The zine It’s Complicated abounds with sharp observations and keen writing about popular culture. The thematic umbrella: feminist responses to misogynistic art. As the first issue shows, that can be work made by anyone from Eminem to Charles Bukowski; the essays examining the works in question are smart, funny, and often revealing. The essays from said issue include Elisabeth Donnelly’s smart reading of the Afghan Whigs’ body of work, with a particular emphasis on Gentlemen, as well as Tom Ribitzky’s discussion of the nascent homoeroticism in Ayn Rand’s work. To learn more about the project, I spoke with editors Judy Berman (who, full disclosure, I’ve done some writing for at Flavorwire) and Niina Pollari one March evening at The Magician on the Lower East Side.
Where did the idea to do the zine first come from?
Judy Berman: It was an idea that I had while I was reading the collection that came out about two years ago now of Ellen Willis’s music writing. There was this great piece in there that I think I read before, when I was in grad school, about how she loved punk music, and the Sex Pistols in particular, but the song “Bodies,” which is famously kind of about abortion, both energized and revolted her at the same time. I wish I could remember some of her language, because there was this beautiful paragraph that laid it all out and took the whole thing, analyzed how she felt about it, and how the song was able to empower her at the same time that it oppressed her. I thought it was such a great articulation of how I felt about so many things in my life, specifically as a feminist. So I thought, wouldn’t it be great to put out a call and get other feminists to write about pieces of art, artists, musicians, filmmakers who made them feel the same way. And to work through those feelings in a way that wasn’t about shame, and wasn’t about confessing so much as it was about analyzing. Approaching the relationship on its own terms and not assuming from the bad that there’s something wrong with it, or that it needs to be a takedown of the artist in question.
Niina Pollari: It’s not a thing where you end with an absolute judgment of an artist’s work. You can still continue to like it. You just have to get at why and how.
When you first announced this project, there was mention of an essay set to appear in the second issue on The Mountain Goats, looking at art that isn’t necessarily misogynistic but could be read that way. Where did that perspective on including that viewpoint in the project come from?
Niina: I think that was via Michael’s own proposal. We hadn’t specifically put out a call for that, but it totally worked. I think the piece came out really good.
Judy: The piece came out amazing. We already finalized it. When it landed in our inbox, I want to be really honest — we were both, like, “The Mountain Goats?” You don’t want to be that feminist who says, “By the way, John Darnielle — you think you’re a feminist, but…”
Niina: We didn’t want anyone to take down people who are already feminist champions. It’s not about that at all.
Judy: But we did want to include as many perspectives as possible. This piece in particular is about how the writer instrumentalizes the song when he’s having woman problems, or… That what comes through is this note of misogyny, not because the song [“No Children” -ed.] is intrinsically misogynist, but because we live in a culture where it’s a different thing to tell a man, “I hope you die,” than it is to tell a woman, “I hope you die.”
Niina: And there’s a narrative arc in those song that he talks about, and the writer of the essay latches on to that misogynist perspective in those songs only when he’s in times of heartbreak and distress, which is super-interesting. It becomes available to you when you’re in a particular situation, feeling a lot of emotions.
Judy: He’s writing about how powerful the song is itself, and how that power transcends the original intentions of the song so that it becomes this kind of force of nature. And that the misogyny that is really just anger at one woman becomes this universal thing, and the universalism of it is what becomes problematic.
I feel like some of that came up when I was reading Elisabeth Donnelly’s piece in the first issue on the Afghan Whigs — the progression towards becoming “that guy.” I just think back to the time I saw Greg Dulli, when I thought, “Wait, there are a lot of — for lack of a better word — bros here. What does it say about me that I’m here?”
Judy: I think we all have that moment where we look around at a show and think, “Oh. This is the audience that I’m part of?” Draw back and analyze…
Niina: How do I reconcile being in this audience?
Judy: I think it’s always uncomfortable when you realize that most people are getting something different out of a work of art than you are.
What, for you, have been the most striking examples of that moment of recognition — that you don’t feel the same way about the same beloved artist or work of art as a lot of other people?
Judy: For me, personally, I remember discovering Nirvana pretty late — Kurt Cobain died when I was nine. I got into them a year or two later. I remember, in middle school, it being this private thing for my friends and I. And then getting to high school and realizing that all of these gross, macho older boys were super-into Nirvana, too. I just remember thinking that the whole thing felt sullied to me; it changed the way I thought. I had to think about why this appealed to them, when to me it was the ultimate outsider music.
Niina: For me? My contribution to the project will be on John Milton, and on Paradise Lost.
Niina: Which I really love, as a work of art. But which is so problematic, because it’s sort of the origin of Western misogyny, in terms of content. In 2009, I went to the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth, the conference in London; I had a paper there. And I thought, “Oh my goodness; it is all old white men. And me.” And that was a really weird moment for me. It’s not that we’re not all fans of Milton and his work, but we may be getting different things out of it. It’s always difficult to negotiate that stuff when it’s about scholarship, because everyone’s got their own niche. But I’m constantly, deeply troubled by the feminist issues in Milton’s work, especially since he kind of was weirdly feminist at times, if you go into his tract about divorce and stuff. But he treated everyone so badly in his own life, and the character of Eve is so terrible… In short: Milton and Miltonists, for me.
