Revisiting “Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist” in a World Needing Her More Than Ever

Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist is a comic book series written and drawn by Diane DiMassa. The comics were published from 1991 to 1998 and follow the violent exploits of Hothead, a lesbian feminist who tortures and slaughters predatory men. The back cover of The Revenge of Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist anthology describes her as “the over-caffeinated, media-crazed psychotic lesbian with scary hair and a fetish for guns, grenades, mallets, and sharp objects.” But Hothead has a soft side, too. She cares deeply for her cat, Chicken. Her best friend is a blind Zen priestess who prepares wholesome, vegetarian meals. Her love interest is a genderqueer poet named Daphne.

Hothead... "fuckin' what???" tell us, how does one become a homicidal lesbian terrorist? How does one NOT YOU ASSHOLE? What fucking planet did you grow up on?!?

The Complete Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, 1999 (p. 18)

Hothead enjoyed cult status in lesbian and queer feminist subcultures throughout the 1990s. Fans could purchase Hothead t-shirts, postcards, red pepper chocolate bars, and anthology books. A musical adaptation starring Ani DiFranco and Susan “Stop the Insanity” Powter was performed at the 2004 Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. But despite its early resonance, Hothead has faded from lesbian and queer cultural memory. The books are long out of print. I have friends who can name every single Dykes to Watch Out For character, but have never heard of Hothead.

In a typical comic strip, Hothead wakes up feeling hopeful and excited for the day ahead. Within minutes of waking, however, she sees a sexist commercial, receives a catcall, or witnesses a domestic abuse situation. Hothead spirals into fits of rage and kills the offending men. Despite being small and too poor to afford adequate food, Hothead wields a comically large labrys and fights with superhuman strength. Her rage blackouts leave her too frayed to leave her squalid apartment, connect with others, or maintain romantic relationships. She’s often depicted on crutches, or covered in bandages and bruises. By collapsing the division between Hothead’s mental and physical health, the comics visualize how existing in an unjust, oppressive world can grind down a body.

I first came across Hothead in my women’s studies graduate program. I was looking for texts where lesbians embody feminist politics; my advisor pointed me towards Hothead and I was immediately fascinated. I spent an entire semester writing a paper on disability and fantasies of the body. I just re-read this paper and it’s a real slog. It’s 26 pages long. I’m not even sure what it says; there are too many semicolons.

I do know, however, that I visualize myself as Hothead often.

Introduction to Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, 1993 (p. 9)

During Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s senate hearing and the ensuing Brett Kavanaugh vote, my mind kept returning to “Hothead Rocks (and Chicken Rules).” First published in 1993, this comic strip opens with Hothead and Chicken planting an herb garden on the first warm day of spring. Hothead ventures out for coffee and on the walk home, ducks into the city courthouse to poop (in one of DiMassa’s signature jabs at gender essentialism, the bathroom door is labeled “labia”). While in the courthouse, Hothead overhears a rape trial. She stands in the doorway and listens to the survivor’s harrowing testimony. She watches as the judge acquits the rapists and orders the survivor to pay a “$5,000 temptress fine.” Hothead immediately springs into action. She pulls the rapists’ lawyer into a dark alleyway, tridents his neck to the wall, and lights a bundle of dynamite in his mouth. Then, she kidnaps the rapists and forces them to witness each other’s castrations in an abandoned warehouse she calls “the misogynist hall of fame.” One panel contains a particularly graphic rendering of a rapist’s mangled corpse. DiMassa includes an astericked note that reads: “Does this freak you out? It’s based on a photo of a botched abortion.”

The comics are a cathartic revenge fantasy. I wasn’t surprised to learn, then, that DiMassa began writing and drawing Hothead as a means of overcoming drug and alcohol addiction. I keep going back to her author bio in The Revenge of Hothead Paisan, which reads: “[DiMassa] started out as a nice little Italian girl in patent leather shoes, discovered rage, discovered alcohol, progressed, dropped the bottle, kept the storm cloud, and now somehow manages to make a living out of having her secret fantasies and demons made public.” Unlike DiMassa and her readers, Hothead can wreak havoc on herself and others with zero consequences.

