The Big Feminist BUT: The Caveats of Gender Politics in Comics
By Maria Popova
“Feminism is too important to be discussed only by academics,” Caitlin Moran wrote in her excellent How to Be a Woman and, indeed, gender politics permeate everything from our language to our capacity for love to our economy to how kids come to see the world. Luckily, Moran’s point comes wonderfully alive in The Big Feminist BUT: Comics about Women, Men and the Ifs, Ands & Buts of Feminism (public library) — a magnificent Kickstarter-funded collection of “the ideas, experiences and impressions of individual cartoonists and writers at a very specific moment in time,” titled after the all-too-familiar caveat of “I’m a feminist, but…” (or, occasionally, “I’m not a feminist, but…”). Self-described as “dedicated to the 4th Wave” (that is, to the era two generations after the Second Wave of feminism), the book — sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, always delightful — pulls our most stubborn discomforts into a limelight of gentle but unshakable awareness.
Shannon O’Leary writes in the introduction:
The Big Feminist BUT should be considered in two contexts: that of its collective message and that of its medium.
[Its] collective message is more provocative and playful than it is polemic… We are living in an era of unprecedented freedom and choice, but feminism — a large part of why we’ve arrived at this particular moment in history — is a touchy, loaded word that suffers from a serious image problem. And if feminism is currently suffering from an image problem, does that mean it should just go away? Is it passé? Is there nothing left to fight for? Is there a discernible feminist movement? And if there is, what are its aims? What does it mean to be a feminist today? Who are today’s feminists?
The chorus of answers, coming from 27 women and 13 men most of whom came of age in the 1980s and 1990s without a cohesive collective conception of feminism, reveal with equal parts wisdom and wit the complexities of gender politics today. Tackling such difficult subjects as reproductive rights, rape, workplace equality, and bullying in comics — a medium itself frequently misunderstood yet incredibly potent in making serious points — adds irreverent but incisive urgency in nudging us to reconsider our own ideas of what feminism is and should be. O’Leary writes:
There is now little doubt that comics can take on dry, sobering and complicated subjects with a depth of nuance and feeling that is difficult for straight prose to convey alone. Perhaps comics can likewise edify feminism by giving it the opportunity to be understood in a way that mere words are unable to.
Hugo Schwyzer nails the message in the afterword:
There’s no mistaking the takeaway: feminism is about so much more than ideology and obligations. It’s about liberation: the freedom to live a life a little (or a lot) less encumbered by the straightjacket of traditional gender roles. It’s about giving men and women the tools to live more egalitarian lives, not just in isolation but in community. As the stories here remind us, feminism is about happiness, it’s about reconciliation, it’s about justice.
Without downplaying the power that the name “feminist” has to unify, we’re reminded … that labels themselves are never the point. … There’s both liberation and possibility in pointing out that you’re not a sellout or a coward for refusing to adopt a label that doesn’t quite name your experience.
Images via Mother Jones
Published August 8, 2013