The 'mental load' of Emma, French feminist comic-strip creator

The 'mental load', or the organisation and thinking that goes into running a household, is a concept popularised by French illustrator Emma who has since gained online notoriety. 

A pannel from Emma's comic about the mental load
A pannel from Emma's comic about the mental load

Sociologists started using the term in the 1980s and 1990s. But Emma, who does not use her last name, because she tries to keep her 'work' and 'illiustration' selves separate (she works as a computer programmer), made it popular when she published an illustrated explanation in 2017.

Today she creates comic strips about feminism and current events, but she has not always been an illustrator.

After becoming a mother, and experiencing sexual harassment at work, she started reading extensively, about feminism and anti-capitalism. Drawing became a way to share what she was learning.

Listen to this story in the Spotlight on France podcast:
Music as medicine, mental load in pictures, Rimbaud mania Spotlight on France

(This is an edited version of an interview that is part of the Spotlight on France podcast. Subscribe here)

Q: How did you decide to talk about these big issues through illustrations?

Emma: I needed a way to be heard. I’m a woman, I’m not loud, and when I talked, people didn’t listen to me. I had to find a way to be heard that was not through talking. And I realised quickly that people click on pictures online more than on articles. So I started to draw.

Q: You started drawing in 2016, but you really got known the year after for your story about the mental load. Let’s explain what that is.

E: It’s the fact that it’s mainly women who are household managers. Maybe in some relationships, tasks like laundry and dishes are shared between men and women. But the responsibility is not shared.

It’s women who think about what must be done: the shopping, buying clothes for the kids, booking doctors’ appointments.

It’s a different thing to do chores than to plan them

The opening drawing in Emma's comic about the mental load
The opening drawing in Emma's comic about the mental load

Q: The story, called ‘Fallait demander’ or ‘You should have asked’, starts with a visit to friend’s house for a meal. How did you decide who was going to tell the story visually?

E: I always have a story, sometimes it’s mine, or a friend. This one was a colleague. When I got to her house, she was doing everything: making the meal, feeding the kids. Her husband was sitting on the couch, serving drinks and making conversation.

When I saw that, I thought, ‘I would never accept this!’ I was not in a relationship at the time. But when you are in a relationship, you tend to reproduce what you saw with your own parents, and what society tells you: women can work, but their main place is still at home.

Q: This story was shared online tens of thousands of time. What kind of conversation did it start about the mental load in France?

E: A lot of men wrote to tell me they didn’t realise what was going on. But they are feminist men, and are a very small part of humanity. To really change things for the majority of people, you have to change the society, the frame. It’s not about how we behave as individuals.

Emma works as a computer programmer, and draws comics in her free time
Emma works as a computer programmer, and draws comics in her free time Sarah Elzas/RFI

Q: Comics, or bandes desinées, are a big part of French culture. Did you grow up reading them?

E: A little. And in France it’s comics about politics and adventure and science fiction are dominated by men. When I started drawing comics about politics, I got threats from male artists. Women are allowed to do comics if it is for kids, or about your own life. If you start doing politics it’s hard to have a place.

I was inspired by Pénélope Bagieu who wrote Culottées, about powerful women. And another artist who does photo-constructions about politics, Klaire fait Grr. She’s very funny, and it made me realise that when you make pictures and comics, if you are funny people tend to listen to you.

Q: You address a lot of subjects in comics. Is illustration always the right medium?

E: I sometimes feel like I’m limited, because drawing takes time. But illustration does allow me to draw absurd things, like a walking clitoris, or making politicians say things they never said so I can use sarcasm. I often make objects talk, which is a good way to explain things. So illustration is a good tool for this.

Emma next to a talking clitoris
Emma next to a talking clitoris

Q: You have written about the mental load and feminist issues. You’ve addressed current events and the environment. What is the bigger message for you?

E: As a revolutionary, my job is to give information, to show how the world could be. I’m not teaching, I just discover things, and as soon as I discover them I make comics about them. The comics are a way to interest people in a subject, and I point to other articles and more information.

I don’t think I alone will change the world. I can just add a stone to the construction of equality.

This interview was produced as part of the Spotlight on France podcast.

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