Talking To Strangers: A (Comic) Guide



All too often, when people discuss street harassment, some people who aren’t sexualized, antagonized, and intimidated on the regular bemoan these newfound “restrictions” to their interactions with strangers. Fear not, defensive dudes! It *is* possible to chat with or compliment a stranger without that stranger perceiving you as a threat. This is a handy little visual guide for the visual creatures out there. Check out Schrödinger’s Rapist for more specific advice on how approach strangers in public. Compliments relating to a person’s appearance should make it very clear that the compliment is about someone’s skill or taste, not about their body or sex appeal. When in doubt: don’t! Good luck.

A Conversation About bell hooks and Beyoncé

This past week, The New School of NYC hosted a panel discussion called “Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body.” The panel was comprised of Janet Mock, Marci Blackman, Shola Lynch, and bell hooks. During the discussion, hooks, the author of Feminism is for Everybody, dropped what felt like a bomb. The conversation had turned to Beyoncé’s TIME cover and hooks was unrelenting with her criticism of Beyoncé. Janet Mock, who talks in her book “Redefining Realness” of the positive impact Beyoncé has had on her life, defended Bey, suggesting that she had far more agency than hooks was giving her credit for. hooks responded by indicating that Beyoncé was partly anti-feminist to the point where her impact was terrorist. She referred to an Audre Lorde quote to back up her criticisms; “The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” 

I respect hooks so very much; Feminism is for Everybody was pivotal in my development as a feminist. I am not a huge Bey fan but her criticisms left my mind reeling. To help wrap my head around it, I contacted my friend Dan Lyles, who had recommended Feminism is for Everybody to me years ago. I felt much more settled about the whole debate after our conversation, and I’m sharing it here in the hopes that it will do the same for you.


Dan: Yeah. I mean, that’s totally a bell hooks thing to say, but I’m curious if people are going to be charitable enough to understand what she’s trying to get at. Cause I feel like, yea… Beyoncé’s blackness is mobilized in support of white supremacist heterosexual patriarchy and there is some agency she has, but it doesn’t chance the fact that it has these larger, untoward consequences.

Emily: Like Mock is celebrating the good with the bad and hooks is dismissing the good for the bad? And maybe the good isn’t enough to be worth the bad?


Dan:  I was just talking to someone the other day about bell hooks and how they wanted the earlier, firebrand hooks back.
Well. This is what that is. She’s going to hold you accountable for the things you do and say and Beyoncé, for all her nice qualities, is not a street hustler or some middle manager somewhere- she’s near the top of this hierarchy and allows herself to be used in defense of it. You do good, but if you’re not trying to break the structure or are shallowly critical of it, you gonna have the hooks put on you.


Emily:  Hahaha, that’s a great pun. And a good point.


Dan: And then there is this which decided that what is important now is to say “no no no, hooks is wrong!” When I don’t think they understand that if their arguments are held true, Beyoncé is more not less culpable.
But mainly, no one is taking hooks particularly seriously. At least not as someone who is to be understood. Only as someone to be reacted too. The same, I guess can be said for Beyoncé, but I don’t think that our capacity and attention for understanding these people as actors in the world is equal in the way that our compassion for them as human beings (may) be equal.


Emily: I respect bell hooks so much as a thinker and I thought all feminists familiar with her would as well. I find what she says challenging but it seems really naive to dismiss her  as old.
I’m wondering what it would look like to be a person of influence, a black woman of influence, and still have the positive impact that women cite about Beyoncé without participating actively in oppressive systems. Is it the oppressive systems that give a person access to such a large audience? Even today with all the “democratization” of the internet, one still cannot compete with the influence of those people and companies that hold so much of the money.
Do you know where bell hooks stands on porn?


