Serious Girlbosses: A Q&A with Writer and Costume Designer Katherine Fritz

If you use Facebook or Twitter, you’ve probably seen Katherine Fritz’s posts in your feed. Her incisive commentary on race, gender, homophobia, Islamophobia — bolstered by her trademark introspection and wit — hits a collective nerve. More often than not, new posts from I Am Begging My Mother Not to Read This Blog and Ladypockets are shareable, provocative conversation-starters.

The Philadelphia-based writer and costume designer talked to us about the pressures of popularity, feminism and fashion, and whether her mother actually reads her blog.

katherine fritz
Photo courtesy of Katherine Fritz.

The combination of humor, passion and anger, and timeliness in your posts frequently sends them viral. Please tell the secret to being an internet sensation.

I wish I knew! Honestly, I have no idea how this keeps happening. I guess I just assume there’s some kind of magical blog elf in charge of these things, and mine is the best? Like a guardian angel for your internet presence, except mine is the Amy Poehler of Blog Elves.

Your blogs are personal, non-commercial sites; does knowing how widely your posts are shared impact how you write?

When I first started I’m Begging My Mother, I had no expectation that anyone other than a few people in my own social circle would read it. That’s changed in a big way, and so many things in my life have opened up, exploded even, because of what going viral has meant for me. Gigs with MTV. The Huffington Post. More.

And I can’t think about any of it when I’m writing. The few times that I’ve tried to tailor my voice to what I think someone else wants to hear me say . . . oh, it sucks so badly. You can tell. You can always tell! It’s not coming from a genuine place. When I’m writing, I’m in bed, with messy hair and coffee cups and pajamas, and I’m writing to work something out for myself — a problem that needs solving, or a complicated thought I’m trying to unpack. And I’m entirely alone, and it’s entirely for me, and then suddenly as I’m pushing the button that says “Publish,” there’s this little voice in my head that’s like, “Yo, sweatpants: you just invited twenty thousand people to this party in your head.”

I have to trick myself into believing that no one will read my words, every single time, while simultaneously knowing that of course people will, and secretly wanting those words to be listened to, read, respected, liked, and shared.

That’s when I shut the laptop and put on real pants and go for a quick walk, because it’s a terrifying thought. You feel vulnerable. It’s a funny little cognitive dissonance: I have to trick myself into believing that no one will read my words, every single time, while simultaneously knowing that of course people will, and secretly wanting those words to be read, respected, and shared.

Quick: your scariest post to push “Publish” on. Which one? Why?

“Race Ya.” Hands down.

I mean, the third line of that piece is, “I am sometimes a little bit racist.” I wrote that post very shortly after the grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, when everyone was on edge and when I was just beginning to unpack that I had been treated differently my entire life because of my skin color. It’s a thing that people of color figure out as children, and many white people never recognize, or dismiss because they don’t see it. It’s a hard thing to admit about yourself.

You think things like, “My friend Michael would love this book!” You don’t think, “My black friend Michael would love this book! You know. ‘Cause he’s black.”

I feel the need to say all of this lest the unsuspecting white person, inspired by this blog post, turn to the nearest black person in the grocery store and say, “Excuse me? It’s come to my attention lately that I statistically only have a small percentage of minority friends. You seem pretty nice, and you’re definitely black, so, would you like to get a drink sometime?”

You definitely shouldn’t do that. That is, in fact, super fucking racist.

And just as a reminder: Having friends who are minorities doesn’t automatically make you not racist. In fact, having minority friends has made me vastly more aware of my own internal racism. So you probably shouldn’t enter an argument with, “But I can’t be a racist because my best friend is black!”

That’s also, frankly, really fucking racist.

— “Race Ya,” I Am Begging My Mother Not to Read This Blog

Did you ever think about blogging anonymously? Having strong opinions about things on the internet can be a full-contact sport for women, particularly when the f-word — feminism — is used unabashedly. 

I did think about blogging anonymously — and I did, at first. I was just “K” from Philadelphia. It took a while before I began associating my full name with my blog. I suppose I figured that if I was going to write so personally, it wouldn’t take people long to put two and two together, so I might as well just be open.

And I had to have some tricky conversations with my bosses: ‘Hey, I have this thing, and I’ve talked about sex, and politics, and feminism and religion and race,  and this one time I photoshopped googly eyes onto dildos to make an elaborate point about branded marketing content, and I don’t want to censor myself, but I don’t want to lose this job, either.’

The only place where I still worry is at a summer camp for the arts where I teach. It’s a job I love, and I look forward to it all year. And I had to have some tricky conversations with my bosses: “Hey, I have this thing, and I’ve talked about sex, and politics, and feminism and religion and race, and this one time I photoshopped googly eyes onto dildos to make an elaborate point about branded marketing content, and I don’t want to censor myself but I don’t want to lose this job, either.” And they were incredibly cool about it. Basically: “Don’t talk about it with the kids, and we’ll downplay if they ask.”

