Feminist Reading as “Regular” Reading

MONDAY logo 2015

“The higher you go, the fewer women there are.” Wangari Maathai 

It is International Women’s Day today. I am celebrating by being worried about the Republican Presidential candidates, because as a group they scare the living bleep out of me.

I also got the chance to reflect on why I read graphic novels for representations – including representations of women. I received an email asking why I think it is “appropriate” to keep track of the numbers? Why don’t I focus on other aspects? Why “reduce” characters to numbers?

I have to admit, I am sometimes surprised by the ways my research has turned. Comics are traditionally a male dominated form. That’s not news. But, now that more women are writing and more women and girls are featuredWW_Cv49_Neal_Adams_var-1-580x892 there is a sense that everything is fine. 

And yet …. Wonder Woman is reduced to a butt shot and a raised foot on the cover of her own comic book.

And yet … When asked when will there be “enough” women on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg responded “when there are nine.” Think about the fact that her response is a radical notion even though for most of our history as a nation we have had nine men. 

And yet … when everyday misogyny is called out on twitter, using the #YesAllWomen hashtag, the backlash is incredible and scary. 

And yet … when I ask both boys and girls about it they say, “Dress codes are only for the girls … well, girls and the black kids.”

So, I read graphic novels with female protagonists and I ask,

  • How many male characters speak or can be identified?
  • How many female characters speak or can be identified?
  • Do female characters speak for themselves?
  • Who drives the plot forward? 
  • Are women and girls allowed to be varied and authentic or are they represented as boobs and butts, no matter what the age? 

Why do I read and count and make pie charts? Because the charts keep looking like this …

Authorscharacter

 

 

 

Say it With me: Intersectionality

I’ve been reading and thinking about the ways identity overlap and intertwine within individuals, and how people decide what to forefront about themselves and why, and how those decisions effect how they are seen. On Super Bowl Sunday I was impressed with Lady Gaga’s rendition of the national anthem> But, I was simultaneously angered by the ridiculous snub of Marlee Matlin’s (an academy award WINNING actress) ASL performance. I watched Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance (watch here beginning at 1:30) the monday after the Super Bowl because it would be physically and emotionally impossible for me to care less about the game itself.

What I knew about Queen B’s halftime show was my 13 year old son thought her and her crew were way more boss with their synchronicity then Bruno Mars and his guys. But, when I watched it I saw a powerful, jaw dropping political statement and I thought, “Oh, she’s done it now.” From the natural hair of the dancers, and call out to the Black Panther berets, to the Malcolm X formation, and Pancho Villa’s gun belts (which may have been more about Michael Jackson, but I’m Mexican, so I went with what I know), to the unapologetic booty shake.

1024px-Pancho_Villa_bandolier_crop  

What, you might be asking, does any of this have to do with reading, selecting, or using graphic novels in your classroom? Wait for it ….

This is how intersectionality works. I was happy about Lady Gaga (White woman), mad about Marlee Matlin (White, straight woman who played a lesbian and is deaf), impressed with Beyonce´ (Straight, Black woman) and happy to see Bruno (Latino, maybe gay but no one seems to care) perform with Coldplay (a bunch of White guys from England) that I am neutral about because they always sound like Maroon 5, ALL AT THE SAME TIME. I did not have one feeling over the other. I was not happy about the ASL snub because I like what Bey was doing. Nor was I expecting Bruno to kiss a guy because Lady Gaga’s sexual identity often confuses me.

This is often how we approach issues of representation in children’s and YA literature. Books have either good or bad representations, and that singular view overpowers the more complex ways of reading books. But, what if we look at a book not to simply defend it, but rather to see what kinds of representations exist or can be found within it.

Little Robot

On Monday I posted a short conversation I had with my my 10 year old son about Little Robot by Ben Hatke. I left out a lot of what my son and I talked about because it ranged into intersectionality and I wanted to spend some time with the ideas before writing this post.

First off, both of us agree it is a great graphic novel. The images are clear and clean with a highly representational look to them – which means people look like people, trees look like trees and robots look … well, like they belonged in the world. The colors were bright and clear but not overbearing. My son said the paneling was “regular, so it was easy to figure out where to look and where to go next. Probably a good book to start reading beginning graphic novel readers”. The story unfolded in a well paced manner, characters were developed through interactions with each other and the world around them. According to my son, it was a sweet story about love and acceptance.

