It's a chilly day in late October, and I'm standing outside Sara's apartment building in West Broadway, five minutes early for our interview. I kill the extra time playing "How would I take a picture of you?" in the courtyard -- a game which mostly consists of walking around objects without my camera, paying attention to light, and changing levels. At 11:32, I ring the buzzer.
Upstairs, Sara's apartment is bright, tidy, and warm. Her cat circles us as we sit down on the couch in front of the faux fire place; he's eager to make friends. We'll be chatting for a few minutes, and suddenly I'll realize he's directly behind my head, gently nosing my hair. We laugh, and Sara good-naturedly shoos him away -- I'm allergic. We continue talking about feminism and Sara's work while a sunbeam crawls across the couch, and the cat tries his luck once again.
FULL: How did you get into feminist thinking? Was it something you were raised with or learned over time?
Sara Atnikov: Growing up was a hard thing for me a lot of the time. I had these experiences that I didn’t realize were problematic then, because I was so concerned with being okay, worrying if people liked me, and trying to figure myself out. My parents split up and I was primarily with my mom, and she definitely talked about feminism with me, or at least demonstrated it in the way she was, but I was a kid and not really aware. I started vocalizing and being more involved in feminism over the past few years.
FULL: Are there particular experiences or memories that have turned the way you think? Like that moment when you look at a situation and go, “No, that’s fucked up.”
SA: I was working in this environment with a man and no part of that that was a good situation for me. I’m sure other women who had interactions with him struggled too. He was one of those entitled fucking dudes. I was just asking for the bare minimum, while also being conditioned to go the extra mile to make everything okay, and my needs were trampled on and completely ignored. It led to a really toxic work environment. That became this little seed that grew and began to permeate other areas of my life.
FULL: How did Feminist Fonts start for you?
SA: I’m a writer and I’ve always been interested in communication. I believe it’s inherently flawed, because we all come from our own backgrounds. I’m saying something from my perspective and you’re hearing it from yours. It’s a difficult thing to come together using the language we have available to us. I’m interested in the power language can have.
I’d been looking for creative outlets and ways to start conversations. When I have an idea, I’ll sit on it for a few months, because I go, “I don’t know if it’s good. Am I going to be this insufferable person?” I felt like maybe Feminist Fonts would be better if it was coming from someone else. Do we need another white woman talking about feminism?
FULL: It’s funny, because I think at least part of that internal conflict, that “Do we really need another white woman talking about feminism?” has some sexism built into it, because women are conditioned to police their own presence in the world. Society requires more for us to be deserving of space or allowed to speak, and that is something we can really internalize.
SA: I always make jokes with my girlfriends, wishing I had the self-confidence of a mediocre white male. I have anxiety about pretty much everything I do, which I use to fuel certain things, but is fucking exhausting.
FULL: I do think that anxiety can function to keep you in check, to help you analyze your own actions. I get frustrated with men who call themselves feminists and think their work is done. If I’m doing all this processing, work, and reflecting about the way I move through the world, trying to root out sexism in my own behaviour, how can you tell me that you don’t need to do that work?
SA: I think we should always be curious and questioning of the world and our place in it. The worst thing you can be is a person who doesn’t care. The world has gotten to this place because of the unchecked toxic masculinity that is pervasive in all aspects of culture.
I do problematic things probably on a daily basis. Doing Feminist Fonts does not absolve me of my internalized misogyny. It’s hard because as women, we are taught to be competitive against “pretty girls.” The girl in high school who started having sex before everyone else, we think she’s a slut. The patriarchal ways we’re raised make it so that we’re fucked if we do and we’re fucked if we don’t. She’s a slut but you’re a prude if you don’t put out. It creates an unhealthy dynamic. There’s no good way to be; everything we do is open for discussion.
A lot of times people will tell me, “I was so intimidated by you,” or “I thought you were such a bitch before I got to know you.” It’s not my responsibility to be super welcoming. If you’re just discounting someone because you’re intimidated by them, then that comes back to you.
