Brazilian artist Carol Rossetti wasn’t always a feminist, but if you wouldn’t know it looking at her powerful and often witty Women project. I first came across the illustrations—each showing a woman grappling with a different issue, spanning body image, sexuality, reproductive rights, or how women choose to dress—late last year. The illustration of Jessica (below) popped up on my news feed and loving the image, message, and general vibe of it, I wanted to find out more about the series and the lady behind the pencil. On Carol’s Facebook page, I discovered that the Women project spans a couple of dozen similarly empowering illustrations and is available in 16 languages. Now that’s a world women endeavor, if I’ve ever seen one! On Skype from Melbourne to Belo Horizonte, I chatted to Carol about intersectional feminism, Brazil’s mad shaving culture, and the infinite possibilities of a blank sheet of paper.
You’ve been an illustrator since you were four, when you got a box of colored pencils and paper for your birthday. I also got colored pencils and paper for my birthday when I was a kid, but I can’t even draw a stick figure! What do you think it was that particularly attracted you to drawing?
I think almost every kid likes to draw and doing something creative. But as we grow up, other interests come. For example, I have a friend who really liked sports and was amazing at every sport she tried and I always sucked. I mean, I run like Phoebe from Friends. (Laughs.) And so everybody was drawing and so was I, and then most people stopped drawing, but I didn’t. Because it was what captivated me the most. [When I finished school], there were so many things I wanted to study, like for example history, but I came to the conclusion that I would really like to draw because it’s something I wouldn’t regret doing. I took graphic design at university, but realized there was not a lot of drawing involved in the course. So I practiced on my own and built my portfolio. And now I’m this person who can’t exactly define themselves—because I’m a designer, I’m an illustrator, and somehow people have been calling me an artist and I’m learning to accept that. Perhaps I’m also a writer because I have published a book.
Is there a strong graphic design scene in Brazil?
Graphic design is something that is still growing in Brazil. Many people are making comics and there are many, many women working with comics, and they have produced some amazing projects. But not only are Brazilian comics or illustrations not well known internationally, they are also not known inside Brazil itself. Our country is still learning to value these things and to pay them proper attention. There’s a lot going on but not much of it has been recognized, but it’s just a matter of time.
The series that really struck a chord with me is your Women project. You say on your website that “it always bothered [you] the world constantly attempts to control women’s bodies, behaviors, and identities.” Yeah, me too! Can you tell me a bit about how the project was born?
I began this project in April 2014. At that time, I had been reading a lot about feminism and was getting to know the movement, but not properly acting or speaking. As most of us, I wasn’t born a feminist so I had to take that time to get to know the ideas. And after a while, these little things started bothering me more. Like my friends—I love my friends, they are such amazing women—but it bothers me when they say bad things about people. One day, a friend of mine posted a picture of a fat woman on social media and said some really mean comments about how the woman shouldn’t wear yoga pants because she’s fat. I thought, why is she being cruel to someone she doesn’t even know? Probably that woman will never see that comment, but still why do that. So I decided to make an illustration that was meant for my friend, but not directly, because I didn’t want to cause any trouble (laughs). So I drew this fictional character whom I called Marina, who was a fat girl wearing horizontal stripes. And I posted it on Facebook to see what would happen. And then people liked it and shared it a lot more than many of my other illustrations. To my surprise, this friend of mine liked it too. So I decided to make another illustration and then another one and another, and before I could really understand what was happening, I had this big project on my hands.
You cover so many different aspects of body image in your series. Is there something that is said about women’s bodies that particularly irritates you?
