Kelly Starlings Lyon: How Do Women Use Art As Resistance?
Zetta Elliott: Nice Is Not Enough
Traci Sorell: Why Do You Speak Out?
Justina Ireland: There is A Minefield and You Will Become a Demolitions Expert
Ambelin Kwaymullina: On Being Loud and Hopeful
Cheryl Willis Hudson: Women Lead the Independent Publishing Movement
Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez: Don’t Call Me Strong
Maya Gonzalez: What Do I Speak Out? True Power Rises
Sujei Lugo: When Women Speak
Neesha Meminger: I Want to Talk About Power
Static Bodies in Motion: Representations of Girls in Graphic Novels
I started focusing on the ways women and girls are represented in graphic novels because of one book – Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff (published by FirstSecond). First, I looked at the story –a strong woman (Delilah) befriending a weaker man (Selim) and going on a rollicking adventure. The relationship was chaste and built on friendship. The images were gorgeous; deep hues that are alive, strong lines, detailed but not overwhelming backgrounds, and characters that … wait … something about the characters bothered me, so I listened to that.
Since this is a visual medium, I started by looking closer at Delilah’s body. This was an action packed, fast paced story where Delilah was doing all kinds of sword wielding, running, carriage driving, and various impressive feats of physical strength and agility. But, she looked like a Basic Barbie. Her biceps are non-existent which makes her upper arm and forearm the same diameter. Her ample breasts were displayed by a keyhole neckline in a tight bodice. Her skirt goes past her knees and yet flows in such a way that her knees and thighs are almost always showing. And then there are the high heel boots that come to a sharp point, making her feet look tiny. And, keep in mind, Barbie can’t exist in the real world – her boobs would make her topple over, her feet and ankles couldn’t support her frame, and there wouldn’t be enough room in her torso to fit all her organs. These are mock-women based on caricatures and stereotypical tropes, used by lazy writers who can’t be bothered to bring authentic female characters to the page.
I developed a quick set of questions to ask when you are reading …
• How many female characters speak or can be identified as individuals?
• How many male characters speak or can be identified as individuals?
• Who drives the plot forward? Who is an active agent?
• Are women and girls represented by their boobs and butts, instead of their personality or actions?
When I began looking across graphic novels with female protagonists – a collection of close to 200 graphic novels. Of those, I’ve completed an analysis of 125 – the news isn’t good. Here are some stats to think about.
• 43% of the authors are women. 57% are men.
• 47% of the identifiable characters are female. 53% are male. Less than 1% are trans or gender non-conforming.
• 46% of all female characters speak, whereas 67% of all male characters speak.
What happened when I starting talking about this issue?
I have had comic shop owners tell me I am the reason more and more stores are closing. I have heard from many self-proclaimed male comic book and graphic novel readers who accuse me of “reverse sexism”, call me a “man hater” or tell me my message would be better if I was nicer. Some go as far as telling me to stay out of “their turf”. Teachers and librarians often tell me it shouldn’t matter what gender is shown priority – comics don’t matter anyway or, at least the kids are reading something. Many people say, “at least female characters are being written”. Most comics scholars, both men and women, are not surprised in the least. It is as if this underlying misogyny in comic books and graphic novels is simply accepted as yet another place where the over representation of straight, White and male are the norm.
But, there is good news.
Whenever I give a great graphic novel with authentic, complex female protagonists, like any of the LumberJanes series, The Lunch Witch by Deb Lucke, Underground Abductor by Nathan Hale, Bessie Stringfield by Joel Christian Gill, or Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola and Emily Carroll, to a group of kids they are excited to read and talk about the books. When I have the attention of teachers and librarians who are ready to listen and to do the work of unlearning and decolonizing their understanding of what “normal” and “neutral” are, then great things happen.
Why do this work? As a child I remember knowing my story wasn’t important. I knew because the girls in books were always White, wanted to kiss boys, had never had learning disabilities. I know what it is like to be told over and over by the books I loved that I had to choose between being latinx and being a lesbian because no one in books was ever both. I do this work because I am tired of waiting for the literary gatekeepers – authors, editors, publishers, teachers, librarians and parents – to see the importance of authentic representation for all readers.
I do this work because I want kids to see themselves, their friends, as well as total strangers represented as whole, authentic, people that are active agents in their stories. I want to teach teachers and librarians how to read beyond their understandings of the world and learn to actively read against their own colonialized thinking. Maybe, I do this work for me.
Laura M. Jiménez is a lecturer at Boston University School of Education, Literacy program. She teaches children’s literature courses that focus on both the reader and the text by using an explicit social justice lens. Her work spans both literature and literacy, with a special interest in graphic novels and issues of representation in young adult literature. Her scholarship appears in The Reading Teacher,Journal of Lesbian Studies, Teaching and Teacher Education, and the Journal of Literacy Research. Her graphic novel reviews can be found on her blog, https://booktoss.blog/.