February 27, 2024

Beauty Arts

The Arts Authority

Alison Bechdel, Amy Hwang and others on cartoons, gender and feminism

Alison Bechdel, Amy Hwang and others on cartoons, gender and feminism

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Illustrations by Liza Donnelly

Our culture is wary of women controlling their own bodies.

This fear of women’s agency extends beyond health care into creative freedom: The patriarchy wants to control how we use our bodies in our personal lives and our artistic lives. But women artists and cartoonists are pushing back and have been for generations. Only recently have we seen mainstream media giving them space.

Over the course of writing “Very Funny Ladies,” my history of women cartoonists, I had the pleasure of interviewing over a dozen practitioners. I was fascinated by the different approaches to expression within the same medium.

While there are a number of genres — comic strips, editorial cartooning, animation, single panel cartoons — I limited my scope to the one known as single-panel cartooning, or those that are most often found in the New Yorker. This type of cartoon is often more than one panel, but it is a singular form and has a unique way of reflecting our lives and culture with humor. The ideas within are distilled and often poignant. It is the type of cartoon that I have been drawing for over 40 years, so I know it personally.

Cartooning naturally contains people’s bodies; cartoons are about us. Over the course of the history of cartooning, most creators have been men, so the ideas presented and the humor expressed have been from a male perspective. And these male cartoonists controlled their characters, both men and women, with a male eye. When a woman did become a cartoonist (and a few did in the early days of the form), they were likely to fall in line with patriarchal ideas.

Things changed momentarily in the late 1800s when women began to advocate for the right to vote, and some did so in cartoons. Political cartoons were a popular medium then, and women began drawing cartoons about their desire for suffrage. This advocacy was about control: Women wanted the ability to control their bodies and exercise the vote. One of the reasons women were prevented from voting was that society saw politics as too harsh, too ugly, for delicate women, or “the fairer sex.” If women were allowed to vote, they would be in control of their bodies in how society depicts them, views them, controls them. And also simply in that they have the freedom to move their bodies to the polling places.

But the history of women drawing cartoons has been a halting one. After the passage of suffrage in 1920, there were a few women drawing comics and single-panel cartoons. This number dropped off in the ’50s. Then, following the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and ’70s, women drew underground comics to express feminist views. The New Yorker, which had women cartoonists in the 1920s but had none in the ’60s, brought back women in the ’70s — four of us to be exact, myself being one of them.

Now, the number of women drawing to express themselves in cartoons is exploding.

When I began drawing cartoons, I was aware of feminism, but did not consciously incorporate it into my work until much later in my career. For me (and the decade in which I began), simply being a cartoonist was a feminist act. The discussion of gender was not mainstream, but I sought to avoid being gendered by society. Becoming a cartoonist was my way of doing that. I went on to express feminist ideas in my work, but did not embrace my personal experience outwardly in my cartoons. Other women cartoonists embrace their gender, express it and their ongoing interplay with feminism frequently in their work. Many are not able to separate their gender, feminism and their work; it’s so intricately linked.

I’m interested in how women and nonbinary artists now draw themselves and how their selves enter into their creativity. So I interviewed seven women and nonbinary cartoonists and asked each of them the same basic questions about their identity and how they express themselves. I chose people of different ages, genders and races. I found the diversity of responses fascinating and instructive in understanding the progression of feminist ideas through generations.

Responses have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Liza: Was there a moment when it dawned on you that you were not just a person drawing cartoons, but a girl or a woman drawing cartoons?

Alison: No. For some reason, that was never an issue until I was fully an adult and understood the tilted playing field.

Liza: When did you become aware of feminism?

Alison: I wish I could say I would have also been a feminist from Day 1. But I didn’t really become a feminist until I realized I was a lesbian.

It was a combined revelation to me. I mean, I was very aware of misogyny as a child — it was just the constant assault growing up in the ’60s. But my reaction to it as a kid was to kind of decide it wasn’t really about me. Somehow I was exempt from that. I was some other category or class. We all have internalized misogyny, but I had this kind of misogynist attitude as a child, because I just didn’t want to be one of those reviled people. Finally, I came to understand: You are female; you’re a woman in this world.

