It’s the well-worn, short-yet-storied line that’s become nearly cliché: “I’m not a feminist, but…”—one that’s now some kind of standard midpoint in our culture’s endless wrangling about the F word. Now “I’m not a feminist, but…” is being re-examined via comics in the forthcoming anthology The Big Feminist BUT, edited by Suzanne Kleid, Joan Reilly, and Shannon O’Leary. The anthology, which has a website, features comic artists’ takes on what the editors call the “contradictory ‘post-feminist’ playing field” we’re (apparently) living in today.
Page Turner interviewed O’Leary to learn just what it is about that big but that irks her and her co-editors, whether she thinks we really are living in a “post-feminist” playground, her picks of the best comics for comic-obsessed feminists, and (yes, it exists) sexism in the comics world.
Page Turner: Tell me about the creation of The Big Feminist BUT. Who put the idea out there first, what were your earliest discussions about creating it like, and what’s your plan for it?
Shannon O’Leary: It was conceived by me and Jill Friedman of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Jill and I started chatting at a party and pretty swiftly, the topic of conversation moved to how much we both hate it when a woman starts a sentence with the disclaimer, “I’m not a feminist, but…,” then goes on to say something like, “I don’t like it when my male coworker stares at my boobs,” or “I don’t think it’s fair that Hollywood expects actresses to be anorexic, but the same rules don’t apply to schlubby dudes like Seth Rogen.”
Jill and I later discussed doing a comics anthology entitled I’m Not a Feminist But… Our intention was to see what kind of stories cartoonists would come up with in response to that statement. But a lot of potential contributors who identified as feminists didn’t like that title, and both Jill and I got sidetracked by other things. So I continued to work on the idea on my own—on and off—and, after talking to my mom and cartoonist Lauren Weinstein, I started massaging the idea into something else—something broader.
Specifically, why is there so much discomfort with the idea of feminism? Does feminism have an image problem, or are we living in a post-feminist era? And if we’re not living in a post-feminist era, what are the aims of a third-wave feminist movement? What do women really want for themselves, each other, and the men in their lives nowadays? Can feminism provide it for them? And what kind of effect has the women’s movement had on men?
Basically, I came up with a lot of questions about the state of equality between the sexes and, to my happy surprise, those questions really excited and challenged artists to say things they’d been mulling over for a long time. Two of those artists were Suzanne Kleid and Joan Reilly, who pretty much single-handedly built the site. I invited them to be my co-editors when I saw how passionate they were about the project, and how we could each bring something else to it that could really make it sing. It just became obvious pretty quickly that we make a great team.
At this point, The Big Feminist BUT has truly taken on a life of its own. Seeing how moved and eager contributors are to tell their stories has led us to believe that the reading public will feel the same way. It’s our greatest hope that this book will find its way into the hands of a lot of people who wouldn’t normally think about feminism or comic books. We want to expand horizons and for The Big Feminist BUT to start a conversation that reaches as wide an audience as possible.
PT: What’s your own, personal “big feminist BUT…” story? When have you wrestled with that phrase in your life?
SO: In all honesty, I don’t have any personal big “BUTS” about feminism. I’m a proud feminist. I was raised by a feminist mom and dad, who raised my brother as a feminist, too. When I was a little kid, I remember arguing at the breakfast table with my brother about how he couldn’t be a feminist because he was a boy. He got really angry with me and yelled for my mom to school my ass. And she did. Ever since then that idea has been ingrained in me—that both men and women can and do have a vested interest in sexual equality.
My big “BUT” about feminism is more external. I want to know about other people’s “BUTS!” Twenty-first century women, in the majority of the Western world at least, are living in an era of unprecedented freedom and choice, and there’s no question that that’s come about as a result of the women’s movement. But a poll taken after the United States’ 2008 presidential election found that only 20 percent of women feel comfortable using the word “feminist” to describe themselves and that only 17 percent of all voters said they would like it if their daughters identified as feminists. That’s a pretty big, undeniable “BUT” we’re collectively carrying around about feminism.
