Everyperson. A new archetype, a stock character. But I also realize that ultimately there’s a limit to relatability, and what I reflect is limited to my own identity and experience.
So, to take it back to the topic of the name, I didn’t come up with Vanilla to consciously address Whiteness or explicitly talk about race, but I understand how it summons that association, and it requires pause and consideration.
Adolfo: Paulo Freire, who was a very important Brazilian sociologist, wrote a book titled Pedagogy of the Oppressed. An important concept is that the oppressed becomes oppressor. Right? That’s part of the way I see it. It’s part of the process, no? So I think that as we work through our traumas—I mean, I know that as I work through the traumas that were caused to me, by my parents’ mishegas, my parents’ craziness, I acted in oppressive ways towards them. I made them “pay” with my behavior, for shit that they bestowed upon me. Now, retrospectively, it’s good to be able to own that problematic behavior, which was a natural consequence of personal history in [my] case. But ideally, we also learn to work through that conflict. I think that if we truly think through the suffering of the world, and we can own that, and we can own our suffering, we can empathize fully with another person. That’s the beauty of the potential of the human condition. I think that we are in an important historical process. But ideally, hopefully, we can work through it.
The weight of guilt is very powerful. If you’re honest, in terms of owning your history, you really feel like a shit, right? I think that nobody has the monopoly of suffering. I think that there is a difference between owning history, which is an essential part of life, and fixating into a state where we are frozen within history, in this history. That’s dangerous. If we remain fixated within a conflictual situation, we cannot achieve working through resolution, which also implies forgiveness of the self, of others.
Becca: I’m trying to take responsibility for my Whiteness in a way that I haven’t before. One thing that came up with my cohorts in the program as we were talking about this is the degree to which mainstream commerciality seeped into my psyche as a kid who consumed a lot of media. Jennifer Vanilla borrows from and regurgitates that influence a lot, and those nostalgic references expose the homogeneity of representation in that era. This project has been an expression and exploration of my childhood fantasies. And the influences on my childhood fantasies, really, were drenched in Whiteness. So, it’s time to move on from nostalgia.
Adolfo: Cleanse yourself of it. When you say drenched, it makes me think of…
Becca: A mitzvah?
Adolfo: ”Drenched” has a negative connotation for me, so the mitzvah, the deed, the good deed, would be to cleanse ourselves of the weight of history, which can be done by engineering social action and owning a number of things, and implementing a number of interventions in our own personal and social lives. That hopefully can help us feel…cleansed.
Becca: Yeah. How should I do that?
Adolfo: Well I think the very fact that you’re thinking about these things is very good, very positive, constructive, valuable. The mere act of doing that is—I believe in the power of prayer. To me, that’s a prayer, right? And prayer sends a, I hate to sound trite, but good vibration to the world. I’m a person who is willing to look at myself. I think we have to be compassionate. Don’t take yourself to court, you know? So you’re part of a section of the human race that enjoys a tremendous privilege comparatively speaking to the rest of the world. So, you do something good, you share. And you do your sharing, with your work. Keep sharing. Keep remaining open.
(1) 2020 marks the widely adopted capitalization of the “B” in Black in writing style guides, and subsequent debate about capitalizing the “W” in “white”. The press remains fractured on the topic, and for the time being, news outlets have made independent decisions (Washington Post: White; Associated Press: white) on the matter. Notably, there was strong support to formalize “White” as a racial category from the National Association of Black Journalists, the American Psychological Association Style Guide, and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, who stated: “The detachment of ‘White’ as a proper noun allows White people to sit out of conversations about race and removes accountability from White people’s and White institutions’ involvement in racism.” As such, I am choosing to capitalize the racial identity, White, in this piece.
See: Eve Ewing, “I’m a Black Scholar Who Studies Race. Here’s Why I Capitalize ‘White,’”; Nell Irvin Painter, “Why ‘White’ Should Be Capitalized Too”; Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Case for Capitalizing the ‘B’ in Black.”
(2) In 1983, my birth mother and father, who are both gay, coordinated an arrangement to have a child via at-home artificial (self-)insemination and share parenting responsibilities going forward. My mom partnered with another woman shortly after I was born who became an additional mother to me, and I was subsequently raised by a parenting trio consisting of my two moms and my dad.
(3) Jennifer was the single most popular name for newborn U.S. girls every year from 1970 to 1984 (the year that I was born).
(4) Jennifer is the anglicized form of the Welsh name Gwenhwyfar, or Guinevere. As it turns out, in Welsh, “gwen” = white/fair/blessed and “hwyfar” = smooth/soft or phantom/spirit/fairy. So some possible meanings would literally translate to “white fairy,” or “white phantom.” Also “blessed spirit,” or maybe, “soft phantom.”
Adolfo Profumo, LCSW, is an Italian-born, Manhattan-based psychotherapist with a deep commitment to literature and his Jewish faith. His Psychology Today profile reads: “Suffering is an integral part of life, the same way manure is an integral part of the farmer’s life. As a wise farmer learns to use manure as a fertilizer, I can assist you in understanding and using your suffering wisely, and learning to profit from it. I am silent when need be, yet I am also very willing to respond to your questions and to dialogue with you in a very direct way when necessary. I speak French, Italian, Spanish, German, and some Hebrew. I have lived in different European and Asian countries before settling in New York, in 1981, and I have a profound understanding of cultural and ethnic diversity.”
Becca Kauffman is a performance artist, vocalist, and voice over actor based in Queens, New York who works primarily within the fictional world of her motivational avatar, Jennifer Vanilla.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program