The women behind The Belladonna
Twenty years ago, four women burst onto screen in an HBO television comedy that unabashedly explored all things related to the “S” word.
Today, four women (including one named Carrie) have burst onto the internet with a new comedy website about the other “S” word: satire.
The Belladonna is a satirical women’s site founded and edited by writers Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer.
Throughout 2016, Wittmer had posted in a Facebook group about the need for a comedy and satirical site by women. After the election, her posts went from comments to calls for action: Who wanted to start a website?
Kunkel and Taylor responded.
“I think the election probably had a lot to do with it because we all wanted to write, like, fire satire about the political climate,” Wittmer says. “So I think it’s not a coincidence that that’s kind of when we started to do this.”
Kunkel suggested inviting Preston, a former student in her online satire class at Second City. Preston accepted, and season one of The Belladonna began.
During our interview, the foursome realized their similarities go beyond their known satirical interests and the odd coincidence that Taylor and Preston’s daughters are both named Arden. For starters, they grew up with only female siblings.
“I think not having a brother helped me be a little more confident,” Wittmer says.
Kunkel also attended an all-girls high school because her father wanted her to see women in leadership positions.
“When I got to college, I was so used to speaking up all the time,” says Kunkel. “I love, love nothing more than to call out hypocrisy.”
As children, the editors stayed home on weekends to transcribe episodes of television shows and podcasts. Among their archives are Rosie O’Donnell’s VH1 shows, The X-Files, The OC, and Harry Potter podcasts.
“What we’re trying to say is we were all really cool,” Preston jokes.
None of these cool girls set out to make a career in comedy. Kunkel, a Fulbright Scholar who taught English to Indonesian high schoolers for a year, did her undergrad at Johns Hopkins and then finished an MFA in writing for the screen and stage at Northwestern. About a month after finishing her degree, she says, her “brain cracked” and she realized that she wanted to write comedy.
“Instead of coming into someone’s face with dramatic writing, I hit them from the side with satirical writing,” she says.
Now, Kunkel is throwing comedic blows full time, teaching online classes for Second City and writing for a public radio show.
Preston went to Ohio University in Athens as a music major, which she “semi-enjoyed” until deciding to change her major just before graduation. After studying music for years, Preston says doing her senior thesis on the comedy of the Chris Farley and David Spade film Tommy Boy “felt like I was getting away with something.” She’s now an instructor for the satire course that Kunkel created.
Taylor, the self-proclaimed Gen X “senior citizen of the group,” got undergrad and grad degrees in English lit at the University of Florida and the University of Miami, with the intent to be an English professor, until she had two realizations.
First, the “top people coming out of amazing programs [were] getting jobs in the Black Hills of North Dakota,” where she had no desire to be, and second, “academia [is] as cutthroat as the corporate world.” She began working in e-commerce and currently is a copywriter and digital strategy consultant in Florida.
Wittmer, who graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2011 with a degree in creative writing, spent around 18 months at home after graduation, clawing for one of the few jobs that hadn’t evaporated during the recession. Her parents gave her some money and told her to go to New York. Once there, she began freelancing and working as a nanny but was essentially unemployed when they founded The Belladonna.
“[It] made me feel like I had purpose,” Wittmer says. She’s now a full-time entertainment writer (“with health insurance”) for Business Insider.
One of the ways The Belladonna tries to help other women writers find their purpose is by accepting submissions from new writers. For the editors, this has been one of the most rewarding aspects. Kunkel is inspired when a woman who has never written comedy says that The Belladonna inspired her to try.
“[They say] ‘I feel like I’m not going to get made fun of, and I’m not going to feel bad if this doesn’t get in,’” Kunkel says. “That, to me, is really cool.”
Preston believes The Belladonna empowers women by making rejection a positive experience. They offer constructive criticism, which might include referrals to other sites.
“We’ve seen pieces that we’ve rejected go on McSweeney’s or Robot Butt,” Wittmer says.
McSweeney’s Internet Tendency editor Christopher Monks inspired their approach.
“His rejections are always kind and respectful, and it starts to feel like he does remember your work,” Wittmer says.
The Belladonna also features work from established writers.
“[The] mix helps,” Taylor says. “It not only grows our audience…but…I think it gives such a unique flavor to the site.”
That flavor has attracted 24,000 followers across their social media platforms and a shout-out from Monks in an interview with Splitsider. Recently, the foursome sold a book, New Erotica for Feminists, based off of their viral McSweeney’s post of the same name.
Unlike other sites featured in this piece, The Belladonna’s contributors must be women or non-binary people, but readers of all gender identities are welcome.
“[The site] has things everybody can appreciate – not just ‘women’s issues,’” Preston says.
Still, those issues are a priority. The site hosts awareness events like the Belladonna Ballyhoo, when it published 12 pieces on sexual harassment in 12 hours, and the women are planning quarterly fundraisers for nonprofits that help women and girls.
It seems their success stems from their commitment to supporting each other and the female writing community, efforts that have also boosted the editors’ confidence.
“We think we’re funny; other people think we’re funny and our taste is funny,” Taylor says. “That’s affirming to have that happen.”