Who’s Behind the Mask of Feminist Hulk? Only Ms. Knows!

In comic books, superheroes always have secret identities, and only a handful of people ever get to know the person behind the mask. But readers are insiders, knowing all along that Batman is really Bruce Wayne and Superman is Clark Kent. (Less well-known, except to avid comic readers: Catwoman is Selina Kyle.)

In the online world of feminism, the biggest superhero of all is Twitter’s fierce, pithy, patriarchy-smashing Feminist Hulk. Since he put out his first all-caps tweet, over a year ago, Feminist Hulk has attracted more than 45,000 followers, a testament to his special talent for speaking truth to power in 140-character blasts.

The Ms. Blog was the first to bring you an exclusive interview with Feminist Hulk shortly after he demonstrated his superpowers to an adoring multitude, and we checked in on Hulk and his creator earlier this summer in a follow-up interview. As promised in the cliffhanger conclusion to that interview, today, in yet another Ms. exclusive, we will unmask our hero.

Drum roll, please…

Feminist Hulk is the brainchild of 28-year old Jessica Lawson, who describes herself as a “white, vegan, queer, woman-identified female.” A Ph.D candidate in English literature at the University of Iowa, Jessica unleashed Feminist Hulk in the service of feminism and social justice.

As is the case with most superheroes, Jessica’s daily persona is dramatically different from the crime-fighter she becomes online when duty calls. Yet she and Hulk have quite a bit in common, and Jessica has recently wielded the amazing human superpower of childbearing to her repertoire! She took time in between her brand-new baby’s naps to share her story with Ms. Blog readers.

How did the idea of Feminist Hulk first come to you?

I used to slip into The Incredible Hulk voice when having online chat conversations. One day, I was talking with my buddy Libby Bulloff about someone’s inconsiderate, entitlement-driven behavior. I suggested that sexism was a contributing factor, and then wrote, “HULK SAYS FUCK PATRIARCHY. HULK SMASH GENDER BINARY. ALSO, HULK THINK JUDITH BUTLER IS THE SHIT.” Libby and I are mutual friends with the writer of @xdressinghulk, and she suggested that I create a Feminist Hulk Twitter page. I had posted to Twitter maybe five times in my life, but for some reason I said, “Give me ten minutes.” I opened the account, made the icon of Hulk holding a copy of Gender Trouble, and here we are!

What did it feel like to send off the first tweets?

The first three tweets came from that initial chat conversation, and over the next couple of days I couldn’t stop thinking of new things to say. I assumed that I was only writing for myself and a few friends, which made it feel comfortable and safe. Then I left town for a couple days (I was living in San Francisco at the time). When I returned, I was shocked to discover I had more than 1,000 followers! Then Feministing noticed the page and gave me a shout-out. One week after I started Feminist Hulk, Salon wrote an article on it. This was about the time that I got shit-scared. I decided quickly that I needed to set up some pretty clear rules with myself about how I would use this page and what role it would play in my life.

Has it been hard to shield your identity?

At first. Before the page took off, I was following all of my friends who had gotten into Hulk. Once Hulk got popular, I un-followed them, because I was worried that they might get unwanted attention (the only personal friend I still follow is Libby, as a nod to her role in Hulk’s creation). It’s been easy, since then, to choose who to tell. For a while I was dating someone who introduced me to her friends as Feminist Hulk—I hated it, not because it pierced my secrecy, but because I wanted to be known on my own merits rather than being name-dropped.

Why did you decide to come out as yourself now?

The thought first came to me when I succeeded in getting pregnant. I liked the idea of releasing an interview following the birth, just to give something to Hulk’s readers while I recovered and bonded with my child (since daily posting was likely to go out the window for a while). I also began to think about the large number of changes coming up in my life: becoming a parent, beginning my final year of graduate school, entering the academic job market, finishing my dissertation. It felt appropriate, in the middle of all of that, for my relationship with Hulk to change.

Congratulations on your baby! Did your Feminist Hulk superpowers come in handy during the 44 hours of labor that led to the birth of your child?

Fuck yes! Hulk is all about productive discomfort–the notion that growth requires us to step outside of the familiar spaces where we feel safe. My pain during childbirth had less to do with the relative strength of any given contraction but with the attitude I brought to coping with that. When I felt vulnerable or passive, I tried to hide from the contractions, which only made it harder. My midwives and my mom really helped me dig in, get active and aggressively pursue the contractions.  I would dance to bring on contractions, then get in position and say, “Okay, this is gonna fucking suck, and I’m gonna make it suck even more, because then there will be one less contraction between me and my child.” I created new comfort zones.

