Pen Mendonça: how to bring diversity to comics through intersectionality
Graphic facilitator and cartoonist Pen Mendonça writes about increasing the representation of different kinds of women in the comics industry.
Today I very nearly missed the deadline for this International Women’s Day newsletter, thanks to an outbreak of chickenpox in our thriving little family. I realise I am one of millions of women staying at home with poorly little ones, applying calamine lotion/offering unlimited screen-time/trying to get the ever-growing pile of washing dry.
As a freelance cartoonist and hourly-paid teacher raising a child on a single income, I will be squeezing in sketching and lesson-planning between the cuddles and cooking, consciously and sub-consciously integrating ideas about motherhood into both the drawings I produce, and the lessons I plan.
I am, of course, in a position of privilege, compared to many other mothers who will be struggling with far more difficult issues today, but who will not have been given the opportunity to write an article about them.
From the workplace to academia, from popular feminism to comics scholarship, there are times when motherhood still feels strangely absent; yet mothers, and those contemplating the journey towards or away from motherhood, are everywhere. 8th March 2017 provides us with an opportunity to acknowledge the growing number of extraordinary autobiographical graphic novelists who focus on early motherhood and non-motherhood in their work: Phoebe Potts, AK Summers, Nicola Streeten, Matilda Tristram, Paula Knight, Alissa Torres and Sungyoon Choi, to name just a few.
Their practice seeks to address complex, and at times deeply painful topics from the challenges of conception, to the death of a child or partner, or the experience of being diagnosed with cancer while pregnant. In the graphic novels they create - which are increasingly being discussed in the context of ‘graphic medicine’ - nuanced representations of mental health and well-being educate and challenge the reader.
However, while these books address over-simplistic and predictable portrayals of conception, pregnancy, early motherhood and non-motherhood, the main characters here are largely white, and appear to be in supportive, couple relationships. My hope for the future is that the remarkable work of these pioneering graphic novelists can be supplemented by work which is more nuanced in this regard.
As cartoonists, publishers and feminists operating in an increasingly challenging social, political and economic context, considering the whiteness of the paper we draw on, along with the whiteness of our characters, and finding ways to move beyond representations which may be limited to our own lived experience, may enable us to address current gaps in representation.
In Britain today, 25 percent of households with children are led by single parents, and 92 percent of single parents are women. They may be working class, middle class, young or old, white, from minority ethnic communities, disabled and/or LGBTQ. A disproportionate number of single mother families live in poverty. Exploring intersectionality within our character design and narrative can offer those feeling mis- and/or under-represented important life affirming alternatives.
It seems timely to extend opportunities, funding and courses for those with direct experience of institutional discrimination and negative societal attitudes, so they can engage in and lead research, share/draw their stories, perspectives and imaginations, through the medium of comics.
This 160 x 160cm graphic was produced live during a meeting about Windrush Day, held at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, London. June 2018 will mark the 70th anniversary of the Empire Windrush arriving in Tilbury with 492 caribbean men and women (including one of the founders of the Nottinghill Carnival, the late Sam King MBE). As can be seen above major celebrations are being planned to recognise the contributions of black, Asian and other minority communities to multi-cultural Britain. Reproduced with kind permission from Patrick Vernon.
To offer a few examples: last week, while working as a graphic facilitator, I met a mother with learning disabilities who had been traumatised by having had her children taken into care; I listened to yet another minority ethnic mother tell a room full of people about the abuse her child endured while in publicly funded services; and was reminded of the large numbers of older women living in care homes that may look like impressive stately homes on the outside, but provide a totally unacceptable quality of care on the inside.
Sadly, we live and make comics within a society where public services, including social care, are in crisis. It is fantastic to see comic books and strips addressing this, as cartoonists work with (and in) the voluntary and public sectors, as researchers engage cartoonists, and as those who use services tell their own stories through this unique and accessible medium.
Despite this, we still need a greater diversity of comics which focus on the perspectives and experiences of girls and women, including older women.
In her book What Should We Tell Our Daughters?: The Pleasures and Pressures of Growing Up Female (2013, Hodder and Stoughton), Melissa Benn warns that better-off women can act “as a kind of decoy: diverting attention from the widespread and rapid pauperisation of perhaps the majority of their sex”. Women are more likely to be lone parents and single pensioners, vulnerable to low incomes. Digital exclusion affects nearly 10 percent of adults in the UK, women face maternity discrimination, are more likely to experience intimate violence, and across the world we are seeing policies which undermine the basic human rights and dignity of women and their children.
