I’ve always felt uncomfortable talking about the role of women in society. There are lots of roles a woman has to meet, most of them unfair. Like how our body image can be distorted by unrealistic expectations set forward by oversexualized media or the concept that a woman’s worth is only as great as her ability to bear children. In many cultures, women who can’t reproduce may be cast out or made to feel ashamed for things they have no control over, or even when they attempt to “control” their own reproductive systems. Those feelings of being less than can lead to an intense resentment of self-worth and even the debasement of what it means to be human.
As you can probably guess by its title, Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame is a brutally honest and sometimes difficult collection of anecdotes women often face when doing something as simple as commuting to work. Cartoonist and author Erin Williams shares her own personal struggles on the subject, relating an uneasy life of insecurities, surviving the modern world of bad relationships, and abusing alcohol just to cope. She goes into great detail about her desirability as a woman and the expectations put on her to maintain relationships. The constant circle of shame lays a heavy burden on her shoulders, one that’s led to her cracking under pressure more than once.
Erin’s story is a varied one that’s told in spurts, switching between recollections and the present day. She shares observations she’s able to look back on now as an adult and understand them more fully. Her explanations and pictures are haunting at times, like the siren call of alcohol. She shares a chilling description of how getting blackout drunk makes it easier to cope with her emotions and sexual encounters. She would rather feel the dark, comfortable oblivion of no longer having to think or fear anything, not even death. Everything is still and quiet and she’s under a blanket the world can’t penetrate, and where the only drawback is she sometimes can’t remember what happened.
She explains her inability to share intimacy with men throughout the years, like how she’s only able to have sex when her inhibitions are down. This creates a vicious cycle of shame in the morning when realizing her actions, she compensates for it with drink only to find history repeating itself. Erin dances around the issue at times, but such actions can offer a sense of validation.
Erin is also a victim of sexual assault, so her distrust of men is valid. And speaking as someone who also has female violence in my family, being around men created a sense of unease for a while. For example, riding a train at night she decides which man is most likely to be a rapist and which one will call the cops. I’ll admit to having such judgments myself when I’m out alone at night, suspicious of anyone walking towards me – men especially. Nine times out of ten such judgments are unwarranted, but being in that constant state of anxiety stresses you out. Sometimes people don’t even realize they’re hyper-aware of other people or their surroundings, but this is due to past traumatic experiences.
Her dissociation is warranted given the less than ideal relationships she’s had over the years with various men. Most are creeps, though a few, like a college professor she shared a correspondence with or a young man who liked pointing out small things he noticed, were good people. Erin also talks about how her attempts to sleep with someone – without drinking – results in her seeing them as monsters and she feels a loss of ownership over her own body. She is, essentially, only there for their pleasure and to share in these feelings of arousal is “forbidden”.
While Commute is incredibly dark, Erin has a surprising talent for dry humor and her relations to other people. She started studying biology and chemistry, often finding herself relating how cells function to her interactions with other people. Like how proteins form with a protective shell form around them so they can develop safely before coming out. She relates this to the circle of strong and intelligent women who helped her to grow and evolve into the person she is today.
I do feel it’s fair to say while I don’t always agree with all of Erin’s viewpoints, they did cause me to question my own self-awareness. She states at one point in her story she refuses to read books written by men, stating she’s had enough of male experiences to last a lifetime. I looked over my own reading material and found while the majority of the novels I read are written by men, most of the graphic novels I read are written and drawn by women. In case you’re curious, favorites include Roz Chast and Lucy Knisely!
Fair to say, Erin Williams is an incredibly talented and imposing woman. She’s brutally honest about body image, recounting her experience of applying for a modeling job when, despite being 5’11” and weighing 125 pounds, was told she was “too fat” for the gig. This truly shocked me, as I hadn’t realized how high expectations were in the modeling world and, I won’t lie, it left me worried about the lengths people will go to meet such unrealistic images of what’s considered a “desirable” body.
Commute isn’t an easy read – it made me equal parts angry and frustrated while breaking my heart. Although I do feel today’s society has become more aware of realistic body images that are healthy for both men and women, the issues presented still aren’t fully solved. An entire library could be filled with stories of unreported sexual assault, cultures where women are still treated as property or less than human, taken advantage of, or worse. These are heavy topics to read about, let alone tackle, and at times I just wanted to lock my door and never head out into the world again.
That’s not to say there isn’t hope for a brighter future. I won’t spoil it, but Erin does manage to close out Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame on a somewhat positive note, a hopeful and encouraging reminder that overcoming those obstacles facing her and conquering her fears lead to evolving and growing as a person. I don’t always agree with her viewpoints, but I respect her enough to agree to disagree. The human race has a long, hard road ahead of it in making the world a better place for everyone, men and women included. And while that hasn’t happened yet, having these uncomfortable conversations may be the start of something proud and profound. Let’s keep that going.