Review: Eloise Grillson Mary Leunig

Forgive her, for she knows not what she draws

In Down Girl: The Cultural Logic of Misogyny, philosopher Kate Manne dissects misogyny, seeking to understand its breadth, depth and social impact. She argues against ‘the naïve conception’ that misogyny is the product of individual misogynists, insisting instead that misogyny is a social tool that is used to uphold and strengthen white cis hetero-patriarchal structures, such as those that exist in Australia and the US. She writes:

I present misogyny as a system of hostile forces that by and large makes sense from the perspective of patriarchal order, inasmuch as it works to police and enforce patriarchal order.

If patriarchy is the noun, misogyny is the verb. If patriarchy is the disease, misogyny is the mode of transmission. If patriarchy is the disease, then this is why I am a queasy bitch.

Manne strives to pin down exactly what misogyny is and what it is not – and to enumerate what beliefs about women and men this system seeks to validate. On her account, misogyny does not seek to dehumanise women, but rather to humanise them further – to feminise women in their relationship to men. Women are the human givers, men are the human takers. Anything women do to upset this balance, through inverting their role, asking for more, or acquiring power, upsets this power relationship. For Manne, women’s ‘humanity is precisely the problem’ – especially if it’s directed ‘in the wrong way, or in the wrong spirit by his lights’.

Her case is frankly and systemically argued, and as a writer, I am convinced by her ideas. I get them. Reading Down Girl, I am learning the drape of misogyny, like a shopaholic learning to become a dressmaker, but only learning how to make designs that men desire. There are, of course, limitations to this approach. By only studying the system of misogyny, Manne’s analysis is bound by this system’s totalising notions of binary gender. As she notes in her introduction, she regrets not covering transmisogyny in any depth. This is a regret echoed in many texts on similar topics, and one that I am frankly tired of reading. There needs to be more genuine effort toward trans-inclusiveness in mainstream criticism, which goes beyond the footnotes and the regrets and the ‘oh wells’. Criticism that grapples with, and undermines, the simplistic and damaging ideas that misogyny proliferates. That said, she is pragmatic and sharp in her analysis and her efforts to delineate the intricacies of misogyny’s assumptions and rules. In terms of how we can circumvent misogyny as a social force, she writes, more or less, of the usual methods: speak up, rally against; whatever you walk by is the standard you accept.

But then she writes, in uncharacteristically vague terms, ‘[s]ometimes it will not be clear what to do, and we will have to strategize, experiment, feel our way.’ This is what excites me most: these experimentations, this process of feeling, and finding a way. I am interested in art that brutally unpicks the power structure of misogyny.

To tell the truth, what really lights up my circuits, what turns me on, is art that defies this cultural logic of misogyny. Books blazing with rage, which blister at the touch. Books lined with sharp glass. Books with vagina dentata.

Mary Leunig’s recent book One Good Turn – her first in 25 years! A travesty! – is an example of this kind of art. It is a difficult book, dealing with subjects like familial estrangement and death. In many ways, Leunig’s work is a direct inversion of the tenets of misogyny that Manne posits in her book. So I am reading One Good Turn through the lens of some of these beliefs. And to do so, I interviewed Mary Leunig to gather more understanding about her work, and have incorporated my questions and her generous answers, some of which take the form of illustrations. Thinking along with Manne and Leunig is to consider how we might interrupt and challenge the power of patriarchy. I am also attempting to grapple with the limitations of a critical framework that inherits the same blunt and flattened reasoning with which patriarchy flattens gender, race and sexuality. And so I am trying to find my way to a different grammar of critique.

What I find most effective in Leunig’s work is its brutality, which works best in its depiction of the ugly truths of existence, in black-and-white terms (and bold colour). Her work shocks me into recognition of the brutality of society: how people without power are abused, ignored and neglected by the powerful. She is committed to the extremities of emotion and power, as depicted through her life writing. For Leunig, there is rapture, and there is pain. There is no in-between.

