by Montana Manalo
I’m at the stage of my career where it’s time to package myself. After graduating from art school to work in the illustration and design field, my portfolio needs to be fleshed out, available online, accompanied by an artist bio and a logo. Fonts should be consistent. Social media should be accessible from the website and updated frequently.The time for soul searching is over, the time for transforming into a consumable product has begun.
Instead of “how can I fulfill my potential,” “how do I want to change the world,” “what makes me feel alive,” I’m asking: “who is my audience,” “am I rendered invisible by the algorithm right now,” “what are the appropriate emojis for this occasion and how many shall be used?” Packaging oneself is a delicate balance. The audience should be made aware of a certain number of personal flaws and struggles, but they must be given a reason to admire you, respect you, desire you, follow you.
As an idealistic teen, I had the notion that I could change the status quo of illustration if I worked in this field. As a Filipino-American woman, I’ve rarely, if ever, seen my own image represented in TV shows, movies, video games, comic books, picture books, magazines, anywhere. Sometimes I see Filipina pinups in porn mags and calendars, but even that’s rare. I grew up in white, male-dominated spaces, and I was constantly analyzing the media I shared with my family. “Why aren’t there any girls in this,” “Why do all the girls look like that,” “Why do you have this girl hanging on the wall, what is good about her,” “Why do the boys have the cool powers?”
Choosing to study illustration was a tactical move to take control of what I saw, to try to create the images I wish I had been empowered by as a girl. As I learned more about the field, I found inspiration in indie magazines and the DIY community. Weirdos at SF Zine Fest and titles like Umber and Banana Mag opened my eyes to people who take the media into their own hands through self-publishing.
But having authority over the media you make doesn’t release you from the visual culture of white patriarchy in day-to-day communication. A lot of artists stream stories of themselves to maintain their audience, taking on the role of an all-around entertainer/internet personality. Self-promotion becomes a lifestyle of looking good in beautiful spaces, checking in with your followers frequently to hold their loyalty. I find myself at an impasse: in order to gain more exposure, do I need to recreate the type of media that I wanted to disrupt in the first place?
The female form is hypnotic, I know this. If I focused on it in more of my work, I imagine I’d be further along in my career by now. My point is not that people need to stop drawing women, or that the world would be better with less pictures of women in it. What I mean to say is that the presence of femininity in our culture is too often reduced to two dimensions. I’m hoping that my career can be pushed forward by revealing my ideas and techniques, rather than being limited by how much people want to look at me.