Maria Stoian’s graphic memoir Take it as a Compliment brings together a collection of people’s real life experiences of sexual harassment, violence and abuse, to powerfully reflect on this issue in a beautiful and heart rending style. Stoian very kindly took the time to answer a few questions about the work, the process of creation, and the experiences it considers.
LW: This work began as your final year project at art school. Can you tell us a bit about Take it as a Compliment and how/why you decided to pursue such a project?
MS: During my undergraduate degree, I made a comic similar to Take it as a Compliment, but it was a fictional story. Writing this fictional comic about sexual violence led to many discussions about the issue, and sometimes even discussions about whether it was prevalent at all. It seemed everyone I knew had a story to share about the topic. A lot of us knew the statistics, but it was still sometimes difficult and overwhelming to imagine that behind each number was a real human person. Take it as a Compliment is my reaction to all the times I’ve encountered the denial of rape culture’s existence.
LW: Obviously you think it is important that we address these issues, but can you talk a little bit about this, the impact you consider assault and harassment to have on society generally? Or vice versa, how society impacts/facilitates assault?
MS: The majority of cases, particularly very public harassment, comes from men. This tendency for public violence starts early, with young girls being told ‘if he hits you, that’s his way of showing he likes you’. This not only teaches boys that violence is okay, but it also teaches girls that they ought to keep quiet. This culture of silence is extremely damaging, insinuating that speaking out against a man’s comments or behaviour is a form of disrespect. The assumption that women lie about sexual assault is also part of that culture of silence, pushing women to keep quiet lest they be called a liar. ‘Boys will be boys’ is a part of that toxic masculinity too and it is as damaging to boys as it is to girls and women. A clear line can be drawn from that statement to the idea that men can’t help it when they assault and harass women – rape is a crime, and yet we imprison people for theft but forgive the violation of a person’s body and space.
All of this plays into the idea that female presenting victims (not only cisgendered women are affected by this) should be passive victims. Society has created a culture where public harassment is not punished, which victims internalise and use as reasoning for not speaking up. This internalising of the violation of their space can result in more trauma, because it is swept under the rug and the victim is forced to pretend that it didn’t happen. Masculine presenting victims have other expectations to struggle with that are no less damaging. In fact, they are ridiculed if they reject sexual advances. This creates a culture where, if attacked by a female, men fear that no one will believe them because men are supposed to be the active aggressors.
LW: What do you think that graphic novels have to contribute to such an issue that perhaps other books cannot? Do you think the potential of graphic novels has been overlooked?
MS: I think graphic novels are a medium like any other for telling a story. They allow the artist to communicate something in two ways simultaneously, with words and pictures (though the words are arguably not always necessary). For me, they are my preferred medium to work in, and I know that I can personally tell a story more effectively in a comic rather than just in words.
I don’t think their potential has been overlooked, not in general. Graphic novels have been around for a long time and using them to tackle serious topics is not new. Graphic Medicine is a conference in Glasgow that specifically focuses on the use of comics to help people with mental and physical struggles. Singing Dragon, the publisher who published Take it as a Compliment, has published several other comics that deal with wellbeing. I suppose certain institutions do overlook them. I certainly didn’t have any graphic novels assigned as reading in school, well, ever.
LW: Do you have a favourite illustration in the book? If so why?
MS: I have a few, I think, but the one on page 51 is probably on the top of the list. That story wasn’t the first one I finished but it was one of the first ones I started working on. At the time I wasn’t yet sure about whether to tell all the stories in the same style or not. I made that illustration as a screen print and having something completed made me feel like I was on the right track.
LW: Can you tell us a bit about the experience of creating these artworks?
MS: It was a fairly straightforward process, and most of it started in my sketchbook. I taped the stories onto a page and took notes on pacing, did rough character sketches, pencil layouts, and then most of the stories went onto my computer to be finished. For some stories, there was a lot of time in between receiving them and completing them, sometimes with a few sporadic stages of roughs. But there was a bit of time pressure, which really helped me to have structure approaching the book. During other projects where I have lots of time and few stories, it’s sometimes more difficult to focus.
LW: I was interested to know if you read into the academic background of this topic in your research? Or whether you decided to focus entirely on a more direct approach? It is clear from the book that you have spent a lot of time listening to and engaging with these people’s experiences. (I found the lack of any judgement or assessment in the book to be particularly engaging.)
MS: At the start of the project, I spent a lot of time reading about women in comics, comics as memoir, trauma in memoir, dealing with difficult subject matters, the bystander effect. It gave me context, but by the time I had received most of the stories for Take it as a Compliment, I was more hands-on, focused on how to tell those specific narratives.
LW: The final section of the book presents a kind of action we can take – ‘listen’, ‘support’, ‘watch’, ‘stop’ and ‘reach out’. How important do you think it was to include this? I noted with interest that you referenced challenging people when they make jokes about sexual assault in the ‘stop’ section. How important do you think it is to address the seemingly ‘little’ things like this?
MS: I think the final section was definitely important, although a past version of myself would disagree. It wasn’t always included. It was actually my publisher Singing Dragon who suggested the conclusion. The original version of the book ended with the final story (and the ‘Thank You’) and that was that. At the time of working on the book I thought that not having a conclusion would reflect how I was feeling, that this is the way it is right now: ‘This is a little glimpse into a larger problem, and whatever I say about the stories doesn’t change the fact that they happened, and continue to happen.’ I was angry and distressed, particularly when I started Take it as a Compliment. It got done because of those feelings, however negative. Singing Dragon made a good point about how people need hope. They might read the stories and feel all those negative feelings, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed by them. I was asked to add a conclusion to direct readers’ attention to what they can do about the issue. I kept it to dealing with the ‘little’ things because the culture that silences rape survivors is the same one that allows jokes about assault, that is amused by catcalling. ‘Little’ signs of disrespect are still part of the problem, it’s important to take note of them before they escalate.
Take it as a Compliment is available online and in Blackwells.