Kate Beaton takes on fork-tongued 'Straw Feminists' in latest graphic novel

Canadian author mocks the vitriol that permeates social-media discussions surrounding gender equality.

People identify as feminists for a multitude of reasons, both personal and political.

When Kate Beaton first started posting her online comic, Hark! A Vagrant, her focus was on parodying male-dominated history and literature in the most absurdist way possible. Feminism, while always the undercurrent, has never been the point of her sly punch lines, despite her love of suffragettes and the Brontë sisters.

“I started making comics about history and they had women in them, and people were like, ‘Wow, what kind of feminist work is this?’” Beaton says. “It wasn’t a choice that I made: ‘Oh, I’m going to blow the lid off this.’ But people noticed. And then you get called a feminist author.”

Armed with a history degree from New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University and a stint working at the maritime museum in Victoria — coupled with an insatiable appetite for research, literature and pop culture — the Cape Breton–born artist’s website quickly became a destination for intellectual comics lovers.

Beaton’s first collection, Hark! A Vagrant, published by the venerable Drawn & Quarterly, became a New York Times bestseller. Her new book, Step Aside, Pops, kicks off where the last book ended, introducing a new arsenal of characters such as the fork-tongued “Straw Feminists” who pop up during already terrifying shopping trips for training bras and in the closets of unsuspecting children.

Beaton’s depiction of the evil-minded, cigarette-wielding women could seem 1970s retrograde, but she’s cleverly mocking the vitriol that permeates social-media discussions surrounding gender equality. “The image of the bra-burning, ball-chopping boogeyman shows up in all these conversations where you’re trying to talk about feminism,” Beaton says. “It’s an image that scares younger women away because they think feminists are these joyless, awful people. This heartless person who just wants to destroy the world. But it’s a funny character to me. It always comes back to humour.”

Ultimately, it’s Beaton’s love of old-school literary humour — she’s a big Stephen Leacock fan — and her awareness of feminist history that has made Hark! A Vagrant part of the current zeitgeist. There are hilarious interpretations of cultural icons such as Nancy Drew, Wonder Woman and Agent Scully from The X-Files. But Beaton gives equal space to women such as public-health physician Dr. Sara Josephine Baker and 1930s civil-rights activist Ida B. Wells, one of her personal heroes.

“People have such access to information and such platforms to talk from now. Other voices and characters and other stories are being told, and demanding a change in the way we learn history, and the way we look at movies and literature and everything else,” says Beaton. “There’s just a palpable movement in this shift of the status quo. I’m just part of that, I think.”

Sue Carter is the editor at Quill & Quire magazine.

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