Dan: Well, bell hooks is a media scholar so I know she must have something. My guess, from my reading of her, is that she is more concerned with the way that black bodies are hated/loved/desired/destroyed, or displayed in service of pornography  given a colonialist history of sexualizing black bodies, than she is with pornography as a huge, complex thing. And, if anything gets her ire, is that when black women who are directly effected by the ways in which they are depicted and marginlized and used in pornography speak out against it or begin asking the hard question “What is it we have here?”, it is white and often male people who step in to tell them they are ‘counterrevolutionary’ or ‘anti-feminist’ because they don’t support an agenda that disproportionately loves and gives attention to particular kinds of white feminists.
It’s like, sex positive feminists and pro-pornography feminists who can’t take into account that their sex positivism and pro-pornography have as structuing contexts their own position white, male, privileged, etc. in the construction of their idenities are the real folks that hooks would have a problem with. Instead, I think she would want a way of talking about pornography and sex positivism (not sure why I’m bringing them up execept they’re both mentioned in that article I linked you) that accepts that those things don’t have equal consequences for all people and they’re allowed to point that out.


Emily:  I read a piece about this feminist porn festival in Toronto and I’m thinking about that sort of alternative pornography when I’m trying to imagine an alternative reality Beyoncé. But non exploitative / feminist porn is very much a fringe thing, which I guess is exactly what I was thinking about the alternative imaginary Beyoncé.


Dan: I think that’s a real interesting question. Are we alternate /to/ hegemonic pornography or are we alternative /within/ hegemonic pornography? The same might be asked with imaginaries of Beyoncé.
A male comic book character that is redrawn to have breasts and long hair is only alternative within a system of storytelling where as a Tank Girl or alt comic imaginary of a female character might exist alternatively to and thus in/on that margin you’re talking about.
Personally, I’ve always been impressed by what different feminists have brough to the table in terms of the pornography question, but I also think that the ‘alternative to/alternative within’ question gets a lot of lip service, which is the level of consciousness raising that bell hooks lives in.


Emily: That’s a good way of explaining the difference.  And is it possible for an alternative to become as popular without somehow becoming oppressive / exploitative?
Even Ben & Jerry’s is owned by Unilever.


Dan: Mmmm…. The easy answer is that my gut says yes, but the way forward is complicated.
The way I understand people and organizations is that the way that you keep an alternative to system alternative to is by giving control of it to another system that is also alternative to.
The way you keep feminist indie comics good is by keeping the barriers to participation low and encourage conference formats and publishing formats that are participatory and based on reflection and dialogue and self-determination.
A feminist fandom and comicsphere, if you will. And let the people closest to the situation figure out what the hell a a feminist fandom would look like, but let that question be open to people who participate and not to some ‘owner class’ or whatever.


Emily: But by virtue of being alternative, doesn’t that limit the reach?


Dan: For a time, until it’s the dominant model (or displaces the dominant model as being the only thing that can generate it’s own life) it does. Does reach worry you?


Emily: I’m thinking back to alternative Beyoncés but I can’t imagine someone having her reach without benefiting rich white CEOs. I think Beyoncé’s reach is a huge part of what makes her, currently. She’s not doing or saying things that aren’t being done or said elsewhere. In terms of her music and feminism, I mean. She’s influential because she’s so widely known, and she’s so widely known because at some point, someone with money and means determined they could profit off of her.


Dan: And that’s where I feel like hooks is coming down on Beyonce. Like, we’ve cut her a lot of slack to this point, so now “Whatchoo gonna do? You down with the struggle or what?” And hooks is like “Not lookin’ like it”. Just like she and Cornel West have sorta moved into the “Obama has failed to live up to the aspirations placed on him and slack cut for him by not appropriately emphasizing the struggle of people who fought to put him there” camp.
Meanwhile, a lot of other people are like “Nuh uh. The fact that Beyonce exists is a success and she’s doing successful work by being visable.” But again the question lingers- Successful for whom? Successful in whose struggle?


Emily: Do you think it’s possible or probable that Beyoncé will take hooks’ criticisms to heart?


Dan: That’s kind of the million dollar question, isn’t it? If Beyoncé is the feminist I think people want her to be, I think that’s a possibility. If she’s what hooks is seeing, then unlikely.
But miracles are amazing, unlikely things so, I don’t know. I hope so. She will have to struggle against the collective forces of having the option to not care and to have a group of people telling her to stay the course.

