A QUICK WORD
We’ve been thinking about babies — not because we’re anywhere near ready for our own (hi mum) but because there have been a bunch of strong pop culture depictions of motherhood recently, powerfully highlighting the grey areas, nuance, and imperfection of being a mum. Hannah on Girls is *spoiler alert* pregnant and having the baby; our fantasy-bff Chrissy Teigen just wrote a moving letter about her battle with postpartum depression; and everybody’s latest TV obsession, Big Little Lies (based on a book by Australian Liane Moriarty; go stream it NOW if you’re not on board yet) delves into the strength of women—mothers in particular—in the face of violence and trauma.
This week, To Her Door puts these themes under the microscope. Jessica Friedmann digs into the difficult intersection between motherhood and creativity in our interview about her new book, while singer-songwriter Ali Barter talks frankly about women’s role in the music industry — and why she’s so much more than a passive “muse”.
Speaking of feminism (as always) how are you feeling about the fashion world jumping on the bandwagon? Feminism and protest are so hot right now (Hansel,) but ethical fashion entrepreneur Fi McAlpine makes a strong case for being wary of brands that co-opt political messages to sell t-shirts (or soft drinks for that matter, ahem) without reflecting those principles in their own production lines.
This issue, Julie Houts also plucks her ideas for illustrations straight out of our brain (and, I guess, hers) to hilarious effect, and shares the creative process behind her much DMed Instagram account.
Enjoy! And as always, shoot us an email email@example.com with questions/pitches/guacamole recipes. We’d love to hear from you.
– Mia & Grace
ALI BARTER: “WOMEN ARE AN INCREDIBLE FORCE”
Hot on the heels of launching her debut album A Suitable Girl, the Melbourne singer-songwriter talks to us about her creative process, sexism in the music industry, and the expectation that women remain ‘perfect, complaint, cheerful and small’.
By Grace Jennings-Edquist
Photo: Supplied/Ali Barter
You’ve previously said that while growing up, you “learned that a woman’s chief purpose in music is to play the supporting role to men.” To what extent has that changed over the years?
I have learnt through my own research that this isn’t true; it’s just what we’ve been told. Women are an incredible force and always have been, it’s just, they had to fight harder to be heard and get their ideas across.
Today women have a stronger place in the world. Increasingly they are acknowledged for their contributions and the way society talk about and includes women has changed. It’s no longer as accepted to use words like ‘muse’ because it suggests passivity.
Which artist inspires you to make music? Who do you listen to when you need a push to be creative?
I love listening to Liz Phair. She sings so honestly, about all subjects. The mundane and the extreme; the extremities in the mundane. I listen to her songs when I feel like I have nothing to write about and I realise I have a million things to write about. Taking a long drive and listening to a favourite song, smoking a cigarette with an old friend, the fight I had with my boy last night, an uncomfortable sexual experience I had when I was 22. The everyday is rich with inspiration.
What’s your single “Girlie Bits” about?
I had the words ‘girlie bits’ in my phone last year because I was thinking about soft bits on girls; rolls, and fleshy parts, softness, and I was thinking about how beautiful and lovely I think they are on other women and how much I hate them on myself. I wanted to talk about these parts of being a woman because I felt so uncomfortable with my own female-ness. So not it’s not about body parts, it’s about the idea of woman that we have been expected to present. Perfection, compliant, cheerful, small. It’s a battle with this idea and the anger, ambition, and ugliness that I feel on a daily basis.
You’ve previously talked about how women have always been musical pioneers, but their contributions weren’t acknowledged like men’s. What female musicians have been under-appreciated or overlooked that you admire?
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who was a pioneering blue guitarist in the 1930s and 40s. She is largely unknown (and certainly not acknowledged by history books) but the male guitarists and musicians who were influenced by her are household names, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley. She was buried in an unmarked grave until about 10 years ago. She was incredible.
“EARLY MOTHERHOOD IS STILL OFTEN SPOKEN ABOUT IN FATUOUS AND EUPHEMISTIC WAYS”
Jessica Friedmann’s account of postnatal depression touches on race, gender, creativity, and mental illness — and does not shy away from the gritty, often unspoken realities of new motherhood and modern womanhood. We spoke to the Canberra-based author about her debut book, Things That Helped.
By Grace Jennings-Edquist
Digital illustration: Nina Abrahams
Unravelling is a painful process, one that rapidly outpaces my ability to repair the damage. When Owen is born, the vocabulary lost to the pregnancy doesn’t suddenly flood back, as I had half expected, certainly hoped. Instead, the process of deterioration speeds up, leaving me exhausted by attempts to keep up with the train of my most basic thoughts. Unravelling itself is a trick, with ravelling its synonym and antonym. You can reconcile them by thinking of a loom; the unravelling threads, becoming unwoven from the fabric, are ravelled, tangled up. I can’t think of anything much in particular. I can keep up the flow of social conversation, a beat behind the others who come to coo at the baby, but it exhausts me, leaves me cranky and tired. I am tired physically, tired emotionally, sick of not being able to find the right word at the right time, and terrified that I will never be able to find it again. Language is where I have lived for so long, I am lost without it. When I read, the words make no impression on my brain, vanishing before I finish a paragraph so that I have to read it again and again to glean its meaning. It is like my life before glasses; language becoming, with strain, simply a grey blur across the page. It is truly fucking horrific, and the irony is that I have no words left to describe it.