But, and here is the thing, there is no such thing as a perfect book. Here are some comments from my son that he and I talked about:

Why is the poor kid the Black one? There was a White guy getting on the bus with the main characters (assumed to be) older brother, and there was an “old White grandpa” with a swing set in his backyard, so it isn’t like there were no White people. When I asked him why this was important he said, “It might not be, but … I don’t know … it makes me feel like Black skin means poor.”

The book doesn’t pass The Bechdel Test. There are 3 male characters, and 1 female characters that we were able to identify. I asked why he thought the main character was a girl and my son said, “Her hair, maybe? Or, her … the way she is. She’s a girl. Also, the author always draws girls.” He recognized Hatke’s style from reading the Zita the Spacegirl Adventures series. We talked about the robots and gender for a while and decided they don’t have a gender. They are not boy or girl, they are robot so the rules are different.

And, what about the girl? She remains nameless, but she is not unimportant, voiceless, or powerless by any means. “She’s kind of a bad-ass, you know?” He was looking over the page where she takes on an evil robot about four times her size, manages to save her friend, and turn things around so everyone is happy. “She’s a serious genius. Like one of those guys on Robot Wars, except she’d probably cry if her robot got messed up. Yeah, that’s the other reason she’s a girl. A boy would probably blow things up.”

Would I put this book in a classroom? Absolutely, without question. It is a great book. And, what makes it even better is the possibility within the narrative to have conversations about race, gender, poverty and robots.

Author Intent in Children’s Literature

“The birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.”

(Barthes,1998, p. 386)

The issue of representation in children’s literature has been on high octane overdrive for the last 18 months or so. For me, the breaking point was the advent of the We Need Diverse Books social media campaign. The twitter conversation exploded into a full on outcry from readers and authors. There were and continue to be many bloggers who are focused on issues of representation, and the work is becoming part of a larger conversations about race and privilege that have been a long time coming. These conversations are not easy, they are not comfortable, and there are no easy answers.

Recently, another picturebook, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, featuring the all too familiar happy-slave trope. Click here to link to an article by Hillel Italie that provides an overview of the issues.

I had heard about the Cake from other scholars in children’s literature, but it wasn’t until I attended the American Library Associations Mid-winter conference here in Boston that I got a chance to see it. It would be easy to say I was shocked, or surprised. But, what is hard for me to admit is that I wasn’t caught off guard at all. I am rarely surprised by the tropes used in children’s literature and other media that reduce people and cultures to collections of stereotypes and caricatures. I am not surprised when books avoid the terrible truths in our collective history.

There is a strong contingent of smart, caring people in the children’s literature community who I disagree about representations like those in A Fine Desert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington. In the past I have found it difficult to participate in these conversations about privilege and Whiteness, and representation. I get mad and start to rant. I scare the dogs. I threaten my computer. But, I am working on sitting and thinking, instead of standing and yelling. And, in this space I am going to talk about an often used defense about books that have objectionable representations of people, cultures, and history.

The Good People Argument

  1. The author is a good person
  2. The author did not intend malice
  3. There is a note in the back of the book that explains the authors intention
  4. Therefore, no one should take offense at the depiction of an under-represented person or culture in the actual body of the text

I have never understood this argument. By in large, I do not know the authors of the books I read. I don’t know Dorothy Parker, Kurt Vonnegut, William Saroyan or Douglas Adams (some of my favorite dead authors). And although I have met Andrew Smith, Nathan Hale, and Laurie Halse Anderson (some of my favorite not-dead authors) I can’t say I know them. And, it shouldn’t matter. Their intent or general personhood cannot matter to me as the reader. Barthes, a French literary critic, wrote about the end of the author’s control of the story.

The author’s intentions when creating a book are changed by time and experience. Once an author has written an imagined scene, or person, or event with all the emotions attached, the idea is changed by the act of writing. The author is changed as well. Books are created by change. They are imagined, dreamed, doodled, written, rewritten, edited, proofed, thought about, talked through, destroyed and reborn in a million ways. By the time I begin to read the author has faded, and in their place stands the book. The intention has dissipated into time and space and events of the day. The intent has no baring on the object in front of me. It it my responsibility to make sense of the book, using all I have at my disposal; my experiences, my understanding, my interpretation.

I care about the book in front of me. The story, the characters, the language and what it makes me see and feel and how it affects me. I’m glad the author exists, so that they can write again, because I am a greedy reader. Unfortunately, that is the contract an author agrees to when they write and send a book out into the world. The book must represent itself to me, the reader.

