Talking feminism, Twitter, and the ‘Badass Feminist Coloring Book’ with creator Ijeoma Oluo

Put the words “badass feminist” together, and it’s easy, if not expected, to think of butt-kicking action heroines. But for feminist writer Ijeoma Oluo, her paradigm of the badass feminist wasn’t someone with super powers or pure physical strength; she was interested in people working toward gender equality in much more ordinary, but no less important, ways. Yet these were oftentimes the first people to be overlooked in media dialogues about feminism and feminist culture . . . so how do you get the public’s attention on non-celebrity activists?

Oluo’s solution: The Badass Feminist Coloring Book, comprised of sketches of friends, colleagues, and recommendations for people of all genders and sexes doing feminist work. Though it began as a Kickstarter, Oluo’s project won over the Internet (including HelloGiggles) and is now available on Amazon. Next up: Badass Feminist Greeting Cards.

We spoke to Oluo—who’s also involved in other activist movements like Black Lives Matter and I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault—about the Badass Feminist Coloring Book, self-publishing, and the power of Twitter.

HelloGiggles: For a project like the Badass Feminist Coloring Book, why did you decide to pair that topic with the coloring book format?

Ijeoma Oluo: It actually happened pretty organically. I was trying to draw pictures of people I loved, many of whom happen to be badass feminists, and I would post them online. Other feminists in my circle would want copies, and it got to the point where everybody was hinting that they wanted to be drawn and they wanted to be included. I said, “Okay, I got all the hints, let’s figure out a way to do this, where I can actually take the time to draw you guys.” And everyone said, “Oh, just start a Kickstarter, and we’ll buy it.”

The actual premise was just something for my immediate feminist community, and to celebrate them, and it snowballed! I was only really expecting, when I did the math, to sell maybe 50 copies.

HG: Were you surprised by the reception that it had, and how has been the process of scaling up your production accordingly?

IO: I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of press it got and the amount of people interested in it. I still have people asking about it; bookstores about carrying it; it’s much more than I thought it would be.

It’s great that I had to scale up my production because I’m trying to pay each feminist that I’m featuring in the book as well. It gives me an opportunity to A) include more feminists and B) give them a little more money.

HG: That’s something you don’t see a lot with activism-derivative art, wherein someone will feature someone else and use their iconography, but they won’t put their money where their mouth is. It’s great to see a project that actually pays the people providing its inspiration.

IO: I hear about that a lot! I’ll be asked to do something, but especially for feminist issues, money is political. So many times, women are asked to do things for free whereas men would never be asked to do that thing for free. I refuse to write for free, I don’t work for free, and there’s no way I’d ever ask these women to use their likeness for free unless we were all donating to a charity, but that’s not what this is. They deserve a share.

HG: That’s really amazing and great to hear. Going along with that, the people in your book are a mix of well-known feminist figures and people who aren’t necessarily being featured over and over as “X person does amazing feminist thing!” How did you decide to land on the mix of people included, and are there any people you’d add now that you didn’t have a chance to get because of this first run?

IO: It’s funny because I really wanted to make sure that it was primarily feminists that most people hadn’t heard of. What I really wanted to see what a celebration of feminism, not necessarily a celebration of famous feminists, the people you typically see celebrated. Anybody who picks up the book, I want them to think, “I can be a feminist too,” or “I am a feminist too, and I’m just as badass as these people.”

As far as picking people, I maybe asked eight, nine people max? Everybody else volunteered. There’s something really cool about getting an email from a woman, especially women who might not be told to raise their hands for things, that says, “I think I should be in this book.” That was really great, and it got to the point where I just had to tell people, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to get everyone in.”

I could make this book a hundred times, and there’d still be men and women and people of all gender identities that I would absolutely love to include in it. I am so happy with the people and pictures we have in it, but like, I’d love to have [feminist writer and The Toast co-founder] Mallory Ortberg in it because I adore her and her writing and what she does; I’d love to have people on Twitter who are doing some awesome work.

Part of it too is that with feminism, there are basic core concepts, but I like pictures of people doing things. Sometimes it was dictated by the picture; Kimya Dawson gave a great picture and it made such a great statement. I would love to have more varieties in pictures!

I was really upset that I didn’t get more people with physical disabilities in the book. I had reached out to a couple of people who didn’t know me, so they didn’t respond. There are people with neurological differences and things like that in the book, but I didn’t get many people with visible physical disabilities, which would’ve been very empowering for some people to see.

HG: That’s always the thing when you’re trying to do a round-up or statement about a movement. You want to cover all your “big bases — sex and gender, race. But there’s still marginalized movements within the movement against marginalization, and it’s tricky but amazing to hear someone articulate that.

You’re also involved in Black Lives Matter; would you do the same sort of corresponding project with that movement as you would for the Badass Feminist Coloring Book?

