Even before her daughter was born, artist Tyler Cohen was determined to raise a feminist. But what’s a mother to do when her young daughter starts dancing around, singing about how sexy, sexy, sexy she is? And don’t even get her started on the “P-word” — “I’m a fairy princess… Witch princess! Zombie princess!”
In her graphic novel, Primahood: Magenta, Cohen relates these kinds of quotidian stories about her daughter’s early childhood — among them, tales of playground fights, kid crushes, and lots of running around. Like many parents, as Cohen watches her daughter grow up, she’s always carefully considering the lasting consequences of her words and reactions. When her daughter is insulted that other kids called her a boy, her mother’s response is: “Maybe you have to teach them there’s yet another type of girl.” Cohen herself hasn’t worn a dress in years; her alter ego in the book is dubbed “Mama Pants.”
Cohen’s various panels often center around attempts to teach her daughter not only about gender politics, but also about sexuality and race. As Nene gets older, Mama Pants talks to her about the complexity behind mixed racial identities (Nene’s father is biracial), and she treats her daughter’s crushes on both boys and girls with equal weight. “I try my best to teach her about fluidities of race, gender, and sexuality — there are so many conversations!” Cohen told Hyperallergic in an email. “We are continuously up against the larger presence of media and her friends — whose thoughts and opinions have become more important to her than her parents at this age. Ultimately, she’s going to have to navigate to her own understandings.”
While the evolving conversations between Mama Pants and Nene serve as the through line of Primahood: Magenta, they only represent about half of the book. The other half, interspersed between the vignettes, shows a surreal universe of half-naked humanoid matriarchs, a world Cohen calls Primazonia. “The Primazons first emerged from my unconscious when I was working on a series of drawings about evolution and nature-nurture,” Cohen explained. “I had been reading a lot of primatology at the time, in particular The Woman Who Never Evolved by Sarah Hrdy, and thinking about the ways female apes enact dominance and hierarchy and how that intersects with female-female social violence. But also, the deeply intimate connections that happen female-to-female.“
After her daughter was born, Cohen started integrating Primazonian babies and children into her drawings of the imaginary society. “It’s most definitely not an utopia,” she clarified. “While there is tremendous intimacy, there is also violence — the whole range. Perhaps in those moments of intimacy and support there are utopian moments, but that’s never all there is.” Drawing aesthetic inspiration from female surrealist painters, Cohen sees the Primazons as “of our world and not of our world — and in this way their world intersects with our own — and that of myself and my daughter.”
The Primazons often infiltrate the “real world” in Primahood: Magenta, walking in the background and at times interacting with Mama Pants and Nene. The title of the graphic novel represents the melding of these two worlds. “I’d been calling the issues Primahood — mixing Primazon and motherhood, childhood, neighborhood,” Cohen explained. “The Magenta comes from my primary (india) ink color when drawing the Primazons — a color that is both assigned to girlhood but also, when used thickly, evokes blood. From pure ink to thinned wash, the color shifts from blood to pink.”
Cohen describes herself as “a little bit of an anthropologist, observing and reporting back,” and she always runs her comics by her daughter before she publishes them. Cohen said her daughter, now 13, is “mad into manga and anime and is constantly drawing characters with this influence … The hardest thing about raising a girl as a feminist is knowing that she will face sexual harassment and potential assault. Even though the #MeToo movement is a powerful force, we are not yet in that new place of equity and consciousness.”
Primahood: Magenta is out now from Stacked Deck Press.