An Interview with Contributors of The Big Feminist BUT by Andrea Sparacio
September 30, 2013
The Big Feminist BUT is the conversation I’ve been waiting for. So many times I have heard, to no avail, “I am a feminist, but…” from men and women alike, and from those who agree with all that feminism encompasses, yet refuse to call themselves a feminist for fear of the label. As a feminist and artist, I appreciate that this conversation was engaged in the illustrated form and hope to see it continue into more voices for the future. I was asked by Slice to interview the following seven contributors with a question. Thank you so much to each creator and contributor, and for igniting this important and complex dialogue between us.
Beth, I absolutely love the raw honesty and humor in your work. As a comic artist myself (who enjoys awkward situations) I struggle at times on what to keep fact vs. fiction. Do you ever embellish the truth to fit your story? Does writing for comics differ from your other forms of storytelling?
When I first started writing spoken word pieces for the stage, I blurred the line between fact and fiction all the time, probably because I didn’t know anything about anything. This was almost twenty years ago and it just seemed like poetry, performance, memoir, stories — it was all the same thing to me. If I wrote or spoke “I” in a poem or story, who gave a shit whether it was me or “me”? I certainly didn’t and I didn’t think anyone else would either. As it turned out, this outsized “me” got a lot more attention than I bargained for. People wanted all of it to be true. (How much more intriguing was the lady who was, at various times, a drug addict, a lesbian, a slut, a trichotillomaniac, a hospice nurse?) As soon as I figured that out, that if I said “I” people thought I meant I, things got harder. If the audience seemed to be taking everything literally, didn’t I owe it to them to speak and write the truth?
Of course now I know the answer to that is no. I mean, unless the assumption is that I’m writing memoir, which should be the truth according to the writer, but when I was younger I was a little freaked out about people equating me with what I wrote. Just the classic thing of wanting to write about what interested me, but not wanting people to think I was vain or neurotic or difficult or dumb or anything other than a fun gal who gets along with everyone. So basically, unless I was writing a short story or satire piece, I became compelled to write only the literal truth and trust that the true humor of a situation or my thoughts on that situation could carry a moment.
When I was in high school, my friend and I had a thing where we were adamant about using the word literally in orderto inhibit ourselves from exaggerating. (In the ’80s, way before all this b.s. new definition stuff. DON’T GET ME STARTED.) Wasn’t it funnier to say the man in the leopard print running tights was literally in his seventies instead of saying he was “literally a hundred?” Didn’t the story come off way better if you admitted the size of your whitehead was not “as big as a pencil eraser” though it was perhaps three-quarters that size? Who wants to hear that the portrait of my parents’ Portuguese Water Dog takes up “half their living room wall” when in fact it only takes up 1/32nd of the wall but it is the only piece of art in the room. Answer being: I am against embellishing the truth if what I’m writing is meant to be interpreted as true fact. Say the truth. Go for it. If it isn’t enough for some people, that’s their problem. We know in our hearts it’s the little true details that floor us. We don’t need an orgy on a yacht with the guy who played Theo Huxtable when we can have a tongue flick across the Starbucks from your childhood friend’s stepdad. Or maybe the wish for either of those things is bigger and more poignant than them actually ever happening.
Example: Big Feminist BUT anthology. Joan comes to me and says we’re doing this thing about feminism and all the contradictions people have about that idea. In that case, I feel very compelled to write something that is absolutely fucking true to my experience. Not “a situation I could see myself in” or “what I could imagine it would be like if”. And then I need to make sure I even have something to say and is it an angle or story I haven’t heard before. The only way I can bring myself to write is if I think I’m adding something new or original. That’s why I don’t write that often!
Being asked to make a story for a comic was so fun because it is outside my WHEELHOUSE. I am not, by nature, visual. I have done one other story for an artist (Arthur Jones’ Post It Note Diaries) and what I love is the requirement of being pretty succinct. It’s a lot like poetry. In poetry you write a line in hopes that the reader sees or feels something, conjures an image or feeling. In writing a true story for a comic, you already have the real image in your brain and you’re hoping you’ve written your words well enough that they convey something to the artist and can inspire them.
Writing for a collaboration with an artist, I thought: How can I give them something fun to draw? How can this person take the spirit of my words and make my story come alive in a way it wouldn’t have if it were just me spinning out on my own?