One time, one of my ten-year-old students asked me, “Um, do you have a blog?” My heart froze for a second, and I was like, okay, I don’t want to lie to him, this sucks, oh god I hope I don’t get fired, here we go, and I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Cool. Me too. Mine’s about dogs.”

I consider myself really lucky that I’ve never been harassed, doxxed, or otherwise attacked. Anita Sarkeesian, Lindy West . . . so many women are targeted, trolled, and punished for the so-called crime of being a woman with a brain and an internet presence. I’ve gotten my fair share of shitty comments, but never any that made me fear for my safety. And as for those shitty comments: I always screencap their IP addresses and save them to a folder, just in case.

Have you always been a feminist?

I didn’t know what that word meant or why it was important for a long time. I always suspected, as a kid, that something was “off” — I knew that I was treated differently from boys, or that girls were expected to behave a certain way and boys a different way. I didn’t know the word for “bullshit” at the time, but I always thought it was kinda bullshit.

I wore a lot of skirts to climb trees and I read a bunch of books with female protagonists: The Secret Garden, and Harriet the Spy, and all the American Girl books, and Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden and Ramona Quimby, and every princess book under the sun. Including The Paper Bag Princess, which is about as responsible for my baby feminism as anything else. “They didn’t get married after all” should be canonized as one of the greatest lines in children’s literature.

Nancy Drew books
Nancy Drew collection by Abbey Hendrickson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

I liked Barbies and I liked learning to cook and bake and sew, and I also liked to sneak into my brother’s room and play with his Star Wars action figures. There was a boy who teased me mercilessly at school, and I got told, “He just likes you.” It wasn’t until much later in life when it dawned on me that it never occurred to me to ask for my own action figures. When I was like, “holy shit, no, that kid was just an asshole, and I just stopped telling teachers or adults because they wouldn’t make his behavior stop.”

A million tiny things added up to some Very Big Things. Learning about feminism made a lot of experiences click into place for me. I wasn’t crazy. There was a word for everything that I had been thinking and feeling for my entire life.

Role play! I’m a seventeen-year-old young woman who says “I don’t need feminism!” Talk to me.

Hi, seventeen-year-old! It’s so nice to meet you. 

Listen, there are a bunch of different reasons why you might think you don’t need feminism. I don’t want to be just one more adult voice telling you why your opinion is wrong — after all, that’s a lot of what you get told, and I know how hard it can be. 

But I hope you’ll reconsider that view. Because feminism isn’t really about you, and it’s not really about me. It’s about all of us. It’s about understanding that in the long history of the world, and even the more recent history within your own country, that women historically haven’t been treated very well. Their treatment only became better once women decided to stand up for themselves. Demanded to be seen not as less than, but as people. 

There are a lot of misconceptions about feminism, and a lot of people who are interested in painting all feminists as people who hate men, or who are angry all the time, or any number of frustrating stereotypes. The truth is: feminists come in all shapes and sizes and colors, and there’s a constant, fascinating conversation on the evolving ideas of what feminism is all about. But when you’re just starting to learn about feminism, here’s a pretty good definition: feminists all agree that women and men deserve equal treatment and equal rights. That’s it. That’s all it is. 

And from here, I want you to ask me questions, and even though I’m not a scholar or an expert, I will do my best to answer. If you are making a statement like “I don’t need feminism,” chances are you’ve got your reasons for saying that, and I’d love to hear what they are. Let’s talk. 

Katherine's costuming work in a production of "Applied Mechanics," photo courtesy of Kevin Chick.
Katherine’s costuming work in a production of “Applied Mechanics.” (Photo courtesy of Kevin Chick.)

In the non-“everything I write on the internet goes viral” part of your life, you’re a costume designer. Does your work in theater feed your writing (or the other way around)? 

Oh, god, yes. It’s all connected. I keep trying to distance myself from theatre to focus on writing, and it’s not working. In part, because that’s where I make the majority of my income, so I kind of can’t quit my “day job” just yet — but in huge part because, unlike common perceptions of writers, I need some social interaction and engagement. I’m not an introvert, and I don’t do well when I’m left alone in a room with my thoughts for too long. My work as a theatre artist is frequently all about asking questions in various rooms: what is this play trying to say, how are we telling this story effectively, what is this character thinking and feeling, how is this piece of theatre contributing to our culture, etc. Being around other people who are smart, feeling, thinking individuals is useful. Out of those conversations and experiences come new posts, new ideas, new discussions.

On the flip side, my blog landed me a great gig last year, designing the costumes for a show called Sex With Strangers that’s all about blogging, the internet, and the personal life versus online personas. I pulled double-duty as the costume designer and the person whose real-life experiences mirrored that of the characters in the play, and could explain, like, how Twitter works. I learned how to use Photoshop as an apprentice at a theatre company where I was creating marketing materials for their children’s show; I now use it all the time in my design work, especially on Ladypockets.

Do you see a point at which writing becomes your full-time occupation, or is there a creative itch that only costuming can scratch?

