Currently reading : WHAT IS THE FEMALE GAZE? An interview with the impeccably progressive Melinda Gebbie
To put it frankly – If you’re not aware of who Melinda Gebbie is and your interests span feminism and countercultural history there’s been a huge gap in your field of interest. Gebbie has been working as a comic book artist and illustrator since the 70s, emerging during the San Fransisco comix book scene and causing a respectable amount of controversy along the way. Her visions explore the depths of female sexuality in a way which still has the power to shock and disgust people to this day. Obscenity laws have followed her, seeing her books being ordered to be banned and burned right up until very recently. Most prominently Margaret Thatcher seized her comic Fresca Zizis (translating into Fresh Cocks in Italian) on the grounds of their ‘pornographic’ content in 1985 where they are still illegal.
Some of her most infamous work is that of the Lost Girls where with her husband Alan Moore, she spent sixteen years creating the comic which brazenly addressed fantasies of eroticism in the context to three fairy tale women of the early 19th and 20th century.
In 20th century underground culture, Gebbie hasn’t created the most shocking or controversial work, however the very simple fact that these ideas have spurred from a woman have deemed her work unacceptable by the establishment.
Besides from the brilliantly brave and provocative themes to her work, their aesthetic is totally original and exciting.
In light of one of her first ever solo shows at London’s Horse Hospital named ‘What is the Female Gaze‘ we met up to discuss her impressive and inspiration career and life. The very fact that this is her first solo show really is a crying shame that her work is only being recognised and shared to a wider audience to this expanse now.
Reba Maybury: Have you had a lot of solo shows?
Melinda Gebbie: No, I’ve never had a solo show before; I’ve always been in group shows.
How do you feel about having your first solo show and it being at the Horse Hospital?
I trust the Horse Hospital, they’re very nice at understanding people and they’re alternative. I would never of considered having a show in one of those icy Saatchi type of places, I just wouldn’t put my work in somewhere like that. I feel very strongly about art as business as opposed to art as something that is meant to be valuable to human consciousness. Art as business is antithetical to everything I’ve ever done. I’ve never been a business person.
I’m nervous about public events, they’re not my forte, I sit in my cave and I work. I’m an introverted artist, I’m not someone who poses for magazines with dyed pets. I’m not a showman. The work has to speak for itself otherwise it’s no good. What a person looks like or what they think is not relevant to whether the art is valuable or not. It doesn’t matter.
You said earlier about how you curated the show around different female identities. How did you come up with that idea?
My work’s always been about my identity as a human and as a female and emotions and emotional colouring and using art as colouring. The thing with working in the underground was that most of the cartoonists were men, there were a few women who wrote autobiographical stories, generalising here and having to do with boyfriends or frustrated parents or going shopping or losing socks in the wash. My field of interest was always about how weird it is to be in this body and to identify with this sex and be excluded from things with that sex when actually we are more than our sexual system.
With your work are you interested in creating a space where women can feel sexually confident for themselves through the characters you create?
Yes, that’s the whole point. All of my art was geared to speaking to other people who were uncomfortable to this world we came into.
Were you conscious of sharing your own information on how you felt about yourself as a woman?
I started drawing when I was very small, it was a world I felt same in myself and so I extended it. There have been so few women artists and a lot of them are glamorous looking portrait artists who got jobs because they were beautiful or they were people who were never seen by the public but were quite gifted. Normally childcare problems and the pressure of being expected to put other people first all the time ruins art for women. Even now when I say ‘if you’re going to be artists, you’ve got to be selfish’ and they go ‘oh god that’s awful ‘, but I say you don’t understand what I mean by selfish; it’s putting yourself first and paying attention to yourself first, listening to yourself to how you feel about things and having an outlet for that and understanding you have to take care of yourself, taking your own emotional picture and acting according.
So many people don’t do that at all.
No, they wear themselves out trying to please, it’s not like you have to make sure that all the time the other person is satisfied with what you do because you know, you’re living for yourself and if you’re happy as an organism, that is shared everywhere but if you’re unhappy, that is shared everywhere.
You share that misery with other people and it pollutes everything else.
If you don’t know how to keep something back for yourself, you can be a punishing influence on everybody else.