Josh, I have read your comics in my all-female comic book club (Jugs & Capes), you are published in this feminist anthology, your mother is a famous artist and feminist, and you are married to fellow feminist writer Sari Wilson. On top of it all, I greatly admire you and your work! As the only male here (in this interview panel), how has feminism influenced you as a man, and how has that effected your art & writing?
Well, as you mentioned, I was brought up by a single mother (artist Martha Rosler) — who happened to be at the forefront of the women’s movement in Southern California in the 1970s. I played on the floor with other kids while our moms met in monthly “consciousness raising groups!” So from an early age I was exposed to feminist ideals. My mother was, and is, a strong figure — in the public and private sphere — and because of her I never questioned that women were as intelligent, ambitious, and forceful as men. I went to Oberlin College, which is about as “feminist” a college as you can imagine, and my favorite teacher there was an art history prof who focused on contemporary feminist artists.
My first job out of college was in the special events department of a major New York museum. Both the events director and the head of the catering department were strong women who handled big openings, large staffs, and huge budgets. But when the topic came up they both disavowed being feminists. This was around 1990 — the beginning of the feminist backlash — and they had bought into the media stereotype of the angry, unattractive man-hater. Well, I told them I thought of them both as feminists, and to me it was a good thing; and I like to think they both thought a little differently about the term afterward.
As far as how feminism has influenced my work, I don’t think I ever set out to do a “feminist” comic. I primarily work in nonfiction, and I avoid overt editorializing in my work, but when it comes to portraying female characters, I try to avoid typical pitfalls — the passive, featureless beauty — etc., and try to capture the complexity of the full person — just the way I do with my male characters.
Sari Gail Wilson
Sari, in Playmate & Me, I love how you explored pornography through a different lens, giving personality and voice to the Playmate herself. I heard that the story was loosely based on your experiences as a fact-checker for Playboy Magazine, which brings to mind an image of Gloria Steinem infiltrating the Playboy Club. Was this playmate concept brewing from when you worked there, and how has it changed over time?
Yep, I worked for Playboy magazine for three years as a fact-checker—though our glorified title was “researcher.” I checked the bust sizes of the Playmates, names of erectile dysfunction drugs, the names and titles of Russian politicians, jazz album titles, etc. When I was there I avidly read Steinem’s exposé (in the Playboy library, which was a great resource of literature and social thinking circa 1975) and in a way I felt like that too—a mole, a feminist in the pornography machine, the citadel of iconographic sexist imagery.
I’d signed a confidentiality agreement when I started at Playboy, but I kept a journal the whole time. I published part of it in an excellent 90s feminist ‘zine called Maxine. It was called “Jane and Me” and it was about my evolving relationship with Playmate, aka Jane. It was about how it was exciting and dangerous to be so close to her. It was about how I objectified her at first because what else could you do? It was about how it made me feel powerful to take possession of a “male fantasy” and make her my own, but also made me feel guilty for being so implicated in the sexism. It was about how I began to imbue her with a certain more “real” attributes—how she began to “talk back” in my writing.
After three years, I left the Playboy job and went to grad school and didn’t think about her much anymore. Now it’s been fifteen years(!) since I worked at Playboy but she’s stayed in my head as an icon, unchanging, along with a younger version of myself. When I heard about Big Feminist BUT, I realized I still wanted to write about that time, to see what had changed. I pitched a piece.
I wanted to think I’d integrated her, but writing “Playmate and Me” showed me that Playmate is impossible to integrate—things change around her, but she persists as immutable as the forces that brought her into existence. Every once in while I gaze at the newsstand and I see her there threatening to swallow me again, but that feeling passes and then I smile at her like some kind of old friend.
Emily, your comics are quietly subversive. It’s remarkable how you’re able to challenge so much in a single panel, and I love that the women in your comics are ‘in on the joke’. Is this something you specifically craft and aim for, or is it something that’s just a byproduct of who you are, and what your beliefs are?
