Postcolonial Feminism and Comics

by Stephanie Cawley


Comics are an artform that is culturally marginalized in the West, particularly in America. Although this is beginning to change both within academia, where comics are receiving increasing attention, and in the mainstream, where acclaimed comics like Art Spiegelman’s Maus are changing people’s understanding of what comics are and can be, mainstream culture still often associates comics with frivolous works for children. The term “graphic novel” has begun to gain popularity as a marketing term used to distinguish between “low” and “high” works of comics, but contemporary comics artists like Daniel Clowes dislike this label (Gilson) both for its inaccuracy and because it continues to perpetuate the stigmatization of comics by labeling only some comics as worthy of the label. I avoid it here because the works discussed in this project are not novels—“graphic narrative” or “graphic memoir” are more suitable terms. This stigma of comics as adolescent, immature literature manifests today with comic books being shelved in the young adult sections of libraries and bookstores (as I have personally seen), sometimes regardless of the appropriateness of their content. Works like Fun Home and Persepolis may be interesting and appropriate for young adult readers, yet they are also sophisticated political works aimed towards an adult audience.

Given this marginalization of the comics form, the choice of comics as a medium for writers like Marjane Satrapi and Alison Bechdel, unlike a choice to use more traditionally “literary” mediums such as the novel, poetry or plays, thus can be seen as expressing resistance to dominant culturally-sanctioned forms of expression. Bechdel’s Fun Home incorporates and references high modernist literature, and Satrapi’s Persepolis overtly critiques the West, so the choice of the medium of comics for these works represents a resistance to the Western hegemonic value systems that assert the dominance of more culturally valued art forms over other, “inferior” modes of expression. Comics as a medium can thus be a way for postcolonial feminist writers to call attention to this distinction between “high” and “low” cultures and resist this Western marker of value and appropriateness.

from War Rabbit by Rutu Modan

The use of this marginalized, culturally dismissed artform by political writers like Satrapi and Bechdel has several additional implications as well. Jennifer Worth in “Unveiling: Persepolis as Embodied Performance” explains that Iranian playwright Bizhan Mofid used the format of musical children’s theater to introduce controversial political ideas under the reign of the Shah of Iran, when works critical of the government would have been censored. The use of a form typically relegated to children can be a way to introduce overtly political messages in a seemingly nonthreatening manner, particularly in a political climate that may be hostile to these messages. This certainly can apply to Satrapi’s Persepolis, which challenges mainstream media representations of the Middle East and the Middle Eastern woman, but does so in a way that may be quietly political because of the unassuming nature of the comics medium, and thus may be more effective at reaching a broad audience.

Additionally, comics are a hybrid medium, comprised of inseparable strands of text and images, and Persepolis and Fun Home are graphic memoirs and thus are a hybrid of comics and memoir. This hybrid genre is in itself a disruption to the institutional categories of genre and academic disciplines, namely in the study of literature. This disruption calls attention to the constructed nature of these categories and to their limitations, forcing reconsideration of what can be defined as literature. Similarly, the identities of postcolonial feminist women disrupt easy distinctions between nationalist/anti-colonial and colonial ideologies, or of Eastern and Western cultural identities, by embracing parts of each and thus calling attention to the artificial bounds of these identities. Thus, hybrid aspects of the genre of graphic memoir reflect back on the content of cultural hybridity found within.

from Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese

The political content of postcolonial feminist comics is amplified by formal aspects of the medium as well, namely the pattern of framing and gutters. These formal elements demand greater reader involvement in constructing the meaning of the story, leading to greater reader understanding and participation. This means that in stories of characters existing outside of the mainstream, mainstream readers are forced to more directly identify with these characters and view them as human subjects rather than “other”-ed objects. This asserts the humanity and significance of postcolonial women who are often objectified by Western culture and may be marginalized by their own culture and anti-colonial political ideology.

These formal elements also can serve as a metaphor for Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of cultural hybridity. The comics panels, with its framed and bordered images, calls attention to the boundaries of identities and images that are used to define cultural norms. Babak Elahi, in “Frames and Mirrors in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis” agrees, claiming that the comics frame can be read as a metaphor for the invisible cultural frames and perspectives that are used to define categories of identity—such as Middle Eastern, American, etc.—and are used in the media and political rhetoric surrounding global politics—wars being “framed” as having particular motivations, for example (314). The space between these panels, the space where meaning is created in the reader’s mind, can be read as a metaphor for the Third Space of hybridity, as the place where identities can be created outside of the boundaries and frames of identities that are culturally constructed and sanctioned.

(McCloud 67)

Although there are not many women comics artists who, like Satrapi, can be read as having a directly postcolonial feminist politics (Israeli Rutu Modan being a notable exception), authors Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Shaun Tan, and Gene Luen Yang, among many others, use the comics form to deliver political messages about cultural hybridity in American immigrant or ethnic cultures, and authors like Bechdel, Diane DiMassa, and Ariel Schrag engage directly with challenging gender and sexuality binaries and stereotypes through comics. As such, this form may be particularly well-suited to the needs of postcolonial feminist writers for the possibilities it offers to articulate and negotiate complex, hybrid identities by embodying this hybridity in both structure and form.

Works Cited

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