Liv Strömquist Wants to Change the Way We Talk about Vaginas

“Fruit of Knowledge: The Vulva vs. The Patriarchy” is the graphic novel we need to dismantle shame around menstruation

Graphic of figure skate with period stain on underwear

Liv Strömquist is a Swedish comic artist, radio presenter, and podcast host. Her left-leaning comics have been published in zines and magazines worldwide, but none has provoked reactions as strong as Fruit of Knowledge: The Vulva vs. The Patriarchy. A witty 21st-century history of Western taboos against discussing the vulva, Fruit of Knowledge was such a smash hit in Sweden that the Stockholm transit authority put panels from Strömquist’s menstruation chapter on the subway walls.

Fruit of Knowledge covers a wide array of topics, from menstruation — not such a big deal! — to how exactly men convinced themselves the female orgasm was an “optional” part of sex. Her drawings are blocky and energetic, filled with historical footnotes and characters cracking jokes in the margins. Strömquist invokes women’s personal experiences to generate solidarity, science to banish squeamishness, and history to explain where that squeamishness came from, and she succeeds with all three.

Fruit of Knowledge is by turns angry, funny, and moving, and in all three modes, it’s highly informative. Parents of pre-teens take note: there’s more helpful content in one panel of Fruit of Knowledge than in my entire 1999 copy of American Girls’ The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls.Of course, Fruit of Knowledge isn’t all about bodies, or all about girls. It’s a cultural history of the female sexual organ for every audience.

I spoke to Liv Strömquist via Skype about readers’ responses to her work, how she did her research, and why Fruit of Knowledge was as necessary to her as it is to the rest of us.

Lily Meyer: Were there any parts of the book that felt especially crucial to write?

Liv Strömquist: The reason I wanted to write the book was remembering how much shame I felt around my body as a teenager. I was constantly embarrassed, especially about menstruation. I remember once when I was in school and had terrible menstrual cramps, so bad I thought I was going to faint, but I was too embarrassed to go to the nurse for painkillers — and then when I stood up from my desk, I fainted.

When this memory came back to me, I thought, “How could I possibly have been so extremely embarrassed? Why?” Remembering those feelings of shame was my starting point. I know psychologists would like to explain it from an individual angle, but I was interested in how society and culture constructed those feelings. Embarrassment like mine happens to a lot of women. Most women have very strong memories of being embarrassed in relation to menstruation, or fearing someone will expose the fact that she’s menstruating. I wanted to understand where that embarrassment came from in our culture, and once I understood it better, I felt liberated. Reading women’s history in general is very empowering, I think. Certainly when I finished this book, I felt a lot better about myself.

LM: I love your use of red in the menstruation chapter, which is otherwise black and white. The book is mainly black and white, besides that chapter and the full-color Eve chapter, in which a variety of women tell their stories. How did you arrive at those uses of color?

The reason I wanted to write the book was remembering how much shame I felt around my body as a teenager.

LS: I don’t know! This is my fifth book, and I’ve made some in full color, some in black and white. In the menstruation chapter, it was nice to be able to use the color red because you never see that. When I saw tampon and pad commercials on TV when I was younger, the fluid was always blue, not red. There were very strong reactions to that color in the book, and now that the pictures from the menstruation chapter are displayed in the subway in Stockholm, there have been a lot of complaints. There have been attacks on the pictures, and a political debate over them. A right-wing populist party made a whole thing about how can our tax money go to this period art. They made all this political propaganda about it.

LM: What has it been like for you to have your work at the center of this controversy?

LS: Fortunately, I don’t live in Stockholm. I live in a much smaller town, so I’m not exposed to the controversy directly. I don’t like conflict or debate — you might think I do, because I write about things that people get provoked by, but in private life, I really don’t like conflict. I don’t like to piss people off. I don’t feel comfortable doing that, but I also don’t think it’s the role of the artist to comment on reactions to your art. The art is there, and people can react how they want. If they want to throw paint at it, I don’t get to judge. They threw black paint on one, and actually, I thought it looked good. Some reactions, though, I don’t understand. One lady wrote on the Metro’s Facebook page to complain that she went to the subway with her granddaughter, and the granddaughter asked why the woman in the painting had blood on her crotch, and how was she supposed to answer? The lady thought it was horrible that she had been put in this situation, where she had to discuss menstruation with her granddaughter. To me, that’s a great opportunity to explain periods to her granddaughter, to say, “This will happen to you, it’s very normal, and this is how the species survives.”

