This article was supposed to appear in the newest issue of Antinatalism Magazine, but unfortunately the magazine is no longer being published due to issues with a debate which was also supposed to appear. So I’ve decided to put the interview here.
Nina Paley is an antinatalist and radical feminist movie director and animator from Illinois. You can check out her blog here.
You are most well-known as an animated filmmaker, and your first feature film Sita Sings the Blues received a huge response. That must have been an amazing experience. You are also a prominent figure in the movement against intellectual property and copyright. What convinced you to take up that cause? What arguments do you find most convincing?
What surprises me is that anybody finds arguments for copyright convincing. I don’t even think that they find the arguments convincing, I think that we’ve all been indoctrinated into this copyright regime that makes no sense at all. Culture is just not property and we’ve all been sort of mesmerized to think that it is: that’s the bizarre thing to me. Coming to see it differently was like waking up from a weird dream.
I’ve talked a lot about this regarding Sita Sings the Blues. Going through the process of making it legal to share that film was just absurd, given that all the music I was using should be in the public domain. What people often get wrong about me and copyright is they think that I didn’t know that the music was under copyright: I did. When I started working on Sita Sings the Blues, I went to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which put me in touch with an intellectual property law clinic and the students there found the provenance of all the music that I used. When it came time to actually release the film, because the distribution industry had changed, it fell on me to clear all this stuff, so I got a front row seat to how all that worked, and I was appalled. I spoke on that in detail, blogged on it, and it’s a horrific thing.
You made many antinatalism-based shorts, including The Wit and Wisdom of Cancer (2002) and Thank You for Not Breeding (2002), which I think a lot of readers have seen on Youtube (and if they haven’t, they should!). How did you become an antinatalist and what inspired you to make these shorts?
Thank You For Not Breeding is actually the collection of those shorts, including The Wit and Wisdom of Cancer, The Stork, and some others. I of course was antinatalist before I knew there was a word “antinatalist.”
I had just always been this way ever since I was a little child, growing up in the 70s (I was born in 1968). There was popular awareness of environmental degradation in the 70s. There was also popular awareness of human overpopulation back then. And it was striking to me how that popular awareness just ended. In the 70s people could talk about overpopulation issues, but then suddenly you couldn’t any more and everybody was just pretending it didn’t exist. It certainly stayed with me, and it just seemed impossible for me not to comprehend that all of these environmental problems were a direct result of human activity.
Growing up in the 70s, there was also awareness of cigarette smoking as bad for you. My grandparents smoked cigarettes and they were addicted to it, at least my grandfather was, and when I was growing up they said “don’t smoke cigarettes, they’re addictive, I only smoke these because we didn’t know.”
So when I hit my twenties, of course I was really surprised that the idiots my age were smoking. Clearly you’re not doing it because you don’t know. But also they were breeding! We know what this does, we know this is a problem, so what are you doing?
And I still have no answers to this, but I really thought that knowing what’s what would keep people from doing stupid things, and clearly that’s not the case. I was a very angry young woman and I just could not believe that, once my generation came of age, they were super pro-natalist and simultaneously talking about how important saving the environment is, and not making this connection. I was also aware that my thoughts were forbidden, even though it was so obvious to me, yet talking about it really upset people. And I was aware that I was supposed to find babies so overwhelmingly attractive, that they were the most important thing, and clearly I wasn’t like that.
So how did I get into it for real? I was 23, 24, doing my Nina’s Adventures comics, and I finally did some comics about it. I made comics for alternative weekly newspapers back then. It was a big risk to do these, but I guess I felt I had nothing to lose because the pain of knowing something is true and sitting silently while the world fills with bullshit and lies is painful, so finally that pain became too much and I just had to say something.
A consequence of publishing these comics is that I got a letter from Les U. Knight, of VHEMT, and I got another letter from Chris Korda, of the Church of Euthanasia, and that was the first time I learned that I was not the only person in the world that thought that way.
What kind of reception did you get from publishing those comics? Did you get any hate mail?
I did get some hate mail, but I wasn’t literally burned at the stake, so I lived to see another day. Again, hearing from Les and Chris was the most energizing, exciting thing, and I ended up working with both of them. I ended up going to Portland and doing stuff for VHEMTN with Les. Famously, I did that Jerry Springer show with the Church of Euthanasia: the 1997 “I want to join a suicide cult” episode of the Jerry Springer show. That was a COE action. I’m much more in the VHEMT camp than the COE camp: COE was very edgy and punk and Dada and aggressive, while VHEMT is more rational and compassionate and gentle.