It was interesting to me that I didn’t know what it was about coming out that was so earth shattering. It’s funny now. I’m a member of a particular generation. If I were younger, I might be identifying as nonbinary, or something more genderfluid, but I’m attached to my identity as a woman, just because that’s how I’ve spent my life. I’ve spent my life carving out this way of being a different kind of woman.

Once I realized I was a lesbian, I had to really embrace the fact that I was a woman. The natural consequence of that was to take personally all of this ridiculous oppression and discrimination that I saw in the world. So lesbianism was a portal into embracing feminism.

Liza: I’ve always said about myself growing up, I did not want to identify with being a girly girl. By becoming an artist, I escaped that identity. Not wanting to be pinned down by a gender was appealing to me.

Alison: For me, I feel like my identity as an artist is also very bound up in all of this, because I was an outsider for multiple reasons. One of which was that I was an observer, you know, that’s what I did. I watched people and made pictures of them.

Liza: Do you consciously put feminist ideas in your work?

Alison: When I was drawing my comic strip, “Dykes To Watch Out For,” I didn’t set out to teach people about feminism or even discuss it with other lesbians or gay people. But it was just inevitable because that’s what my friends and I talked about. It wasn’t an overt mission. Although, it was pretty overt (laughter).

One of my favorite critiques of my work was that someone called it didactic. I can offer a funny illustration of all this. There was an episode of my comic strip in the mid ’80s where I just took a conversation with a friend and transcribed it. And the Bechdel Test (a measure for whether a film depicts women in a sexist way) became this thing that’s now what I’m best known for. But that was just the kind of conversations me and my lesbian feminist friends were having at the time: Isn’t it funny that all the movies are about men, and there’s never more than one woman in them? And the women never talk to each other? Just the way we were starting to try and figure out how this trick was being perpetrated on everyone. We were looking at how they did it and then trying to undo it.

Liza: How does gender affect your cartoons, your humor, your creativity?

Alison: In many ways, gender has been one of my subjects, you know, as I wrote my comic strip over the ’80s and the ’90s, and the aughts. Gender was a big topic in the LGBTQ community — which wasn’t, you know, didn’t use to have all those letters — as that community expanded, and its understanding of gender grew, I was trying to keep track of that, and in the conversations my characters were having, in the kind of characters I included in my comic strip. So it’s been kind of a topic. Since I’ve stopped doing the comic strip, it’s funny because gender has just gone on evolving in astounding new ways that I find it very hard to keep up with, I’m not strictly doing it for my job. So I feel a little out of my depth these days.

Liza: Do you think humor can change people’s minds? Or change their beliefs or their attitudes?

Alison: You know, I’m feeling rather bleak about that at this point in history. You know, there are so many brilliant, progressive humorists, who clearly have not made a dent in the authoritarian drift of this country. I used to feel very hopeful, like people are watching Jon Stewart, they’re watching these great feminist movies like “Bridesmaids,” this is gonna change people’s minds and attitudes. And clearly, it doesn’t necessarily do that. I mean, when? Yeah, I’m feeling much more skeptical about that. Certainly there were great humorist and satirists in Nazi Germany who failed to have any kind of impact, who failed to stop things. Maybe that’s asking too much of humor.

Liza: Was there a time when you were drawing where you recognized your gender and your drawing were related?

Mads: When there were female-defined moments in my life, it seemed off. Like if my mom said we were doing a girls’ night, or when I had to dress feminine, it was just a general discomfort. It was almost surreal. I felt like it was supposed to make sense, but it didn’t. That definitely guided my work, because now I draw a lot of bizarre scenarios. When the world seems odd, in general, the odd drawings that I make seem like a regular reflection of my existence. And that’s how it’s been very defined by gender.

Liza: When did you notice feminism?

Mads: When I went to college and took women’s and gender studies courses, I realized there were actually layers to feminism and different schools of thought about it. I knew what feminism was, but then I became aware of what it actually means.

Liza: Do you consciously put feminism in your work?

Mads: I don’t think so. When you want to sell a cartoon, sometimes you have to be very aware of what you’re making. But I definitely have put some in. I had this one of a woman writing a hostage letter, and she asks, “Will my tone come off as mean if I don’t use an exclamation mark?” I also do a lot of historical stuff, because sometimes historical misogyny is just so out there that you can’t help but use it as joke fodder. So maybe it isn’t feminism, but more just misogyny.

