Sarah Shermyen, University of Georgia
I’d like to avoid generalizations around how women write comics, as if female-identifying comic creators were a rare breed that might only be identified by particular use of line or theme, rather than a diverse array of artists and writers who all happen to be working from the same socially enforced disadvantage of gender. That said, I’ve found a propensity, at least in autobiographical comics by women, to render self as less conventionally attractive than might be considered in reality. This process of making-under interests me for two reasons: one, it confronts how women deal with the freighted relationship of self to social demands of beauty, and two, how attempts to make the internal appear external in a visual form of storytelling can play with visual cues for social classification.
That some essentialization of features must occur is part of the process, but in the works I examine, we do not encounter a feminized version of Scott McCloud’s simplification of face, from the photorealistic to the universal smiley. Aline Kominsky-Crumb, in the creation of her alter-ego, Bunch, tends to exaggerate features that are coded as Jewish AND unattractive, like curly, frizzy hair and a prominent nose. In the most extreme forms, like Eve Gilbert’s insect-self, the representation has seemingly little to do with presenting a recognizable version of self in cartoon-form. As part of this study, the slippery line between truth and fiction in the autobiographical/memoir space requires mention. This is particularly true as we look to Gilbert, who frequently writes about imagined versions of self, using impossible story lines to construct a self for the reader. Here the stories are untrue, that is imagined, but we cannot say that the perception of self, and the value of self, is false.
…in the hybrid, visual-verbal form of graphic narrative where the work of (self-) interpretation is literally visualized, the authors show us interpretation as process of visualization. The form of comics has a peculiar relationship not only to memoir and autobiography in general, as I will note, but also to narratives of development….Images in comics appear in fragments, just as they do in actual recollection; this fragmentation, in particular, is a prominent feature of traumatic memory. (Chute 4)
Though Chute is focused on renderings of trauma, particularly sexual trauma, the fragmentary form and its relationship to autobiography as figuration of self allows for us to piece together various parts of the narratorial identity to create a more complex identity. “The constantly morphing and shifting, satirically disproportionate physical figure of Goldie was both painful and funny—Fleener specifically mentions a panel depicting Goldie, with a tiny head, enormous nose, and gigantic lower body, who appears under a text box that reads, ‘I was a giant slug living in a fantasy of future happiness’” (Chute 36). In Kominsky Crumb, we may see the shifting visualization of avatar from panel to panel as a way in which fragmenting the whole self provides more than what a single essentialized visualization of self allows. Through fragmentation, we actually gain access to more of the whole than a smooth narratorial voice, or image, may provide.
Beauty as Political Choice and Economic Capital
In Pierre Bordieu’s Distinction, he outlines the market value of beauty—for brevity’s sake, let’s call beauty the success with which one meets a socially-determined set of standards for appearance—for the average French woman. Though the sample is insular and culturally specific, the ties between perceived beauty and self or external valuation may serve us in understanding why creation of self through comics feels so much more complex for women than for men.
To draw oneself as beautiful is to choose beauty as one’s primary identifier, and by extension to conjure a history of female power gained only through beauty. Conversely, the choice to not attain one’s full potential for beauty is often coded as political, as seen in think-pieces debating the meaning of female activists with shaved heads, or that a woman’s decision to cut her hair must be linked to the desire to make a statement. Whether we wish it or not, the meaning ascribed to female presentation of self is much more intense than that which men face. Therefore, the creation of an essentialized presentation of self is automatically a much more fraught process than that of male artists’ rendering of self.
