Jacky Fleming is responsible for one of the most iconic images of the feminist movement – plus a stream of widely-distributed cartoons that poke fun at such unlikely subjects as sexual harassment and the male-dominated workplace, as well as men and relationships. Jess McCabe caught up with her by email
How did you get started drawing feminist cartoons?
The first one which became a postcard was ‘Self-defence’. I drew it in response to an encounter with one of those psychotic men who seem to frequent the London Underground. What really happened was that when I finally got to work, pretty shaken, the men I worked with said “Well, what d’you expect wearing those earings?” The police weren’t very interested either, so I drew a revenge fantasy in the absence of any better response. The idea that women should learn survival strategies instead of making men accountable for their violence is ludicrous.
The first cartoon to appear in print was during my last year at university, in ’78. I wrote one of my essays as drawings, and the tutor (Griselda Pollock) suggested I took it to Spare Rib.
They printed it as a double-page spread. Years later when I was teaching on a project for unemployed school-leavers (silk-screen, leather, glass, mosaic,video, sound recording – it was fab) we did a market stall of things they’d made, and I photocopied the self-defence image onto card and put them out too. They vanished pretty quickly, which I really wasn’t expecting.
Then Leeds Postcards printed about six. I put them in envelopes and sent them to publishers, and drew the first two books while I was working full-time. I went freelance in 1991, mainly because the changes we were forced to make by Thatcher’s new regime made the art project unworkable. I felt like a collaborator and left, and the project eventually collapsed. I still meet people I taught there, and we all miss it.
What reactions have you got to your cartoons over the years?
It may seem hard to believe but when the drawings first appeared they were perceived as being quite extreme. The most frequent question then was: “What do men think about these?” Amazing how little women have to do to cause a stir, and how much men can get away with before anyone takes any notice at all.
Considering that feminism has such a bad rap in the media, your postcards in particular seem to be really widely available. When you got started did you have problems finding/establishing an audience, or proving there is a market for feminist humour to publishers?
Feminism always gets a bad press, and always has done. If you think its bad now look up what the press had to say about suffragettes. It’s always been the issue that makes you unattractive as a woman and will probably affect your ability to bear children. In truth women are desperate for something we can relate to, especially if it makes us laugh as well.
I’ve heard that the cartooning business is hard going. Is it hard to make a living as a feminist cartoonist?
Obviously trying to get male violence on the shelf marked humour has been something of a challenge. One of the hazards of being a feminist is that you can become The Invisible Woman at any time. Women become invisible when they’re feminist, men become invisible when they’re violent. The hard part is to keep it funny. A cartoon has a few seconds to bring about a small shift in your thinking – that little collision in your brain between what you thought you thought, and what you now think – a shortcut to shared understanding.
What tips would you give a young woman just starting out in the business?
Make yourself laugh and don’t worry about what other people think. Say what you mean, in a way that you enjoy. And don’t believe the tosh they come out with about feminists – we fart just like everyone else.
Outside of drawing, are you involved in any kind of feminist activism?
I’m involved with a group called Truth About Rape, whose purpose is to try and debunk the archaic myths people still believe about rape. No other victim of a serious crime is routinely humiliated or disbelieved in our lawcourts. It’s quite medieval. My involvement is with the campaign postcards which are available from the website.
Art activism seems to be the best way I can contribute, whether its cartoons, logos, posters, banners. The never give up image in particular has been used by activists in a lot of different countries – Amnesty in Berlin, a refuge in South Africa. The drawing gets about far more than I do. She’s the activist. I’ve also contributed paint to billboards at 4am if that’s what you mean…
What are you working on at the moment?
I read that in 2001 a Conservative selection committee asked a female candidate what her husband would do for sex during the week while she was in Parliament. That deserves to be a cartoon.
Do you have any favourite cartoonists? Are there any young, female or feminist cartoonists you have your eye on, who you could recommend to our readers?
In this country I like Simone Lia’s work. She draws a rabbit called Fluffy. Various other characters make guest appearances – like chip, bean, and a dust particle. Marjane Satrape is an Iranian who now lives in Paris. I’m only just discovering what’s out there myself as European work is only just starting to be translated into English, but First Second publishers, and Buenaventura Press have inspiring websites. Historically it’s all a bit boy-dominated, but the time is right for lady-cartoonists to get scribbling.
Do you read any webcomics, if so which ones?
Luckily I don’t. I already spend far too long reading about Sweden making it illegal to buy sex, and helping women leave prostitution. Trafficking into Sweden has dropped dramatically as a result, whereas here we still pander to the pimps. And in Tasmania men who commit domestic violence are removed from the family home after the first attack and given anger management training – instead of the system we have where after the 35th assault women and children leave. No time for webcomics!
Do you think the internet is helping cartoonists get their work out there?
Yes, definitely. You don’t have to wait for a publisher – and word of mouth on the net is something women should make good use of. Talking of which, I’ve just this minute come across Lorna Miller who may convert me to reading comics after all.