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The Belladonna Co-Founder Caitlin Kunkel On “New Erotica for Feminists”

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In 2018, things are arguably the best they’ve ever been for U.S. womenfolk. But if the past few years have taught us anything—by virtue of Hillary Clinton’s unconscionable loss to our Improprietor-in-Chief, as well as the ubiquitous and grotesque revelations brought to light by the #MeToo movement, just to name a few lessons in sexism’s lingering strength—it’s that true equality is still a long way off.

Enter New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay, a new humor anthology that playfully toys with the dissonance between fantasy and reality for the modern woman. It’s basically porn for people who yearn to live in a more egalitarian world. Co-written by Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer, the publication came out on November 13—a mere nine months after the viral McSweeney’s Internet Tendency piece that inspired its creation—and a month later, it’s already garnered a buzzer-beater spot as one of the best comedy books of 2018. Given gender’s current state of affairs, it’s no surprise women are getting off on it.

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The key to the book’s success lies in its shrewd social commentary punctuated by laugh lines. This is, of course, the co-authors’ specialty. Together, the foursome co-founded The Belladonna, which Vulture recently described as “the new Onion, a combination humor/fake news/lifestyle parody site from a sharp, female and/or feminist point of view that delivers precise, critical blows to toxic masculinity, the dumbass patriarchy, and dumbassery in general.” (Full disclosure/shameless plug: I’ve written for the Belladonna.)

To get the scoop on this hot feminist tome and its inception, BUST caught up with co-author Caitlin Kunkel to fill us in on how they made the magic happen.

Headshot New Erotica for Feminists Authors 9ae89L-R Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, Carrie Wittmer. Photo by Jen Brown Photography.

New Erotica for Feminists is co-authored by all four editors of The Belladonna. What's the origin story for how you guys came together to build that site?

It's a very internet-heavy story. We happened to be in the same Facebook group for online comedy writers. Leading up to the 2016 election, Carrie Wittmer posted, “Hey, I wanna start a website. Does anyone wanna do it too?” Out of the whole group of thousands of people, only me and Fiona Taylor responded, “Yes!” Then I looped in Brooke, who I met in Portland when I taught her sketch comedy years ago. We were the only people who said anything, which I think ended up working out well because you want to work with the people who want to work as hard as you.

You've worked together on The Belladonna and New Erotica for Feminists, and even with your social media presence, you're a seamless unit in terms of voice. What's your process, and how do you keep the peace?

I think when you're going to start a site and have to determine what will and will not go with the voice of it, how you're going to evaluate things. We kind of had to get into a group mind right from the very beginning. If three people loved a piece, but one person hated it, we would generally run it or accept it, unless that person objected for ethical or moral reasons. I think going through the process of creating the submission guidelines, and then determining what felt right for the site, helped us all get on the same page.

In terms of keeping the peace, at this point, we've known each other for over two years. We've all had periods of intense work where we've had to drop back. One of our rules is to never say you're sorry because you can't do something, just be clear that you can't do it and ask someone to help you. We’ve found that takes a lot of the resentment out of the process.

Do you use your same rules when you co-write, as well—like the veto power and how you navigate your shared voice?

Yes, definitely. I would say editing together and co-writing together share a lot of the same rules. This actually didn't make it into the book, but the other three women really like Harry Potter and wanted to put it in there, and I've never read it, so I obviously can't weigh in. I just have to trust that it's in good taste and makes sense.

You talk about this a little bit in the foreword—which I loved how you took the very apropos opportunity to dub “Foreplay”—but what was the impetus for the original McSweeney’s piece?

We talk in Google chat every day. We talk about topicals coming into the site and just kind of riff. We were discussing how to get a sponsorship for the site. Brooke made a joke. She was like, "I don't even think I know how sponsorships work. I think it's just Tom Hardy pulls up to your house in a truck with a load of LaCroix, and then he pets your rescue dog, and that's a sponsorship." We all laughed. And Fiona said, "That's like porn for Brooklyn women." So, like you do in a room full of comedy writers, we all started to riff on that—the fantasy element, which is something we wished was real. After we had done four of them in a row, really fast in the G-chat, I was like, "Okay, I'm starting a doc. There's something here.”

Did you realize right away you had a viral hit on your hands? What was the trajectory to book deal?