Once you had gotten the initial group of essays together, how did you go about dividing them into the first two issues?
Niina: They sort of divided themselves. We started noticing, hey, there’s a few about this topic and a few about this topic. We have not only the first two sorted out, but several others down the line. It seemed pretty organic.
Judy: We planned out the first two before we had full-length submissions. We asked people to pitch. I hate calls for submissions where you have to have the whole thing written and you don’t even know whether it’s going to run. It seems so much better for academic projects, because people are going to write their paper anyway. So we asked people to pitch us, just like you’d pitch a story. And based on those, we grouped things. We have around fifty essays in some stage of the works, I would say. And we sat down with a spreadsheet and looked at what kind of trends were emerging.
Did you know from the outset that this would be a half-size print zine? Or was there some discussion over the best way to get this into the world?
Niina: Hopefully, later on in this project’s life we’re going to put together a book proposal. And we thought, “What’s a good way to start getting this material out there, before what is likely to be a never-ending ordeal?” Zines seemed like a good idea because they’re fast and they can be limited. And they’re pretty cheap to print.
Judy: It’s a format that we both love. Zines have been super-important to both of us in our lives. We both, in different capacities, work on the internet, so the idea of it being this tangible thing — and something we could spend time on… All of the essays, including our own, went through multiple rounds of editing. We worked on it the way you would work on a book. I think the fact that it was a print publication added to our seriousness of coming out with a real finished product.
Are there writers you’re hoping to get to contribute over and above the people who have pitched you?
Niina: Absolutely. We have a dream list of people who we’d like to ask at some point.
Judy: And we have people that we’re in different levels of talking with. There are people who, I think, are going to need to know that we have a book deal before they’re ready to write something. There are people who we’re going to have to come to and say, “We realize that you have really smart things on this topic — would you be willing to do it for our zine?” We were really impressed with the level of submissions that we got just from putting out an open call.
How do the two of you work as editors? Do each of you have a speciality, or…
Niina: We just get together and look at the submissions. We each give everything a read before we get together, and then we get together and look at them on paper and discuss problems, if there are problems. Actually, that’s the nitty-gritty of working together. I would say that Judy is amazing to work with, because she thinks super-analytically about the content, and is… (To Judy) I’ll just talk to you. You have this great knack of finding the crux and the turning point of the essay, and that’s really wonderful to have in an editor that you’re working with in a co-editor capacity.
Judy: I think that Niina and I are on the same page about things. The same things that you thought about me, I would say about you. We just work together really compatibly, and we both have similar stresses in our professional lives and similar interests in making this project really good. We’ve come to a place where we do a lot of work on it, but we never wanted to make it a source of stress in our lives. We meet up a lot; we meet pretty informally: we have a drink, we send zines out, we talk about pieces. People say that collaboration is so hard, and the things that I’ve done in my career, it’s pretty individual work, in terms of writing and editing. Niina and I have had absolutely no problems.
Niina: It’s been wonderful. Last weekend, we mailed out zines and then went to see that zombie teen movie, Warm Bodies. It was great. It was a great day.
Judy: We try to do things to make the parts of it that are just rote work — like envelope-stuffing — fun.
Niina: We ended up making the “I [Heart] My Goth Boyfriend” zine because we needed a reward for ourselves to get through the initial terrible nitty-gritty of setting up our plan for the Kickstarter.
Judy: So we threw a zine party. And we drank absinthe, which Niina lit on fire.
Niina: That’s true.
Judy: In the middle of the afternoon. We had people write about their high school goth boyfriends.
Niina: We listened to Marilyn Manson.
Judy: We did. We relived a little piece of all of our pasts.
One last question: is there one particular work of art, music, fiction, nonfiction, or film that, having done this project, you’re now looking at in a very different way?
Judy: To give a very superficial answer, I can never read or hear about Ayn Rand again without thinking of Tom Ribitzky’s piece. The homoerotic aspects of Ayn Rand’s work were totally lost on me — though now I see it. He did such a good job of bringing it out that now, I can’t read a word of Ayn Rand without seeing it. Not that I make a big habit of reading her.
Niina: But it would be hard not to ignore the glistening muscles of the übermensch right now, at this point.
Niina: I would say that, after reading all the essays, and even the pitches that came through, all of those were illuminating in that kind of way for me. It’s hard to pick just one. I think that’s a good thing.
Judy: I think, in general, it’s reminded me that there’s nothing objective about taste. Anything that I think is objectively bad or has no redeeming value or is abhorrent for feminist reasons or any other reasons, has redeeming value to someone, or has meant something in the context of someone’s life. Which is, as far as I’m concerned, where art is most important — the way we fit it into our lives.