27 year old Soolagna Majumdar is a Bengali-Indian Perth-based artist whose Marge Simpson anime has become an internet phenomenon. Majumdar’s work explores the themes of female liberation, compulsory heterosexuality and capitalism. With the first batch of her zines completely sold out, and the second well on its way, Majumdar caught up with Damsel editor Ishita Mathur to discuss her work.
The tile of your zine is Marge Simpson anime but the subtitle is ‘The Liberation of Marjorie Bouvier’. Why did you choose to use her maiden name?
I wanted to distance Homer Simpson as far away as possible from Marge. I wanted her to be Marjorie Bouvier – I wanted it to be a story about her coming home to herself. It’s called the Marge Simpson anime because it’s a play on what anime means to our current culture, and who consumes anime the most in Western culture. The title refers to Marge Simpson because of how we identify with her, but the subtitle is ‘The Liberation of Marjorie Bouvier’ because that’s the end goal.
Why did you choose to speak on liberation?
I chose it because characters like Marge are in need of liberation. Women in our lives who have similar roles to Marge need liberation. When I watched the show, I always longed for her narratives to continue developing and not get re-set into the status quo, but the tragedy was that that her plot was so stagnant. There was never anything meaningful in her life. We were all supposed to be okay with Homer’s character. We are all supposed to accept that he was who she had to settle for at the end of the day. I just wanted her to be liberated from that.
There are a lot of characters that need liberation. Why did you pick Marge?
She’s so iconic and so deeply embedded in our public psyche. The Simpsons is probably the most widely consumed and most easily recognisable piece of pop culture that the West has given to us. It’s also been well-consumed across other cultures. Even our parents, with their own unique cultural backgrounds would be able to recognise The Simpsons. It’s disrespectful not to go where it all started from.
This piece explores how a heteronormative society enforces isolation in women trapped in marriage. Why did you explore this theme in relation to Marge’s sexuality?
It’s not just heteronormativity – it’s also a culture of compulsory heterosexuality. There is an ongoing historical tragedy of non-straight women who, due to their circumstances, are forced to resign themselves to the status quo. Maybe by the show’s standards, Marge is a straight woman but in the narrative of Marge Simpson anime, and in regards to what it means to be truly liberated, I feel like for Marge had to not be straight. I find it very difficult to believe that if we lived in an alternate reality where compulsory heterosexuality wasn’t a concept that it would somehow be acceptable that Marge would settle for a man like Homer.
In all intents and purposes, she’s much better than him.
Of course! In every way. She is the reason why the family is still together. Over and over again, she has demonstrated her brilliance.
I feel like a lot of women can relate to your work because they too are trapped in marriages with mediocre men. Why do you think male mediocrity is awarded so easily?
It’s accessible. There’s nothing in place to stop male mediocrity from being as successful as it is. Everything we’ve constructed in our society to this very moment – that hot combination of compulsory heterosexuality, patriarchy and capitalism – refuses to provide any punishment for being a mediocre man. And when I speak of male mediocrity, I’m not referring to someone who isn’t as intelligent as an astrophysicist or as attractive as a hot actor. When I speak of male mediocrity, I’m referring to someone who doesn’t challenge the space they exist in or who has never looked at the world critically. There’s no punishment for that.
My art project was me asking the question, ‘What if I told you Homer Simpson wasn’t good enough? What if I could tell you that I could give Marge a better reality than the one she’s been offered? What if I told you that she could still be an incredible human being if Homer wasn’t in her life?’
I agree. There are no real repercussions to male mediocrity.
You don’t lose jobs for being a misogynistic man. You don’t lose family. You can settle into a very comfortable, fifty year marriage as a very shitty, mediocre man with no qualms. You don’t have to do emotional or household labour. You don’t even have to raise your kids – you can be ‘fun dad’. We accept this and it’s profitable because it’s a fantasy that has come to life for so many men. Unless we critique this phenomenon, it will stay the way it is. In many ways, Marge Simpson anime was a direct critique of male mediocrity.
Another theme that comes up through your work is that of capitalism. Why did you find it necessary to do a capitalistic critique of The Simpsons?
The Simpsons are the winner of capitalism in terms of modern television. Without The Simpsons, we wouldn’t have so many shows that have followed in its footsteps – Futurama, Family Guy, American Dad and even great shows like Bob’s Burgers. We know for a fact that capitalism doesn’t actually challenge the status quo or foster creativity. All it does is encourages constant repetition to make the same kind of profit. The Simpsons is a profitable franchise. We’ve seen a model and other shows follow it.
