I’ve been reading lots of graphic novels (per usual), thinking about female protagonists (again, per usual), but I have also been reading loads of theory: Critical Race Theory; Feminist theory; Womanist theory; Queer theory; Narrative theory; Literary theory.
Why you might be asking yourself? Well, theory in academic research guides the way we frame the questions we ask, figure out the ways we should ask those questions, and how we should interpret what we find. Theory is one way for us to make connections and, in the case of socio-cultural theory, to better grasp how we are viewing the world and how the world is viewing us. It a bit like philosophy in that way.
In both my personal and professional lives I tend to be less interested in all things theoretical. I’m much more of a doer, much more pragmatic, in the way I approach the world. That means my ideal statement of theory would read something like “we need to look at the ways women and girls are represented because LOOK AT THE DAMN WORLD, PEOPLE!!!!” But, that does not go over well in academia, so I have been reading.
Although I hate to admit it, but all this reading is helping me gain some perspective on the the cultural upheaval happening in children’s literature. A sort of mile high perspective, if you will.
We in children’s literature (teachers, librarians, authors, publishers and scholars) are trying to work through some serious identity chiz and it’s not going smoothly. At issue is the status quo of children’s books wherein a White, straight, male, middle class and able bias is being directly and repeatedly challenged by many different people all over the internet.
At the heart of the powerful and repeated defense of the “neutral” status quo might be feelings of vulnerability and guilt. I’m just guessing here but it sounds like those who have, historically, been so privileged that they never considered their own privilege in the world are getting a wake up call. The feelings are manifesting themselves as various forms of fragility, including but not limited to,
- White fragility
- Straight fragility
- Male fragility
- Middle-class fragility
- Able fragility
- Book and media fragility*
That last one isn’t a thing yet but maybe it should be. I define book fragility as the protection of books no matter how hurtful they are to those who are represented by the easy and stereotypical tropes.
You’ve seen book fragility. You may have even felt it. It is the gut wrenching “oof” when someone first told you there is a problem with the”The Giving Tree” who never speaks and is consumed by the male protagonist. Or, when you read an article about “Little House” as the story of the great White land grab. Or, when a bunch of people stood up and said all picturebooks with smiling, happy slaves are hugely problematic. I could go on, but I’m guessing you get it (if not, you might want to head over to We Need Diverse Books and Reading While White).
I have been the one to deliver this kind of heartbreaking news about beloved books. No one is ever happy to hear it. No one wants to hear that the book they loved as a child or as an adult makes someone else hurt. I get that. It is like learning that the steak you love is made out of cute cows. That’s got to hurt.
But, the reactionary defense of fragility is a mystery to me.
Why defend? Why deny and blame those of us who are hurt? When I say I am tired of seeing all the lesbians either killed or raped or given shock treatment and then killed, people say I am over reacting. They defend those lazy tropes with “but that happens”. And I say, yes, but we lesbians also live happily ever after and I hardly ever get to see that in a book.
I don’t understand the powerful pushback I get when I assert that girls and boys need to read and see female characters as whole people and not just tits and ass. So, no, I can’t recommend Bone by Jeff Smith, Wonder Woman by almost anyone, or Delilah Dirk by Tony Cliff. These graphic novels all highlight women whose breasts are always peeking out of various cleavages, hips and thighs that can’t be held by mere clothe, and finally clothes that are generally on the verge of spontaneously exploding.
When I see the obvious link between poverty and color in Little Robot by Ben Hatke, I’m going to write about it. Other people are going to see the connection, think about it, and they will also write about it (check out Comics Alternative podcast). And, no, I am not looking forward to seeing this same character in Mighty Jack.
I’ll admit, I have no experience being privileged, but I have seen the over-represented, male, White, able, and straight identity protected. I think lots of people need to get used to feeling book fragility and then they need to get over it. Because those of us who experience racism, sexism, and all forms of violent intolerance are speaking up and we are going to keep speaking, no matter what kind of fragility we are stepping on.