It has come to our attention since the publication of this post that DiMassa made trans misogynistic statements in 2004 that she, to our knowledge at this time, hasn’t made an effort to walk back or apologize for. For that reason we encourage you to find the book at a library, buy it used or borrow it from a friend instead of purchasing it. You can read more on this at Queer Book Club and Feministing.

Maddy is a writer and zinemaker living in Madison, WI. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Maddy has written 3 articles for us.

29 Comments

  1. Hothead Paisan was super important to me back when I was coming out in college in the 90s. Her freakouts somehow also kept me sane. Thanks for calling attention to this often overlooked gem.

  2. “I’m not even sure what it says; there are too many semicolons.” LOL

    “(in one of DiMassa’s signature jabs at gender essentialism, the bathroom door is labeled “labia”)” *chokes on breakfast*

  3. Oh my GOSH yes bring back Hothead. My housemate gave me her Hothead anthology when I was a middle schooler, I think probably in 2007. It was super formative for me and unfortunately I lost the book but I still have her tshirt.

    Hothead showed me how to be angry and vulnerable and to have deep feelings. I’ve always been upset that no one else in my age group has ever heard of her and I hope we can bring her back. Her rage and direct action are needed so much now.

  4. Holy crap! If you are not familiar with the amazing Hothead, drop everything you are doing RIGHT NOW and scour the web. The compilation books are out of print, but you can find them used (along with the original zines) OR ask your local library to ILL (inter library loan is the #7,436th reason why libraries are amazing) OR come down to Durham, NC and I’ll let you read my copies.

    FWIW, I’m thinking about getting my first tattoo (at age 51!) and the “FEH MUH NIST” Hothead image is a leading contender. But I feel I should try to get her permission/blessing first. And she’s not easy to find…Hmmmm…the ol’ internet also says that in 2004 she was not supportive of transwomen at Michigan. Maybe her thinking has evolved since then? I dunno. DAMN YOU, heroes for not being everything I want you to be!

  5. Middle-aged me feels so SEEN. I loved HHP (and Chicken!)I still have the anthology on my bookshelf. It’s sad that so few people remember this comic. It was required reading during my Queer Nation phase!

  6. I wish I could love and claim Hothead wholeheartedly and without reservations. But it has to be said: Diane DiMassa has made transmisogynist remarks in the past, and to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t walked them back yet. And while there’s much to love about the strip itself–its bash back attitude not least of all–it veers into femmephobia on more than a few occasions, and if I remember correctly, there’s a splash of biphobia in there, too.

  7. There’s a reason that Diane DiMassa has faded so quickly, her very public embrace of transphobic elements in the lesbian community. I would think that might have at least been mentioned in the article.

  8. I LOVED these comics. I’m really glad you wrote this. I know that the author is/was problematic but it’s so important to not bury pieces of history because of it. I’m glad to be able to talk now about how amazing this was, and part of talking about it is regarding the problematic parts.

  9. I read these comics a decade or so after they were written at someone’s suggestion and frankly thought they were super terf-y. When she finds out Daphne isn’t a cis man she treats them like a pooooor cis woman who transitioned for safety not a valid gender identity. The author has said trans misogynistic things since. And the character doesn’t just kill predatory men, but women she perceives as being “bad” on account of things like wearing heels and makeup. So it’s um pretty femme-phobic, too. And also the cat is cute, but decidedly steeped in appropriation and orientalism.

    I’m not saying no one can ever enjoy them, I know they were important to people, but yeah. Don’t give the author money and read them critically/don’t read them if those things will hurt you.

  10. Diane DiMassa is absolutely not a TERF. She was standing up for trans people in the 90’s when it was very unpopular to do so. She merely QUESTIONED people’s anti-Michfest stance over fifteen years ago and has been dragged ever since. Her entire body of work should not be thrown away because you don’t like one article (again, published in 2004, a very different time.) I really wish that people attacked institutions and politicians that are ACTUALLY transphobic with the same vigor that they attack Diane DiMassa and other queer women artists.

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