Misrepresentations Can Be Dire

Last year Assata Shakur became the first woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list. Many people have never heard of her, and admittedly, I hadn’t either, until hearing the refrain to Piebald’s “If Marcus Garvey Dies, Then Marcus Garvey Lives.” I hadn’t heard of neither her nor Marcus Garvey, but I didn’t bother to find out who they were until years later. I am a human, and humans can be lazy that way.

When I finally looked into Assata Shakur and why she is worth writing a song about, it was long after I’d met a 12-year-old girl named Assata, and after Piebald had broken up. Assata Shakur was involved in the Black Panther Party (BPP) and  some people (whose opinions I generally didn’t value) had compared the Black Panther Party to the KKK. When I decided I should look into the BPP myself, I checked my local library offerings and requested “Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton” written by Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, and Assata’s autobiography.

“Seize the Time” described the genesis of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which includes the 10-point platform and program of the BPP. The text emphasizes a need for black people to protect their own communities and defend their rights, because they had been failed by a system never designed to protect them. Seale describes how the media attempts to paint them as black racists, and how the BPP rejected any ideology that worked that way. Seale calls attention to distributors who would intentionally lose their papers. It is just another step by their oppressors to misrepresent their cause so the majority of citizens would not sympathize with them.

In her autobiography, Assata describes similar things happening to her as well. She shares her discomfort with her image on the  wanted posters posted everywhere and how many people who meet her remark on how they expected her to look meaner and be blacker. I really identified with Assata. The way she describes her passions, interests, and clashes resonate with me on a level reserved for close friends. Not long after purchasing a copy of her autobiography for myself and a friend, I found myself driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike. A digital billboard switched from some inane ad to a photograph of Assata with the words “TERRORIST” and her legal name “JOANNE CHESIMARD” next to it. I was filled with strange emotion and started crying a bit. Everyone knows Assata is in Cuba. Why are we bothering? I don’t know whether or not Assata shot a cop on the turnpike, but considering the intensity with which they’re pursuing her raises concerns about this that and the criminal justice system. That Assata is portrayed as a terrorist is frustrating. Fighting against oppression is not terrorism. Two people shoot and kill. One is a terrorist, one is a hero. Why?

With recent admissions about the NSA and internet / mobile communication surveillance, I’m sure it’s a bad idea (“sympathizing with a ‘terrorist’”) to write this piece. Whistleblower Edward Snowden said, “…even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded. And the storage capability of these system increases every year consistently by orders of magnitude, to where it’s getting to the point you don’t have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call. And then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made. Every friend you’ve ever discussed something with. And attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.”

Last year, FBI agents along with anti-terrorism task force agents took a battering ram and smashed down the door of Leah-Lynn Plante, a 24 year old anarchist living in Portland, Oregon. She and her roommates were handcuffed at gunpoint and read a search warrant before the agents went through their home and taking such “evidence” as books, literature, and artwork. They were told this was because of suspicion related to vandalism during the Seattle May Day riots that year, but according to Plante, the “grand jury was convened on March 2, 2012, two months before the May Day vandalism even took place.”

A number of my friends identify politically as anarchist, and I probably even have anarchist literature. I’m sure owning Assata’s autobiography doesn’t do me any favors in that regard. It’s likely if FBI agents broke down my front door and took a bunch of my books, zines, and artwork, they could use that along with out of context quotes from my intimate conversations to paint me in a really threatening light. The way the media portrays people is a powerful influencer on how they are viewed by the public, on how they are treated, on how they gain or do not gain rights.

The media is a powerful influencer on how movements are viewed by the public. The more I talk about and read about feminism on the internet, the more I find people spewing sexist lies they may or may not believe that seek to discredit or undermine the feminist movement. Discovering the term “straw feminist” was really powerful for me. “to name it – having language to discuss and dismantle this phenomenon is powerful” It allows me to understand my position and explain it and make sense of the slander. It also makes it easy to identify instances of straw feminism in the media, and find fictional characters that are shaping these views. In her book, “Feminism is for Everybody”, bell hooks talks about how the media’s representation has affected feminism,

“Conservative mass media constantly represented feminist women as man-haters. And when there was an anti-male faction or sentiment in the movement, they highlighted it as a way of discrediting feminism. Embedded in the portrayal of feminists as man-hating was the assumption that all feminists were lesbians. Appealing to homophobia, mass media intensified anti-feminist sentiment among men. … Anti-feminist men have always had a strong public voice. The men who feared and hated feminist thinking and feminist activists were quick to marshal their collective forces and attack the movement.” (pp 67-68)

Oppressive institutions have it in their best interest to squash movements from the folks they are oppressing. Oppressive institutions have the money and power to influence popular opinion. And unfortunately, humans are lazy. Humans often accept information at face value, especially when it relates to things they’d had no investment in. You may find no need to question the representation of an individual or people group in the media, until they turn on you.

