Newsflash: Love for BBWs far predated Kim K. Here, Kristen Cochrane discusses how Robert Crumb’s illustrations of voluptuous women changed they way she thinks about her own body, and the language that we use to talk about the curvy female form, which is both fetishized and criticized.
When I pitched writing this article on the cartoonist Robert Crumb to my Slut-in-Chief Karley Sciortino, I was nervous, as his representations of women can be—and have been—viewed as sexist and degrading towards women. But I went with it, because since I first became acquainted with Crumb’s work, I’ve wanted to look into the cultural significance of the strong, voluptuous women he draws and the criticism his drawings have received for sexual and sexist vulgarity. And because, in some way, his drawings have made me feel more confident in my own curvy body.
You may know Crumb from his hyper-caricatured comics, but you might also know him from his comic that informed the 1972 film Fritz the Cat. Or perhaps you know him from Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary Crumb. Thankfully, Karley is all about Robert Crumb and responded to my pitch with enthusiasm. “Weirdly, I was just thinking about his giant women,” Karley wrote back. “I was looking at some of Crumb’s pics for inspiration because I wanted a giantess on the cover of book, but my publisher was like ‘but what does a giantess mean for your book?’ and I was like, ‘um, it’s feminist lol.’ Anyway, I was thinking about how Crumb’s giant women have a new meaning in our new age of female bodies.”
I think she’s right: we are indeed living in a new age of female bodies. Everytime I find myself in a Snapchat-induced virtual jaunt through the latest Daily Mail images of the Jenner Kardashian Dynasty, I find myself in a state of awe. Their hips and asses seem to be perpetually expanding. More often than not, I end up thinking about what kinds of exercises I could do to make my hips look like that. I acknowledge that these feelings about my own body might be problematic (and that most of the women whose bodies look Kardashian-esque have been heavily assisted by medical assistance, not squats). But I’ve also been seeing women with “natural” versions of Kardashian bods everywhere I go, and it seems something has shifted—when I’m out in the world, I’ve become acutely aware of a more vast array of female bodies. Women who would be considered “fat” (in the bad way—which I am not making a value judgment on) are wearing crop tops to work, modelling for trendy clothing companies, and ostensibly not feeling shame about their bodies. It makes me wish I had grown up during this time. During my childhood in the 1990s, “heroin chic” was the body most idealized in the media. And during my teenage years in the mid 2000s, “tanorexia” was the thing. Now, there is so much curvy body appreciation that I finally feel normal. Thinking about these makes me think about the women that Robert Crumb illustrated, longed for, and obsessed over. Crumb idealized curvaceous bodies before we became obsessed with “thick” women again in our modern moment.
Copyright: Robert Crumb / TASCHEN
I’m not the only one who made this personal connection. Writing in The New Republic earlier this year, Josephine Livingstone introduced an article with the following:
“As a woman with a big ass, I’ve always liked Robert Crumb. Those who are familiar with Crumb’s art only in passing will know him for the big, sturdy, sexualized women he drools over in his comics. “Nice big legs!” one drawing reads, next to an arrow pointing to some nice, big legs. Crumb draws himself as a paltry little nerd, sometimes clinging to the legs of an enormous woman, his eyes hidden completely behind bottle-bottom glasses. Flecks of saliva tend to fly across the paradigmatic Crumb page.”
Livingstone’s celebration (and defense) of Crumb reminded me of Louise DeSalvo’s introduction in my copy of Henry Miller’s once banned 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer. Miller’s macho renderings contrast what his lover, fellow writer Anaïs Nin, knew of him—as a tender, delicate, and vulnerable person. On Tropic of Cancer, De Salvo writes: “It is the voice of a man who hides his pain behind a string of curse words, who vulgarizes women because it is unmanly to admit how much he needs them, and who aggregates how callous and tough he is so that he will not be victimized.” I see the same sensibility in Crumb’s comics.
There is another theory that holds water in light of how we can conceptualize Crumb’s illustrations of women. In an essay on the prominence of large-breasted women in horror films, film scholar André Loiselle argues that these buxom women in fact echo the monstrous villains of the horror genre. “The monstrously curvy body stands for the (un)containable feminine figure that hegemonic masculinity finds at once irresistible and repulsive; endearingly fragile and frighteningly potent.” Since reading this essay a few years ago, I’ve thought about it often. I returned to it recently, since I’ve been watching a lot of Russ Meyer films where the Russ Meyer girls nearly suffocate the fearful male characters with their large breasts and insatiable sexual appetites. I also thought about a disturbing conversation I had this year with someone who said that they enjoy “fucking with” beautiful women—mocking them and attempting to rupture the alleged ego that so-called “beautiful” people have.
I told my friend Sam about this conversation in an attempt to gain some insight into this. Sam is a lowkey intellectual who, when we hangout together, always makes me feel like I’m in a Jim Jarmusch or Richard Linklater film. “That guy said that because he’s frightened of beautiful women,” Sam told me. “There are a lot of men who think this way, and they try to bring women down.” It could be argued that Crumb is attempting to bring women down with the language that is used in his comics, but it seems that his works are more aligned with a stream-of-consciousness, free association method that elicits an oozing of his pre-filtered thoughts from his pen onto the page. Those thoughts can’t only be his—we live in a world where bodies are spoken about in vulgar, degrading ways. Crumb is merely recreating what he hears and witnesses.
André Loiselle’s theory on buxom women in horror films is a parallel to the dialectic of fetishization and fear that constitute Crumb’s illustrated women. His illustrations focus on fetishized female body parts, like breasts, asses, and thighs, and enlarge them to intimidating proportions. The women appear, like the otherworldly villains in horror films, monstrous in their height, curves, and dispositions. While I don’t necessarily think that Crumb was trying to bring women down through his drawings, it’s worth considering the how men fear women who intimidate them with their beauty and bodies.
In the same essay, Loiselle recalls Jacques Derrida’s claim that “a monster is a species for which we do not yet have a name.” Incidentally, we struggle with the adjectives to use for women who are not considered “small.” Fat, thick, curvy, voluptuous, etc.—which one is the least offensive? Which one are we supposed to use? We even encounter trouble when we say these words with the wrong tone. Is fatness, largeness, the monster with no name?
Robert Crumb has been accused not only of sexism, but also of racism. His depictions of racialized bodies are inarguably distasteful. His use of his character Angelfood McSpade—an offensively caricatured black woman—has been likened to the dubious Charlie Hebdo method of using racism to mock racism. Many would argue that his depictions of women in general are also distasteful and sexist; he reproduces dialogue that is conceivably degrading towards women in its fetishism and objectification. But the sexism is what I’m not entirely sold on. While it’s absurd to speak in the black and white terms of whether something is either feminist or not, Crumb’s illustrations draw our attention to the variation of female bodies, and that these bodies not only exist, but that they are enjoyed by their owners and by others. Are these drawings jarring because they constitute the monster that has no name? Do they shock us in their excess of the bodily formations that we fetishize? Do we enjoy that these women look like they could physically fight men, and do we fantasize about possessing a similar sense of physical control? Just like the Loiselle’s likening of scream queen breasts to monsters, Crumb’s oeuvre highlights the contradictions that large female bodies can provoke in our cultural consciousness, where bodies like those of the Kardashian Jenner clan are at once fetishized and criticized.
TASCHEN’s Robert Crumb: Sketchbook, Vol. 2: Sept. 1968-Jan. 1975 is out now.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her academic research is currently on queer Latin American cinema, but she also writes about art, sexuality, and life stories. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.