VHEMT is considered fringe, even to many antinatalists. What is your opinion about it? Do you consider yourself primarily an ecological antinatalist? Your Cancer short seems to be more of the misanthropic antinatalist kind.
Deep down, I’d say I’m an ecological antinatalist, but these two things are related. I’ve been in a constant state of grief my entire life witnessing the human assault on the planet, and being aware of these mass extinctions, it’s just heartbreaking to live in this world and just watch more and more pavement getting put down, more and more habitats being lost to more and more of us, more and more of our garbage going everywhere, more and more pollution, and so on. It breaks my heart.
When I was younger, I was just devastated by this. I can’t really understate how much this affected me. People don’t believe it, because I guess most people pay lip service to these issues, they don’t really feel it, but I did. In fact, I intentionally cultivated denial just so I would continue living, because the pain of awareness is too much, it’s too sad what humans are doing to the biosphere. So I purposefully began trying to not think about it, so that I could live. And I must confess, I am happier, but I still know intellectually that these things are going on.
When you are aware of that, it’s hard to not be misanthropic, right? We’re the species that’s doing this. So I guess I’m both, but it stems from the ecological aspect of it.
You talked about “coming out” with the cartoons. Do you have any misgivings about being “out” as an antinatalist?
I don’t have any misgivings about it, but it was a big step. I was aware that it would be very upsetting to people, especially as a woman. My fertile years were just a nightmare in that respect. The expectations of women being baby-oriented are very high. And people are aghast at women that are not into babies and consider them a threat and a real perversion.
I made my peace with this long ago. It was really stressful when I was younger. Also it was really hard for my relationships, because young men didn’t want to start a relationship with a woman who didn’t want kids. In my essay My Sex-Positive Memoirs, I talk a bit about that.
Amongst young women, men have this reputation that they don’t wanna commit, that they don’t want to have families, that it’s the young women who want to have families and want commitment from a man and the man just wants to play around, but that’s not true. Men want to have families, but mostly they want to be in control. The reason that young women think that men don’t want families is because, if the woman wants a family, the man is not going to agree because they’re engaged in a control struggle. They did not like being with a woman who had made this decision, because that meant no control for them.
I understand that you wanted to make a feature length version of Thank You for Not Breeding, but that it didn’t work out. What was the story behind that?
I was making animated shorts, but couldn’t conceive of making an animated feature. I was toying with the idea of a documentary, partly because I lived in San Francisco and everyone was making documentaries at the time. I have hours of interviews with Les Knight and other people on this subject, but I just wasn’t sufficiently driven to make a whole feature-length documentary. I was very discouraged because I would show the work in progress to documentarians that I met and they were like “are you kidding? is this a joke?” because of the subject matter.
What advice do you have for antinatalists who want to produce and show antinatalist art, and perhaps want to make it more “mainstream”?
You can’t make something more mainstream, you can just make something that’s good. My advice is to hone your production skills, focus on making quality work that people will want to look at. When I was making those controversial animation shorts, I thought of it as sugar-coating a difficult pill as much as I could. The Stork was a good example of that. I knew people didn’t want to talk or think about this, so I had to make it as appetizing as possible with the art and the timing and the production values and all of that. So I think it’s very important to make high-quality work.
As an environmentalist, what do you think about environmentalists who have children in the name of raising a “better” generation?
That’s just ridiculous. I feel that VHEMT has done a very good job of addressing that. It makes no sense. Good people poop and pollute just as much as bad people, good people’s car exhaust shoots just as much carbon dioxide as bad people’s.
And the number one best measure to help the environment is to not have children. It’s been proven so many times.
I know. It’s just absurd and Bill McKibben’s book Maybe One was an intellectual train-wreck. I’m sure it’s popular because people are natalists, but I was just aghast when I read that book. It was just a jaw-dropping intellectual failure.
So is the argument there that if you raise a child to be an environmentalist, that it’s better overall for the Earth?
His argument was just “oh well, before I said don’t have any, but it’s good to want to raise and nurture a child, and only a horrible person wouldn’t understand that.”
You are also an outspoken feminist. How compatible do you think feminism and antinatalism are? After all, big natalist pushes in the culture always end up eroding women’s rights.
I think antinatalism and radical feminism are extremely compatible, and also extremely incompatible. There seems to be a fault line amongst feminist women because some women derive identity from reproducing. What radical feminism has clarified for me is that whether you really want to have children, or you absolutely don’t want to have children, women are the ones that have children and our entire lives are shaped by this fact. In my case, it was, until I got my tubal ligation, this constant terror of getting pregnant. For other women, it’s this joy of getting pregnant. But either way, it shapes your life.