IO: Visibility matters; it’s inherently political, especially with any disenfranchised group. For people of color, they’re erased from the narrative so often, even the feminist narrative as well. That visibility breeds familiarity, and helps us see shared humanity. It’s incredibly important! There are so many artists of color out there who are doing their best to bring visibility to the rest of the world — not just white people, but even other POC, who don’t don’t see their likeness depicted very often at all, and when it is, it’s not something that’s usually controlled by a POC; it’s usually set through a lens of whiteness. I’d love to see more projects like this, by POC and for POC. 

HG: You’re publishing the Badass Feminist Coloring Book independently — how did you figure out that process? Have you worked in self-publishing before?

IO: I kinda winged it! And then was like, “Crap, how do I do this?” Luckily, I have a wide variety of friends, but primarily I reached out on Twitter and asked people if they’d self-published. People were able to give me links and tips and that was incredibly helpful.

And on Kickstarter, if you have a successful Kickstarter campaign, you get email marketers emailing you about your campaign. Independent publishers will email you and be like, “Pick us!” It helped me understand some of the components of self-publishing. But Twitter helped a lot; lots of writers who’d self-published shared their experiences with publishing companies.

Because of the response to the Kickstarter, mainstream publishers were reaching out to me and they wanted to publish it. What they wanted was so different from what I wanted. So, having the option to publish myself is just awesome; it wouldn’t be the project I’m happy with, it wouldn’t be the project I want, if I didn’t have the option to do it myself.

For a lot of artists of color, a lot of women, that’s a wonderful option to have.

HG: When you mentioned publishers wanting something different than what you intended, what did you mean?

IO: What they wanted was old-school feminism, and it was all white women! They were like, “Let’s do 80% people like Gloria Steinem and 20% younger people who aren’t as well-known?” And I’d be like, “That’s the opposite point of what I’m trying to do.” I wanted something more relatable and more now.

I don’t want more books celebrating just old white ladies’ feminism. It’s just not my thing.

HG:  Along with the Badass Feminist Coloring Book, you’re also active in other online communities like Black Lives Matter and I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault (a Tumblr safe space in which people share their stories of sexual assault, harassment, and frustration with the patriarchy). These are all projects and movements that grew out of social media — do you mind articulating your relationship with Twitter and other networks?

IO: I wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for social media! I’d still be working in advertising… it’s a great equalizer. All those pre-requisites, all those things people say you need to have to be heard, go away.

I was giving a speech for the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and we were talking about how in order to be on television, you have to look a certain way; in order to get a book published, you have to have a certain name, and you have to appeal to publishers; in order to be on the radio, you have to have a certain voice. But on the Internet, it’s really just the content of your work and that’s it. People look at it, and they either respond to it or they don’t.

My relationship with social media was actually super organic and caught me completely by surprise. I had a Twitter account for a while and I never used it; I couldn’t figure it out! I thought I was too old, that I couldn’t make Twitter work for me. And then when I needed to get something out right away, I’d just start tweeting it and people started responding. My aim was never really to get people to read my tweets, or to get followers. I had no idea where these responses came from, and I remember telling my brother, “I don’t understand this.” But that’s what I love about the Internet: There are so many people who thought nobody would want to hear what they had to say, and they find out via social media that people do want to hear them.

HG: I went to a talk with The New Inquiry editor-in-chief Ayesha Siddiqi, who has an amazing Twitter personality, and she was talking about how people wouldn’t even have the language for speaking about marginalization the same way as they do because of Twitter. How much has social media influenced the way you think?

IO: Twitter has made me a better writer. I am, at heart, a writer, and I primarily write longer-form pieces, but I use Twitter as a medium, not a social platform. It forces you to become concise, and know what you’re going to talk about. You can’t ramble, and you can’t really use euphemisms. You have to be less afraid, know what your point is, and be fearless and say it.

My writing used to be more academic; a lot of my writing had to seem smart, to seem like I did the reading. Now, I write to get that point across; I write to increase understanding. With social media, you don’t know who’s gonna be reading what you’re writing; you don’t know what tweet they’re coming in at. Each tweet has to stand on its own and be clear.

HG: It’s interesting to talk about the way that news moves in different mediums. How do you think that Twitter has helped you move into other media appearances and non-Internet work?

I did a post on privilege once, and it was a very basic set of tweets, like, “This is what privilege is, this is an everyday ‘What it looks like,’ everything you were wondering and were afraid to ask. These are some examples; this is what my privilege looks like.” It was so funny for people to hear, “Oh my god, okay! These is an A-B-C diagram of privilege and it helps me understand why it’s necessary.” The response from people who finally felt safe enough to say, “I’ve always kind of wondered what this is,” helped me realize that there’s a need for that. You realize that that was what was missing, and it’s really helped me find my skill set as someone out in the social justice community. We’re all out here floating around, trying to find our place where we can do our best, and do our best work, and help the most. We all have our niche; the instant feedback of a medium like Twitter can really help you find that.