– Extract from Things That Helped
You share so much of yourself in this book, including your darkest thoughts while suffering PND. What was it like to decide to put yourself out there in such a frank way?
It’s something I’m starting to think about just now, with the book coming out; funnily enough I didn’t worry about it at all while I was writing the essays, because that frankness just felt completely necessary to the work. I wasn’t interested in artifice, I wasn’t interested in beauty; I was interested in using mental illness as a lens through which to examine my own personal, social, cultural, political life. And so I just wanted to write and speak as plainly as possible, so that no aspect of that framing was obscured.
Plainness is the only thing that made writing some of that subject matter possible. For one thing, I didn’t want to romanticise any aspect of the darker or less comfortable side of mental illness, because I worry that the ‘mad creative mother’ can be quite a glamourous figure. But a lot of that plain speaking came, too, from the fact that early motherhood is often still spoken about in really fatuous and euphemistic ways. I didn’t want to contribute to a literature, ostensibly confessional, in which the key facts are still obscured. I’m sure it’s going to feel strange when the book is published, but I’m also really glad that my experience in the years I wrote about is going to be in the public sphere, and not something I have to carry by myself anymore.
You’ve written about losing your creativity for a time after giving birth [see extract above]. Any advice to other creative-type new mums who are experiencing the same thing?
I wish I had had more faith in the resilience of creative capacity, and taken some of the pressure off myself. I genuinely believed that I had ruined or wrecked some innate part of myself by giving birth, the part of myself where creativity lived, when in fact it was just being squashed under sleep deprivation and breastfeeding and depression and anxiety and fear.
If I had another baby – which I won’t – I think I would try to treat the first six months at least as a residency, in which the only things I were allowed to do were think and sleep and slowly develop fragments. I’m a pretty fragmentary writer. Most of the essays in this collection started off as fragments in the Notes app on my phone, which was a lifesaver when I was at the park or the supermarket and needed to get something down while still rocking the pram with my foot. So – keep notes, but don’t pressure yourself to develop them. And just inhabit restorative physical spaces as much as you can.
Things That Helped documents your recovery, but – since you struggled to write when you were unwell — was the decision to write a book also part of your recovery?
It was something I could only do once I was significantly recovered, but it did help clarify some things for me. I had to really reckon with how I inhabited language, and how to write and think in a way that wouldn’t be too consuming; I had to think about how I construct and reconstruct memory, what details I’m prone to repressing, which sensory experiences brought up strongly visceral resonance, and why.
I wouldn’t have dug into some of those things without seeing a therapist. I was lucky to be working with someone really lovely who I liked and trusted, and she became a kind of unofficial guardian angel of the writing process. I still go back mentally into that room to sort things out with her when I’m having a hard time with something on the page. It’s been good; it’s given me a really healthy framework.
Who are your favourite Aussie writers?
There are so many! And it’s a hard question also because a lot of my friends are writers. In terms of essay and criticism, I really love what writers like Hannah Donnelly, Rebecca Giggs, Gillian Terzis and Eleanor Robertson are doing right now. Quinn Eades is somebody whose poetry I find tremendously exciting, and there are writers I’ve studied under, like Tony Birch and Kevin Brophy, whose work has impressed me deeply. Australian writing’s a rich culture; you kind of can’t throw a stone in any direction without hitting a book that is genuinely exciting.
Things That Helped (Scribe, 2017) is out now.
FEMINISM IS IN STYLE. BUT BEWARE THE CHAIN STORES JUMPING ON THE TREND.
Feminism-lite messages must not distract from the need for real changes in the industry itself.
By Fi McAlpine, cofounder of The Fabric Social
Digital illustration: Nina Abrahams
Protest is trending; it’s all over the runways, fashion mags and (why, oh why, Pepsi?!?) soft drink commercials.
Dior released a shirt that read “we should all be feminists”. Prabal Gurung’s NYFW runway show was a procession of slogan tees such as “revolution has no borders” and “this is what a feminist looks like”. H&M’s viral video ad, released in late 2016, was heralded byThe Huffington Post as a “badass”, “feminist” redefinition of “ladylike.” And earlier this year, the Missoni runway at Milan fashion week was a pussy hat parade.
Mainstream fashion brands embracing feminism isn’t an inherently bad thing. But these feminism-lite and inclusivity messages must not distract attention from the need for real changes in the fashion industry itself.
The ways in which the fashion industry is destructive to women is pretty well-publicised. 75 million people are employed by the fashion industry, and it is the largest global employer of women — mostly young women. Wages continue to be squeezed, and unions continue to be targeted whenever vulnerable garment communities collectivise. Child labour is reportedly on the up, and the industry is becoming masterful at slithering across borders when the regulation tape gets too tight for its liking.