I actually feel the female psyche is in great danger. Women are a slave class, I think it’s self imposed as well as being imposed upon women that there is a persuasive element about being pretty since pre-pubescence. If you’re not pretty you’re not going to get a boyfriend and when you’re older, if you didn’t have a boyfriend, you’ve failed as a human being.
How do you think the psyche is in danger?
It always has been. It was the done thing in the 60s and 70s to just fuck around and for women to never say no. Both sexes were sharing the same contract. They demanded and we were willing. It ended up very badly. For all the shouting feminism was about, personhood was rare, so having something you do that makes you happy that you don’t need to impress another man with and a sense of personhood that doesn’t depend upon having a separate, Geisha role.
Culturally, what were the 80s like for how women were feeling?
I think they were still worried and trying to glam it up and when they were abused they’d still be frightened about it. Women were still being timid geishas who didn’t want to cause any trouble.
And the 90s?
By the 90s I was working on Lost Girls and I didn’t have any social contact, I only saw my husband periodically.
In many ways you’ve seen the whole spectrum of feminism over the last forty years.
Do you enjoy living in England?
I far prefer it but it’s getting a bit like America, sadly. I loved England a great deal more in the 80s. When Thatcher was in I got involved in the miner’s strike to some extent and hated her more than I hated Ronald Reagen. I worked on a book about Ronald Reagan with a friend of mine who was a Marxist scholar. Politicians have always been bastards, nothing changes with them, I tend to think of grown up life like a kid’s life: it’s a schoolyard and the bullies beat you up and steal your money, that’s politicians and bankers. The fragile and the non combative get picked on, I don’t think anything changes much.
How do you think the Conservative government now compares to that of the 80s?
I just think they’re more confident. Thatcher at least was hated.
There’s no real hate figure now.
I think people have given up, I don’t know why they bother voting. I’m constantly appalled by politics, I have to separate myself from it.
We’re meant to gather information, we’re not meant to suffer, we’re not meant to be afraid and never should anyone feel they have the right to hurt anyone else over any belief system. I’m appalled by everything that hurts living creatures and the environment, there’s no necessity for it. There’s mass greed, 81 people own most of the wealth in the world and they’re ill, like Ruskin said they’re not wealthy, they have illth, it’s an addiction, wealth and it’s hugely destructive and I have never ever seen it addressed in any newspaper or Sunday magazine or ladies magazine or gentleman’s magazine, everything is about consumerism, greed, pushing the other person out of the way and hurting anything and everything if it means you can get ahead. I grew up in that environment. All of my friends are damaged by it, all their parents are damaged by it, the environment is damaged by it; California is now a fire zone and that upsets me a great deal.
Do you go back to California often?
I went back last October and the animals are dying, there are fires in Northern California all the time. It used to be quite beautiful. The animals are coming down from the hill and nobody cares, nobody feeds them. England is very different that way, Californians just go shopping, get drunk and watch Superhero movies.
If we’re going to talk about superheroes, you’ve definitely made some superwomen. I’d like to talk about your involvement with women’s rights in the 70s, do you have any particular stories that stick out in your mind that might have great historical importance?
I remember at a comics convention a couple of women from our comics collective who I co published with were talking about how much she loved Wonderwoman and how cool she is and even then I had big problems with that sort of glamour worship. Beauty is great, people who are lovely to look at are fun to look at, I have no problem with that but I have a problem with people trying to turn themselves into some kind of drawves and cripples to be accepted visually through plastic surgery.
What do you mean by dwarves and cripples?
So these women were talking about how wonderful Wonderwoman was?
Yes, and I wish to hell that somebody would create a superwoman who got things done, who was strong and was fair minded and kind, who was intelligent, funny did as she pleased and didn’t wear the accoutrement of stuff guys would love. I did do Cobweb and I really did enjoy her. Eventually, I did do a heroine that I liked.
Did this woman at the convention identify as a feminist?
She was vicious to women who were less pretty than herself. She was a tiny little blonde lady but she had a vicious personality.
Unbearable insecurity by the sound of it. Having to put people down like that can’t mean you’re happy with yourself in anyway. As a feminist, the worst thing you can do is by harmful to other women. If you don’t personally take any time out of your schedule to be involved with feminism, the least you can do is be kind to other women. I think it’s the most important thing you can do and I think it’s completely progressive but what she was doing was hating women and that’s not getting her anywhere.