There’s never been a better time than now, in the age of social media to fight the powerful influencers. Don’t just accept information at face value. Question the way something is being portrayed. Consider what sort of images are used, the connotation of descriptors. Are a majority being represented by a radical extremist faction? Look for first person accounts, documents about the goals of a movement, of a person, etc. Challenge baseless assumptions launched against a group or an individual, especially when you know that they’re fighting against oppression. Question (mis)representations from the media, and seek to share the truth you find. Your rights and freedoms might eventually depend on it.

 Originally published on The Letter Red.

Death to the Smile Police

Stop telling women to smile. Please.

When you go for a check up, do you attempt to get your doctor to smile? No. Do you try to harass a chuckle out of the mail man?  The pharmacist? No.  That begs the question, why are you doing it at all?  By all means, be kind and pleasant and charming in appropriate ways that might inspire a smile. But inspiring a smile and awkwardly forcing one from someone are two different things.  Women should not feel the need to pretend to be happy or “perform” a social cue on demand because our value in society is that of a show piece.  We are not always happy and we certainly are not here to provide smiling background faces for the folks with whom we are sharing our immediate spacial situation.  The Smile Police have no jurisdiction over me or my face. So smile on my friends!  Or not. Whatever works for you.

This interaction inspired THIS ZINE

Listen to a conversation about this whole concept between myself and my friend Justin, who was pretty sure it’s nice to tell people to smile.


*Explanation contributed by Noelle

Whole Lotta Shamin’ Going On

illustration by Emily R. Armstrong
illustration by Emily R. Armstrong

There is a certain insidious kind of behavior perpetrated by ‘enlightened’ individuals that takes the form of unsolicited criticism. It is packaged as evangelizing for The Liberated Choice. Those offering the criticism believe they are doing a service to those they criticize, that this criticism is educational and will improve the lives of anyone in earshot. Those “enlightened” individuals would certainly reject and likely speak out against insults meant to keep the status quo, and they likely don’t even realize that they’re participating in the same sort of behavior.

In this culturally enlightened folk recognize that the policing of identity expression is generally oppressive, and often times specifically sexist, racist and/or homophobic. They recognize that there are systems in place that work toward the detriment of the people for the financial benefit of a few, that economic and social structures supporting these systems really dictate what people buy, what people do and how people present, or repress, their identities. The least expensive food has the lowest nutritional value. The western standard of beauty is an impossibly thin, carefully makeupped, shorn, white, eurocentric ideal. “Good hair” is a term used in black communities to indicate silky, straight hair. As members of this society, people are expected to go along with these ideas of “good” and “normal.”

It takes a certain amount of courage to do what feels right when it is contrary to the oppressive expectation. In some places, rebelling against these expectations can incite violent repercussions. In safer places, one may still field uncomfortable questions and find themselves on the defense against folks who would rather uphold the status quo. This is honorable and praiseworthy.

What is not honorable, however, is the evangelism of breaking these cultural norms that takes the form of elitist shaming. It’s when responding to inquiries about one’s choices moves to expressing opinions about the choices of others in an attempt to get them to live their life the ‘enlightened’ way. It’s an attempt at shaming them out of behaviors deemed as harmful to themselves. We see this a lot these days with food. There are enough dietary restrictions to fill their own shelf in the library, and half of them are a step away from new religions. It is going beyond making information available and attempting to remove a choice. When someone leans over to tell a friend how “ unhealthy” their healthy snack is, they are now engaged in the same behavior as those who would mock someone for eating anything healthy in the first place.