To be fair: high-end luxury companies gracing the catwalk tend not to be the culprits in sourcing toxic materials and mass producing products under slave labour conditions. But these luxury labels pay executives handsomely to take the public pulse, and will no doubt profit from aligning with the genuine protest movement, while participating in creating minimal change, if any. (For example, Prabal Gurang’s t-shirts cost $195, with an unnamed portion of proceeds donated to American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and Shikshya Foundation Nepal.)
Life is not getting better for the fashion industry’s female workers just because a model in Milan wears a pussy hat. Instead, consumers need to put their money where their mouth is, and shift towards social enterprise, towards transparent supply chains, and support those companies who do seek to disrupt the industry at large.
Fortunately, consumers are increasingly checking up on the human rights credentials of the brands they buy. That means there can no longer be a disconnect between feminist branding and the people who create our clothes. (This is best demonstrated by the monumental whoopsie made last year by Beyoncé, when it was revealed that her Ivy Park collection with Topshop — whose tagline was “empower women through sport” — was stitched by women earning less that £5 a day.)
Gone are the days when brands could bury their supply chains deep in the annals of a report where no one can find it. In an age when we can watch Gigi Hadid pluck her eyebrows on Snapchat, we can at least expect to know where products are made within a few easy clicks.
Image via @prabalgurung
At The Fabric Social, we wave our transparency flag with pride. Our supply chain for all products is available on our website, and we happily share the stories of the women who make the clothes we sell. These women are not shamefully hidden, but celebrated, front and centre. We don’t produce poverty porn, we celebrate women; we celebrate their communities, their traditions, and their talent.
It’s not just about treating people fairly, it’s about changing the dialogue: telling people over and over that their purchasing power is political power. When you put your money in the right place, fashion can be feminist. It’s up to you!
After all: If the point of fashion is to convey something to the world about who you are and what you believe in, is it not then pretty important to consider how your clothes came into existence?
“I TRY TO WORK ON SOMETHING, HOWEVER SMALL OR STUPID, EVERY DAY”
Insta-illustrator and J. Crew womenswear designer Julie Houts talks us through her creative process.
By Grace Jennings-Edquist
Illustrations: Julie Houts via Instagram/ @jooleeloren
On finding inspiration when she’s having a creative block:
Sometimes it’s best to just take a break. I don’t often make anything I feel good about if I don’t have an idea that feels organic.
Occasionally I’ll revisit favorite books from artists I like and see if there’s something technical that is exciting that I could build on. The way a hand looks, a certain color combination, etc. Or I’ll pick up whatever magazine or book is nearest and read for a little bit; sometimes there will just be a combination of words that will spark something.
On learning to set the right price for her work as an freelance illustrator:
When I first started out, I had no idea how to price things. I just sort of had a general feeling based on my emotions about the piece, and I’d just throw out a number I was comfortable with. Or, I’d take on a job without knowing how much the client would actually expect in terms of revisions, etc. I’d get myself into these impossible situations where I’d be doing ten rounds of edits on a single drawing for which I had quoted an absurdly low rate. I’d get so resentful, and it made the work such a drag to do.
I’ve learned so much in the past year by talking with friends who work in the art world, by working more, selling more. It has been a process. I’m still learning a lot through working with clients. Mostly about being very candid about money and process up front so everyone is clear about what’s expected in the project.
On advice for any aspiring artists:
I don’t know… Try to work on something, however small or stupid every day? It seems like a sure fire way to improve.
On how her mood affects her work:
It drives it completely. I don’t feel like making much if I’m in a really pleasant easy mood. I’d much rather just be enjoying it, not trying to translate it into a drawing. It’s pretty much only when something is giving me anxiety or anger, or recently, rage, that I feel compelled to draw something.
A lot of things just come from confusion, as well. Working through something I read or see or notice around me that I don’t understand or that keeps bothering me.
On the relationship between feminism and fashion:
They’re both really broad terms and mean a lot of different things to different people. One person’s interpretation of the word feminism, I’ve learned, can be radically different from someone else’s. Same goes for fashion. But for me personally, yes, the two are linked. Both in my career, and in terms of what I put on my body and the choices I make as a consumer. It feels like a dialogue at times, if that makes any sense.
Illustration: Julie Houts via Instagram/ @jooleeloren
WE’RE ACROSS THE INTERNET, SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE
By Mia Abrahams
Links you might’ve missed:
- A lot of us were feeling helpless this week watching the horror (still) unfolding in Syria. You can donate to Care Australia’s crisis appeal here or The White Helmetshere.
- Need some new magic for your headphones? We’ve been obsessed with the new podcast from the Serial team, S-Town. It’s captivating, heartbreaking, and totally original. And then read this excellent piece from The Atlantic that asks: is it okay to use another person’s pain for a really good story?
- Ashley Ford is one of my favourite writers, and this piece “My Boyfriend Weighs Less Than I Do” proves why.
- BRB crying over Beyoncé’s latest declaration of love for Jay-Z… and yachts.
- “Sorry for the delayed response!” is basically my automatic email template. So you can forward this New Yorker piece next time instead. But not to me, pleaseee.
Until next time!
Featured image: Anna Snowsill.