Samantha Rothenberg

Bridget Badore

In the world of Instagram Illustrators, the tendency toward sweet, tender and twee can be overwhelming. In direct contrast, Violet Clair is… not that. Created by Samantha Rothenberg a few years ago, Violet Clair has become a wildly popular account — hovering around 167,000 followers at the time of writing this — and still growing. Rothenberg’s account has become a haven for those dealing with bad behavior from men, and is well-known for calling out misogyny, toxic dating culture, and how technology is a confusing new mediator in romantic connections.

“My content often focuses on contemporary dating issues, and a lot of that has to do with the internet, texting, and social media, and how all of that plays into our relationships and dating,” Rothenberg explained over the phone in a recent interview. “All of the technology is so new, we all don’t know what the rules are. Giving people a space to feel less alone and talk about what’s going on is something that I feel super proud of.”

A Halloween drawing of a cheeky ghost with a phone dominated by a big red “like” heart in his hand is captioned with the following definition: “It’s called Casper when he watches your stories, likes your posts, but won’t text you back.” Alongside the illustration of a girl in a date night outfit, another recent drawing offers a look into the dichotomy single women often face when they agree to spend precious free time on a stranger with a dick: “He might be cool, but then again he might mansplain bitcoin to me for three and a half hours as I sip a watery cocktail and fantasize about going home so I can eat shredded cheese out of the bag and pet my dog.”

Although Rothenberg has been an illustrator her whole life, drawing mostly came and went as a hobby at different times throughout her life. It wasn’t until her own rock bottom situation a couple years ago left her moorless that she began to seriously consider pursuing art as a career. “I was going through a tough time in my life,” she remembered. “I was just dumped and I hated my job, and I felt super rock bottom. I wanted to build a life for myself that I loved and enjoyed, and I realized the importance of doing something that you loved for work. It was really coming from that place of rock bottom, and if I didn’t hit that I’m not even sure if any of this would’ve happened.”

Speaking of rock bottom, 2016 was a very formative year for Rothenberg’s work — she began making political comics in response to one of the most divisive elections in American history. Using inspiration from memes and the more humorous side of commentary, she started taking Trump and other figures to task with incisive, cutting observations.

“At the time there weren’t a lot of artists doing what I do on Instagram,” she said. “What was really popular were meme accounts, and there were a few that I really loved. I think my work is more inspired by those memes. When I got started I basically wanted to be a meme account, but with artwork and original writing and ideas. That’s sort of what influenced me, in the beginning. The humor part is super important to me, I wanted to incorporate humor and art.”

But in the wake of Trump’s eventual victory and rise to power, constantly making art about him and his overtly racist, sexist and corrupt behavior began to feel emotionally overwhelming. In need of a break from examining this material in her work, Rothenberg turned inward and began reflecting about her own life, creating comics primarily about the insane world of trying to find a connection in the social media and dating apps era. “Just kind of naturally my art became more of a reflection on my personal life, because it felt less taxing,” she said. “As long as I create stuff that feels honest and feels true and I feel good about, worrying about the style and the aesthetic is almost secondary.” 

Eventually, Sam’s reflections on interactions between men and women evolved into an even more interactive conversation with her audience via the format Screenshot Stories. After getting submissions for situations to illustrate, she opened up her email and began regularly discussing different IRL situations that were submitted, letting her fans debate the drama in the comments. 

“I started doing it last November and I was posting these comics that were all kind of personal,” she remembered. “Things started feeling really stale. I felt like I wanted to add diversity of voices and characters. I posted some screenshots from crazy interactions I’d had on dating apps to my story on Instagram, and then people started sending me theirs. I got so many DMs, from people, and I started to interpret the interactions through my drawings and post them to my feed, then directed people there to discuss.” 

As one of the most popular formats on her account, the new series let her tell stories that weren’t so black and white, and lead discussions on the grey areas inherent in modern dating. While explaining the backstory of the screenshots — which are all edited to make them completely anonymous — Rothenberg is able to bring a level of nuance to the situation, and opens up her post on the scenario to feedback of all kinds, creating a community that can discuss, educate, and entertain her followers.

Of course, she isn’t the only illustrator veering into the uncharted territory of being single in 2019, or the microaggressions that women have endured in silence for so long, and she has plenty of other illustrators to recommend if you’re into her own work: “I love @haleydrewthis, @yeahitschill, @bodeburnout is amazing, so is @lianafinck, @mariandrew, @exoticcancer, @artbabygirl, @paigevickers, there’s just so many,” she laughed.

Aside from Screenshot Stories and her regular work on the ‘Gram, Sam has also been commissioned to work with brands and platforms like Conde Nast, the TV show The Bold Type, Link NYC, and many more. She’s currently working on her first published book, which will also be autobiographical. “I’m working on a book, and I want it to be more than just a compilation of the work I post online,” she said. “I want there to be a narrative, and I want it to ideally be autobiographical, where I basically tell my story but it’s still very much in my voice and with my sense of humor. I’m working on something that has a narrative arc and is autobiographical.”

As an illustrator, Rothenberg thinks that relationships aren’t the only thing that new technology and platforms like Instagram is changing: it’s also provided an unprecedented format for visuals to speak to people, culturally. “Instagram is sort of the number one social media platform at the moment, and it’s super image driven,” she reflected. “I think the rise of Instagram has a lot to do with how much more visual content has become, and even people who rely on words like writers are figuring out ways to work images into their work.”

To learn more about Samantha’s work and Violet Clair check out her website here.

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