As we celebrate both the feminism of today, and the magic of our entertaining, gritty and visually stunning comics and graphic novels, we need to continue to reflect on how the medium, which has a history of sexist, racist and disablist imagery and language, can help address inequality and discrimination.
Increasingly we are seeing graphic novels where collaborations lead to work that tackles difficult truths, such as Youme Landowne and Anthony Horton’s Pitch Black, based on Horton’s experience of living in the tunnels of the New York subway (tragically Horton was killed in a fire). Ram Devineni, Lina Svrivastava and Dan Goldman’s Priya's Shakti exposes sexual violence and cultural attitudes devastating the lives of women and girls in India, while Drawing The Line: Indian Women Fight Back is a comics anthology produced by 14 women during a week-long workshop.
Paco Roca’s Wrinkles is a magnificent and touching graphic novel following the deteriorating mental health of older characters with experience of dementia (though I wonder how easily it would pass the Bechdel Test, as it is largely a male perspective). Joyce Farmer’s Special Exits, allows us to consider the realities of old age, of end of life and the experience of being a carer, while also inviting us to know an older heterosexual couple who have lived rich and varied lives, and who continue to have agency despite their deteriorating health and a broken care and welfare system.
As for the future, the graphic narrative students I work alongside at London College of Communication are incredibly talented visual practitioners with diverse lived experience; like all of us they have multiple and sometimes changing identities. They come to life when presented with examples that resonate with their own family and ethnic backgrounds, with their perspective on gender and sexuality, but they are also quick to point out tired caricatures and predictable endings. I can’t wait to see what they produce as the illustrators, comics artists, animators and graphic designers of the future.
Through autobiography, autobiofictional-ography (Lynda Barry’s superb definition), documentary and fiction, through sketchnotes, illustrated children’s books and interactive comics this unique and versatile medium provides endless opportunities for us to collaborate, connect and expand our own ideas about who and what is represented.
Pen Mendonça is an independent graphic facilitator and cartoonist. She is undertaking a practice-based PhD at Central Saint Martins and is an Associate Lecturer at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. Her book on graphic facilitation will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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Black Widow: an Avenger with a very specific skill set
This collection of essays studies Marvel's Black Widow as a fan-favourite and feminist icon to explore the empowerment of female superheroes.
Marvel wants us to know that it has been trying really hard with diversity over the last couple of years. Perhaps realising that representation of a wider range of people leads not only to a larger, more satisfied audience, but also to more varied and nuanced storytelling, the publisher has taken steps to mix up the writing pool. The result of bringing in the talents of people like “Bad Feminist” Roxane Gay and cultural and political journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates is a new generation of supers that represent the broad backgrounds and experience of their fans.
One contentious poster child for how far Marvel has come in its representations of women is the Marvel Cinematic Universe's (MCU) lone female Avenger, Black Widow.
Everyone has an opinion about the treatment of super-spy Natasha Romanoff by her creators. In Marvel’s Black Widow from Spy to Superhero: Essays on an Avenger with a Very Specific Skill Set, media scholars build on the range of praise and criticism of the character to examine her appeal, her position in the Avengers, and how far Marvel has failed her on page and screen.
The book probably isn’t meant to be read cover to cover, but anyone consuming it this way will be bludgeoned to death with the constant repetition of Black Widow’s back story in varying amounts of detail. This being the case, let’s keep it brief here.
Natalia “Natasha” Romanova was born in Russia in either 1928 or 1984, depending on which incarnation you’re looking at. She was taken to the “Red Room” as a child, where she received brutal training in combat and espionage before serving as a spy for the KGB’s “Black Widow Program”. Stuff happened, and, to cut a long story short, she defected to the USA where she started to work with Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D.
For many years the character of Black Widow popped in and out of other heroes' storylines, occasionally having her own series where she struggled to present an identity of her own, boxed in as she was by the influences of all the men in her life. She mostly wore silly, impractical outfits and her successes were usually thanks to her sexual appeal.
This flimsy characterisation carried over into the MCU when she appeared in Iron Man 2, played by Scarlett Johansson. But when all hope was lost, along came Subversion Man Joss Whedon, who battled the titans of Marvel and Disney to give the Widow her chance to shine in Avengers Assemble.
The nine essays that make up Marvel’s Black Widow from Spy to Superhero examine this history through the lenses of: textual analysis, such as Black Widow’s use of language in Avengers Assemble or the visual styles and fashion; feminist theory; social psychology, including conditioning and mind control; and media studies looking at fan-made content and Marvel’s narrative accountability.