FULL: I’ve had people say similar things to me. One piece of that which I’ve tried to take responsibility for is the fact that I’m sometimes more inclined to socialize with men because I find it easier than socializing with women. That’s my own internalized misogyny.
SA: I was also that girl who went, “Guys are so much easier to hang out with!” because growing up, girls were shitty to me. Much of how we are in our adult lives is because of what happened in our childhoods. Someone says something to me and mentally I’m back to sixth grade where some girl is being terrible to me. I feel like we’re all walking around with frayed wires on the inside.
FULL: You talked before about being nervous about putting your perspective out there, being a white cis feminist. I’m curious about steps you’ve taken to check in with yourself about that.
SA: I think that’s something I could improve upon. I have a friend involved in queer porn, and I’ve asked if she could connect me with some trans or non-binary folks, because their voices are erased or a lot of time are not included in all things feminisim. I try to think about other people’s perspectives, while realizing that in and of itself is a privileged position to come from, because I don’t have those experiences. I would never try to pass off what I’m doing off as being, “Here’s one for the trans folks!” but I am interested in hearing their stories and having them contribute.
Something I’ve thought a lot about is how to more actively engage with people who have less privilege than me. On the Instagram account, I have put calls out for people to contribute, but I also know that saying, “I asked people” is not doing my best. I have to actively reach out. At the same time, I don’t want to assume that people are willing or ready to talk about something that happened to them. It’s a pretty loaded area to navigate and I don’t think I’m always doing the best job of it.
To date, Feminist Fonts has been my personal project. Sometimes I think about turning it into a collective, or a zine where all sorts of folks are contributing.
I’ve been thinking about the genesis of this and what it could be, what I want it to be. I think that it’s a tool we could use. It’s a way to broach conversation about awkward topics. I want to be able to use that power for people’s voices that don’t often get heard.
FULL: What other aspects of the project do you struggle with internally?
SA: Trying to distill a complex idea into three small paragraphs is a hard thing to do effectively. It’s work, and I don’t have it in me all of the time. With #metoo, I thought a lot about how to do a Feminist Font about it, what would be most impactful. I ended up doing nothing. It felt like too much to participate.
FULL: How have people responded to Feminist Fonts?
SA: When I posted the first one, I got comments and messages, people saying, “This is me.” And I went, “Really? Okay, great! Forward!” I’ve had really good responses from women. My friends will talk about it, and people will send me messages.
I’ve had a #notallmen response. I wrote one about “nice guys” and someone posted on Facebook that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I just went, “You can’t tell me what my experiences are. Your entitled white dude is showing right now, and you need to put it away because I’m not here for it.”
I stopped being friends with some guys because they made it all about them. A guy thought I wrote a Feminist Font about him and expected me to check in before writing it. It actually wasn’t about him, but a person really shows me what they’re about in how they deal with those situations. I give less and less fucks.
Doing Feminist Fonts has opened up other ideas for me. There are men who go, “It’s nature. We’re animals. We want to hunt and take.” I’ve thought about using Feminist Fonts to compare the complex courtship rituals of certain kinds of animals to dudes on Tinder. Humour is my coping mechanism to make things more okay, but also to point out the fucking ridiculousness of it all.
FULL: I do think humans are more animal than they sometimes recognize, but I think once you realize that, you can analyze your own impulses and drives and work against them if they’re based in something shitty.
SA: I think part of the fatal flaw in all of this is thinking we’re better than most things. We’re evolved because we have opposable thumbs and can drive cars, but when pack mentality sets in —
FULL: I think a lot about pack mentality in the reaction to sexual assault. The pack protects the dominant male who “deserves” to take what he wants while the weaker female, who was targeted because she’s weak, is cast out.
SA: It’s systematic and so predictable in the way it happens. People rally around the protector, the person seen as having the most worth.
The same thing happens with race. White people have been at the top because we’ve fucked everyone over for so long. Living in North American society, we’re an active part of that — racial biases are ingrained in us. Admitting that things would look a lot different if we weren’t the dominant culture is uncomfortable. The person having the most power -- white men, white people -- has to give it up to the people who have the least power. That’s the only way things are going to get better.