To be transparent here, Leunig and I share some common ground: a publisher, defiance against decorum, rage against an unfair world. Though I have never met her, I have been enamoured with her work for some time. We have shared the kind of pleasant internet exchanges I have always hoped to experience with an admired elder (a word I never thought to use until she told me I could always ask her for advice, ‘I am your elder, after all.’). She makes me want to be a better writer, a better artist. A better fighter.

Misogynism 1: Men are human takers, women are human givers

EG: You write and draw brutally about motherhood. To me, your work is important because it defies traditional ways of seeing women, which reduce women to their ability to look after men’s feelings. What do you think?

ML: In my latest book I have done a few drawings about the brutality of grown offspring toward their parents. Over the years I have shown many emotions about child rearing, from the love, the beauty, the protectiveness of mothering… the funny stuff, and yes, I question traditional and contemporary values.

Image: Mary Leunig

Kate Manne writes that men draw on women in ‘asymmetrical moral support roles’ under patriarchy. When the traditional balance under white cis hetero-patriarchy is thrown off balance, a deprivation mindset abounds among men, who feel hard done by, that they have less than they need. When women are perceived to move away from their role as being ‘giving, caring, loving and attentive’, they are seen to be ‘power-hungry, uncaring, and domineering’.

One Good Turn inverts these standards. No longer is the mother the ultimate figure of self-deprivation, of sacrifice, of love and care and unconditional compassion for her child. One image shows four rosy-cheeked women, heavily pregnant, smiling placidly, standing idly side-by-side. The caption, in Mary’s trademark wiggly handwriting: ‘FOOLS’.

Her longer comics progress slowly; each panel fills a page, and floats in white space without outlines, much more like illustrations in a children’s book than a graphic novel. This visual levity allows the reader to be lulled into a false sense of security, and safety, as her stories reveal themselves to be anything but. In one section, she methodically details her children’s development: she and her partner as young bohemians taking them out, at first as bubs, to the library and the local to show them off, then bailing them out as young adults and giving them cash. Finally, on the last two pages of this sequence she depicts her children, gigantic, wearing SS uniforms, one shave-headed, one looking back contemptuously toward her parents who are small as mice in the foreground of the image, the word FOOLS scrawled in their shadows. Leunig writes ‘They grew up into “well rounded”, “independent”, normal, Fascists…’. On the last page, there is a drawing of Mary, with eye patch, gun, and echidna, and her partner, with a semi-automatic shotgun and dog in tow and the caption reads: ‘So now we’re gonna take em out… one last time.’

In these two panels, Leunig eviscerates the normative parent/child dynamic and reflects a quiet horror that as a non-mother I’ve never been able to understand or articulate: what if your children grow up into people you disagree with on a bone-deep, ideological level? What if your children’s politics make you sick? She poses these complex questions using blunt and violent tools, and she makes you laugh at the same time; a laugh that turns awkward and uncomfortable as you are both concerned and implicated by your identification with these brutal images. The disquieting honesty reminds me of Hera Lindsay Bird’s poem, ‘Hate’:

Well I don’t like life without a modicum of hate
This was once a righteous indignation
But now…………………………….it is a self pleasuring exercise.

The poem ends:

I tell my hate to my girlfriend and she laughs
she laughs and laughs and laughs
she laughs until she cries, at the ungenerous things I say
and then looks kind of worried.

Not so long ago, Mary Leunig was criticised by an anonymous reviewer in the Saturday Paper:

Word travelled fast about cartoonist Mary Leunig’s new book. I received a text from a friend before I’d even opened the first page: “Mary Leunig has lost her mind. She hates her kids. She hates her brother. She seems mentally ill. I’m not sure it was very responsible of The Lifted Brow to publish her.” It was being spoken about in hushed tones and with raised eyebrows. Writer Anna Krien described it as “lacerating … and unhinged”, and this was for a blurb.

On initial reading, One Good Turn … presents as brutally raw and emotionally honest to the point of excoriating. And it raises the question: Who is hurt most in the publishing?