As might be expected each contribution varies in quality, with some making others redundant through repetition or a better analysis. “Front and Centre: Examining Black Widow Fanvids”, for example, is completely outdone by the collection’s closing essay, “The Elusive Black Widow Film: Fan-Made Texts as Social Desire Paths”. While the first describes some of the fan-made trailers and title sequences for a non-existent Black Widow film and how they differ from “fake” trailers because they express a realistic hope for the film that borders on activism, the second takes the sociological science of “desire paths” and extends the theory to encompass Marvel’s responsibility for the needs of its fans.
Another stand out chapter is Heather Porter’s re-evaluation of the dreaded “strong female character”. Her essay “In Search of the Complete Female Character” examines the representation of women on screen and offers a new definition for creating rounded characters of any gender identity that encompass the balance of strengths and flaws that make up real people.
In the light of International Women’s Day and this year’s campaign to #BeBoldForChange, there are a few questions that we might expect a book like this to answer:
In her introduction, editor Sherry Ginn - who later analyses Joss Whedon’s obsession with brainwashing in the Avengers films and his TV shows - explains that she compiled the collection because, after the release of Avengers Assemble in 2012, there wasn’t a Widow to be found among the film’s toys and merchandise.
This isn’t the only time Disney has overtly denied girls and women their fandom. Fans were asking the same question of Rey after her introduction to the Star Wars universe in 2015’s The Force Awakens.
Although Marvel’s Black Widow from Spy to Superhero can’t provide any magical solutions for the blatant sexism of Disney’s marketing department, it gives enough information on the subject to continue the conversation. Ginn reports that Disney executives claimed to have no need for female superhero toys because they have already cornered the girl’s market with their range of princesses. Gross, right?
The chapters discussing fan activism are also relevant to this discussion, presenting the reader with tools to take part in the creation of the media we consume.
2. How far can we read Black Widow as a feminist character?
Lewis Call’s exploration of “Joss Whedon’s Radical Icon of Third Wave Feminism” most directly answers this question, with an examination of how the character has moved from the environment of the 60s’ second wave feminism - next to which she was created - to the post-third wave that is building up today.
Second wave feminism, commonly associated with Betty Friedan and her examination of The Feminine Mystique that kept housewives captive in their homes during the 1950s and 60s, focused on women’s rights. The first wave gave us the right to vote at the beginning of 20th century, but decades later women were still largely defined and controlled by the men in their lives. Black Widow, first introduced in 1964, can be said to have overcome some of the constraints of her station with her defection, but her motivation was still man-centric a lot of the time, and so we don’t really view her as a feminist “icon” until Joss Whedon took over her voice in the MCU.
Whedon has a reputation for his cultural statements of feminism. Unsurprisingly, Natasha is compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s titular character in many of this book’s essays. Buffy Summers is possibly the most famous symbol of third wave “girlie” feminist representation, that combined the positive recognition of feminine traits with more traditionally masculine ones. The vampire slayer, especially at the beginning, cares just as much about her own life as a teenager, as well as her duty to fight, and expresses as much with her more feminine skills of communication.
In Natasha, Call and his fellow contributors argue, Whedon takes his presentation of third wave feminism one step further, by allowing her to embrace her feminine traits as a weapon in their own right. In analyses of her fighting style (in David Kociemba’s essay “Athena’s Daughter: Black Widow’s Impact Aesthetic”), her language (in “A Very Specific Skill Set”: Black Widow’s Use of Language in the Avengers” by Malgorzata Drewniok), and her role in Avengers Assemble and Avengers: Age of Ultron, the reader is encouraged to notice how Natasha succeeds with whichever skill is appropriate at the time.
Rather than demanding space among the “boys” by displaying brute strength, she quietly resolves each problem she faces with her manipulative prowess, loyalty and attention to detail, often using the expectations of misogyny in her favour as she is constantly underestimated. While she can throw down with the best of them, Natasha’s power comes from a traditionally feminine place, and is shown to match the other Avengers because of that power rather than in spite of it.
3. Why does Black Widow not have her own film?
This question could have been the alternative title for this book. It’s the big one, addressed by most of the contributors and resolved by none of them.
The writers and academics in Marvel’s Black Widow from Spy to Superhero use a lot of different topics to address the discrimination that Black Widow has faced in her long lifetime. They give excellent reasons, based on quantifiable data, why the character “deserves” a film of her own, and report on Marvel’s statements that they have a long-term plan for the MCU that doesn’t currently include a Black Widow story but that will introduce Captain Marvel in its first female-led solo film in 2019.
At this point, we can be pretty certain that Black Widow isn’t getting a solitary romp or an origin story beyond what we’ve already seen. And the reasons could be more practical than ideological.