We do see a direct critique of capitalism through The Simpsons. Through the ideology of American individualism we’re often told that we need to be groundbreaking in order to achieve something. But no, The Simpsons proves that you can stick to the status quo and live a very comfortable life. I very much hold the belief that capitalism is the enemy of the heart. It’s the enemy of love. It’s why we find women, at best, in shitty marriages, and at worst, in dangerous marriages. Capitalism doesn’t actually enable a safe existence. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I want to critique about capitalism and I don’t think I have the toolkit for that critique yet. However, the general idea I wanted to present was that our establishment of a capitalistic society undermines the truest parts of ourselves and our ability to live a meaningful life.
Your work has become really popular in a short period of time. Art creates conversation and it is always political. What kind of conversation do you want to create around your art?
I never went into any of this with a deliberate purpose. Marge Simpson anime didn’t happen because I wanted it to. I was in a really melancholic state. I wasn’t feeling well and I was bedridden. It just made sense to draw Marge Simpson spiralling. I do want people to consider that male mediocrity shouldn’t be accepted at any cost. Adhering to the status quo shouldn’t be acceptable. I want people to think about what it means to be actually free from what we’ve created for ourselves as a species. And if we can’t get to that point, then I want people to consider what it takes to be a woman like Marge. Do you have such women in your lives? What do you do to ensure that they are living genuinely meaningful lives?
When you’re watching the show, Marge doesn’t get the respect of an autonomous character – her storylines are very much in relation to her status as a wife and mother. Marge is indicative of women who put others before themselves consistently and foster the idea of self-sacrifice. Do you feel that this idea is detrimental to women as a whole?
Of course. There have been studies showing how that level of emotional labour can wreck your body – how it can be physically and emotionally detrimental and destroy so many parts of your life. Self-sacrifice is both fetishised and taken for granted. It’s an expected trait in women. If you remove Marge’s sacrifices from The Simpsons, the show would fall apart.
Your zine has gathered momentum among a wide audience. Why do you think readers find it so appealing?
I think people enjoy meaningful critiques of the things they love. There are people who genuinely love Marge and want her to be happy. There are people who identify with Marge, or have a person like Marge in their lives, or have an inner Marge that wants to be free. I think people enjoy subversive takes on popular culture because it’s easy to identify with it and it’s a great vehicle to explore different ways of thinking without putting the onus on oneself which can be painful. Exploring the idea of being free within our own bodies can be painful because you’re forced to confront the forces that stop us from being free.
Your work has an almost surrealist feel to it. How did surrealism and your love for manga influence your work?
I don’t think it did because it wasn’t a deliberate project. I was working on other things at the time when this project was being made. I’ve always thought in a kind of surreal manner. In terms of comic books and storytelling, I read so much manga at a young age. And not just any manga – I was reading a lot of shoujo and josei manga which is manga advertised for both younger and older female audiences. They create a journey from emotional processes and that meant a lot to me. It subverted the idea that there must be a physical journey that takes place for a person to develop and learn who they are. I think there can be meaningful journeys created if we take the time to analyse our own emotional processes and growth. Shoujo and josei manga, to this day, still hold that capacity of creating a meaningful journey just through internal realisations.
It’s easy to understand why so many people gravitate towards surrealism as the art movement to associate with Marge Simpson anime. It’s not necessarily surrealist art that inspires me – it’s more magic realism. For example, Frida Kahlo is a huge artistic influence for me. Growing up, she was one of those few artists that I found had created a huge journey just from emotional processes. Her life is so tragic and yet she created an entire body of art based on that. It just really counteracts the idea that journeys must be physical because the world around us actually prevents a lot of people from having those meaningful, physical journeys.
Of course, Francisco de Goya’s artwork was really influential at the back of my mind as I was doing this. The kind of imagery that he utilised in his artwork focused on the already inevitable decay of society. It was done in such a fantastical and almost religious way. There are a lot of other artists that have on the way assisted, encouraged and influenced me into thinking about that hideous magic of the way our world operates. Odd Nerdrum does it so well. On the flipside, you have someone like Matisse who uses fantastical images of how we connect with each other through his art. So for me, it’s not surrealism but rather finding that strange magic that keeps our world going.
You portrayed the kids as birds. Why did you make that creative choice?
It just felt so fitting within a dream sequence. It fit into the idea of Marge spiralling and being surrounded by angelic images of her children. The liberation of Marge Bouvier is nothing without her children because there is a very special way that she loves her children. Marge the character would have hated to be free but without her children. She needs them in her life and her children need her. We know that in bad marriages children suffer as much as the wife does. I just couldn’t imagine a reality where Marge didn’t receive guidance from her children.
As I was creating that imagery and making that narrative flow, it just made sense to create little angels out of her children but I didn’t want to go for a traditional cherub. So I decided to make little bird children. It’s also a bit of a throwback to a Halloween special where Bart was a raven that said ‘nevermore’. I definitely was inspired by that but I wanted to explore ways of viewing guardian angels without Biblical imagery. I wanted to explore what it means to have a guardian in our life – either metaphysical or real.