There are things that I do that are completely ignored, and people are like “Eh,” so somebody else is probably doing that a lot better. And I can link to them! But the things that get an immediate response, that’s how I shape my focus, beyond social justice and even just as a writer.

HG: The flip side of that: How have you deal with people who are like, Oh, you explained X Y Z, now explain the rest? Or, why don’t you teach me specifically what’s going on and how I can do whatever?

IO: That gets really frustrating! When you get about 10,000 followers, which was my threshold where I could no longer filter everyone’s questions. People feel like they have a really personal relationship with you because you’re having very sensitive conversations online, and they feel like they’ve invested in you by reading what you have to say, and thus they demand a return on their investment in the form of you answering every one of their questions. And you just cannot do that! The one thing that is hard for a lot of people to understand is that these conversations are never easy, especially if you’re someone who’s writing about personal experience and personal impressions. That takes something out of you every time.

A lot of times, what people are trying to do when they say, “No, tell me exactly how I can do this,” is basically saying, “I wanna guarantee that if I do something, I’m not gonna be called anything, so I need you to write this plan out for me so I don’t have to do this thing myself.” People need to put themselves in the line and say, “I’m gonna care about this issue no matter what. I’m gonna care about this issue if I’m called racist. I’m gonna care about this issue if I’m told to shut up. I’m gonna care about this issue if I’m told that I overstepped my bounds. I’m still gonna care — and I’m gonna keep trying to find the right way.” They have to decide that, plain and simple. People get so upset when you say, “No, I’m not going to educate you on this. I’ve done my piece; you need to do the rest. It’s out there, so find it.” But it’s only because they feel like they’ve done their part by simply reading, and that’s just not how that works.

HG: Let’s talk about the notion of the Internet personality as an informal occupation: People are manifesting their Internet-ness in ways that resemble mainstream media, but without all the hang-ups that come with it. So a project like the Badass Feminist Coloring Book, that’s not something that would’ve been possible without your specific experience and network. Now, that’s something that publications are reaching out to you about, and something that big publishing houses want.

IO: It’s really nice to be able to build your own voice. I’m starting a new job as the editor-at-large at a publication, but I’d been avoiding signing on to any publication for a long time, primarily because once a publication has your name, they take away a lot of your voice. I’ve seen a lot of strong writers, especially women, who have so much they wanna say and times when they vehemently disagreed with things being posted in their publications. And then for conversations they wanted to happen, they were told “No. You can’t.”

By the time I finally said yes, I was at a point in time where my name and my style and my voice mean enough that that’s actually what they wanted. Not just, “We want your followers,” which oftentimes is what publications want. It’s a really weird time, when you look at freelance writers who have five times more followers than writers that work for publications. They’re able to craft a voice and go wherever their voice will be published. There’ve been times I’ve been told by publishers that they won’t publish what I write because it’s too strong, too daring, too critical. What do I say? “Okay, give it back and I’ll go somewhere else with it.” That’s just what you do.

HG: Something that happens a lot with people, especially younger people, is when you can’t land a “real job” so you turn to freelancing, but that struggle is terrifying. It’s doubly difficult if you think your voice is only being valued because of the name on your byline, or you might have your work published because they need to have a “diverse” perspective on this issue.

IO: Every freelancer of color has gotten that call, where it’s like, “Hey, we were wondering if we could talk to you about this,” and it’s like, look, just say you need a black person to talk about this thing. That’s really what it is! And then there are publications that only talk to you about those things, when you’re like, hey, I also like other stuff.

HG: It’s something that’s hard to bring up! Not just with other media people, but also non-writers who think, “Oh, you get to write about race all the time!” Or trying to explain online activist movements to people outside of the Internet . . .

IO: With some people, they don’t know where something came from and it makes them mad because there’s this thing that’s suddenly commanding their attention, and they didn’t improve it or decide on it. Something will be happening online and it’ll be big, and then a local news station will ask me to comment on it. The amount of weird hate mail I get on Facebook afterward! It’s a big “Get off my lawn,” like, “I can’t believe we’re talking about this!” That’s because you have no idea what’s happening in the world, and instead of some BS local story about someone’s chicken escaping into the street, you’re having to find out about things like police brutality and systemic oppression. You didn’t feel like doing that. But that’s what happens!

It’s so funny to watch though, mostly on Facebook. They’re like, “I saw you on the news, you’re what’s wrong with the world!” And I’m like, “Something’s wrong with your world.”

HG: The deeper you get into Twitter and social media world, when you duck your head out to breathe, you’re surprised by how different everything else. 

IO: I don’t even wanna talk to “normal” people anymore. What would you talk about, the weather? Those conversations are so dull; every time I go to a gathering and see people that don’t interact in these social spaces, I want to stab myself in the eye.

Images courtesy of Ijeoma Oluo.