Can we talk about how ‘In Debasement’ came about?
It was a take off of the Story of O by Pauline Réage that I made in 1977. It was the first really openly male antagonist comic strip that came out of the underground, the guys all hated me for it. My best friend J Kinney said at the time ‘oh that’s horrible, it’s disgusting, you know what you do to men when you draw things like that’. I’d just done it as a parody. Now you’ve got ’55 shades of Blah’. That poor woman, she’s never had sex obviously. It’s really saddening to think so many women think it’s a worthy book.
It’s like what we were talking about earlier with women inspiring to a sexuality like 50 shades of grey, what sort of sex are these women actually experiencing and what are their relationships with men genuinely like if they think that’s exciting and something to aspire to? I find that really fascinating, especially in the day of online pornography and the influx and the scale of how much there is.
I don’t go on the internet but surely there must be better than that? It’s not sexy nor naturalistic. At least the ‘Story of O’ is sexy.
Very sexy and very feminine.
This woman, I’m sure she hasn’t read the ‘Story of O’ otherwise her writing would be a bit better.
Did you read ’50 Shades of Grey’?
No. A friend of mine had it and I said ‘you’re not reading this horror are you?’ and she said ‘oh yes I found it quite sexy, you should look at it’. It’s so wooden. It’s not that it’s outstanding that bad pornography is written, of course lots of human beings write pornographies for themselves. The outstanding thing is that it was picked out and she made millions off it, surely there must be people that are writing better stuff than that on the internet? Surely other women are writing S&M fantasies that have more life than that?
Do you think female sexuality has always been complex? How women identify to their sexuality, the guilt they feel in sexual confidence, how able they are to talk about what they want to be pleased, what they expect from sex and how much they’re willing to get out of it. How much their bodies are changing, how their attractiveness is based on how they feel sexually attractive, I think it’s hugely complicated.
A lot of us have personal failures in being able to ask for what we want. We just let things happen to us. I don’t know whether women today are better able at negotiating and saying this is what I want and if I don’t get that, we should rethink stuff. Do you think they’re any better?
I can only speak as a woman in her twenties and my own experiences and my friends’ experiences but the relationships many young women seem to have with men and the way they make themselves look sexually attractive plays at the idea that their fantasies can only go so far or they’re scared of being slut shamed. Or, because of the amount of pornography that men are watching, their expectations of women are impossible or unrealistic to women’s pleasure. I think a lot of women are being more open of their enjoyment of sex but, I think if you’re a woman today and you openly talk about your enjoyment of sex, you still are treated suspiciously, which is definitely an issue.
Definitely, when Cameron came into government, he was thinking of taking Lost Girls off the market as unexceptable pornography and Thatcher made my little comic book Fresca Zizis illegal, and it still is now.
How much have obscenity trials and such followed your course? The fact that Cameron was having issues 4 years ago and then you’ve got something like Fresca Zizis in the 70s, that’s a whole lifetime of experiencing this controversy about being authentically yourself. You’ve created work which is a projection of who you are and what you want in the world and the government has had an issue with it. How is that? Has it become normal to you now?
Yes it is just my past. I think it’s really funny and I think it’s preposterous. I don’t see how pictures and words on paper, especially about an element that is common to all creatures, could actually be up for controversy.
Do you think the obscenity laws are essentially the individuals reaction to the fact you’re being honest to yourself and they can’t be honest to themselves in a way?
Men put laws into practice, well it’s usually men, which are supposedly to protect the virtue of their wives, their mothers, their daughters.
It’s this concept of virtue which is so destructive.
It’s a cover up and I think the men that pursue this kind of stuff are most probably secretly depraved else completely under the thumb of a frustrated wife who is uncomfortable about all of that. The man turns it into punishing other women: when he’s alone with a woman who is sexually exciting and who is not his wife, he’ll chase after her but in front of his wife, he will pick on her. It’s all done by sexual cowards and some of these people are afraid of what they might do if they had absolute sexual freedom but for some reason sex is a terrifying arena for them.
How do you think online pornography has affected sexual expectations?