That’s interesting because parents are traditionally viewed as guardians however you’re envisioning her children as the guardian figure.
I guess I am corny but children are the protector of the heart in many ways. In a more sinister way, we know for a fact that in situations involving domestic violence, if the abuser is male, he will harm the children if he is unable to harm his wife or partner. There is iconic imagery in The Simpsons of Homer strangling Bart and that was played for laughs. You can compare that situation with Rosie Batty whose son was murdered by her partner. I’m not saying Homer would have but he could have. It’s not so outside of the realm of reality for something like that to occur. I’m just using imagery that’s already been made popular by the show and has been played up for laughs, and framing it in a way that hits close to home. But yeah, we are raised to view our parents as the guardian figure.
You are right though in that children do hold influence over their parents.
Yeah, heaven forbid, but you could drag a parent by their knees if you did anything to threaten their children. I think a lot of what can make a person change their lives later on is usually their children. I’ve seen the ways people have changed and taken initiative when children come into the picture. There is that sad commentary again that if you are a woman or person who has given birth to children, often you are not conditioned to see yourself as protectors of your heart so your next burden are your children. We are conditioned to not do things for ourselves and we see that play out over and over again.
What materials did you use to make this?
I was using copic markers. The only reason I went on to use watercolours was because I ran out of seven of my ink colours. The paperstock I was using wasn’t really compatible with watercolours but I really liked it, so I continued using it with the watercolours. I wouldn’t recommend doing that.
Why did you use copic markers?
I love them because you can get a good, flat colour quickly without the drying time. It’s a convenient medium. It doesn’t have the same layering that felt tip markers have. There’s no streaking and it blends beautifully. You can get a good, solid amount of colour consistently that can transfer well across from the drawing stage to the scanning stage. It’s a tragedy that they do run out if you don’t get the right size pen, and not many stores stock them.
I love watercolours too but when you’re in that state where a lot of ideas are going through your head, you don’t have the time to wait for your work to dry. You just want to get on to the next thing. By the end of the project, when I was in its final stage of the story, I was churning out five pages a night. I was going to bed at 7 o’clock in the morning because I had to get it out. I saw the finishing line and I was unable to go slower. I knew what the final image looked like and I needed to hold onto that, and I needed to hold on to the entire journey in order to get to that final image. Watercolours just did not seem compatible at all. I was forced to use them at the end because my inks ran out but for the most part, I was using inks because they provided the quickest way of getting the project done.
You’ve spoken of Kahlo and de Goya. What other contemporary artists have influenced you?
Hands down, Frida Kahlo will always be the be all and end all of people I admire. In terms of influences, definitely Odd Nerdrum – he’s more contemporary. I love the way he explores the grotesque and what our society has turned into but doesn’t necessarily use modern means to express that. He still uses classical imagery and invokes a kind of religious fervour in his pieces.
There are definitely digital artists that have influenced me along the way such as Sachin Teng. He’s definitely much more surreal in the way that he tells stories. I wouldn’t say that I tell things the way he does but he definitely took those elements from surrealism and made them every compatible for our times. He has this beautiful way of subverting things visually without going for the obvious, and more for the heart. Richie Pope is another – he does the same. He’s a brilliant artist in that he takes imagery that we hold most delicately to us, and again, subverts it and places it in situations we wouldn’t really want it to be.
Other contemporary artists include Tiffany Ford who is a woman of colour. I just really love how she explores and applies block colours. I love her approach to block colouring, imagery and finding meaning in its simplicity. She’s got a great technique and that’s inspiring. Another influence I should add is Satyajit Rai. He was one of India and West Bengal’s iconic graphic designers of the time. People mention surrealism but I actually find that he enacted a lot of magic realism within the tragedy that he saw unfold in West Bengal.
Would you ever consider doing a second part or has this story been told?
This story is told. I did everything I wanted to do for it. I always knew there was an ending to it. I might do lone art pieces again, maybe in the future, but I’m really happy with how it ended and I don’t really want to do anything more than that. I don’t want to take anything away from the viewer on what they imagine afterwards for her. I do have people asking me what the work is about – it’s about what you want from it. I’m only giving you what I have and you can take whatever you want from me and that’s yours to keep.
What sort of projects do you wish to work on in the future?
I’d consider getting my sleep schedule into a better cycle a project! I just want to go back to the drawing board and analyse what I learnt from this because it was an incredible learning experience. I had never done anything like this before. I was actually in a really deep art rut at the time and it took for me to get incredibly unwell for me to be doing this. I’d like to be able to find a healthier way of doing that. I would ideally like to make artwork that makes people feel the same way as Marge Simpson anime – where they’re getting more in touch with what they really need for themselves. I just want to enjoy the moment right now.
Interviewed by Ishita Mathur
Posted on May 11, 2017