It is fitting that for a feature about BethAnn McLaughlin, the writer, editor, managing design editor, creative director, photo editor, and illustrator were all women.
BethAnn, an outspoken neuroscientist, has put herself front and center of the #MeToo movement. She founded the website and nonprofit MeTooSTEM.com, where women in the STEM community can share their stories of their own harassment. She also has a reputation for confronting harassers on Twitter, often using her sense of humor as one of her weapons. Unsurprisingly, controversy follows her wherever she goes. After being denied tenure at Vanderbilt University in 2017, BethAnn appealed, claiming that the tenure process was being withheld due to her testimony in a sexual harassment case. She has since left Vanderbilt after signing a mutual agreement with the university.
As is true for every feature at Science, the story team meets early on to discuss the best visual strategy. Given that this was a profile of an individual, I knew our readers would want to see what BethAnn looks like. What quickly became apparent was that BethAnn’s personality and online presence were also paramount to the story. Because visual metaphors and abstract ideas are easier to convey in an illustration than in a photograph, that’s the path I decided to pursue.
In just one illustration, we needed to capture her likeness, edgy personality, and social media presence, all while striking a balance of being respectful and not flippant. After all, the basis of the feature is that she is taking on harassers and has faced the loss of her own job. Even though BethAnn has a humorous personality, the feature has a serious tone that the illustration needed to reflect.
After looking at many options, the illustrator who stood out was Anita Kunz. She is famous for her amazing portraits that have graced covers of The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Time, and many other magazines. Anita has been in the business for over 4 decades. Her witty portraitures use strong visual metaphors that often tackle heavy subject matters, such as race, gender, and politics. When asked about her work, Anita said, “I always liked the idea of making art that wasn’t just decorative but could be part of a bigger cultural dialogue. So I always loved working for publishers because there was a big audience and I felt part of something larger.”
I sent Anita all of our ideas and criteria, including the draft text, and she came back with five sketches. The one that instantly stood out to us was also Anita’s favorite. The sketch needed no explanation. It was instantly recognizable as a play on the famous 1943 Rosie the Riveter poster—a perfect metaphor for BethAnn, a larger-than-life female figure who personifies female empowerment.
After some back and forth with the editors over various ways to incorporate the STEM aspect into the illustration, we added a “#MeTooStem” speech bubble to the Twitter bird tattoo. Anita and I wanted to keep the illustration as close to the original Rosie poster as we could to keep that instant connection. I was happy to find a solution that allowed us to keep the recognizable yellow background and blue shirt, while still incorporating #MeToo and STEM.
Because Anita’s illustrations are real physical paintings (watercolor and acrylic on illustration board), we needed to have complete sign-off on the sketch before she started painting. It is unusual to find an illustrator who works in physical medium, but is still able to keep a very tight turnaround. She was able to take it from sketch to finished painting in just 3 days.
Since the story published, BethAnn has reached out to us and Anita, expressing her love for the illustration. “Can you please convey my tremendous gratitude to Anita Kunz and the folks on your art team for the extraordinary work that went into this week’s feature on MeTooSTEM?” BethAnn wrote. “As I sat in my car and pulled up the article on my phone, my student sitting beside me looked at that rendering and said, ‘You used to just be a pain in the ass. Now you’re an icon.’”
Marcy Atarod is the Design Managing Editor at Science.