It was unclear whether Mary the artist or person was under review. Aspersions were cast about Leunig’s mental health. The reviewer suggested Leunig could not possibly mean what she had written about her family, could not have intended to be this hurtful. As if she was not aware of the moral implications of her own book.

EG: Some of the reactions to your work have been quite handwringing, even misogynistic, in their understanding of your work, perhaps assuming that you are not in control of your own art making. How do you deal with these critiques, and how do you use this in your art-making, if at all?

ML: Yeah, I read that review of my book in the Saturday Paper, it was written by the well-known anonymous reviewer KR. The suggestion that I am not in control of my art making is very misogynistic isn’t it, could even have been written by some chick, that’s how these guys work, they pay women to attack other women, they think it’s funny, speaking of, I could do a really funny drawing of a mentally ill, insane, out of control artist, ha! Who is KR anyway?

Can you be worried about someone, and their pervasive bad thoughts, yet still enjoy the righteous hostility that seethes through their work? In the Saturday Paper review, the critic rushed in to protect Leunig from the sharp corners of her difficult art. In their critical interpretation, Leunig’s choice to write about her life, and other people in it, without censorship, represented her inability to prioritise her role as carer. Seen through Manne’s lens, Leunig did not do as she was told and act as human giver, not human taker. She did not put this role above her art practice. I am attempting to reverse this misogynist belief, to read Leunig’s work in terms of its defiance, to not trample on its difficult parts in a moral panic.

Women are sometimes portrayed in traditional domestic settings in Leunig’s drawings, but they are never confined to simple human giver roles, or if they are, they chafe against these power dynamics, consciously or unconsciously. In one image, a woman washes dishes in an overflowing and volatile sink, another woman mops, a drunk man cries at a table, the shared surplus of water and wine criss-cross the room, another woman with a dog on her lap floats in the deluge.

In a particularly maudlin stretch of One Good Turn, Leunig tells a family story, a time lapse that unfolds page by page, as years pass between each image. A woman and man lie in a large red bed on each page, with a heart stitched at its centre. Time passes, things change: there are children and toys on the bed; then the older couple with dogs curled next to them, sleeping peacefully. Then we see the couple in a state of destitution – eyes weeping, tongues hanging out – beside a dog who lies stiffly with blood seeping from its mouth. On the final pages the couple’s corpses are rotting. You see these final images, and you wonder, what the fuck happened to these people? Where are the children? Who cares for the parents when the children become fascists? What happens to mothers when their role as a carer has lapsed? Patriarchy doesn’t care what happens to women and their bodies after they have served their sacrificial role. Really, it never did.

Misogynism 2: Women owe the use of their bodies in service of men

Kate Manne takes apart Rush Limbaugh’s comments about Sandra Fluke, a young woman who argued before House Democrats that birth control should be covered by health insurance at religious institutions. Limbaugh called her a ‘slut’, and then a ‘prostitute’. In Manne’s words: ‘he depicted a woman articulating a need, or claiming her due, as entitled and demanding’. A woman asking for equal treatment is thus seen as a usurper, a power-hungry villain. Manne writes that ‘[a]t one point Limbaugh proposed the following little arrangement… Fluke could have his money — if she posted the sex in an online video.’ His attack on her request for autonomy over her own body, according to Manne, conveys that under patriarchy ‘women’s conduct vis-à-vis men is taken unduly personally… So women’s indifference becomes aversion; ignorance becomes ignoring; testimony becomes tattling; and asking becomes extortion.’ In this power dynamic, women are treated as both ‘interchangeable and representative of a certain type of woman. Because of this, women can be singled out and treated as representative targets.’

EG: A lot of your work deals with agency, and how choices are able to be made, or not. Do you consider art making to contribute to your sense of agency, and if so, how?

ML: Don’t EVER use the word AGENCY in the same sentence as Mary Leunig again…EVER.