Muslim women in France saw this with a ban on the burqa and niqab in 2011. While the ban did contain some liberating sections such as imposing a large fine on men who force women to wear the veil, it took away women’s religious freedom by not allowing them to wear their veils at all. In The Politics of Natural Hair, Kiki Nicole talks about how she has noticed, now that she wears her hair natural, that some women rocking natural hair shame their processed / weave / wig wearing sisters. Shaming can be seen among every type of ‘liberated’ subculture, and it does not serve to help anyone’s cause.

Having the freedom to choose the more ‘liberated’ option means also having the freedom to choose the less ‘liberated’ one. Talking generally about the historical context for an action or expression is much different than talking specifically about someone’s choice within that context. Those folks who believe they’re making the world a better place should consider whether their efforts are creating more opportunities and choices, or whether they are simply policing the actions and expressions of others.

This piece was originally published on The Letter Red.



“You’re too beautiful for that buuulllllllshit,” he says to me.

The ‘bullshit’ being his misguided interpretation of a facet of my most sacred emotional bond.

This ‘bullshit,’ determined after having known me for less than a day. After accusing me of lying about every personal detail I shared.  After questioning me about banal objects and accusing me of hiding some sentimental truth.

The only bullshit here, sir,  is telling me my business like you know me.

… and if you really understood me, you’d realize it’s bullshit to determine what I deserve by my physical appearance.

I Can’t Believe It’s From Cosmo

Cosmo, a ladies’ mag seen in most feminist circles as almost synonymous with internalized sexism, whose once-groundbreaking inclusion of content geared toward sexually liberated women now regularly features sex tips seen as laughable or damaging, seems to be making some bold improvements. For a magazine that boasts 200 million readers annually in 100 countries, even small changes have the potential for a huge impact. That’s why it was so refreshing to see publish a piece called Don’t Let Anyone Tell You To Work Out After A Cupcake.

Though there’s no shortage of body positivity in the blogosphere, larger media is highly dominated by unrealistic expectations for women’s bodies. This, of course includes models photoshopped thinner than they are, as well as an endless supply of articles with diet and exercise tips for reducing the body parts women are taught to dislike. There has been a serious lack of body positivity in major publications and has definitely shown that they intend to change this. In addition to the anti-food shaming piece, they also ran 11 Things You Should Never Say To A Fat Girl, cementing that this new empowering angle is indeed not a fluke.

Anna Breslaw, author of Don’t Let Anyone Tell You To Work Out After A Cupcake confirms this: hired me to bring a more empowered, feminist, sex-positive (and food positive, obviously) attitude to the site, as part of a big editorial revamp. i come from a strong feminist and non-womens-mag background (i used to write for jezebel), and they intentionally hired me to shake the old guard at Cosmo up a bit. (and i’ve been enjoying doing just that.)

She added that the author of 11 Things You Should Never Say To A Fat Girl, Laura Beck, currently works both as the weekend editor for as well as the night writer for popular feminist blog Jezebel. She goes on to add that they are joined by many freelancers contributing likeminded material. Of the change, Breslaw says, “it’s a slow shift — and even slower on the print side — but i feel good about the direction it’s going in.” noticed improvements to the print edition after the 2012 hiring of editor Joanna Coles:

There are several new features. One, “What’s on your mind,” has interviews with diverse women about their interests. Most responses are about politics or career, and one 18-year-old interviewee talked about her two year old son. “Fun, Fearless Females” features accomplished women; this issue includes an inventor, a political activist, and a Boston Marathon bombing survivor.

Many sections have been revitalized as well, in big and small ways. On the “Confessions” page, the feature picture is of a biracial couple. On a feature called “Summer Lovin’,” a collection of celebrity couple pictures, includes the lesbian couple Ellen DeGeneres and Portia De Rossi. The Fashion section feature the picks of successful female fashion bloggers or use college students as models, and the Work section has grown considerably (and none of the career articles were about clothes). Even the articles about sex focused on women’s pleasure rather than the man’s, one declaring, “Set a precedent and make sure you come first.”

It is clear these small things are harbingers of bigger changes to come. Hopefully Cosmo can popularize female empowerment in a life impacting way for its readers. Such ideas have the potential to improve women’s relationships, body image, and mental and emotional health.