GRL Talk with Lily O’Farrell: On Getting To Know Incels, Her New Book & Why Empathy Is Her Superpower

You’ve probably come across Lily O’Farrell’s work on Instagram before, under her account’s name of @vulgadrawings, and now the artist has embarked on a new venture, publishing her first book. Lily is a London-based cartoonist, known for tackling complex issues around misogyny and sexual violence, with her trademark comedy and illustrations – from art on how men disassociate porn to how blue balls aren’t real.

Here, FGRLS CLUB talks to Lily, getting to know the woman behind the viral Instagram posts.

How did your career start, and how did that merge of comedy and illustration happen?

I was always really interested in comedy and drawing and feminism, but I never really thought to put two and two together. As a woman, I feel we often fill the role of the facilitator, I loved comedy but assumed I’d work behind the scenes – so I did that, I cleaned toilets and looked after comedians in Manchester, Melbourne, and London, in my twenties. At a certain point, I’d seen enough comedy that wasn’t that great, that made me think ‘if they can do it, surely I can give it a go and be a bit better’. So, I did the comedy circuit for a bit, about 3 gigs a week around the London open mic scene. I was also a sketch writer for a while for comedy groups. So I’d write the sketch and they would perform them and things like that. 

Then I went to Melbourne and worked as a waitress for a bit, where I experienced a lot of sexism, which was a catalyst moment for me, I had so much anger and I didn’t know where to put it. I started doodling on the back of receipts at work when I was bored and had a light bulb moment and was like ‘I have all this comedy content about sexism and about sexual violence, and turning all these dark things into funny things. Why don’t I draw them? Why haven’t I done this the whole time?’. I started uploading them online and they really took off, to my surprise  – people online would give me suggestions of things that had happened to them that I could put into cartoon form, it was really cathartic for them and for me to see that published and to see people commenting underneath saying ‘this hits the nail on the head’, ‘that’s happened to me too’. It’s an amazing feeling and it became an addiction. I would stay home on a Friday night, just churning out drawings and idea after idea after idea. Around this time I started working in TV for a bit, I always had a full-time job, and was just drawing in any spare time I got. Then I got furloughed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit London, in March 2020, and because of that I was able to draw every day – I thought people wouldn’t want my content on their feed, as it was such a scary and dark time, and my work is about sexual violence, left-wing politics, being a millennial, sexism, etc, but they did. Everything snowballed, it felt like overnight, and in June I was able to quit my job – ever since then I’ve been a full-time creative, which is wild to me. So, that’s been my career trajectory, which I had no training in. I’ve had to fight the imposter syndrome of drawing becoming a hobby to a career, but I think the comedy and writing and structure is what carries the work, and the drawing is kind of secondary. 

Extract from Lily’s book, The Kyle Theory, Shop it here

How does it feel to go viral so often, is it overwhelming?

The viral thing is bittersweet because the sweet is realising I’m not alone, because really everything I do is just a thought I’ve had, so when hundreds of thousands of people go ‘Yeah. I agree’, the solidarity of it is so uplifting and really energises me to do more, especially when my work changes someone’s mind. Obviously, the more people who like my work, the more likely I’m able to live off it. So, that’s the sweet of it. 

The bitter of it is that with every kind of political or social progression comes backlash. For every hundred new followers comes one new troll – I’m very thick-skinned now to the trolls and I actually find them fascinating, the thing that makes me sad about it is that the majority of them are teenagers, which feels really like a push and pull. That we’re progressing, but also we can’t be progressing that much if so many teenage boys are the ones that are being so violent, so misogynistic, so extreme, so alt-right. But it shows that the work needs to keep happening, the moment the trolls stop coming is when I’ll stop.

You’ve investigated incels alot, tell us why and what you’ve learnt?

A lot of my trolls are incels, and about 80% of them are teenage boys – I can identify when they’re incels because they have their own dialogue and slang, when words like simp are used I know immediately. I also run a meme account and in that space, you really come to realise what is and isn’t an incel meme. If they are a 14 year-old-boy I now tend to reach out to them and be like ‘I’m here, If you want to talk’, because so many of them are groomed online to become radicalised – so I try to give them a private space to ask me anything. I’m not gonna, you know, screenshot it and put it on my Instagram story. I just want them to understand that we’re fighting for the same cause, because they think that their problems, which are very real problems, like mental health, isolation, low self-esteem, are caused by women when actually the problem is the patriarchy and we’re on the same team. 

I started to engage with them a while ago because they just piled on me. I think someone had shared my content on a Reddit thread. So I joined some incel threads, because I’m just fascinated by them, and that’s how I kind of discovered that a lot of these boys are lonely for community, it’s like a pyramid scheme. Maybe they just need someone, a woman, to say ‘I agree. You can be a feminist and say that it can be really hard being a young man and that the fight for gender equality needs to be helping with that, too’. 

Tell us about the inspiration behind your new book, the ‘Kyle Theory: A Vulga Drawings Book’…

The inspiration came from getting to know my trolls – one particular conversation made me realise, for the first time, that we have the same problems. It was this 16-year-old boy from Indianapolis who messaged me to tell me to die in a fire – it was something really graphic and really aggressive. Then we started talking and we had some long discussions, it was quite exhausting, and we left it at ‘we’ll agree to disagree’. But then he came back six weeks later and messaged me to tell me he’d met a girl, and it was becoming romantic and he asked me how he should be a better man for her. Which was so moving to me. That’s what inspired the book, it was the realization that a lot of men who are angry at me are angry because they think women are to blame, but the fight is the same and we’re on the same team. We just have to get them on board with that. 

What are your biggest inspirations?

God, that’s a great question. Early on in my comedy career, Amy Schumer was a huge inspiration, I know she’s had her issues, but just because she was one of the first people to be so explicit about sexual violence. I also love Sara Pascoe, who is able to combine comedy and real women’s issues. 

What would you go back and tell your 16-year-old-self?

A great piece of advice is ‘someone’s gotta do it, it might as well be you’, I think you should carry that everywhere – someone’s got to stand up on stage and do comedy, someone’s gotta post that cartoon online, why not you? 

My other piece of advice is that empathy is a superpower – I used to think that when people were horrible and sexist to me it was because it was personal to me, but it’s always personal to them. Being able to go ‘something’s going on with them, let me help them’, has really helped me through, rather than just being like ‘fuck them’.

And then the last bit of advice is that no one cares, in the nicest way possible – no one is looking at that spot on your face – everyone is thinking about themselves. So you may as well wear your most colourful outfit and say the most brash thing.

Order Lily’s book HERE.


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