About three days after it was published, we were watching it tick up and getting excited because we'd had things do well before—each of us individually and also on the site—but nothing that went truly viral. We started to see people say, like, "Oh, it is in my huge Facebook group for moms that has 80,000 members!” And we started to see people like Anne Helen Petersen, who wrote the book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud,  put it in her newsletter as something she liked. So we were feeling excited, but we had no idea what had happened. The biggest we could dream of at that point was like, "Oh, a lot of people are gonna see it, this is great for The Belladonna." Then we got an email from an editor in the UK, and she was like, "This piece is great. Have you ever considered turning it into a book?" I think that was on a Wednesday, and by Friday, she officially made us an offer with money involved.

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That’s the dream! A lot of people, including women, struggle with the complexities of feminism—for example, body positivity and Botox in the same package. Did you talk about that, and how do you reconcile that personally?

We did talk about that. We actually had a vignette that ended up being cut from the book because we didn't feel that we were able to get it totally clear. It was about two women being in love with each other. One of them compliments the other, and it turns out they’re wearing the same Benefit highlight. She pulls out of her bag and they kiss. That was based on a real story someone had told us, but in discussions with our editors, they just felt like it wasn't clear exactly what we were saying about makeup, feminism, and bisexuality. I think they felt that that one vignette contained too many pieces in it to be clear. We went back to the drawing board a few times, but with the tight deadline we never got to one that we really liked. It was an area we wish we could have hit more explicitly on, but at the end of the day either the joke is working or it's not.

Of course, there is no right or wrong way to be a feminist, but it's super complicated. Do you feel that conflict within yourself?

I do, and I think that is at the root of why it was hard to distill down to a single short 100-word vignette. Women get Botox, and they wear makeup, and it is their choice in a lot of ways. But in other ways, the media—from the time we're very young—idealizes certain ways of looking. So you get into the question of like, "Is it your choice?" Are you really making free choice when you've been taking all this stuff in for years and years on end? Sometimes when I am walking through an airport and there's flashing beauty ads everywhere, I feel like I am in Blade Runner. It feels like a dystopian image to me and we're so used to it. You ride the train and there'll be ads for Botox and breast augmentation. So because that topic is so complicated, I think we would have almost needed to have written an entire chapter just focusing on “New Erotica for Feminists Who Exist Within Patriarchal Beauty Standards”... which isn't super catchy.

What feminist fantasies would you like to see become a reality in 2019, and do you have any advice for how to make that happen?

Well, in the 2018 midterm elections, there was this phenomenon of the “service woman candidate,” which I thought was interesting. A lot of women won because they had served in the military or certain roles, like the CIA, and that superseded them as women for voters. It was almost like this other identity allowed people who might not necessarily vote for a woman to vote for them. So I hope that "woman" stops being an identity that prevents people from thinking you can do a good job. I don’t know if that’s going to happen in 2019...

I would like to see issues like parental leave to be seen as something that all people care about, and not just women. A parental leave policy that acknowledges that men also go through a huge shift when a baby comes into their family, or they adopt. Or if their mother gets sick, they might have to care for her as opposed to it being assumed that their wife will do it. Yes, it can be very traumatic to care for someone in your family and miss work, but I think sometimes men don't get a chance to share in some of these very deep empathetic, emotional experiences because they're kind of shut out by the idea of what a man should and shouldn't do. So I would love to see us moving in the direction of—for better or worse—all genders having the chance to be the primary caretaker.

I’m obsessed with the book club kit that you all created. Can you tell us a little bit about what that entails?

We thought it would be fun to entice people to read the book with their book club, because it's not a long book in terms of how long it takes to read, but we do think there are a lot of things in there that would be great to talk about in a group. We wanted to give people some resources in order to get into the topics and understand at the core what satirical, feminist erotica is. It has different prompts in it. It has some fun drink and food recipes. It encourages people to write their own. So we hope that the book club kit helps people both discuss the serious issues with their friends, and also understand how they can look at some issues in their own life. And instead of seeing them as only fantasies, think about how they could potentially be made reality.

Okay, last question. What's your biggest legit sexual turn on?

I would say—and this is gonna sound not sexy—but just having time to really enjoy yourself. I think a lot of the time what can be so unsexy about sex is that you're tired, there's so much to do, and you're like, "Oh great, another thing that has to happen before I go to bed.” So to me, the sexiest thing is a Saturday, we took the dog to the dog park, and we're just hanging out. And it just feels like things can unwind in a natural way, and time isn't an element I have to worry about. That's something that I find really sexy.

Click the following links to learn more about New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay; The Belladonna; and Caitlin Kunkel.

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Courtney Kocak is a Los Angeles-based writer and host of the sex and love podcast Reality Bytes. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @courtneykocak.

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