LM: Your cultural references are often quite international, and always contemporary. I’m thinking especially of the bit where Pope Innocent is speaking about women, and a small figure in the corner of the panel invites him to appear on Fox & Friends. It’s a great example of you using present-day humor to make history work. Why did you choose that strategy?

LS: I’ve always been very interested in history, but I’ve always been interested in contemporary culture and gossip as well. I love reading gossip online, and I love reading art history, sociological criticism — all these fields. I employ them all in my comics. I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t mix pop culture with history, for example. I think it’s a fun thing to do, and I hope my own references work for others. Besides, it’s nice to joke when you’re angry. Humor is a very productive use of anger.

LM: Beyond your personal experiences, what were your most important sources? Were there any you had to leave out?

LS: There were many. There’s so much to say. Fruit of Knowledge focuses on the cultural construction of the outer part of the female sexual organ, and there’s so much to say only about that. There’s so much more to say about childbirth, or female circumcision, or topics like this. There should be many more books about the female sexual organ, but I decided to focus on a few different topics: the orgasm, menstruation, the inner labia, a few others.

LM: How did you put the topics in order?

The problem is the men who have a weird obsession with the vulva.

LS: I didn’t think about the order intellectually. I tried to make the book flow, but that was about feeling. I thought more about language. In schools, for example, you always get the same approach and the language. My goal was to avoid the typical, clichéd ways of talking about it. It’s always a pep talk: You should be really proud of your pussy! There’s nothing to be ashamed of! It’s like talking to a child, and I’ve always found that disturbing. I find it creepy when somebody tries to give me a pep talk about my vulva or vagina. This discourse says something about female oppression, because when you’re talking about the liver, for example, or any other organ, you never have to have a pep talk. No one ever says, “Oh, what an amazing organ! Have you thought about how much the liver can do?” So I didn’t want that language, and I didn’t want to get into the discourse of lack of words. I thought it was better to start the book in the opposite place, saying, “We talk too much about the vulva! The problem is the men who have a weird obsession with it.” That seemed more chill.

LM: How has working on this book informed the language you use with your children when discussing bodies and sexuality?

LS: Working on the book made me better informed. The research was cathartic, too. I felt better about all the issues I studied, and so the book made it easier to talk to my children when they had questions.

LM: This book strikes me as an amazing tool for opening dialogue, especially with kids and teenagers. Have you had any strong positive reactions from students?

LS: Yes, I have. It makes me very happy. I get a lot of reactions from elderly women, too. There were elderly women approaching me at book fairs, sharing memories about how difficult it had been to get their periods without knowing what menstruation was. They had to find out for themselves, and it was frightening. Those life experiences were very interesting. Also, it’s been interesting to understand more fully what our taboos are, and who pays the highest price for those taboos. Women, not men, pay the price for taboos surrounding our genital organs. We can’t talk about issues we have, or aren’t educated — there are tons and tons of negative effects. Shame, insecurity, bad health. So I’m very happy when I hear that this book has helped people feel less shame.

Women, not men, pay the price for taboos surrounding our genital organs.

LM: I love that you use the origin of the word taboo to bring in non-Western faith and culture. How did you put that part of the book together?

LS: Taboos against the female sexual organ are strongly linked to Christian colonization of the world. It was interesting to learn about that, and to learn more about the Christian taboos. For example, I found out much more about clitoridectomies in the Western, Christian world. I found that fascinating, and I use myself as the barometer — it was interesting to me, so it went in the book.

LM: Why did you use the figure of Eve to give voice to so many women’s experiences?

LS: One of my first ideas was to make a book about shame more broadly. When I thought about my own experience of shame, I started thinking about menstrual cramps, and then I read some kind of self-help book that explained the difference between shame and guilt. It claimed guilt is what you feel about something that you’ve done, and shame is something that you feel about who you are. You can’t relate shame to any action. That was when I truly connected shame to sexual organs, and that shame begins in the Bible, with Adam and Eve. I wanted a way to get into these very old feelings of shame connected to the female body and reproductive organs, and Eve was that way.

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