One Can Really Relate to Emma's 'The Mental Load'

French cartoonist Emma raises issues of inequality within French society with humor and humanity, using short statements accompanied by disarmingly charming cartoons that point out the absurdities of some common social conventions and beliefs.

The Mental Load: A Feminist Comic

Seven Stories Press

Oct 2018


In a hierarchical society, your view of how things are can differ remarkably depending on your place in the social ranking. This means that what is a daily reality to some people (such as sexual harassment, police harassment, violence in one's community, in one's home) can sound like paranoid fantasies to those who don't experience such strife. In some cases, this apparent lack of awareness of how others must live may be feigned, but in many cases I suspect it's due to the normal human tendency to see one's own experiences as the norm. "It never happened to me" is a point-of-view whose absurdity is obvious but which can easily escape scrutiny when it's allowed to remain as an unexamined assumption.

Pointing out these types of inequalities can prompt a defensive reaction ("not all men / cops / parents" and so on), but that doesn't mean the conversation doesn't need to happen. French cartoonist Emma raises issues of inequality within French society with humor and humanity, using short statements accompanied by disarmingly charming cartoons that point out the absurdities of some common social conventions and beliefs.

Emma gained worldwide recognition through this blog entry, which explains why the issue of who does the housework is more complex than it might seem at first glance. That article lends its title to a book collection of 12 of her comics: The Mental Load: A Feminist Comic, translated by Una Dimitrijevic. In this volume, Emma discusses a wide variety of issues, from her experience of childbearing to the deaths of nonwhite French men in police custody to the very nature of capitalism. She's not inclined to accept things the way they are, and whether or not you are convinced by her arguments, at least after reading her work you will be aware of some assumptions behind the official version of how things are and you will be made aware that alternatives exist.

The title comic encapsulates Emma's technique perfectly. The topic is household labor (cooking, cleaning, childcare, and so on) and she begins with an anecdote about visiting a friend who was overwhelmed by trying to cook dinner while also caring for two children. The friend's husband, meanwhile, is enjoying a glass of wine and a chat with the author. When a pot on the stove overflows, the husband responds with criticism, then claims that he would have been happy to help—if only she had asked him.

Emma goes on to analyze the assumptions that lay behind this scene, which has no doubt played out many times in households around the world. As she sees it, wives are expected not only to do most of the housework but also to organize it, giving them two jobs to do (in addition to whatever work women may perform outside the home). On the other hand, husbands are allowed to play the role of a child who may be asked to do a household task but would never be expected to simply see that it needed to be done -- and then do it.

Courtesy of Seven Stories Press

This organizing work is exhausting and never-ending, and the fact that it's largely unacknowledged is the product of a social system in which the burden of housework and childcare is primarily considered a female responsibility, while men are allowed to put their primary energies into their careers and/or other interests. This results not only in exhausted, exasperated women, but also in higher incomes and more career advancement for men.

Another comic, "The Wonderful Tale of Mohamed", tells the story of an Egyptian man who became a victim of police violence during the state of emergency declared after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. I won't spoil the story, but suffice it to say that the events described will ring true to many nonwhite (and underprivileged white) people in the United States, and underlines how, for some people, your life can be ruined by a series of events in which you did absolutely nothing wrong.

Emma's art is different in this comic—simpler, with the characters portrayed as stick figures rather than the fully-painted, semi-realistic people who inhabit her other comics—perhaps as a way of indicating that the story she's telling in this comic is not based on her personal experience. Despite the shift in style, her art in this comic is effective, and helps bring the terrible events being narrated to the fore.

Courtesy of Seven Stories Press

Reading Mental Load is rather like reading a chain of Twitter threads accompanied by illustrations. I mean that in the most positive way possible because I love Twitter threads. (Between you and me and the gatepost, I think the paragraph form is highly overrated and hardly the only legitimate way to present and develop an argument. When you are speaking obvious truths, burying them in a sea of prose tends to obscure rather than amplify them.) Emma combines personal experience with the testimony of others, sometimes citing academic research as well. In her comics, based on matters that are likely to be in the public record, there's enough information for you to research the subject yourself, should you be so inclined.

Related Articles Around the Web




Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.