Liza: It’s a good way to point things out. How does being nonbinary — that sense of misalignment with how the world perceives you — affect your cartoons, your humor and creativity?

Mads: When nothing feels right in the world, no matter how many times you do things as you’re supposed to, and then when you’re drawing the world around you, to other people it may seem like a Dali painting, but that’s just reality.

Liza: Have you done any cartoons about being nonbinary?

Mads: My brain has only been able to make a cartoon about being nonbinary once or twice. And then sometimes you get pigeonholed into “female joke humor,” which is great, but not when I feel like I have to do that. I want to explore my own subject matter. I love jokes about women’s topics, obviously; I’ve done a bunch. It’s just the pressure of feeling like it’s what I have to do.

Liza: What are women’s topics? What do you mean by that?

Mads: Oh, jokes about what women go through. A lot of the ones I’ve sold have been about women being cold, lots of dating ones. And those are great, I’m not knocking those. But sometimes, I wonder if there is an expectation of me to do that. And it makes sense. When you’re part of a marginalized group, of course, you’re going to draw your experiences, and what you know. You’re going to express frustrations with the world, and that’s absolutely fantastic. But then sometimes when I’m trying to transcend that binary, I still fall into it. We are very much defined by gender. And it permeates our thinking and our work.

Liza: Yeah. And you’re also dealing with an editor who has her own take on it.

Mads: I do this sneaky thing sometimes where I’ll submit drawings with White men in them. And if they buy it, then I’m like, “All right, well, we’re gonna switch it up.”

Liza: Why do you think you do that?

Mads: With no insult to David (Remnick) and that process, I still think it is a White, male, cisgender industry, and it is a human inclination to buy the work that we can insert ourselves into. I do think it’s helped me sell cartoons. I’ve noticed the works I’ve been selling represent that. And the ones that came close but aren’t accepted, did have people of color, plus-size people, women, people who are non-feminine and non-masculine. I thought it was funny at first, and then it became a habit and then a confirmation bias, where I think, “Yah, that works, I have to do that now.”

Liza: Was there a moment you made the connection between being a cartoonist and a woman?

Sarah: It was maybe about a year into my career as a cartoonist, which was just last year. I realized when it comes to cartoonists, there aren’t many women to reference. A lot of them are the ones that I know are generally in the United States. Here in Britain, there aren’t very many female cartoonists and especially not many Black female cartoonists. There are just so few of us. And I think it is sexist. A lot of cartoons, especially here in Britain, are focused on politics and current events. It’s like only men can have a say about these things. Only men can make a funny cartoon about these things, and women just don’t have the sense of humor or the wit for it.

Liza: It’s kind of sad to hear you’re feeling the same things I felt in my youth, because I wanted to be a political cartoonist when I was young. There was no discussion of sexism. But I felt it. I felt that because I’m a woman, I can’t have opinions about things.

Sarah: Not much has really changed. It would have been very interesting to see more women make political cartoons, because women are really at such an interesting intersection when it comes to politics. We have the most interesting things to say.

Liza: I agree. Because every day we live is a political day, right? When did you become aware of feminism?

Sarah: I wasn’t brought up in a feminist home at all. It wasn’t until I started growing up and became more intelligent, more aware of my sexuality and gender. I started realizing my experience is different to that of the males in my family. I was around 16 or 17, but I started to really get quite passionate about feminism. Boys were starting to annoy me more than usual. I took sociology in school and started learning about Marxist, radical and liberal feminism. I was like, oh, my God, this is all real; this is happening in the world, and I have the language and terminology for it. I got really passionate, and I’ve never changed. I’m still a feminist. Even more.

Liza: So do you consciously put feminist ideas in your work?

Sarah: Yes, I do. Not all of my work. I would love to put more of it in my work, but the cowardly side of me doesn’t want to express all my feminist thoughts and ideas, because social media is really cruel. I’ve had a lot of people get quite upset with me if I say anything they don’t agree with, and that’s something I’m trying to overcome. Being a woman and putting out your cartoons in general, you could argue it’s an act of feminism, because you’re defying what the world wants from us — especially in the White, male-dominated cartoonist world. But to be specific, yes, I do sometimes make content about women, women’s experiences, LGBTQA+ experiences, things like that.

Liza: How does gender affect your cartoons or your creativity?

