My horror comic with A.L. Kaplan, MAW, comes out in its collected edition on August 2. You can pick it up at your local comic store – and it's still available for pre-order at IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.
In honor of its new release, I thought I'd write a little piece about what it means to me a year later. Unsurprisingly, I'm still pissed.
There’s a joke about Roe v. Wade in the first issue of Maw, and in that joke, Roe is already a goner. Marion is making fun of the second-wave “women’s spirituality” movement, all the sharing circles and spiral dances and earth goddesses — “like you could save Roe v. Wade by dancing naked under the full moon.” In response, Howie points out that Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, peak moon-dance years. Whatever those ladies were doing, back then, it must have helped.
This joke sort of sums up my own feelings about the second wave of feminism: It was embarrassing. It was problematic. It was hokey. It also worked, though — the feminists of that generation managed to establish several critical rights, like legal abortion (or laws against marital rape, or protections against workplace sexual harassment, or the concept of workplace sexual harassment, or legal birth control, or the right for women to have credit cards and bank accounts in their own names, or or or) when all my generation has done with our rights is lose them.
Maw is a folk-horror story, and — like a lot of those stories — it hinges on a confrontation with the past. The protagonists, Marion and Wendy, are taken to Angitia, a place where the second wave is still sort of happening, and where the most extreme and simplistic stereotypes of that movement (man-hating, goddess-worshiping, beauty-standard-violating, rape-avenging, bitter, angry, aging, violent queers) actually hold up.
This is, in part, a gleeful tribute: All those stereotypes, added together, describe someone incredibly fucking metal. Maw is, among other things, an expression of my profound disappointment that Pat Robertson’s infamous description of feminism (“[a] movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians”) is not literally true.
Yet this setting is also a way to let the past and present speak to each other, to let some people my age (which isn’t old, but isn’t young, either) actually come face-to-face with the kind of women they’d spent their lives trying not to be, or even be around. It’s about tracing back the mother road, the matriarchal bloodline: “Maw” is the mouth of a beast, and MAW are the initials of protagonist Marion Angela Weber, but Ma(w) is also how some of us say mother.
I wasn’t sure that Roe would be overturned by the time Maw was in print — certainly, I didn’t know that we’d lose it between the printing of the first issue and the collected edition — but it’s a joke that was written with the understanding that Roe was a lost cause. There were other causes we’d lose in the near future: The backlash against #MeToo was just beginning. Fearmongering about trans people was on the rise. Fascism, with its insistence on strict and biologically determined gender roles, had begun to enter the mainstream, and there was no good plan to hold it back.
This was scary no matter who you were, but it was particularly strange for people my age – roughly, the older end of millennial - who grew up hearing that feminism had already won its most important battles. Even the most generous interpretations of second-wave feminists had depicted them as rendered irrelevant by their own success. If twenty-first century feminism was necessary at all, it was only for light clean-up work — deepening analyses, deconstructing stereotypes, getting women into Ghostbusters movies, you know the drill — because the heavy lifting had already been done.
Those were the charitable analyses – and not every analysis was charitable. If you listened to certain commentators, it had actually gotten too easy to be a woman; society was being “feminized,” women were getting all the jobs and college degrees, “masculinity crises” and “cancel culture” were ravaging the white male population, so that men, in fact, were the disadvantaged gender now.
Men have made quite the comeback, though, haven’t we? All that persecution we suffered during the brief period of lady bosses and mild consequences for sexual assault seems to have rolled right off our backs. All the trends that were on the rise when I wrote Maw are upon us now in full force.
Feminism was seen as embarrassing, when I grew up; it was a character flaw, a form of hysteria. Feminists weren’t pretty and they weren’t fun and they definitely weren’t Beyonce — they were mad old ladies who hated lipstick and their ex-husbands, crones intent on sucking joy out of the world. They were angry, God, they were just so angry, and what, in the twenty-first century, with all their battles won, could they possibly find to get so angry about?
Well: Look around, at the twenty-first century, where we’re all living. Why were they so angry? Why are you?