There is an increasing number of antinatalist feminists, I am quite happy when I read, for example, the Gender Critical subreddit. Antinatalist women there are not willing to be completely shut down. We’re used to people saying that antinatalism is anti-woman, and it’s not, so women there make a point of arguing that. Natalist women try to shut them down and they never quite win.
So there is this fault line, but I feel there is more mutual respect between natalist and antinatalist radical feminists than I’ve found outside of radical feminism. I know many amazing radical feminist women who are mothers, and they have been quite respectful of my antinatalism. I’m not going to give them a hard time, because I really respect them and their work. As feminists, we don’t tackle every single issue in the entire world. We are on the same side of many many issues, and we fight together, and respect each other.
There are many antinatalists who believe that women bear the guilt for procreation, and that women should be vilified for it. There are also many feminists who believe that procreation is the biological role of women, and that we need to glorify it instead of suppress it. What do you say to these people?
What about the men? [laughs] Who is impregnating these women? Every unwanted pregnancy is the fault of men, every single one. One of the things we materialist, radical feminists point out is that sexual reproduction requires two sexes, male and female. Human eggs don’t do parthenogenesis well, they need sperm to fertilize them, and sperm needs eggs. it’s incredibly naive and misogynist to say that women are responsible for having babies: men are responsible.
As for the biological roles, it’s the biological role of men too, because they are the ones fertilizing those eggs. As I was saying before, women’s lives are shaped by biology, as are men’s. I think Andrea Dworkin and other radical feminists talked about this: women are very different from men in that we are profoundly vulnerable to the consequences of intercourse, an act that is no big deal for a man but has enormous consequences on our lives, pregnancy being the really obvious one. We are also more vulnerable to disease and physical injury, which doesn’t even take a lot of roughness or violence.
Pregnancy is the obvious one and it’s just not something men live with. Maybe, if a man tries really hard, he can sort of imagine it, but I don’t think it’s possible to imagine what it’s like to live with this vulnerability every day, and the threat of these massive consequences all the time.
Is it women’s reproductive role? Certainly, if reproduction is going to happen, the woman is going to be carrying out the role of being pregnant and giving birth, but it’s also not women’s role in life, because I and many other women have never done that, and thank God I’ve made it all the way to menopause without doing it. The nightmare is over, for me.
Isn’t it, in a way, a more modern way of saying “biology is destiny”? That our biology dictates our lives? Because it’s not really true, we’re able to decide, like you did with your tubal litigation, that’s not a biological imperative, but you had it done. But I think this idea that your biology determines your life is still very common.
It does determine our life: even though I had a tubal ligation, my female biology still has shaped my life. It’s not like I had to get pregnant, but even while not getting pregnant, being female has given me a very different life than a male would have. Is it destiny? Just because you can get pregnant doesn’t mean it’s your destiny to get pregnant, and doesn’t mean you should get pregnant. Another thing is, I’m a human, I can operate a gun. It doesn’t mean I should. Humans can do all kinds of things, but it doesn’t mean that we should, or have to.
I think there’s a lot of people who just think that just because having children is part of the blueprint of life, and because you’re able to do it, that therefore there’s nothing to think about there.
Actually, that’s an interesting philosophical thing. It is true that life replicates. Thinking about biological reproduction, you can go with “I’m a living thing and this is what living things do.” But humans are apparently unique animals in that so much of what we are is culture, rather than pure biology.
I believe that I actually have done plenty of reproduction and replication, culturally. And if that is in fact the meaning of life, then I’ve had an extremely meaningful life, by producing culture. And this is also related to my copyright abolition, because I view culture as a living thing that you cannot own, just as you cannot, or certainly should not, own life. And so I reproduce memetically, or culturally, rather than biologically. No human being that can talk, that has enough language to articulate why they think breeding is a good idea, is purely biological: we’re mostly cultural. So there’s plenty of meaning to be found in cultural reproduction.
And cultural reproduction is parallel to biological reproduction in that, when people go on this ego trip of “oh look what I made,” it’s like, no you didn’t, you didn’t design that DNA, you’re just part of an enormous process that’s much much bigger than you. The same is true culturally, in spite of the “genius” theory, where we believe that geniuses originate their creative work, but that’s not true either: your language comes from elsewhere, ideas come from elsewhere, you do a little bit and move them along, but that’s it. It’s much bigger than you.