It’s terrifying because it’s so violent. My friend works with young girls and in schools and it frightened me to hear that they view this violent pornography as what is expected from them. It’s an education in how to please a man, not sex. A lot of the very violent porn sex on the internet is not necessarily something that someone would want to do with someone they cared about, they want to do in their frustration in a situation where no one will be harmed. I think the big sadness is that young women are thinking that’s what someone they’re interested in wants to do to them, to hurt them.
The more young men who are watching this huge variety of pornography, the more men are thinking it’s acceptable and they begin to desire it themselves. The stem of where this desire comes from has been planted by the internet and they’re perhaps not aware of it themselves, as well as not being aware of certain acts or fetishes existence before the internet. Fetishes are fine, of course, but I think before the internet, fetish was a genuine interest that sparked from experience but now people are viewing so much information they can just pick and choose what they want where before fetishes were something you had to go out of your way to find out about, now it’s put on front of you on a plate.
I think that we are all being overwhelmed by aggressive signals from programming, television, films and I think we really have to have filter systems and we really have to make up our own minds about things. There is nothing nourishing that’s going on. We are being spoonfed rubbish from everywhere, from information, from governments, bad nutrition, bad advice, there’s very little healthy down to earth, concrete, sensible thinking going on. People have to remember that ‘No’ is a very powerful word and it has to be used whenever it’s necessary. We’re bombarded by bestial, uncaring, commercialist motives, that is going to tend to make us even more frightened cattle than we were before and when we’re frightened we can’t think. We can’t sit down and take in the information we need because we’re being terrorised. Adam Curtis made a very important film called ‘Power of Nightmares’ and it’s all about how governments in the 50s started to encourage you to be church going and be nice and always respect adults blah blah blah. When it started being ineffective in the 60s when students started to say ‘ we want to do what we want to do and fuck you’ , then the governments turned nasty and they started threatening us and now they’re terrorising us. We are terrified cattle and we don’t know how to make decisions and we’re being given the directive that it’s not up to us to make our own decisions, we are here to eat shit, buy shit, listen to shit, watch shit and die in shit and buy shit art.
How do you think the reception to your work has changed since you’ve started?
I think it’s become more accepted. Although, even two years ago I showed the publisher of Lost Girls some of my early underground stuff and he said ‘I would never show that, I don’t like that’. Art about being an angry, dissatisfied woman was never popular in the underground and I was the only one who created it. I remember S Clay Wilson saying to me in an unguarded moment ‘women are supposed to have babies and men make art. Women aren’t supposed to make art’ and I said I cant believe you just said that.
Fucking hell, that’s hardcore. Do you think the reception of how women have seen your work has changed?
Ty, one of the curators at the gallery here had no problem with it, she’s very accepting of it but it depends on the woman, I’ve met women who really don’t want to look at Lost Girls, they find it disgusting. I stopped showing them to people, even though they were done thirty or forty years ago I got such a poor reception, like with the Betty Page stuff. People like love stories and stories of personal endangerment and my work features a lot of emotional pain and feelings of psychological injury having to do with men and women and that wasn’t entertaining to people. I do think the atmosphere has changed, they’re digging up feminism again in a new and improved form now.
What advice what you have for a young woman today?
One is the captain of one’s ship and don’t let anybody else try and take over the steering. Your decisions don’t have to be strident or unpleasant but do they do have to be you friendly; women are so used to sacrificing their own needs and desires for the greater good of someone else. That makes you feel like you have no rights, no choice, no say, no personhood , if you always have to give your bit of bread to someone else who says they want it because you’re their mum, their sister, their wife or you happen to be in the same room as them and they know they can play you for it.
I think women must stop picking on each other and start asking genuinely for the help they need.
Can you give an example of the help we might need today?
I think it all breaks down to systems of vulnerability; women have so many vulnerabilities with their look and their personhood. Women have a lot of problems that are unresolved and have a harder time with saying what they think and dealing with the results of it. You don’t become stronger until you make your own decisions and realise you can cope. You don’t know how strong you are until you feel strong. You cannot feel stronger until you make decisions that you have to stick by.
What are you going to be doing next?
I’m very interested in goddesses: cultural goddess, historical goddesses, magical and strong women.
Find out more about the exhibition here.