Why did you decide to have a home birth? What were some of the challenges you faced in making that happen?

While I value the ways that obstetrical science has made birth safer for women with high-risk pregnancies, mine was a low-risk pregnancy and I was compelled by the many studies that show the midwifery model of care is as safe as hospital birth, often with fewer interventions and post-birth complications. Unfortunately, though Certified Nurse-Midwives legally practice in all 50 states, I gave birth in one of the handful of states which still does not license Certified Professional Midwives. I am active in attempts to push midwifery licensure through our state legislature. I still chose home birth, though, and am so lucky to have labored in an environment that made me feel relaxed and safe, with a birth team that gave me tons of love and support. And for anyone who asks, “What if something goes wrong?” all I have to say is, “Something did go wrong.” I suffered a postpartum hemorrhage and lost about a quart of blood. My birth team responded with speed and skill to stop the bleeding (and they would have transferred me to a hospital without hesitation if they encountered a complication that required additional resources). I owe them my life, and I have nothing but faith in the quality of their care.

How did your pregnancy affect your views on reproductive rights?

I’m a single mama by choice. I spent two years planning before I began the insemination process. Not long after I became pregnant, state and federal law saw an unprecedented parade of anti-choice and anti-reproductive health legislative proposals. I was sick with anger when I heard the horrible and unfounded assumptions being made about women who consider abortion. I felt so blessed to have chosen my pregnancy, and I wouldn’t ever want someone to be forced to bring a child into the world who wasn’t chosen. My love for the life growing inside me made me even more committed to protecting the legal right to choice.

How did you come to identify with feminism?

Wow, that’s a long story. The feminism I was introduced to in my childhood came relatively close to the stereotypes that keep so many people from identifying as feminist: It was an antagonistic battle between insultingly essentialist portraits of men and women. And, for a period of time, I identified with it, because I knew no other way to fight for social equity. But, by the time I reached college, I was feeling increasingly stifled, and found myself gravitating toward a masculinist approach to identity politics; I often disavowed my gender identity in a desire to be taken seriously. Obviously, that didn’t work either–it simply treated oppression as a system I could opt out of, which led to a lot of self-loathing. Fortunately, I went to Smith College, which is not only well-known for its feminist roots, but which had an incredibly warm queer community and–even more crucially–a vibrant infusion of transgender politics. Being presented with new ways of conceiving gender identity, in the middle of an environment in which my status as a queer woman didn’t marginalize me, gave me the freedom to reconcieve my own relationship to feminist politics. While the effects of this experience didn’t fully blossom in me until I reached graduate school, those years gave me a safe emotional laboratory to imagine a means of political engagement that fit me.

We talked in our first interview about the challenges of reading theory. Do you see Feminist Hulk as a translator and/or ambassador for theory?

Just a few weeks ago, I made a comment about the difference between biological sex and socially constructed gender, and I was kicking myself for not having enough room to fully elaborate the point. A half-dozen readers commented, rightly, that Judith Butler argues that biological categories are themselves socially constructed. That totally made my day. So, I think of Hulk less as a translator for theory (which puts all the power in Hulk’s hands, and I don’t dig that) and more as a place people can go to test out their own ideas, regardless of how much or how little theory they may have been exposed to before. If that just makes Hulk the green doorman for an internet speakeasy of feminist brain-nuzzling, so be it!

I introduced my Feminist Theory students to Feminist Hulk, and they were excited by how Hulk brings theory to life. Do you hear from other teachers whose students love Hulk–or from the students themselves?

I have a few friends who have used Hulk in the classroom (with my blessing, though I do ask that they keep my gender identity a secret). One of my own students this year was a Hulk fan, which definitely helped me stay grounded in the day-to-day reality of what Hulk does. In that particular class, I admitted to knowing, though not to being, Feminist Hulk.

Do you have plans for smashing the gender binary in your approach to parenting?

As I write this, my child is wearing a Batman onesie and a hot pink cloth diaper. I’ll just let that speak for itself.

Self-portrait courtesy of Jessica Lawson.



Audrey Bilger is the current president of Reed College, and previously served as vice president and dean of Pomona College. She is also a former professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College and faculty director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse. She also teaches gender studies, and occasionally yoga. Her latest book, which she co-edited with Michele Kort, is Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage (Seal Press, 2012). She is also the author of Laughing Feminism, editor of an edition of Jane Collier’s 1753 satire "An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting," and a frequent contributor to Bitch magazine. Her work has been featured in The Paris Review, Rockrgrl, the Huffington Post and the Women's Media Center.