I remember the afternoon in 2017 when Anthony Kennedy retired and I realized the overturn of Roe was a done deal: I was sitting in a coffee shop in Ditmas Park, surrounded by people, when I read the headline off my laptop. I felt nothing, for a moment, and then I clicked away to a new tab. All of a sudden, I was so angry my ears were ringing. My body hovered at the edge of an adrenaline waterfall, then pushed through; I picked “fight” off the fight-or-flight menu.
For a moment, sitting perfectly still in that crowded cafe, I had the distinct feeling that I could tear someone’s throat out with my teeth. For a moment, I would have enjoyed it.
I don’t want a return to the feminism of the 1970s. As a trans person, I’m quite aware that some of the most vocal figureheads of that movement either regard me with incomprehension or want me dead. To call that era's feminism “problematic” is a euphemism that borders on a lie; each of those “problems” represents a place where marginalized and vulnerable people were abandoned, kicked in the teeth, written off as a distraction and left for dead. Feminism, whatever it does next, will do it better because of the deeper understandings of queerness and race and disability and capitalism (and and and) that contemporary activists have brought forward.
What Maw does say, though — why I’m proud of it — is that progress is not guaranteed. History does not move forward in a straight line. It loops back around, it moves in circles; what we gain, we may lose, and so the past is always speaking to us, because it is the future that awaits us if we get complacent.
Maw is about a world where the past and present not only touch, they occasionally feel interchangeable; the names and faces change, but the injustices go unaltered. “Housewives” are supposedly artifacts of the 1950s, but millions of women are still pushed out of the workforce by societal expectations and the cost of childcare. Abortion is illegal in many American states now, but it was inaccessible in those same states for years. The "good" woman (like Wendy) still looks like a white, docile, soft-spoken, heterosexually married mother, and God help her if she tries to escape or even alter that role in any way. Diana was beaten and assaulted by her husband in the 1970s, and Marion was raped by boys at a party in the 2010s, but both their lives were destroyed by telling the truth. Neither woman was believed.
If all of the bad parts of womanhood can come back, why can't the rest of it come back, too? Why can't we pull from the ancient stories, the ones where women had power – dark, frightening, sometimes bloodthirsty, but real? Why can't we have witches casting curses and matriarchal warrior cults and bloodthirsty goddesses from the beginning of the world?
Rage is a teacher; it tells us when we’ve been hurt, and what is unacceptable. What could be more unacceptable than this constant looping around past the same atrocities? The rage at the heart of Maw stems from my fear that all the “progress” we’ve made is superficial. No matter what we do, no matter how hard we fight, no matter how admirable we are or how righteous our cause is, nothing changes. Women keep getting hurt. The creatures born from that kind of pain are not pretty. Hurt someone long enough, and they will become somebody who can hurt you back.
Maw let me rip out throats until I was sated. I broke skulls open and ate the squishy parts, I gutted predators twice my size. I pinned a guy to a wall and screamed into his face how unfair things were, how tired I was, how sad I was, how much I didn't want to have to be this mad. I devoured the world. It’s the most sustained and unforgiving expression of anger I’ve ever written, and I was a fairly angry person, for a long time.
I’m a much less angry person now, after having written it. The world is still a hard place, but I am more likely to respond with compassion and sorrow rather than with fury. It's actually hard for me to remember how bleak the world felt, before I wrote Maw, and how bottomless my own rage was, and you can chalk that shift in my personality to a lot of things – therapy, gender transition, good anti-depressants – but the thing that really changed me, I think, was Maw itself. I had to go all the way down, into the bottom of the world, where Marion lived, and let her tell me a story. Once I finally listened to that rage, it was through with me, and I was allowed to live on peaceful terms.
You can run from the past, you can run from the monster, but it will find you. It’s underneath everything. It’s the source of all that we are. My monster, when it came out of me, looked like this comic book — yours will look different. I hope you find it, though. I hope I help you get there. When you bring it up to the light, please, tell me what it’s hungry for, what it needs. Let it change you. Let it change the world.
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