Sarah: I think in a positive way. I was socialized as a woman to be more in touch with my feelings. And for that reason, I’m able to make quite relatable work and interject my emotions into it. Sometimes I will make something quite heartfelt and honest about what I’m going through or what other people might be going through. I also like to use typically girly colors — of course, colors don’t have gender, but I’m quite experimental with colors. You can really tell the work is from a woman when you look at my work. I like being a female cartoonist. We have a lot of advantages, and we have a lot to say.

Liza: I’m so glad you’re doing it. How personal are your cartoons? Do you draw on your own life?

Sarah: I do draw about my personal life. It can be a bit vulnerable, but it’s necessary sometimes. It does build that relationship with my audience and shows that I’m a real person.

Liza: Do you know the old adage that women aren’t funny? Do you want to speak to that more?

Sarah: That’s ridiculous. The funniest people in my life are women. The best humor is usually inspired by oppression. It does make you quite funny when you can see life through multiple lenses, you’ve experienced a lot of things and had a lot of character development. Women are absolutely hilarious. And you’re really missing out by not giving women a chance to express their humor.

Liza: Was there a moment when you realized you were both a cartoonist and a woman?

Amy: I always have. I went to a women’s college, so I was always surrounded by women. I don’t know if I had any men in my cartoons when I was in college.

Liza: When did you notice feminism?

Amy: I guess I’ve always known it’s been out there. But when I was much younger, I always felt it was more like stereotypical “woman’s power.” I didn’t feel like it was my life. And it’s only as I got older that I realized it does exist. Going to a women’s college, I didn’t feel that inequality at all, because everything was more equal — or if anything, the balance was more swayed toward empowering women. It’s more when you reach real life, and then when you have a kid, when you’ve had a job for a long time, that you witness it, you experience it yourself.

Liza: Do you put feminist ideas in your cartoons consciously?

Amy: Not overtly. I might make a person in a powerful position like a doctor, a boss or something, as a woman. I do that just to have some representation and not just have that stereotypical White male boss or doctor. When I’m generally brainstorming, those issues don’t necessarily come up, though, a lot of my cartoons probably do touch on gender issues and possibly stereotypes because I have a more female perspective. I’m thinking of this one where a little boy and a little girl play with toy cars. The girl is saying, “Let’s ask for directions.” It plays on that stereotype of guys not wanting to stop and ask for help.

Liza: Do you think humor can change people’s minds about things?

Amy: I think so. I think more of stand-up comedians doing that, because it’s much more obvious. With cartoons, it might be a little harder. It makes people think, but I don’t know if it necessarily hits them over the head about things. New Yorker-style cartoons aren’t necessarily editorial cartoons. They’re not about current topics. But I do feel like you can always make some change, even if it’s subtle, and maybe that’s a more powerful change. If little kids are reading the cartoons, and they see something, it’s going to become more ingrained in how they think as a whole.

Liza: Have you heard people say women aren’t funny?

Amy: I haven’t heard it personally, but I think comments like that make you strong. It’s more the naysayers that motivate you, like, “Oh, you want to be a cartoonist? You think you can make a living from that?” It’s those people you want to prove wrong.

Liza: When did you notice feminism?

Roz: Oh, I was probably in high school. “Women’s Lib,” it was called, and I didn’t identify with these angry women — partly because my mother was an assistant principal. She was the breadwinner. She didn’t take crap from anybody. I felt worse for my father, who I wished had stood up to her. So my own personal world was not these suburban women who felt like their life was all children and going to the beauty parlor so that their husbands didn’t leave them and they didn’t have a job even if they maybe went to college. It was very different. But it took me a while to understand that was how the culture saw me: I’m seen as a woman.

I think it was also the art world. All the great painters — except, what, Mary Cassatt — just happened to be guys? But I didn’t think it was the battle that I wanted to fight, because I was really involved with my stuff.

Liza: Did you consciously put feminist ideas in your work?

Roz: I did a cartoon not that long ago about manspreading in art. Almost every day, I think about it. It hit me today. I was looking at an auction site, and I started to think about all the female artists throughout the years who didn’t get their fair shake by a longshot. They weren’t even counted in the conversation. And the ego of men, I guess that’s what manspreading was: the confidence to paint huge things and write 700-page novels to take up space.

