Yes, girls kick ass. But how?

October 12th, 2008 by |

Last week Books, Inc. hosted a panel for the Litquake festival entitled, The Kick-Ass, All-Girl Graphic Novel Panel. It was moderated by Shaenon Garrity and featured Devin Grayson, LeUyen Pham, and Trina Robbins. Cecil Castellucci was scheduled, but was unable to attend.

The panel was refreshingly discussion-oriented, without the sales pitches that interrupt the flow of most convention panels. Ms Pham, as the only illustrator present, talked about how grateful various editors were that she was one of the relatively few artists who regularly finished on schedule. She also mentioned the difficulty of going from children’s books to graphic novels, saying that she would have heated discussions with her husband and co-artist about what the composition of every panel meant for character development and story ideas.

The discussion during the panel also became heated when the inevitable question of how to get women and girls to read graphic novels came up. Ms Robbins said that girls liked pretty art and lighthearted stories focusing on female characters. Ms Grayson broke in by saying that she didn’t like that generalization, and that many girls liked very dark stories, but that they preferred good stories with strong character interaction. Robbins countered, saying that of course girls liked good stories, both boys and girls did, but that female audiences tended to skew towards prettier art, citing manga as an example. They later compromised, saying that very young girls tend to overwhelmingly like ‘girly’ stories, but adult women are more varied in their taste.

They returned to the issue later, when Ms Grayson said she grew annoyed during her career by being asked about her gender rather than her work, and being asked to give a woman’s perspective and or write stories ‘for girls.’ Ms Pham agreed, saying that she wanted to write stories for everyone, not have her work be directed at girls or boys. Ms Robbins, however, said that she was proud to write specifically for girls, to cater her stories to girls’ tastes and interests. She stated that girls should have stories that tried to speak to their issues and experience, just as boys did.

The panel experienced the same schism in philosophy that has divided feminism at large. There are some obvious problems with creating a special category for women in any medium. Artistically, it’s always considered more pure to say one’s stories are universal, and can speak to anyone in any situation. Commercially, ‘catering to women’ often translates to hair, shoes, dresses and a love story. Socially, marketing something to girls can chase away male readers who might otherwise have taken an interest in the story, as well as female readers who feel that they’re being patronized. By definition, ‘for girls’ is limiting and exclusionary.

That, however, doesn’t mean that taking away the label of ‘for girls’ takes away the limitation. Movies, books, and comics are often made with a specific user in mind, and from the look of things, that user is often male. Companies aren’t ashamed to create and market things specifically for men. Often, a primarily male audience is considered a point of pride. By looking down on things that are created or marketed for women, are people implying that female preferences or a female audience is something to be ashamed of? Why shouldn’t women be proud that some comics, books, or movies are created specifically for their enjoyment?

There is no one answer to this question, and nor should there be. The panel was much livelier because of the different experiences and ideologies of the people present on it. Comics, the feminist movement, and life in general are much the same.

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6 comments to “Yes, girls kick ass. But how?”

  1. Devin fell off the map for reasons that I at least did not know. I wish I heard more about her and what work she’s up too. She’s one person who I felt was getting more enjoyable before she disappeared.

    I wish I knew this was going up, I would have asked you if you would mind following this stuff up with her.

  2. I’ve always admired Trina’s work…but for decades now she’s endorsed this very narrow, prescriptive view of gender roles that boils down to “Girls who like the same things I like are normal while girls who like things I don’t like are not normal and either there’s something wrong with such girls or they’re lying.” I’ve known many, many women over the years who tried to reason with her on this topic but got nowhere.

    Funnily enough, by her argument I can’t exist either, as a guy who nonetheless likes her work even though it contains the features that she says are what only gals like. Or does she think guys are allowed to like a wide range of things but gals aren’t? I won’t ask her; even a nonexistent guy gets tired of banging his head against a wall.

  3. Whenever I read something that is targeted at girls and end up enjoying it I come away with this stunned feeling, like I’ve seen a UFO or a unicorn. Sooooooo not my thing normally, but I can still enjoy certain examples…and I think this is because–and this applies to ALL stories–the best material usually transcends a lot of the things that people dislike about that type of story normally. Those little quirks that have evolved into lazy conventions that people who love the genre will put up with, but outsiders will look and and go “THAT’S STUPID”

    Basically, when “It’s targetted at girls!” becomes an excuse instead of a mission statement, that’s the problem

  4. @RAB: Hmm. I didn’t get that from that panel, but I haven’t followed interviews with Ms Robbins over the years. I think a part of her frustration comes from a feeling that her art is losing ground. At the beginning of the panel she mentioned that there used to be a massive selection of girls comics when she was young. Romance, professional, adventure, slice-of-life high school comics, none of which survive anymore. That tradition has been so thoroughly buried that it’s almost unheard of today, that the Minx brand has recently been cancelled. I think that she wants some comics aimed at girls as a way to revive a culture that she thinks has almost died out, while comics enjoyed primarily by boys survive.

    I’ll have to keep an eye out for other statements she makes about this subject, though. When does support for one vision become a limitation?

    @OnimaruXLR: The ‘excuse’ bit I can definitely agree with.

    Whenever I read something that is targeted at girls and end up enjoying it I come away with this stunned feeling, like I’ve seen a UFO or a unicorn.

    Often this is my reaction, as well. At the same time, I’m a little cautious about it. I wonder how much of my reaction is a normal part of not wanting to be manipulated or a reaction to dumbed-down material, and how much is a condemnation of ‘girly’ stuff that the material itself doesn’t deserve. There’s nothing about romance or domestic drama or pink with ribbons stuff that makes it inferior to action or professional drama or other things aimed at men.

    Your ‘excuse v mission statement’ comment is the best way I can think to put it. I don’t want to distance myself from girl-centered stuff, but I’m skeptical that it’s more a marketing statement than a desire to add more variety to a medium.

  5. I kid you not, we were discussing feminist composition pedagogy today in my class. If you replace the words “comics” with the words “female oriented writing” it would have been the same discussion.

  6. Grayson was supposed to write Batwoman initially, then the book was canned. I think that was finally it for her and comics.