Bordieu’s women hold value in beauty through both the process of becoming beautiful and the end product of beauty, “a moral and aesthetic virtue which defines ‘nature’ negatively as sloppiness. Beauty can thus be simultaneously a gift of nature and a conquest of merit, as much opposed to the abdications of vulgarity as to ugliness” (204). The sloppy or cramped lines of Kominsky Crumb can code not only as ugly, but also as morally wrong. To ignore the socially determined link between morality and female presentation that is clean and beautiful would be to miss much of why these renderings of self are so fraught. Goldie is seen as problematic, revolutionary, because she is “crude, not traditionally beautiful, sexually eager, often nude, and always unabashed.” To understand why this avatar has not received the same level of critical acclaim as the renderings of self created by R. Crumb (the obvious point of comparison), we have to think about how female presentation is linked to a passive, supportive role in the social fabric. That which is considered beautiful—art, nature, women—provides pleasure through passive interaction, without any obvious benefit, that is pleasure, for the observed. The social fabric does not depend upon women receiving pleasure, only in giving—sexual desire in a woman, the scenes of masturbation, are radical because they put the pleasure of the woman as the focus of her body, not the potential for pleasure that the body holds for another. The female body has long been seen as a site for sin, but primarily when women seek to satisfy their own pleasures—this is the basis for female genital mutilation, even for the fall, as Eve sought to satisfy her own curiosity.
I tried this recently, rendering myself as a comic presence. Scott McCloud creates an avatar to lead us through his comic theory in Understanding Comics, a visualization of critics no longer needing to remove themselves from their work, a willingness to insert oneself into one’s argument. As I tried to discuss what in Eve Gilbert’s work so disturbed me through a comic form, I realized that employing a voice-of-God technique by using text boxes, or speech bubbles leading to nowhere, did not fit with my discussion of autobiographical comics. Artistic challenges aside, I was unsure how to proceed with my self-representation, my essentialization. Would I create a version of self that most matched how I looked when working with literature? As a critic inserting self into my work, I wanted my appearance to inspire confidence in my academic prowess, to telegraph the inside out. I placed my hair in a bun, because left down it struck me as wild, at least when I tried to draw it. I decided to give myself lips rather than a line for a mouth, and to slim my face, rather than employ the crooked circles that usually define my stick figures. I wanted to look like me (which includes some nod to conventional western beauty standards) but to focus on my thoughts, leading to a body-less head with a stern rosebud mouth.
Even now, to discuss my appearance and the ways in which it has been deemed admirable and valuable feels loaded and wrong, though to deny that my genetic advantages within the white, western system affect my daily interactions would be false. This, I argue, is tied to lingering expectations of female behavior, a preference for the meek and retiring. To say, “I am objectively beautiful” is considered bizarre and socially unacceptable, but to accept that same idea from another is fine. To correctly value one’s appearance is a sin, but to undervalue is a virtue.
When I tried to draw myself, the power to control all aspects of the self-presentation process was both powerful and overwhelming. I alone had to determine what my looks implied. If I looked at my body, there was nothing to be dissatisfied with, not really, beyond aching joints and sore muscles. To look at my body as simply beautiful, as something to bring joy through the curves of muscle, the patterns of freckle is enjoyable. The problems arise when my own appreciation of beauty is expressed through rendering myself as beautiful. In the limited comic form, to choose beauty may be at the expense of other identities and traits.
Comics artists’ avatars are self-representations that…engage with culturally bound and socially constructed histories, contexts, and interpretations….Owing to this dynamic in the comics medium, the avatar of an autobiographical narrator always engages in the visual language of identity markers, which can pose problems for a narrator who may not easily be encapsulated by one identity. (Quesenberry 418)
Few people may be “encapsulated by one identity,” and most would not wish to be so simplified. Therefore, we must choose the identity that best fits the story we tell. “The way Kominsky-Crumb describes her contributions to women’s comics history, it was the stories she wanted to tell that produced her ways of drawing and her representations of the body and sexuality – the avatar was a result of the narrative, not the other way around” (Quesenberry 430). This idea that avatar is a result of narrative fits with what we have discussed around the creation of visual story and fantasy. The model is styled to fit the editorial, the avatar exists to draw our attention toward or from assumptions of personality based on visual cues. When I created myself as critic, I focused on intellect to the exclusion of even creating a body. Perhaps, then, beauty is a casualty in our attempts to tell stories, to externally signify the internal. Yet this explanation does not satisfy the problem of why these renderings are so arresting.