I’m going with “byproduct.” I’m too lazy to have an agenda, per se; this stuff just kinda bubbles up out of my general worldview. *Are* my comics subversive? I don’t know – I don’t consider that the jokes I write are informed by my political beliefs. “Subversive” to me implies a more overtly political response to the world than I have in my work. The women – all the characters in my comics, really – sort of come form the same place emotionally? philosophically? as I do, I suppose, unless they’re in he comic specifically to serve as a challenge or a foil to that worldview, which is basically that we’re mostly hapless and lonely and we are most certainly all going to die, so the best we can do is help each other fell less shitty all the time, and in the meanwhile we fuck up constantly… which as philosophies go, is pretty dopey, and definitely not political. I don’t personally think most (not all) overtly political work is funny. There are a very few that can do it well, but when politics come into a work it lends it a stridency that deflates the delicate, erm, souffle of the joke.
Gabrielle, your story is so rich and complex; I loved it so much. I have a friend who thought everything you wrote was true – verbatim. How do you balance truth with fiction, especially in a story that is rooted in historical events?
I didn’t worry too much about messing with history, at least not until after I’d finished the story. I tend to worry about upsetting people I’ve used in my story only after I’ve done. While I am in the grips of storytelling, it doesn’t occur to me that someone might take issue with it. It wasn’t easy though. I think turning the non-fiction into fiction comes from coming up against the limitations of non-fiction. I get frustrated with by my own narrow, pedestrian experiences and I begin to build on them. I don’t like to exaggerate-you can sense it when someone is merely stretching the truth. Exaggeration creates mistrust in the reader, or a sense of falseness, a feeling of the story being out of focus. Like a photograph having been photoshopped. Better to just full on lie. To write what you wish had happened, or what you fear could happen. It’s not easy, but I think it’s best when it’s rooted in reality.
Abby, as some who is also married and in the same age group, your story really resonated with me and my feelings towards babydom. During the book launch party at Housing Works Bookstore, you mentioned that you usually do not write memoir stories. How did it feel to share something so personal, and has it effected your other art/writing moving forward?
It did feel different, of course, since most of my past comics have been fictional. I spoke with my parents and husband about the story before I drew it, just to let them know (I thought it would be courteous to give them a heads-up about it). It certainly felt cathartic. Drawing about personal emotional issues can bring a release, which is valuable. Doing the reading at Housing Works was a great experience, especially since several audience members approached me afterward and told me they related to my story. That made me feel good. It’s so amazing to be able to share feelings and experiences though art. Moving forward, I am currently working on a new non-fiction book (probably to be announced next year) it is a travelogue and has a lot of personal anecdotes in it, so I am certainly exploring autobio comics and non-fiction more these days. I enjoy it, but I found that drawing myself over and over again takes some getting used to!
Joan, as the co-editor and illustrator of this anthology, I want to first say thank you for this amazing book. I really enjoyed how feminism comes through in the snippets and experiences of everyday life. How did you begin the process of such a large undertaking? Will there be future volumes?
I’m glad you like the book! As with most big projects, it grew and changed in many unexpected ways throughout the process. The first surprise for me was taking on the role of co-editor, because my involvement began in a very modest way–I was initially just going to illustrate the story by Suzanne Kleid. But as Shannon O’Leary and I spent more time talking about the project, we both realized that our different sets of abilities and interests seemed to merge nicely, and could be a productive combination for the book. The original idea came from conversations Shannon had been having with friends about how common it seemed for people to preface any comment about gender inequality with the disclaimer, “I’m not a feminist, but…” It seemed to her that a conversation was needing to happen about that reluctance to use the “f-word” in the culture at large. And this was back in 2008/2009, before the latest surge in online feminist journalism, so it turns out that her instincts were correct. In practical terms, the book began with Shannon asking a few cartoonists–Jeffrey Brown, Gabrielle Bell and Lauren Weinstein–if they would be interested in doing pieces on this topic, and their responses were so enthusiastic that she knew she had the makings of a book. Once I got involved, it was basically a process of picking contributors who were not only great writers and/or artists, but were also positioned to offer unique viewpoints, so that the book would be addressing the topic from a variety of angles. As for future volumes, we don’t have any planned, but we’re also not ruling out the possibility.
Andrea Sparacio is an artist, designer, illustrator and feminist. She is also a contributor for Apartment Therapy, obsesses over all things home decor, the zombie apocalypse, the css stylings of her website artsparrow.com, drinks way too much coffee, and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and tailless cat Smush. Her comics can be found at artsparrowcomics.com.