 

References

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Art and Interpretation: An Anthology of Readings in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. Ed. Eric Dayton. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 1998. 383-386. Print.

Representation in Graphic Novels

It has been quite an exciting year so far for graphic novels. On January 4, 2016 Gene Luen Yang was appointed as the Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (NY Times article). Then on Monday, January 11, Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson was an honoree for the Newbery.

What do these events have in common? Aside from the whole graphic novel thing?

1. Both authors write great books for middle grade kids. 2. Both were able to connect with readers by creating fun, complex and fully realized characters. 3. Both are mis-and-under-represented people who have found a voice in the overwhelmingly, almost laughably White-male business of publishing.

Why does that matter? If you are unfamiliar with issues around books and representation take a few minutes to get up to speed, or at least begin the learning journey — look here (We Need Diverse Books), here (Melinda Lo on LGBTQ representation), and here (Lee and Lo in BookRiot).

Look, we all know the history of comics and graphic novels. Comic books have long been considered the territory of boys, White boys in particular. But, the truth is comics and graphic novels have an audience that reaches beyond gender and race barriers. According to on study done by The Beat (Schenker,2014) of nearly 24 million comics fans, 47% self-identified as female. That is just under half … which means around 11,280,000 women – who bothered to respond to a survey – are reading comics in one form or another. That’s a lot of people who are not men.

“So what?” you might ask. “What’s the big deal about some girls reading some books?” Well, for one thing, although graphic novels are probably the most diverse areas of children’s literature, it is still hugely, predictably, and programmatically White, male and straight. “But, what about Gene and Roller Girl?!?! You just said that things are exciting and new!” You might be saying. And, if you follow book news, you might also add, “Last Stop on Market Street‘s Newbery win. What about THAT!?!” And yes, things are moving but instead of sitting back — basking in the collective glory of recognition of great books written by and about women and people of color. I’m willing to bask for a minute, but I intend on seizing the moment. I am working hard on raising awareness about issues of representation, trying to build tools, and theory to help educators critically examine and talk about these books with each other and with our students.

I have been working on ways to help readers try and focus the ways people who are traditionally under-or mis-represented are used and read in graphic novels. This isn’t about ignoring or replacing traditional literary analysis or evaluation. Rather, it is looking at who and how people are represented in ADDITION to literary qualities.

One way to focus on representations comes from Alison Bechdel author of Dykes to Watch Out For, Fun Home, and  Are you My Mother. The Bechdel Test highlights if women appear as functioning characters in movies and books using 3 simple questions,

  1. Are there two named female characters?
  2. Do they speak to each other?
  3. About something other than a man or men?

That’s it. That is not a lot to ask of the media that we see every day, and it really isn’t much to ask of the media our kids see. You can also ask the same questions about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer characters or people of color. This (unbelievably) low bar does not address the quality or fullness of characters that are either under-or mis-represented people. And, it certainly does not get at the images used in graphic novels to, literally, represent these people. So, I am proposing my own Jiménez Character Scale to focus a readers attention on a character’s authenticity or “roundness”. Think about a characters that stayed with you after you closed the book … I’ll wait here …. Do you have one? Good.

What made that character believable? Did they have complicated motivations that made sense within the book? Did they change? Where they complex and sometimes even contradictory? Were they more than a single behavior or look or emotion? More than a collection of stereotypes or simple tropes for the main character to bounce off? Could you imagine them existing before the events of the book ? And do they continue on after the events in the book are resolved?

And, because I am reading and writing about graphic novels, there needs to be a way to address the ways physical appearences are handled in these books. Think of it as a Physicality Scale that goes from Barbie to Actual Possible Person.

DelilahDirk
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff
Hades-14
Hades: Lord of the Dead by George OConnor
LumberJanes by Stevenson, Ellis, Watters and Allen

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition, we need to seriously look at the sexualization of women and girls in graphic novels. I’m not saying women can’t be sexual or shouldn’t be sexual, but is that all we are? Do female characters in graphic novels need an hour glass figure and cleavage? Are come-hither looks, ripped and revealing clothes all we have? And, why is whiteness the overwhelming norm?

thorn
Thorn from Bone series by Jeff Smith

Cleo

wonder-woman-comics-volume-1-tpb-softcover-souple-issues-v3-90074
Wonder Woman: Love and Murder

 

 

 

 

 

 

These are some of the questions I am asking. This is where I am going in my reading and my research. Hope you come along for the ride.