And if that’s the case, then how are women empowering themselves these days? And do the remaining 80 percent of women see themselves as inferior to men, and do they like it that way? (One viewing of a reality TV show like The Bachelor would indicate that a lot of women, in fact, do.) Or do they just see themselves as equal to men already and like it’s belaboring the point to label themselves? Or maybe feminism has an image problem. Suzanne told me a joke recently that illustrates how a lot of people feel about feminism: How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: That’s not funny!
I don’t know the answers to these questions, and that’s why we’re doing this anthology, to get a sampling of all kinds of different perspectives—young women who don’t identify as feminists, straight and gay strident feminists, older women who came of age during the second wave of feminism, straight men, transgendered women (and hopefully men), gay men and women, etc.—to see what life is like between the sexes at the beginning of the 21st century.
PT: You’re collecting “witty yet poignant comics that explore the contradictory ‘post-feminist’ playing field both sexes are struggling to find their footing on today.” What’s your take on the idea that we’re living in a post-feminist world?
SO: I don’t know if we’re living in a post-feminist world or not. I see contradictions everywhere. And those contradictions are the meat of what we’re trying to get into in The Big Feminist BUT. A good example of these contradictions is the undeniably pivotal roles that Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Tina Fey had in last year’s presidential election. All three women arguably proved that the fairer sex has as much of a hand in shaping world affairs as men do.
But then here we are a year later and Hillary Clinton is being characterized as a disgruntled bitch in Associated Press reports for pointing out to a reporter who asked for her husband’s opinion on a foreign policy issue that she, not he, is the Secretary of State.
PT: What’s the feminist comics’ landscape like today? Who would you say is producing some of the best comics with feminist themes?
SO: I know I will get all kinds of shit for saying this, but the first book that comes to mind is Glamourpuss, by the notoriously misogynistic Dave Sim. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with me on this, but I think Glamourpuss is a pretty brilliant satire of the fashion industry’s effect on women’s bodies and minds.
There’s also Abby Denson’s upcoming graphic novel Dolltopia, which deals with feminist themes, like plastic surgery and leaving boring relationships with Ken dolls, in a punk-rock fairy tale format. But I’d have to say that the comics that explore feminist themes the best don’t set out to do that. The best do it with stories that, in their telling, touch on feminist and gender issues.
I recently met two young Swedish cartoonists named Sara Graner and Sofia Olfsen, who are in a feminist cartoonist’s collective in Sweden, when I was in Stockholm for the Swedish SPX Comics Festival. My friend Johannes Klennel, a comics editor for the Swedish magazine Galago, tells me that they’re very influential within the Swedish comics scene. He sounded scared of them! Their work is very good and can be found in Top Shelf’s Galago anthology. But even though they’re in a feminist comics collective, their work deals with feminist themes the same way that the best American female cartoonists deal with feminist themes —by sharing their experiences of what it’s like to be a woman in the modern world.
I’d have to say that the best cartoonists dealing with these themes through autobiographical comics today are Julia Wertz, Joey Sayers, Lauren Weinstein, Miss Lasko-Gross, and Vanessa Davis. Their work, while not overtly feminist, really resonates with women. This excellent comic by Laura Park, Handsome Stranger, illustrates how memoir comics can touch on feminist or themes of interest to women by simply telling stories from one’s life.
PT: How would you characterize sexism in the comics’ world and what it’s like to be a woman creating comics? Jessica Abel rails against the ghettoization of “women comics,” yet she calls herself a “midpoint in the long process of change” for women in comics. Do you share some of her viewpoints?
SO: As far as my own experiences with sexism in comics, I’ve quite possibly been lucky. My first book, Pet Noir: An Illustrated Anthology of Strange But True Pet Crimes, was published by one of the few female comics publishers, Jennifer Joseph, of the always groundbreaking and ornery Manic D Press. I’ve also worked for the past two years as the marketing coordinator for Sparkplug Comic Books, which publishes a lot of great female cartoonists, like Renee French, Andrice Arp, Juliacks, and Hellen Jo. Sparkplug’s owner, Dylan Williams, who is an excellent cartoonist in his own right, is actually going to do a story for The Big Feminist BUT about older feminist theory.
