Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother?, boy's club, Comics, Essay, Feminism, foundation of reality, Fun Home, graphic novel, Homosexuality, Janelle Asselin, Literature, Marjane Satrapi, memoir, Persepolis, psychology, rape threats, Sexual politics, Totalitarianism, women in comics
When beginning this essay I wanted to understand the history of the phrase “boy’s club,” for when one attempts to consider the modern day system of Comics culture that is generally the first, and most inaccurate impression(for the record women account for at least 50% of the reading population of comics). While not actually finding a satisfying history or etymological background I was offered one definition that seems to satisfy my desire for closure:
old boys’club: an informal system by which money and power are retained by wealthy white men through incestuous business relationships. It is not necessarily purposeful or malicious, but the Old Boy’s Network can prevent women and minorities from being truly successful in the business world. It entails establishing business relationships on high-priced golf courses, at exclusive country clubs, in the executive sky-boxes at sporting events, through private fraternities or social clubs, et cetera. These are arenas from which women and minorities are traditionally excluded and thus are not privy to the truly serious business transactions or conversations.
While this definition is rooted principally in a modern economic custom, so custom it seems to border on cultural cliché, I do not believe that this should automatically be ignored for other considerations such as comics. As of this writing there are few women genuinely working in the creative, by this I mean actually producing the art objects, field of the comics industry. While there may be some women in the industry who have garnered attention, and here I should note the excellent writers Gail Simone who is tackling that great beast Red Sonya and Amanda Conner who worked on the Before Watchmen series as writer and artist of the Silk Spectre run, few are currently afforded opportunities to work in many mainstream comics industries. Women are producing many wonderful comics series, however many of these efforts remain in the independent variety, and this has resulted in a “boy’s club” mentality that often creates brutish and vulgar behavior. I shall not go into great detail of the plight certain women have faced by the industry of comics or their fans, which I am sometimes both proud and ashamed to admit I am a part of, however I will note on certain patterns of behavior. Many women who attempt to break into the field of comics are often met with rejection, simply for not possessing a penis. There is a perception that a woman could not possibly be interested or contribute anything worthwhile to the medium, while on the fan level there have been, at the worst example, instances of rape threats should a woman even suggest a character’s outfit or body plan is ridiculous or unrealistic. This is disheartening to me both as a feminist, as well as a fan of comics in general.
I’ve included here a segment of an essay published on the website xojane by Janelle Asselin who received rape threats after criticizing the cover of the most recent run of the series Teen Titans,
Some comments were short and direct. Others read like bad fan fiction with the exception that everyone in them was being raped. Some weren’t about rape, but wanted to let me know that I was the worst.
My reaction to the rape threats wasn’t immediately fear. It was more of a Zen-like calm and a sort of “Oh, okay, here I am at that point now” moment. I deleted many of the less creative before it even occurred to me that I might be able to track them down (I’m working on tracking down the rest now). I mentioned the rape threats in passing on Twitter. A few comics pros reacted with surprise, and I started thinking about the whole process and the way men were talking about me and to me.
My post about the harassment has carried further than I imagined it would, as it is an ever-present part of my experience in comics that the women I know get rape threats. I’m one of thousands of women getting threatened with rape online. But for some reason my story resonated with comics pros and fans.
I think this points to what a powder keg comics has become regarding issues of gender and inclusiveness. Many, many people are fed up with the fact that women can’t state an opinion without getting threatened with rape. If you’re not threatened with rape, you’re told you’re not qualified, you’re not good enough, you’re not welcome here.
I’ve included a link to the website where this essay was published should you be interested in the full story, and if you would care to see the actual threats. I refuse to retype them out of principle.
However, before I paint the picture of the powerless female, peeking through the door knob in desperate hopes of overhearing the great lessons unavailable to them, and yes that is a symbolic allusion to Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, I should like to discuss two women who are altering this cultural perception and carving out a new medium for “female expression:” Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi.
I’ll begin with the latter.
The Graphic Novel Persepolis arrived just as its audience was ready for it. Appearing in 2003, just two years after the Twin Towers had scarred themselves into our societal consciousness, the book at first seemed an excellent opportunity for westerners to latch onto the drunk cultural hype that Muslims were bitter, tyrannical, wack-jobs fallen prey to a false god and oppressing all those beneath them. Any who have read Satrapi’s memoir, appreciate immediately that she does not paint every citizen of her country so. While her work is a beautiful portrait to the individual will facing the pressures of a totalitarian system, and while extreme Islam is portrayed as coupled to the dictatorship of her home country of Iran intimately, Satrapi denies the western reader the chance to paint all members of Islam as the Snidely Whiplash villain. I can hope, simply out of a sense of vanity, there are a few readers who understand that reference (if you don’t Google him). Satrapi’s graphic novel is a memoir tracing her development from young girl into a young woman, all the while placing said development in her home country of Iran during the revolution that forever altered the country during the 1970s. As Satrapi ages, her young character becomes more and more aware of the stifling environment being created by the religious based dictatorship that has assumed control over the country. The first volume of her work carries her up to her late teens ending with Satrapi being sent to Europe by her parents, who fear too much for her. Satrapi shows herself to have been, not only a rebel of sorts, but the worst kind of rebel: one who is not afraid to ask questions. Satrapi ages and grows in Europe; almost dying of Pneumonia after a heartbreak. Sitting all night on a bench in the public park may have had something to do with it. Eventually she does return to Iran to be with her family.