In order to make a film in the US that alludes to the armed services in any way, the script has to be signed off by the military. Any visual representation of those armed services can only be provided by that military. Black Widow’s origins as a Soviet spy create problems of representation in today’s political climate, no matter the distance of the story from reality. As well as keeping themselves looking heroic to ensure the steady influx of young soldiers, the US doesn’t want to piss off Trump’s pal Putin with a Hollywood blockbuster criticising the methods of the KGB.
While the Avengers are facing global threats and larger-than-life bad guys, our attention is drawn away from the fact that all of the big name superheroes are, and always have been, weapons belonging to America. Even as Captain America starts to address this truth in Civil War and Superman and Batman argue over similar concepts in DC-land, these superpowers that literally embody weapons of mass destruction are turned in on themselves, reducing the threat to the rest of the world.
But Captain America was created as a patriotic weapon, designed to win for his side. Now, with the world shrinking and with a fanbase that spans the globe, using such characters as propaganda isn’t going to fly. Black Widow was a product of the Cold War in the same way that Captain America and Superman were born from the misery of the World Wars. Her character showed readers horrific portrayals of the enemy Russians before presenting them with the victory of her desertion and reinforced American ideals with her “free choice” to work for the US rather than against it.
No one can deny that Marvel, and especially Disney, are far from being a beacon of feminist hope just yet, but their loud attempts to show diversity in the comics and on screen in recent content suggests that Black Widow’s gender can’t be the only thing stopping her starring in a superhero film when the outcry from fans is so pervasive. Marvel likes money. They wouldn’t turn it down just to deny a woman her voice.
Marvel’s Black Widow from Spy to Superhero will be released on 1st April 2017.
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The Facts of Life
Paula Knight's fantastic memoir asks why parenthood must be the only road to fulfilment for women.
Creator: Paula Knight
Publisher: Myriad Editions
For generations, women have been conditioned from an early age to believe that the greatest thing they can aspire to is motherhood. It’s what their grandmothers were made for, it’s what their mothers were made for - it’s what they’re made for.
And if it’s not their family and friends bludgeoning them with this matriarchal imperative, it’s society. Our governments, the media, and the advertising industry have consistently tried to define what the role of women should be. While no longer having to stay at home with the children, there is still a social expectation for women to want a baby regardless of how that might negatively affect her health, lifestyle or career development.
Paula Knight’s graphic memoir The Facts of Life is her journey from childhood to the present day, during which she is surrounded by influences that attempt to force this child-bearing narrative upon her. As she grows older, advances through her career, endures and overcomes health problems, she must confront the ever-looming decision of whether or not to have children. And, more importantly, whether her decision will reflect badly on other areas of her life.
The “facts of life”, which can be read as both sex education and the dismal truth about the world, are taught to us as we grow up by the parents and teachers that are most influential people in our lives. In using this phase as the title of her book, Knight challenges the social paradigm that presents them as one and the same. It is still a common belief that a sad fact of life is that a woman’s life is not complete without children. In nodding to this, the creator asks us to consider that women shouldn’t have to have children if they don’t want to, nor should they be judged from a moral standpoint on that decision.
Knight makes a further argument that not having children doesn’t invalidate a person’s nurturing instincts. During the prologue we see her and her partner planting trees. Beforehand, when they’re in the car, there’s a curious panel showing her face bathed in sunlight with a Mothercare van visible in the windscreen, the ‘M’ of its logo just out of shot. This “Othercare” tableau shows that the desire to bring something into the world and care for it is universal and pure, irrespective of children. For Knight the pleasure of nurturing is found in working on her art and giving back to nature; both are acts of creativity and legacy, equally as legitimate as having children.
As a man, it’s hard to ever imagine the amount of pressure - both environmental and biological - women are under every day. It’s maddening to see how quickly young women are pushed into defining themselves and others through motherhood or the prospect of it. But Knight depicts the struggle of being a woman, and having to face those decisions with such humanity that it’s hard not to empathise. Instead of accepting the binary label of being “childless” or “child-free”, she asserts that she is “neither, just me”. We are all more than the labels we are given by other people.
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A few questions for The Facts of Life creator, Paula Knight...
Josh Franks: There has been a significant increase in the number of graphic memoirs created by women in the last few years. How can comics, particularly graphic memoir, inspire a move towards gender parity?
Paula Knight: For me, reading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi in the mid-2000s was a revelation that drew my attention to the fact that there were other middle-aged women writing memoir using this medium - so I then felt able to write my story in comics, too. Previously, I'd been to a large comics event and felt conspicuously old and female there. This delayed my starting to write because I didn't think that there would be much of an audience for work about my subject matter. I hope my example is repeated more now - the very fact that more women are writing memoir might attract even more women readers and writers, and hopefully this will help to redress any imbalance. Sometimes you need to be able to recognise yourself represented in the arts before you feel confident enough to contribute - at least that was the case for me.