In one comic, a young Leunig is bullied and challenged by a counsellor ‘whose job it was to convince me to give up my baby’. Leunig was intimidated to adopt out her child, common practice in the mid-to-late twentieth century for unmarried mothers, but she did not comply with this government-sanctioned manipulation, keeping her child. She depicts the progression of the counsellor’s strategies: first smiling, then arrogant and adorned with a crown, then cruel and demonic with blood oozing from her mouth as she yells ‘You will be a bad mother! Narcissist. UNMARRIED!! CRUEL! TOXIC!’ The counsellor tries to make Leunig the everywoman that is articulated by Manne: both interchangeable and representative of a certain kind of woman – the selfish unwed mother. Thus, asking for her right – to keep her baby – becomes an attack on patriarchal society and the counsellor, as a representative of that society’s values, responds with escalating fury. The caption: ‘With 2 years of Art School behind me, I felt qualified enough AND old enough to identify conservative bullshit… and fight back!’

I am astounded by the bravery represented in this scene. And I’m not talking bullshit bravery, like thinking one looks sexy enough in the mirror with itchy unshaved armpits to post a selfie, though I will take that if that’s all that’s going (and I do take it, and I revel in it: check my Insta!). I mean standing alone against patriarchal violence, standing up for your rights despite a real and present fear of reprisal. Is it agency if defiance seems to surge in your blood, the way it seems to course through Mary, subject, and Leunig, artist? Is it agency if you, by luck of the draw, happen to have grown up in bleak enough circumstances to be able to stand up for yourself, no matter what? I’m not so sure that it is; yet I still want to celebrate it when I see it. Unwilling to sit still, feeling sorry for herself, on the next page she depicts her baby, in utero, crying, and asks: ‘Did Joe, in Utero, hear these criticisms of me… did he absorb this important information?’

In the next sequence, she depicts Julia Gillard apologising for the policy of forced adoptions, and then appearing as a transcendent figure, depictions of the children and women affected by these policies flocked around her in poses of praise. It is important to note here that Leunig also depicts Indigenous women amongst Gillard’s doting fans. One can hardly forget Gillard’s extension of and praise for the NT Intervention, which has caused irrevocable harm and increased child removal in Indigenous communities. This truth that sits outside this image rests uneasily with Leunig’s work. Leunig’s work doesn’t allow for grey areas, and there can be no confusion as to who the heroes and the villains are. This is in part its power but there is a reductiveness that comes with this tendency, too. In Leunig’s work, those who fit her ethical code of conduct are depicted as angels. White men who uphold the patriarchy are, quite literally, the fucking devil. Men have always depicted women in black-and-white terms to get their way. What’s so wrong with a bit of role reversal? Leunig challenges us, with a wink, and a machete in hand.

Misogynism 3: Men’s innocence and honour is to be presumed and upheld

EG: Your work deals with negative emotions, e.g. fear, anger, especially fear of mortality and anger at family. What you do you think are the most important social changes that need to happen to improve the world for women?

ML: A nice angry revolution might do it.

Leunig’s work is deliciously iconoclastic in its depiction of powerful white men. Some of my favourite of her comics are on this theme, and are aimed at her brother. I’m thinking particularly of her depiction of Mary, gun in hand, as she harpoons her brother, (the famous) Michael Leunig in his posterior, as guts, money, and shit pour out of his front, captioned: ‘I finally get the recognition I deserve by shooting my brother in the bum.’ It’s a delectably measured image, filled with ridiculous humour and murderous violence. It goes completely against misogyny’s cultural logic as outlined by Manne. Mary, depicted in this image, is getting what she deserves, and then some, by any means necessary. Leunig, the artist, shocks and disturbs the natural order by depicting her most malignant wish in full, graphic terms. I recently bought a print of this image to hang on my wall, to remind me in times of apathy to keep my rage burning, no matter what.