Well, everything. Anything can be a reason to criticize a woman for. It really upsets me because it’s an impossible standard. I have friends of most shapes and sizes. One friend, for instance, is really fat and has curly hair, and she feels bad about her body. And I can understand that. Not because I think it’s right, but because I can see that the world is constantly telling her that what is beautiful doesn’t look like her. But I also have these friends who are standard ‘beautiful’—thin, white, with perfect skin, really beautiful wavy hair—but they also have many reasons to feel uncomfortable. Of course, the fat girl suffers a lot more—sometimes it could even be hard for her to get a job—and I’m not trying to take away from her suffering, but the thing is that it’s never enough. You will be constantly evaluated based on your looks and it’s really cruel and it’s something we need to start talking about. But not just something about it in an article that you read and don’t think about anymore—we need to talk about it all the time. We need to improve representation; it needs to be a part of our lives to consider other types of bodies and people. It needs to be a part of our routine.
Do you think it’s becoming more part of the routine? I feel there has been a renaissance of feminism of late, especially in the past year.
I feel that too. At first, I thought it was mostly because I was producing something to do with feminism so I was just having more contact with something that’s always existed. But right now, I don’t think so. I see people in the media saying the word ‘feminism’ like I have never seen before. In Brazil, we have had a feminist wave over the past four years, which is amazing because we didn’t really have second-wave feminism. We have had official campaigns about feminism from the government, but also conservative campaigns from the opposition. This can be looked upon as a bad thing, but I don’t think it is. It just means things are becoming clearer: it forces you to consider what you believe in. ‘Feminism’ is not as much of a bad word as it was five years ago.
So do you have any body hang-ups?
I consider myself privileged because I’m white, middle-class, I have always been thin—not a perfect body, far from it, but definitely not fat. I mean if there was anything that was kinda not easy to grow up with was my nose, but I learned to like it.
What I also really like about your Women project is how it attempts to talk about intersectionality and incorporates issues of racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, etc. Do you have issues with the way feminism is portrayed in some contexts?
I have this thing that’s kinda funny: I have one voice in Brazil and I have another voice in the rest of the world. In Brazil, I’m considered white, but in the rest of the world, I’m Latin American, so I have more of an intersectional voice outside of Brazil and a less of an intersectional voice inside Brazil. So I do recognize that there is white feminism and that we need to make the fight [for equality] inclusive—we need to fight for black women and Muslim women, and until we do that, we can’t have a real union. But at the same time, I think we need to be careful with what we want and what we think we can really achieve. I believe we can achieve a beautiful intersectional movement, but I think we need to understand that it’s already getting better and that it will take time for the women preaching intersectional feminism to get results. I’m not saying they have to be ok with it. Women have every right to be angry because they have been through a lot. I think people fight and get aggressive, especially on the internet where you are protected and no one knows who you are, but that’s not efficient. It’s like my friend who posted the pic of the fat woman in yoga pants. If I made an illustration of exactly a fat woman wearing yoga pants and said don’t say those comments to her, my friend wouldn’t have reacted in the same way. She would have felt attacked, she would feel the need to defend herself, and she wouldn’t have paid attention to what she did. But when I talked about another fat person, she made her own conclusions. And I’ve never seen her say anything like that on the internet again. We need to fight feminism in a more intersectional way but we need to find a better way to talk to white feminists about it. Like for example, not saying that everything they do is wrong because they also do nice things. There’s no manual for how to talk to people and I’m still learning, but we need to focus on good communication—with white feminists, with men, with the media, with everybody—to make the fight more efficient.
I like how you combine an illustration of a woman with some text. Was it a conscious decision to do so?
I wanted the message to be really clear to everybody. I wanted it to be something that you look at and understand exactly what I’m saying. There are no metaphors, it’s just very simple, very direct, and it can’t have any other interpretations. I know that images have a very strong power on their own to send messages as well, but considering whom I wanted to reach, I wanted to add text in the same tone as we talk to each other. And I think that’s what made the project so popular because everyone understood what was going on.
I love so many in the series: Rose; Rashida, Cris, and Clio; Nayana; and Martha are some of my favorites. Do you have one that particularly speak to you?
I used to say they’re all my children. I don’t have a favorite one, but I have some that I might identify with more. I like some drawings better because of the colors I used, but really there’s not a favorite. I really like the one of Rashida, Cris, and Clio, because it is straight to the point and I like the three women hugging.