The veil, usually a hijab, however Satrapi does note certain of the more “conservative” women wear the full chador or even Burka, takes the center of Iranian consciousness, for ultimately her memoir attempts to discuss the idea of oppression and the way it manifests in dictatorships. Growing up with, what Iranian society would consider “liberal” parents, Satrapi’s instincts against the veil are clear. Over time, and once her emotional development has progressed to an established ego (that is not condescension just another fancy word for self), Satrapi manages to recognize that the veil, while being advertized as a religious symbol acts as nothing more than a political bullying mechanism established by the administration. Religion possesses enough totalitarian sentiment in its rhetoric and for this reason political movements shall often cite them and mimic aspects of it to bolster its own claim, less of course it simply cut out the middleman and simply blend the two. Satrapi observes:
The ego of any human being requires some certain amount of vanity and care for outward appearance, for that demonstrates that they are expressing some level of thought. When the ego is stripped of choice and that free will has been replaced by fear, then the human being becomes stunted. Satrapi observes of Iran that the country becomes unlivable to the point that eventually she returns to Europe at the end of the graphic novel. The country’s fanatic pseudo-religious pursuits, pathetically disguised as political ambitions, outweigh their concern for economic growth, care for infrastructure, or sound political relations with other countries. The war between Iraq and Iran results in numerous atrocities that she captures poignantly but I would prefer at this point to discuss torture.
Satrapi’s parents welcome two former political prisoners who suffered such treatment under the Shah’s government:
This graphic presentation of physical torture is shocking, or at least it should be to any rational human being, and Satrapi’s style does aid the reader in sparing the more graphic elements while still retaining the real emotional power of the acts. However, while volumes have been filled already with the detestable physical acts human beings may inflict upon each other, Satrapi demonstrates a far more heinous form of it:
Again we see the use of the veil as a political mechanism designed to keep the order of society, as well as the despotic vision of it in line. The threat of sexual violence is employed as a means of psychologically controlling women, and has been since the dawn of time. Satrapi’s overall message however is achieved near the end of the first volume in a beautiful scene between herself and her grandmother:
Persepolis, despite the portrait of the book I am painting, remains focused upon the author at all times. While Satrapi may deviate here and there to mention or examine the effect of some social consequence to her country, she never pushes so far away that we lose track of what these actions mean to her development as a woman and as an individual. It remains in my mind one of the greatest efforts to understand the self in relation to chaos and to arrive at a sense of ego in the face of overwhelming tyranny.
Originally I introduced this work in relation to Faggots by Larry Kramer as a demonstration that gay fiction may be in the midst of a paradigm shift, as gay individuals become more and more secure both with their sexuality as well as their social sense of self. Like Persepolis, Fun Home, as well as it’s follow up piece Are You My Mother?, is a memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel that follows her development as a woman while at the same time observing the influence of her father who was a closeted gay man. Before this memoir, Bechdel’s work was the popular, though you probably won’t find it in the Funny Papers next to Peanuts or Funky Winkerbean, series Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. A casual reading of the series demonstrates Bechdel’s style as an artist had been building up to this point. Unlike Persepolis, Bechdel’s work attempts a little realism while retaining, that unfortunate and highly annoying adjective, “cartoony” look. Any who would immediately dismiss Bechdel’s attempt would be cheating themselves the opportunity to witness one of the most outstanding proseists of our contemporary times. Allow me to sample just the writing from the first two pages:
“Like many fathers, mine could be occasionally prevailed on for a spot of “airplane.” As he launched me, my full weight would fall on the pivot point between his feet and my stomach. It was a discomfort well worth the physical contact, and certainly worth the moment of perfect balance when I soared above him. In the circus, acrobatics where one person lies on the floor balancing another are called “Icarian games.” Considering the fate of Icarus after he flouted his father’s advice and flew so close to the sun his wings melted, perhaps some dark humor is intended. In our particular reenactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky. But before he did so, he managed to get quite a lot done. His greatest achievement, arguably, was his monomaniacal restoration of our old house.”
