My guest today is Courtney Privett, writer, artist, engineer, analytical chemist, mother.
Joan Brunwasser: Welcome to OpEdNews, Courtney. You've written ten novels already but something happened this month that shone the spotlight on you in a way your writing has not - at least, not yet. Can you tell our readers about how this came about?
Courtney Privett: I often use art as a means of relieving my anxieties and fears. I've been on a political art kick lately because I found myself unable to focus enough to write but I still had a lot of churning creative energy and anxiety to burn.
The day after Elizabeth Warren was silenced by Mitch McConnell, I was reading the news while feeding my daughters breakfast. Three male Senators had already been allowed to read Coretta Scott King's letter and I believe a fourth was about to. Then I read McConnell's quote. "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted." I had a little epiphany there and remembered all the times I was silenced or ignored and all the times I was insulted, by both males and females. I didn't want my daughters to grow up hearing the same things I had.
I decided to flip McConnell's quote into a positive as a way of saying, "Yeah, well, you threw all of this at me and I never gave up." The speech bubbles came at me in a whirlwind as I began writing them. Many had been directed toward me through my life, and others toward my friends. The frequent paired opposites made me realize that no matter what we did, there was someone who would criticize us for it. One at a time, these words don't feel like much, but together and over time they become a swarm. I chose to face the woman in the image away from the viewer both to make her anonymous (and therefore she could be any and all of us) and so she was facing all of these insults and microaggressions head-on and not backing down. They may have made her pause with self-doubt, but she still kept pushing forward.
I post most of my artwork on my Facebook page, so this one went into the folder with the others. Within a few minutes, two of my friends asked if they could share it. Twenty-four hours later, it was everywhere.
JB: Why do you think this particular piece so resonated with individuals that it went viral almost instantly?
CP: The most common comment I've received is along the lines of "I relate to this. I've heard so many of these things." That revealed just how widespread this issue is in our society. We hear these words from childhood onward and they are so ingrained in our society that we often don't notice them. They may bother us on an individual level, but I think people didn't realize that everyone else is hearing them, too. We went from feeling alone to knowing that we're all together in this, and by recognizing that, maybe we can collectively do something about it. I was surprised just how many people my piece resonated with. I've gotten comments and stories from people from a variety of backgrounds -- different political affiliations, religions, sexualities, races, and genders -- and so many of them said, "I've heard many of these things. I've even said many of these things to others. It's empowering to know I'm not alone in persisting through it and it has made me think more about how I speak to others."
JB: Do you think the energy to push back reflected in your piece was affected by the Women's March on Washington and the many satellite marches that took place the day after the inauguration and just a few weeks before your artwork appeared on Facebook?
CP: The Women's March certainly amplified the message (I wasn't able to go to my local one because I had bronchitis), but I've been pushing back a lot longer than that. I had to. I was often the only female in my classes and activities and had to stand up for myself and keep going when people (often adults), said things to me that implied I had no business doing things like pursuing engineering or playing hockey. So many of us have been pushing back for most of our lives, and we were going at it alone until recently. Now we're doing it together, and that strengthens both our voices and our resolve.
JB: I understand that you also generated a male-based version of your now viral artwork. How did that come about?
CP: Mixed into the positive comments I saw what I assumed were snarky troll comments about men being persecuted by women. Then I started thinking about it, and about my seven year old son. He's a kind, empathetic child who loves his jazz dance classes, and I've had a fear that at some point his peers will start teasing him. I noticed something almost as soon as I started brainstorming the insults I've heard directed toward boys and men" at least half of them were related to bringing down a male by comparing him to a female. This is a problem and it is one that I only rarely see addressed within the scope of feminism. We need to empower young women, but we also need to work on the societal problem of using femininity as an insult. Men and boys are insulted and teased in this manner by both males and females. This is the big reason I followed up my first piece with a male version. We need to be aware of how much power language has to create our perception of the place people have in our society. If being feminine is considered an insult for males, that means it is in our societal subconscious to rank females below males. Females are equal to, not less than men, and being called female should never be an insult. Men who choose paths in life that are traditionally considered feminine should not be teased or insulted for it, just as females who choose traditionally male paths shouldn't be harassed for their choices. Equality comes from all directions, and I thought that was important to address.
JB: Agreed! How has your sudden fame affected you and will it change the way you do or distribute your art going forward?
CP: It's surreal. I went from being an anonymous indie writer to a known artist literally overnight and the first couple days were a chaotic barrage of messages and notifications. I have generalized anxiety disorder, so it was a bit of a jolt to my system. It has calmed down significantly now so I can breathe. I've been overwhelmed and humbled and virtually embraced by thousands of comments and stories and it's still hard for me to believe that a simple drawing I posted on my Facebook page had the power to affect so many. I love seeing all the personalized variations of my original concept. In fact, I've encouraged people to do their own. I don't want to misrepresent another person's point of view, so when people asked me to do versions from perspectives I didn't know enough about, I encouraged them to go ahead and make their own to share. It has really become a collaborative art project, and therapeutic one.
Going forward, I'm doing something I've never done before. I was overwhelmed with requests for prints and there was no way I could handle making and shipping myself, so I set up a store on Zazzle. https://www.zazzle.com/keep_persisting It's a work in progress, and not everything I've made that's available is listed on the storefront yet. I had to switch the content filter to "moderate" because I didn't want the language to get anything flagged. I decided early on to turn this into a charity project, with all proceeds benefiting The Trevor Project and The Midnight Mission. It took me a while to choose the organizations, but I kept going back to those two because they help people out of hard times and dark places and give them the tools to keep persisting.
I'm still trying to keep up my pace of a drawing or so a day. I'm currently working on one that's taking me a little time to figure out the layout, and I'm going to be collaborating with friends on a new Persisted piece in the near future.
JB: What a great idea, on all levels! Does the unexpectedly huge reaction to your art and the resultant buzz give you more hope as we look ahead?
CP: Yes. I was in a dark mindset after the election and my anxiety wasn't making that any easier. Now, I see people from many different walks of life finding their voices and knowing they are not alone. They're finding out just how strong they are as well as recognizing that we need to collectively shift our approach the language. The old idiom of "sticks and stones" really isn't true. Words have power and how we speak to and treat each other ends up making up the foundation of our society. We're becoming more aware of how the words we choose to speak affect others while also knowing we are capable of persevering when ill-intentioned or even well-meaning but thoughtless words are cast at us. Art matters, language matters, and most of all, people matter.
JB: Amen to that. Thanks so much for talking with me, Courtney. It's been a total pleasure. Good luck to you!
Thanks to Meryl Ann Butler, OpEdNews Managing Editor, for suggesting this interview
USA Today: How #ShePersisted became a feminist social media rallying cry 2.10.2017