That’s a message of sisterhood there!
You’ve said that your “protagonists are women does not make this is project just ‘for girls’.” Can you elaborate on this?
As women, we are used to identifying with male characters, because there are a lot more male characters than female characters. I have never heard of a single girl who stopped reading Harry Potter because it has a boy character. But I remember many, many boys who didn’t like watching Disney princess movies. So it’s interesting that men also have a chance to identify with my female characters, because we are all human beings and we all face similar issues. I received many comments from men about the way the illustrations made them feel. I also got messages like, “Oh hey, I don’t want to be an asshole. Thank you for that.” And I thought, whoaw, I changed somebody’s life. I think that men can identify either as the victim or the oppressor and since it’s not an aggressive message, they can learn about it without the need to defend themselves.
What are some of the expectations of women in Brazil?
We haven’t had second-wave feminism in Brazil, like in many other countries in Latin America, because of the many dictatorships going on. And it makes a difference because feminism is even more of a bad word here than it is in the States. From the 1940s to the 1980s, we were fighting for basic freedoms—freedom of speech, voting—and if there were people talking about feminism, they weren’t talking very loudly. I grew up thinking that feminism was something that didn’t exist anymore or wasn’t necessary anymore. At 15, if anyone asked me if I was a feminist, I would have said that I’m not a feminism, nor a sexist—I’m a humanist.
The sexist culture is really, really strong in Brazil. And I could see this through my work. For example, the comments on Facebook were very different for the English versions and the Spanish and Portuguese versions. For example, Amanda, the girl who doesn’t shave—in English, people were either approving or disapproving. One woman from a European country, for instance, said “I don’t understand this illustration. Nobody cares about this anymore. Shaving or not. It’s your choice.” But in Brazil, it’s a capital sin if you don’t shave. It really scares people. This image had more negative feedback than the abortion one and I wasn’t expecting that.
You guys did invent the Brazilian wax!
There’s a strong shaving culture, but I didn’t realize just how heavy it was. I didn’t pay much attention, but I was part of it too because I could never go anywhere without shaving. I was that girl who was like, “Oh my god, my legs. Find a blade or long pants.”
Tell me a bit about your new project, Colors.
Colors is a comic series for people of all ages. It’s about some kids who are, like all of us, much bigger on the inside, and will not accept being put in small boxes of conventions.
This project was born out of the Women project. Many people told me I should do something for kids as well, because even though the Women project isn’t for kids, it gets the message out in a very simple and clear way. So I came up with this character, Leila, and I wanted her to be a brown girl because as I was growing up, I noticed that in American movies, there was a bunch of white women and sometimes one black woman, but there were no brown women at all. So I wanted someone who’s a little bit like me. I wanted to bring in some of this intersectionality and have a kid who’s in a wheelchair, a kid who’s black, and a kid who’s white, and kids from many different families. I wanted to do that because there are a lot of comics about groups of kids, like Peanuts, but usually they are all white and there’s not a lot of diversity. And I also wanted to bring that across from the Women project because kids also suffer from a gender expectation from a very early age. I started talking about colors—how everything for girls is always pink. When I was a kid, I went through phases. First, I used to really like pink and then I decided that I hated pink, and became a rebel and didn’t want anything to do with pink. Today, as a graphic designer, I need to be open to all colors, but I still don’t own that many pink things. Then, I started to talk about toys and activities—at least in Brazil, little girls always go to ballet classes or volleyball, and the boys can do things like fighting or football. And even though the comic has kid characters, it’s really intended for adults. If you have a daughter, it’s not necessarily your fault, but everything you buy for your girl will be pink, so I thought if I made parents think about it, they could find something else to make the lives of their kids more colorful.
Are you working on anything else?
This month is International Women’s Day and this year I’m preparing something more adult and I really hope people like it.
All images copyright Carol Rossetti.