Sketches and glue gun in Katherine's workspace. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Fritz.)
Sketches and glue gun in Katherine’s workspace. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Fritz.)

I’m getting tired of some of the freelance costume design hustle, to tell you the truth. And I’m also coming to grips with the fact that that’s okay.

I spent a very long time trying so very hard to “make it” as a costume designer. And I did! Except I had to design so many shows to pay the bills, just to keep designing the shows that I sometimes didn’t care about, and I was tired all the time, eating in my car all the time, and faking enthusiasm all the time. I started a blog because I was bored and unhappy, even though I never would have admitted it at the time, because when you work your ass off for something that you’ve wanted for years and years and years, you’re not supposed to admit that you’re unhappy, because that feels very much like failure.

So I cut back. This season I’m designing seven shows in eight months. Which might sound like a lot, but my typical workload was fifteen or sixteen. I’m taking a huge pay cut, too. I’m trying to supplement the rest with teaching work and freelance writing gigs and hoping that people chip into my blog’s tip jar now and then. So far, so good. Alive and healthy and can spring for a pizza now and again. I’m a better artist, collaborator, and friend now that I’m not chronically overworked.

Right now, I still find design exciting — especially since I’ve tried to only say “yes” to projects that I care about. If or when I stop feeling that excitement, I hope I have the strength to say, “It was a good run,” and focus on the next way to find my passion and paycheck.

Along with I Am Begging My Mother, Katherine writes Ladypockets, a satirical take on fashion and media that asks us to consider: why do we so often focus on what women look like, rather than what women do?

Can feminists love fashion? Are there limits — elements of fashion or personal adornment that are really just incompatible with feminism?

Feminists can love baking and housecleaning and astrophysics and mud wrestling and NASCAR and astrology and terrarium-building and literally whatever the fuck they want: that’s what feminism is all about. And there will always be a need for human beings to put clothing on their bodies, and clothes are an extension of who you are. Fashion, at its core, recognizes this, and uses it to tailor beauty and expression through fabric and pattern and line and shape and texture and form.

That being said: should feminists be aware that most clothing manufacturers are exploiting factory workers in places like Bangladesh? That the industry frequently perpetuates harmful beauty standards? That because women have historically been viewed as objects, that the desire to “look good” is frequently misconstrued as “desire to please the male gaze?” That runways are frequently devoid of any models of color? Yup. We have to — have to — be aware of all of this.

But fashion is also a place where a lot of change is happening, a lot of conversations about these issues are resulting in real, actionable change. It’s a place where many creative and powerful women have emerged as visionary artists and leaders. There are some serious girlbosses running the fashion industry in a way that doesn’t exist yet in, say, tech, or science, or many many many other fields.

But fashion is also a place where a lot of change is happening, and a lot of conversations about these issues are resulting in real, actionable change. Many creative and powerful women have emerged as visionary artists and leaders. There are some serious girlbosses running the fashion industry in a way that doesn’t exist yet in tech, or science, or many other fields.

I’m obsessed with Miki Agrawal of THINX. There’s a woman who recognized that because of stigmas associated with menstruation, there was no innovation happening to make periods easier. So she blended science and fashion and all of a sudden, boom, we have panties that absorb menstrual blood. And they’re chic as hell. And she’s using all of this to help women in the third world. And she’s employing women as part of her creative staff. And she’s featuring models of color.

Fashion and feminism aren’t mutually exclusive! They are complicated, which is great and wonderful.

Katherine's costuming working in a production at Drexel University. (Photo courtesy of JJ Tiziou.)
Katherine’s costuming work in a production at Drexel University. (Photo courtesy of JJ Tiziou.)

A personal fashion question: if you were the Secretary of State, what would your signature brooch be for high-level peace talks?

A small gold replica of the human vagina, with a rhinestone clitoris, wreathed by an olive branch, to symbolize strength, pleasure, possibility, life, and regeneration. I would pair it with a sapphire-blue blazer, because I look spectacular in that shade of blue.

katherine fritz and mom
Katherine Fritz and her mother, from I Am Begging My Mother Not To Read This Blog.

Honestly: does your mom read your blog? What does she think?

My mom disagrees with me on a lot of things, and she loves me very much, which is a wonderful place to be. My mom is politically conservative, she’s religious, she doesn’t swear, and the internet freaks her out  — she’s so different from me in many ways. But she’s also funny, and warm, and raised me with nothing but love and books and affection and a firm belief in my potential. I’m so much like my mother in so many ways, and I owe her everything. Absolutely everything.

Seriously, though: please tell us your secret.

Maybe I just have really good Facebook friends, come to think of it. The majority of my traffic is from Facebook shares. Maybe the real secret is that you need a bunch of friends who all like to read stuff on the internet and share it with their friends. Friends who access social media during work hours = success!

Read more from Katherine Fritz on at I Am Begging My Mother Not to Read This Blog and Ladypockets, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

January 28, 2016Fashion, Feminism, Interviews, Longreads, Writing,