In April 2013, Claire Messud published The Woman Upstairs, a novel about an angry schoolteacher named Nora. In the lead-up to the book’s release, Publishers Weekly ran an interview with Messud, in which the interviewer asked her, rather offhandedly, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” Messud responded with appropriate wrath: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet?” She continued listing characters before noting, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”
The exchange set off a miniature earthquake on the Internet. Writers weighed in on all sides: The New Yorker’s ”Page Turner” blog convened a “forum on ‘likability’”; Jennifer Weiner went to bat for likable female characters in Slate; months later, Roxane Gay published an essay about the value of unlikable female protagonists in BuzzFeed. The debate dismantled the double standard that women should be pleasant and agreeable, even when they’re fictional creations. Despite being outdated, the idea was clearly still present—an old wound whose scab was due to be picked once more.
It was maddening, but also comical, to watch the argument rage on, as if the work of some of the best female creators wasn’t a ready-made rebuttal to this myth. Aline Kominsky-Crumb, for one, has devoted her career to breaking down the expectation of women’s propriety, often with humor. In 1972, she contributed a story, “Goldie: A Neurotic Woman,” to the inaugural issue of the groundbreaking underground magazine Wimmen’s Comix. Her first published work, “Goldie” is these days considered the first autobiographical comic created by a woman. The five-page piece is a sort of dreamlike narration of how Goldie—a stand-in for the author, who draws herself with a big nose and even bigger hips—rediscovers her pride after puberty and an extended period of sleeping around have ruined her self-esteem. It’s a tale that Kominsky-Crumb would go on to retell many times in her work.
“A lot of women in the feminist art collective found me + my story distasteful!” Kominsky-Crumb recounts in a more recent comic titled “My Very Own Dream House.” Below that caption, a plain-faced woman wearing a flower necklace chides her: “Why are you so down on yourself? You should have a more positive self-image.” Kominsky-Crumb, who draws herself here wearing lipstick and with pronounced eyelashes, answers: “Sorree! I just don’t see myself in heroic terms..” The woman adds: “An’ you shouldn’t show yur legs…. They’re yuge!!”
Kominsky-Crumb has never exhibited much decorum in her work. From that very first comic, she’s made a point of showing what others don’t want to see, especially from a woman who makes art about herself: sexuality, insecurity, pettiness, anger, and bodily functions. Soon after the publication of “Goldie,” Kominsky-Crumb renamed her comics alter ego “the Bunch.” A story from 1975, “Bunch Plays With Herself,” is a quiet, expressionistic two-page ode to the wonders of the body. In it, the Bunch pops a pimple, picks her butt and nose, masturbates, then sunbathes and burns.