By Sophia Whittemore
AsAmNews Staff Writer
Following the election of Donald Trump — a man who once bragged to a television host that he “grabbed them [women] by the pussy” — Krista Suh like many women across the country felt unheard, ignored and devastated.
The following January, a day after Trump’s inauguration, activists organized marches around the world, including in Washington D.C., to protest the sexist attitudes revealed on Trump’s campaign trail.
Suh already planned to march in Washington D.C. But she wanted to have a symbol. Something that shouted protest by itself, that might speak louder than a chant, or words on a poster.
She knit a simple pink hat with cat ears, and dubbed it the “pussyhat”. She wanted to take back a loaded trigger word, redefine this derogatory term for this feminist movement.
The idea took off, resulting in a sea of matching pink hats in Washington D.C., and at Women’s Marches held around the country. It’s estimated that 7 million people attended the protests worldwide.
Now more than one year later, AsAmNews catches up Krista Suh, the artist, author and activist behind the “The Pussyhat Project.” (Some responses have been edited for clarity and length.)
How has your identity shaped who you are and the impact you want to have on the world?
I grew up with Asian American parents who taught me that creativity was for special, super talented people or for slacker-failures. When I realized that I wanted that, it was really charged and taboo, which made my decision to become an artist and a writer that much more of a journey, an epic decision.
What feminist advocates or legends inspired you to make your own mark on history?
While she is not known as a feminist, I’m a huge fan of Elizabeth Taylor. I view her as someone who made bold decisions and who was unafraid of what other people thought of her, unafraid of loving what she loved — big jewelry, gifts, and lots of feminine things. She was unafraid of her own sexuality and beauty, and its effect on people. She is a firebrand in that way. I know I’m not the only woman who has been terrified of what other people think.
Describe the moment you absolutely knew and felt that you had to speak up.
I was on the subway in L.A., and a young high school couple was sitting together. The boyfriend was speaking harshly to the girlfriend. It was all, “B*tch this and “B*tch that,” and no one was speaking up. Besides their conversation, the crowded car was dead silent. That made me even more shocked. Were we really going to allow this verbal abuse to happen? It occurred to me that I could not have graduated from a top women’s college and allow this to happen. I spoke up. I wish I were more eloquent, but I wanted her to know that what she was experiencing was not okay; it was not “normal.” I’m glad I spoke up, no matter how awkwardly, because a crowded subway of everyone allowing that conversation to continue was sending this message: a man speaking that way to a woman is okay. It’s not.
The essential symbol of the movement, the pink “pussyhat” seen at the Women’s March, started a new wave. What is its origin story?
I was devastated by the election results and wanted to do something at the Women’s March beyond just show up. I was thinking visually, what sign could I hold up? What could I wear? I couldn’t think of anything until I realized that as an L.A. girl, I’d be very cold at the January march in D.C. and I would have to wear a coat, a scarf, a hat… I idly thought to myself that I could make my own hat, and I knew I was onto something. My next thought was that since I am a beginner knitter, if I could knit this hat anyone could. And that was the lightning bolt moment that went from one to many: I saw the Sea of Pink.
At what moment were you conscious of the pervasive effects of the patriarchy?
I talk about in my book “DIY Rules for a WTF World” about a time on the subway when a man masturbated at me. No one spoke up. I felt frozen and terrified and violated. Afterward, I realized that for me to get home safely (via an Uber/Lyft/taxi, etc) that night, it would’ve cost me $20. For a man, it would have cost $2 on the subway. To me, patriarchy showed itself in this moment, not only because of the huge financial difference, but because I had to come up with those hard numbers in order to explain to others why it was wrong. I didn’t feel like people would listen to me or care if I just presented my emotions and my story. It’s patriarchal for me to feel that my story and well-being are not enough. That is sad and wrong.
I definitely did not have a lot of confidence in my teens and early twenties, especially in my social abilities. When I wanted to be a screenwriter, my mom squawked: “But Hollywood is a people-person town and you’re so bad with people!” My first screenplay was about a college student Lydia who “wins at everything, except winning over people,” and I highly related to that. However, I was overjoyed to learn that one could learn to be good with people, you don’t have to be born with it! And now I have a lot of confidence in that and I want to spread the word that it is possible (So there, Mom!).
How does creativity and the creative process affect the way that you approach various issues in your life, e.g. when standing up for what you believe in, or fighting to make your voice heard?
For me, the patriarchy is not about man vs. woman, or even masculine and feminine. It’s about the pervasive false belief that there’s one right way of doing things, and if you’re not of the ruling class, then the way you’re doing it is wrong. Creativity, which is all about doing things in multiple ways, is then the antidote to patriarchy. When I stand up for what I believe in, I have to remember that there’s no one right way to do it – it doesn’t have to be giving a speech, it can be through writing, a march, wearing a hat, talking to a friend. All of these ways are valid, and like I say in the “Valid Stamp” chapter of my book, I have the power to determine what is valid and what is not, I don’t have to go to someone else to see if something is valid.
Your writing style and voice when you tell your stories is both vulnerable and empowering — how did you come up with that unique mix?
Thank you! I love how you put that. In high school, so much of my writing was a smoke screen, of desperately trying to sound smart because I didn’t know what I was saying. In college, I took a breath and decided to just express myself without trying to sound smart or pretty or anything in particular, but rather, just try to get my point across and connect. I found this really worked for me, and over time, I learned that personal stories in particular were very effective, especially in this divided world we live in. Either side can throw statistics at each other, but personal stories are uniting. I call it Nuclear Vulnerability; when one is vulnerable, it is not necessarily weak. More often than not it is powerful and totally changes the game. I’ve come to a point in my life where there is nothing about me I am ashamed of, and when there is no shame, communication and solutions and connection can happen. I still feel embarrassment and regret, but not shame, and that is so freeing. I wish it for everyone.
What advice would you give to members of marginalized communities who feel like they want to take a stand, but either don’t know how, or are held back by other anxieties? How does one go about getting involved?
When I was in college I realized I was literally marginalizing myself. I’d sit in biology class taking notes and in the margins of my notepaper, write ideas for stories and movies and poems and songs. One day I realized that I needed to reverse that. I made the creative stuff I yearned to do the BODY of my paper, the MAIN part, and let things I didn’t care about as much fall into the margins. So for members of marginalized communities, I would say that when the overall movement for equality feels like too much, zoom in to your own life and see in what ways are you marginalizing yourself, because you have the power to change that. Whenever I feel anxious, I know I need to either zoom in or zoom out: the plane I am on right now isn’t helpful. So I might zoom in like I just mentioned, and if I’m feeling like what I do doesn’t matter, I will zoom out and look at the larger movement I am a part of.
If you could get people to remember just one thing, one key takeaway that they need to know NOW, what would you want them to remember?
There’s no one right way to do things, and that means there’s no one right way to speak up. Find a way that works for you, and stand by it. It is a good choice.
Krista Suh is a feminist, artist, Hollywood screenwriter, activist and creator of The Pussyhat Project. Her mission is to make the world a safer place for women and help everyone validate their own creativity, femininity, and intuition. In her new book, DIY Rules for a WTF World: How To Speak Up, Get Creative and CHANGE THE WORLD, Krista share the tools, tips, experiences, “rules,” and more she uses to get creative, get bold, and change the world. Krista is a powerful voice for doing more as she inspires others to create their own rules for living, and even a movement of their own, all with gusto, purpose, and joy.
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