What strikes me the most about Bechdel’s work is that she gives her reader credit. The reader’s called to automatically assume knowledge of the story of Icarus, as well as to appreciate her form as her sentences flow from the mundane to psychologically probing territories before returning back into the mundane. As of this writing I have encountered few contemporary authors with such “chops.” Bechdel’s prose however cannot be taken by itself to truly appreciate the unique experience that is reading the graphic novel. Observe the first two pages in their original form:
Throughout Fun Home Bechdel attempts to examine herself psychologically while at the same time unravel both the chaotic mess that was her childhood, though I’m sure Bechdel herself would find this insulting and so perhaps the word “conundrum” would be more appropriate, and also her father’s conflicted sexuality. We observe the in the language, both physical and prose, a marvelous subtlety that borders on Joycean ability. Bechdel is not simply retelling her life, she is unwinding it to observe as many small details as possible to determine which events played the biggest part in her development and psyche. It would not be too far to employ such psychological jargon, for the sequel piece Are You My Mother? borders on a master’s thesis in the subject of psychoanalysis. Observe one panel and this becomes clear:
Bechdel’s work tackles sexuality, without the need for dramatic understanding of it. The benefit of participating in the twenty-first century in western culture, though this is not always the case, as a homosexual is that your humanity, full humanity, does not need to be accounted for. Homosexuality is treated within the graphic novel with utmost importance, for it is the key revelatory moment of her life, but rather than allow that to be the entire definition of her character we see how neurosis and OCD played an intricate part in her development:
The turbulent, and I hope I am not being too presumptuous here, home life eventually manifests in a pattern of behavior that leaves Bechdel questioning every aspect of reality. On some level it may be fair to suggest that the father is to blame, that his closeted sexuality contributes to an unhealthy familial situation that causes such behavior, but as this falls within the realm of biography analysis must be treated lightly. Ultimately upon the conclusion of Fun Home what seems most troubling is that Bechdel seems to assign herself the title of parent. Rather than enter into a domestic situation where there was love and warmth available for, what many would consider, healthy development, she begins to question the role and position of parental authority as well as the bedrock of reality. I have suggested previously in an oral presentation that fathers and mothers, and please do not find me sexist for saying such, provide an alternative bedrock for their children. Men in society tend to define themselves by their careers and contributions, not that women do not, but for men this seems to assume far greater weight to the point of obsession. As such, men raise their children so that they may understand what society expects from them and what it will provide them, namely nothing. Women, on the other, create emotional space from which the child may learn proper social interaction as well as expression. That is not to suggest women are purely emotional creatures, there is far too much evidence to suggest otherwise, however as women tend to be more open and accepting of their emotions, in a home environment it is necessary to foster and instruct their children on the proper expression of emotion whether it promoting crying following an injury or heartbreak, or revealing the necessity of understanding during a squabble. As one reads it becomes clear that neither parent attempts to foster such a bedrock leaving Bechdel in, as the great bard once so eloquently put, “quite a pickle.”
The memoir has often been a tool of expression for women for it has often been the most easily accessible medium to enter into and dominate. One need merely consider the number produced by them and one sees this is true: The Diary of Anne Frank-Anne Frank, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings-Maya Angelou, Out of Africa-Karen Blixen, Reading Lolita in Tehran-Azar Nafisi, Girl, Interrupted-Susanna Kaysen, The Story of My Life-Hellen Keller, A Writer’s Diary-Virginia Wolfe, I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie-Pamela de Barres, etc. The field of literature is often perceived as being the sphere of women; however as a student of literature I can contest that easily, and quickly. True there are numerous women that enter into the field of literary analysis, however in a majority of the novels, short stories, essays, novellas, and plays read and studied, one, and perhaps two if lucky, will be written by women. And so it seems we find yet another “Boy’s Club.” The “memoir” I believe has shifted and adapted to accommodate a new breed of women who are not aesthetically satisfied by the prose medium.
Fun Home, Are You My Mother?, and Persepolis demonstrate an effort on the part of women to combat the misogyny of the comics industry and create a space for themselves. Both works have received that culturally significant, apparently, #1 on the New York Sunday Times accolade, and as of this writing both works have received praise as some of the best memoirs of the last ten years without the qualification that they fall within the “comics” medium. As a fan of comics, and as a feminist, these works give me hope for the future, for it promises an opportunity for women to be able, not only to express their creative impulses, but to do so in a space free from external threat or spiritual harm.
One can only wonder how long until the paper message of “No Boy’s Allowed” is left taped to the doors of offices and studios, and men begin to recognize they will, at long last, need to prove they’re valuable to society, and not just because they can draw a rockin pair of tits.
I’ve included the link to Asselin’s essay here if the reader should be interested