Liza: That leads me into something you and I have often talked about your work: When you first started out, you drew very small, because you didn’t want to take up space. Talk to me about that a little bit.

Roz: In some ways, I’m very, very, very stubborn. But taking up space, the amount of space in which I can put that stubbornness, I get shy about.

Liza: How does gender affect your cartoons, humor and creativity?

Roz: I felt like I needed to make up new forms. I don’t know whether being a woman made that easier in some ways, because I didn’t have anybody that I compared myself with. I mean, I love Charles Addams, but I didn’t want to be Charles Addams. That wasn’t my goal, professionally. There weren’t people here to model myself after.

Liza: Were you aware of any other female cartoonists when you were starting out?

Roz: I knew M.K. Brown and Shary Flenniken. Brown went into a kind of surreal form. I felt like she was also making up her own language, a new visual and verbal way of expressing something.

Liza: I don’t know where I got the chutzpah to submit to the New Yorker. But I just knew that’s what I wanted to do.

Roz: I don’t think it’s really chutzpah. That’s their business. It’s not like you or I were banging on the door. The worst that could happen is they’ll enclose a rejection letter. It’s not even like auditioning in front of people, which would have made me scared. The work is all done.

Liza: Was there a moment when you noticed you were drawing cartoons as a woman?

Bishakh: I guess there are two ways to answer that. One is to say that didn’t happen until much later on in my life when I came out as trans in my late 40s. The other answer is to say that was always the case, and that I was unconscious of it. I would say 90 percent of the protagonists in my stories were always women. I always wrote from a woman’s point of view, and I find it very difficult to write from a man’s point of view. So in that sense, I would say that’s always been true, and I just didn’t know it explicitly.

Liza: So you were drawing since you were young and drawing comics and then in your 40s, when you became a woman, was there a point where you said to yourself, “Oh, I’m drawing cartoons as a woman?” I mean, you started noticing what you just described to me, but you also noticed how you could maybe use the cartoons in a different way?

Bishakh: I am not sure that I became a woman so much as I unearthed and made explicit, who I am. That is to say: I’ve always been this way. It’s just a question of how people characterize me and the words I use to describe myself. All of that has to do with language, how language connects to perception, and how perception connects to the way one is received and treated in the world. So when I did come out, I said to myself, “Well, I finally know who I am, who I’ve been all this time. I just didn’t have the words to describe who I was.” Then certainly I could say to myself that I was drawing as a woman. But that’s something that was unearthed. It wasn’t a process of transformation. I think it was excavated.

That has affected my work quite a bit in the sense that certain things, which were below the surface, came bubbling up. And now the themes in my work are a lot more explicit in terms of their specificity to gender and trans issues and to queerness. Now they’re a lot more in your face, let’s say. And a lot less coy.

Liza: Do you think drawing cartoons was instrumental in your coming out? Did it help you?

Bishakh: Absolutely. One hundred percent. And that’s made manifest in my graphic memoir “Spellbound,” which I started writing before I came out. The character that I used to represent myself is a cisgender woman who basically plays me or is my ambassador. That strategy is something I never considered to be unusual. Before I came out, it was very natural to me. I’d always been writing female characters and protagonists. So it wasn’t a big leap of the imagination to have one of my characters play me. Then in the process of writing and drawing that book, the connection became much more real and started to mean a lot more than I thought it did.

The weight of that became heavier and heavier. The meaning and ramifications of that were made much more clear to me. It wasn’t just a whim or something I did because I felt like it; there was a connection there with my gender and who I am. Drawing myself in a certain way was absolutely instrumental in focusing my gender and making it much, much more three-dimensional and real. So thank goodness for art (laughter).

Liza: I’m just fascinated with the intersection of women drawing bodies: women drawing their own bodies and women drawing other women’s bodies, how it’s changed over the past couple of centuries.

Liza: Do you identify as a feminist?

Bishakh: Yes. The intersectionality of feminism wasn’t made evident to me until much later in life, when I came out and started to meet other queer folks. It was certainly not until I met other trans women who basically ushered me into this world of feminism, which sounds slightly ridiculous. I feel slightly cheated, that I didn’t know about all these things until I was much older. But you know, better late than never.

Liza: Talk to me about your single panel work.