So, I’ve had the good fortune to work with publishers who champion women comics’ creators. That’s not to say that I haven’t heard male and female cartoonists, publishers, editors, or journalists assert that girls can’t draw or that the best place for a woman in comics is as a booth babe at Comic-con. But for every one of those, I’ll come across an editor like Austin English of Windy Corner Magazine, who seems to have a knack for finding and celebrating great female artists on a regular basis, or a cartoonist like Jesse Reklaw, who I’ve organized comics readings with in the past and who always strives to make sure the list of readers is gender-balanced.
It should also be noted that one of the most prominent and influential voices in comics is the incomparable Heidi McDonald, the comics editor for Publisher’s Weekly and PW’s comic’s blog, The Beat, and, lucky for us, a contributor to The Big Feminist BUT. I see more and more women in important comic’s industry positions like that every day.
Additionally, the popularity of the Manga genre among female comics consumers, as Abel notes in her post, has made publishers take notice of the undeniable fact that female comics readers are a viable demographic who buy comics! And as a result, publishers are intent on creating more graphic novels and comics that will appeal to female readers.
So it would seem that, in many ways, Jessica Abel’s prediction has come to pass. For further evidence of this, take a look at this year’s Ignatz Award nominees and judges. The Ignatzs are comparable to the film industry’s Sundance Awards. Approximately 30 to 40 percent of the creators and three out of the five judges are women. And Abel herself is a co-editor of this year’s prestigious Best American Comics Anthology.
I find Abel’s statement pretty astute. It certainly sums up the attitude of most female cartoonists I know. Any cartoonist worth her salt wants to be recognized for her artwork and the execution of her storytelling, and not for the fact that she’s making comics that deal with women’s issues.
PT: Tell me about the contributors you have lined up for the book. I understand two of Bitch’s own will be creating work for it. Who else is lined up, and what particular sensibilities do you think they’ll bring to the BFB? … And do you plan to reach out to artists like Phoebe Gloeckner, Aline Kominsky, Ellen Forney, Debbie Drechsler, Carol Tyler, Alison Bechdel, or Trina Robbins? I’m sure your list, like mine, is endless.
SO: We have contacted or are planning to approach some of the cartoonists you mentioned. However, one of the things that makes The Big Feminist BUT truly unique is that it’s a book focusing on what’s typically considered a “woman’s” issue that will feature 40 to 50 percent male contributors. And some of those male contributors are not the kind of guys you’d normally see in an anthology like this.
Ron Regé, Jr. will be doing a story about the original Adam and Eve myth. Jeffrey Brown did a great story entitled “Doesn’t this baby understand we’re trying to redefine gender roles?” Dean Haspiel will be doing a story about his mom that I believe he’s planning on writing and having a female illustrator draw, and Justin Hall will be doing an autobiographical story about why gay marriage is a feminist issue (featuring himself dressed as the Green Hornet!).
There’s also going to be a lot of great female contributors, like Gabrielle Bell, who will illustrate some pages from Valerie Solanas’ infamous SCUM Manifesto. I hate to play favorites, but Gabrielle’s comic is actually the one I’m most looking forward to! We’re also fortunate to be getting what I’m sure will be excellent comics from Julia Wertz, Minty Lewis, Hope Larson, Lisa Hanawalt, and many more.
The response from artists wanting to contribute has been overwhelming, and we’ve been positively blown away by the pitches we’ve been getting. But I’ve also been little bit taken aback about how hard it is for people to grasp that this is a book by women and men about what has historically been thought of as a woman’s issue. The stories aren’t necessarily going to be pedantic or prescriptive, as our aim is to get closer to the truth by examining the contradictions we’re currently dealing with in a gendered world.
We’re not doing a “girl cartoonists” anthology or an “up with feminism” anthology. We’re doing an anthology that’s about the current state of equality between the sexes—the good, the bad, the ugly, and the WTF. Readers may not like everything the book has to say, but we can guarantee they’ll find a story in the book that they can relate to. And a lot of top notch comics, too.