In her chapter, ‘Exonerating Men’, Manne outlines the ways in which men’s innocence is presumed, outlining a ‘prevalent cultural narrative’, in which men are given benefit of the doubt in violent circumstances. She writes that this presumption reflects a ‘strenuous collective effort… to uphold certain men’s innocence, to defend their honour, to grant them a pardon prematurely, or without the proper authority to do so’. It is by this logic that men get to control the narrative, to elicit ‘himpathy’ and to tell women off who are speaking up: how dare they slander innocent men. It is by this logic that men who are arrested for rape and murder are called loving husbands, and athletes, promising young men, and so on.

Leunig presumes none of this innocence of powerful men. In a visceral image, Rupert Murdoch in a dressing gown vomits out a pile of sticky politicians. In another image, a priest’s back is depicted, arms outstretched with a young boy’s head poking out from under his gown, his school clothes laid out neatly next to him. In one of the most scintillating sequences of the book, she outlines the different treatments she and her brother were given in childhood: Mary is outside eating loquats, while Michael – depicted wearing a crown – rants as he is ‘served steak, roasted vegetables AND rice pudding…true!’ Women must learn to stick up for their truth, as we are so used to being disbelieved, suspected and sidelined. Rather than revelling in her sense of victimhood, Mary Leunig writes that helping her mum clean up ‘was a fruitful addition to my blossoming self esteem’. In the accompanying image, she and her mother stand on the roof, watching the smoke rise up from the factories in yellow and pink tones. Whether sarcastic or not, this image depicts a sort of shared solidarity in struggle: she and her mother are bound to domestic servitude, yes, but they have each other.

There is so much more to Leunig’s book, of course. Despite its slender size, the works touch on class, her adoration of animals, the joys and indignities of ageing, and the difficulty visiting her dying mother. During it all, Leunig’s sense of justice, humour, and rage blares through.

But let me be clear, this is not a glowing review. This is a seething, fucking, fighting review. I’m just that not interested in dissecting the patriarchy anymore. I’m not into scalpels; I’m into chainsaw massacres. When I walk home at night I don’t want a rape whistle; I want a kill switch.

Despite my not being an overly superstitious person, I still think about what happened when I first read One Good Turn. I cut my finger on one of its pages, and didn’t notice. Now the cover of my copy bears a dried drool of blood, smeared across Mary Leunig’s self-portrait, her body pale and frail in a threadbare slip, her face tranquil as she luxuriates in an unseen sun. Maybe this stain betrays the visceral nature of my reaction to its contents.

Reading One Good Turn is like getting injected with adrenaline and misandry and good old-fashioned class warfare in one massive hit. It makes my blood boil and seethe and seep. It makes me want to ignite the world with my words, burn it all down. It is infectious, but unlike patriarchy, it doesn’t make me sick. It makes me furious.

But that doesn’t make me brave. I don’t want a tickertape parade every time I feel brave enough to trudge down to Coles at 10pm to buy muesli in spite of the bad man who may get me. Mary Leunig is brave, in a real and visceral sense, but I won’t call her that either because it feels insulting to paint her as a cliché.

She makes me want to be left in peace, and to defend that peace, tooth and nail, kicking and screaming. She makes me think of the day when I won’t have to look over my shoulder anymore. And if I do, I hope I’ll be aiming a crossbow.

EG: How do you see the future of art making for you? How have reactions to your work shifted over time? Where do you think comics in Australia are headed?

ML: I have got osteoarthritis of the hands, wear and tear. I think will go back to making coil pots, big ones. I love all those comic artists, I love Glom Press and I collect their books, love your ‘Sexy Female Murderesses’. Just got a letter from Marc, he wants to do a riso print of one of my drawings, I’m happy about that. Comic artists can use their talents for good or evil…er, etc.

Image: Mary Leunig


Eloise Grills is a recipient of a 2019 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the second of three essays by Grills that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, Madeleine Gray and Melissa Thorne

Published October 23, 2019
Part of Emerging Critics 2019: Essays by the 2019 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Eloise Grills, Madeleine Gray and Melissa Thorne.  Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2019 essays →
Eloise Grills

Eloise Grills is an award-winning essayist, comics artist and poet living in Melbourne. In...

Essays by Eloise Grills →