Bishakh: I’ve tried to bring some issues of gender into my work into the New Yorker style and my single panel work. But a lot of it did not make it past the editor’s desk, and now I think I sort of tailor my stuff. I’ve tried to touch on trans issues within a single panel, but it’s quite difficult to do, because we’re at a point, culturally and historically, where it’s not quite funny yet. Trans people are the joke. I think we have to evolve a lot more profoundly in terms of culture for there to be a point where we can laugh about some of these issues, but I don’t think we’re there yet. One of the first pieces I sold to the New Yorker online was called “Misgendering,” and it was aimed at cis and straight people. It was a way to explain how misgendering can feel to a trans person. It played well, because I think it was tailored to a specific audience — certainly not to a trans audience. As I keep doing more New Yorker style stuff, I think there’s going to be ways for me to find a way to address trans issues and more gender based issues in that format.

Liza: I’ve heard Black folks say for decades that they’re tired of being the ones that have to explain to White people what it’s like being a Black person. That’s what you have to do with being trans: You’re just constantly having to hold our hands and walk us through this. Maybe you can do it with humor. I hope you can.

Bishakh: That’s a great way of framing it. Yeah, that’s something I would like to do. But I would also like to get beyond the point of having to educate. You don’t have to explain so much to people what it’s like to be gay because it has been absorbed into the mainstream to a large degree. At some point, hopefully, trans people won’t have to explain ourselves all that much. And maybe that’s when the sort of humor can come back in, and we can all laugh at ourselves without malice, but with heart.

Liza: When did you start drawing cartoons?

Sara: I’ve been drawing since childhood, like a lot of kids do. I drew captioned cartoons, but not with the goal of submitting to the New Yorker. I just liked combining writing and drawing, and it felt like a really fun sandbox. I put a lot of pressure on myself to write fiction in college. That was my main focus. It was so much pressure that it became not fun, and I really couldn’t enjoy it. I leaned more into drawing, which I wasn’t supposed to be good at it, or have any kind of career investment in, and it was very liberating. I could have a lot of fun with drawing and be very stupid, very experimental and bad at it — whatever “bad” means.

Liza: Do you think gender has anything to do with that cartoon-freedom feeling? That desire to go off and be weird and strange? Is that a gendered reaction to mainstream culture?

Sara: Oh yeah. I definitely read a number of interviews from Alison Bechdel where she said being queer goes with having an outsider’s perspective, because you just can’t not have one. There’s no incentive to try to adopt one; it’s just built in. But I don’t know, there are totally queer people who make really normal art.

Liza: I was thinking about the tension between writing and art: that you felt more freedom in drawing at that time. I’m just wondering if it was because writing had more restrictions from culture. With drawing, you could be more expressive, be more yourself.

Sara: You know, I think that was just me. If I had gone to art school for drawing and had a lot of expectations for myself wrapped up in it, I just as easily could have turned to any other kind of creative expression and felt better in that.

Liza: Was there a moment when you realized that you were a woman and a cartoonist?

Sara: Definitely no moment, because it’s just built in. Truly no. Zero moments at all.

Liza: And when did you first notice feminism? How old were you?

Sara: I have very clear, vivid memories of this. My mom was living a feminist life in the ’90s. Her work as a musical therapist and academic was very much at the center of her life. Some of the stuff I’m saying is reflective of how capitalism is messed up — everybody should get as much time off as they need to raise children and domestic labor is of course valuable. But as a baby, I spent a lot of time in her office at Montclair State University in New Jersey, where she worked. And there were always a lot of college students babysitting me. I just had a very keen awareness of what moms do in this very “Sesame Street” way. I was very geared toward moms who worked. I think that was a positive influence.

Liza: I wanted to talk a little bit about your characters and how you draw them to express gender ideas.

Sara: In some ways, I’m making conscious choices. And in other ways, it’s just a natural way for me to draw bodies. I look at the figures I’ve drawn as I’ve gone through my drawing life, and I see how they reflect myself and my feelings about my own body, as well as my community. It’s like a journal. At times, I can tell I’m trying to take gender out of bodies and then sometimes I’m putting a lot of gender into bodies.

Liza: This whole notion that women aren’t funny, where is it now?

Sara: It’s not gone, obviously. I’m living in a bubble of funny freaks. But I’m also on Twitter where men say stupid things all day, every day, so it’s not gone. We’re talking about societal patterns, but women are so funny! What’s funnier than women?