When comedy writer Nicole Tersigni took to Twitter to decompress from a long day of having her life explained to her by men, she probably didn’t anticipate that her resulting memes, which offer clever feminist commentary on works of classical painting, would come to be the toast of the internet. As demonstrated in the new book that emerged from Tersigni’s glib memes, Men to Avoid in Art and Life (2020, Chronicle Books) women have been putting up with nonsense and misbehavior since at least the 17th century (in actuality, forever). Now, it seems that public lampooning of such behavior has finally found its market. With subtypes like Mansplainer, Concern Troll, Sexpert, Comedian, and Patronizer, Tersigni’s book showcases the rich tapestry of ways men have honed to bother and exasperate women. We took a moment with the author to ask some questions about her runaway hit book.
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Hyperallergic: One thing I love about the book is that it’s taking these images from art history, which were composed by men, and reframing them in terms of a contemporary female sensibility — but the funny thing is, they work perfectly! Have women always been this exasperated?
Nicole Tersigni: I think so! Obviously, men explaining things we already know to us is not a new phenomenon. As the song goes, it’s a tale as old as time. (This is the second time I’ve mentioned Beauty and the Beast in an interview, I promise I watch other movies!) We’re just very tired and we have been for a long time.
H: As a comedy writer, I’m sure you cannot relate to being in a professional milieu largely dominated by men needing to explain things to you (especially what’s funny), right?
NT: You know, I’ve been asked a few times which category of man in my book resonates with me the most, and my answer — weirdly! — is always the Comedian. I have … so much experience with this type of guy. Not only explaining my own jokes to me, but getting upset when I don’t laugh at their (racist/sexist/fatphobic/etc) jokes. The number of times I’ve been told I need to “lighten up!” and “get a sense of humor!” would (not) shock you.
H: Did you have a pre-existing relationship to art history, or the motif of 17th century mansplainers just emerged organically?
NT: The idea of juxtaposing classic art with modern captions has been around since the dawn of time. Wait, not time. Memes. When I first started with this idea for a joke, I didn’t seek out art specifically. I just googled “woman surrounded by men,” because I wanted to capture that feeling of being a woman online, and one of the images that popped up was that classic painting from my Twitter thread of the woman holding her bare boob while a group of men stare at her. And it was perfect. I just stuck with the theme from there!
H: I think there’s a lot of power in books and media accounts like yours — and another of my favorites, Awards for Good Boys — that manage to wrap feminist theory and everyday lived experience into funny and relatable content. Can you identify aspects of the present moment that have made space for this kind of social critique to get the reception it deserves?
NT: Oh man, I love Awards for Good Boys! Shelby is so funny and clever. And her art and jokes are always spot-on!
The social critique has always been around, there have always been people speaking up about these things and calling them out, but there’s definitely been more widespread reception in the wake of huge movements like Me Too. People have always been speaking out, unfortunately they haven’t always been heard. I think a lot of times it’s easier for people to consume this type of cultural feminist critique if you make them laugh while they do.
H: That said, I’m sure you’ve experienced some pushback about poking fun at the canon (or simply daring to have an opinion while female) — can you confirm or deny? Any surprising encounters or connections you didn’t see coming (good or bad)?
NT: Oh, there are always going to be people (usually men) (not all men) who have something rude to say whenever a woman makes a statement online. They’re easy to ignore though, especially since the response has been so overwhelmingly positive. I’ve had countless people find me on Instagram or Twitter (or even email me through my website) and tell me how much something like this means to them. That feeling of validation and connection, of being able to laugh together about something we all experience. It’s been very valuable for people, and they have been so lovely about letting me know!
I think what surprised me the most, just because I hadn’t really considered it, has been the number of older women (in their 70s and 80s) who have reached out and said they are so thankful for the book and wish they’d had something like it when they were younger. That’s very meaningful to me.
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Be sure to pick up your own copy of Men to Avoid in Art and Life — not just because it’s the kind of funny we need more of right now, but because the mere sight of a woman reading a book is often enough to deter men from talking to you… unless he thinks you might need help understanding it.