JF: What demonstrable difference has there been in how people perceive you as “childless” and how they perceive your partner?
PK: The difference was more evident in how often we were asked if we had children. For me it was fairly often, for John he was rarely asked that question. I think there is an assumption that women are more interested in, and open to talking about children and their relationship to children, and perhaps more able to talk about sensitive subject matter. Most women possess wombs, so that also makes women's bodies synonymous with children because that's where babies grow - never mind that some women don't wish to procreate. Women's value to society is often judged around their relationship to children, too, so if one has not conformed to society's expectation of women's roles, society demands to know why not! Failing to contribute towards propelling the human race forwards is perhaps questionable as part of our survival drive. Women have also traditionally been the subject of blame when it comes to childlessness, especially in other cultures (to mine). This is perhaps behind why the focus is unfortunately still more on the partner who carries the pregnancy to be answerable to their state of childlessness.
JF: You use sketches, photographs and even different types of paper in your other comics. What were the challenges of incorporating these techniques into a longer, more linear form of storytelling?
PK: I wanted my book to be accessible for people who might not be accustomed to reading pictures, so I didn't want to do anything too visually challenging. For this reason, I stuck to a more traditional aesthetic. The shorter work was about me having fun, and the freedom to experiment after being tied to a style in my life as a freelance illustrator. The book does use some old sketches and photos, and because it's a memoir, this meant accessing letters I'd written to friends as a teenager and old photos that belonged to others. It also meant upending my parents' home in search of certain childhood drawings! The book is in greyscale, too, so that doesn't necessarily show off the best you can do with papers and found objects. To have used this widely across a 240-page book might have been hard logistically in terms of acknowledgments and permissions. Also, that kind of work can involve a lot of Photoshop/computer use, which is a challenge for me as someone who has ME and Fibromyalgia. As it stands, my husband did most of my scanning, for example, to save my arm muscles for the drawing. More photos would have meant more scanning!
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The Best We Could Do
Another standout memoir on the power of family, The Best We Could Do looks into the past, the future and everything in between.
Creator: Thi Bui
Publisher: Abrams ComicArts
We are in an age where one perspective has dominated views of history, society, and entertainment for far too long. The Best We Could Do offers an alternative to the male gaze. A memoir written by Thi Bui, a Vietnamese refugee who grew up in America, it tells a personal history with the authentic voices of Vietnamese women.
The book starts with the birth of Bui's son. From that point she looks backwards to explore not only her own childhood, but those of her parents as well. Instead of interpreting events in a linear timeline, the first depiction of her mother and father is as she knew them when she was a child. She then explores the details of their lives that led them there, relaying each person’s story in the same way that she would have discovered them herself.
Her son’s birth and her new status as a mother serves as a bookend for the memoir. The benefit of this is that the reader develops a feeling of hindsight and foresight at the same time. When we first meet Bui’s mother, she finds it too painful to be present at the birth of her grandson. As the story unfolds and we witness her own traumatic experiences of childbirth, the opening scene is contextualised and we see how much her past still affects her life.
This device is further explored in the artwork. Accounts of Bui’s parents’ upbringings are interrupted with moments that show them speaking directly to her. This breaking of the fourth wall that unites past and present is a strong example of the narrative freedom of comic books as an artistic medium.
In examining her life from the perspective of a first-time mother, Bui expresses a desire to better know her parents. She says that she moved house to be closer to them, but found that physical proximity didn’t result in a stronger emotional connection. Her memoir reads as the result of this wish for a strong familial bond. She doesn’t judge the actions of her relatives, but rather provides the context needed for both herself and the reader to understand them.
Though not always happy, The Best We Could Do is not a tale without hope. Not only does it show the struggles of parenthood in a troubled country, but also the silent strength with which they coped with them.
The book shows how people can be haunted by their pasts. Bui’s father is shown to be deeply mistrustful of strangers coming to the door because of how often he had to hide for his life as a child. Readers can also see how far from that past the family has come. Bui’s mother has made use of learning opportunities in America to make up for the disruption of her education in the changing political climate of Vietnam, and in the present day she heckles Bui about the importance of learning for her newborn.
The Best We Could Do takes place within a moment, with Bui’s induction into motherhood recreating the relationship she has with her parents as she reaches an entirely new point of view. She explains that though her mother and father have now separated they remain firm friends who look out for each other in their old age, forever linked by the bonds of parenthood.
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Friends will be friends...