The Sexual and the Avatar
Can a move toward the crude act as a deflection away from a strict focus on women as figures of potential beauty? It may act as a means by which to escape the double-bind of female self-figuration. In Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, her avatar almost entirely circumvents the issue of representation of gender. The sloppy rectangle that represents her dress is pink, and she has a sort of ponytail, but otherwise the body provides no markers of gender. The simplistic body acts as a form of circumnavigating the demands of gendered beauty. As other characters are also similarly simplified, this form seems to present a means of creating a relatively blank canvas upon which to hold the varied, intense emotions that make up her autobiographical stories. The most detailed drawings in her work tend to be animals, or cake, the objects of interest to Brosh. Photos show her as conventionally attractive, but this is beside the point in her work. Where Kominsky Crumb aims for ugly and unsettling, Brosh seems to sidestep the entire issue with a crudeness that channels childhood, doesn’t care about gender, and works only to magnify the emotional highpoints of her storytelling. Brosh’s womanhood is not a part of the story.
With Eve Gilbert, we may apply the idea already defined: avatar creation as a means of focusing a narrative. Looking to the “The Real Resume,” and “Pregnate?” the ways in which Gilbert draws herself create the most powerful critique of the valuation of female bodies I have ever read without verbally addressing the issue.
In “The Real Resume,” the body is simple, when visible, with sex characteristics minimalized. Panel 2 of page 12 furthers the desexualized, simplistic version of body against the hyper-sexualized women, all with impossibly round, perky breasts (some even seem to be pulled up by an invisible force), or the older woman who reports the drug test with her sagging, though still prominent breasts. The body changes only twice: when an artist, she is reduced to a skeleton, and when a nude model, her body is highly sexualized, the head non-existent, and a tampon is pointed to, a line to show the string hanging from her body. The tampon depiction recalls Kominsky-Crumb, as well as the abject body. Throughout “The Real Resume,” Gilbert is continuously cast off, being fired from jobs, alienated by co-workers, becoming the abject in its many meanings. The tampon also serves as a reminder of that which only bodies that ovulate and are viable for pregnancy produce, of the demands and expectations of female bodies. It is implied that the boss for this job wants her to blow him because he is both attracted to her, and repelled by her body. He wants to sexualize her (I believe that the hyper sexualized, headless body is a reflection of the photographer’s visualization of her, and becomes her own visualization of self during that day, for that is her capital value in the instance of being a nude model), but not to encounter the non-sexualized fluids of her body. Only saliva and vaginal fluid are acceptable, not blood and uterine lining. In the upper right-hand corner of the frame, as she runs from the photographer, the lines seem to break her body into contingent parts, rather than uniting her, conjuring the joints on a plastic doll, or a wooden figure-drawing model (11.17).
The face is almost static. Unlike Brosh’s avatar, Gilbert’s face looks like a Punch and Judy doll with a squared jaw, pointed nose, and empty eyes. Her teeth are almost always showing, and it is difficult to tell if she expresses a smile, a grimace, or anything else. The bared teeth recall the frequent request hurled by strange men at women to “smile,” because a face is prettier when smiling, while also conjuring a trapped animal, displaying aggression out of fear. Like the empty eyes, the massive expanse of teeth also act to obscure nuance of emotion, to create a mask—we may not see what Gilbert actually feels throughout all these jobs. The faces of others run a spectrum of detail and abstraction—Gilbert’s face only changes when she imagines herself. In both depictions of age, she has one weeping/blacked out eye. In the first, her hips have become enormous, and a tooth is missing; wiggling lines seem to suggest that she smells, and is utterly repulsive. As a bag lady, she has lost even her two perky half-circles, her suggestion of breasts, a skeleton in a jumpsuit (14). As a successful artist, her hair is short, her hips wider, a ring hangs from her nose. As a “rich housewife with sexy ‘houseboy’ on the side,” she looks more or less the same, but he experiences a treatment similar to that which she experienced as a nude model: his head is a point, what appears to be almost an ibis, a dark shape with a long protrusion, while the body is muscular and idealized with a prominent phallus (14). In all cases, whether Gilbert is visited by good or ill fortune, her body and face morph in relation to her circumstance. We are meant to be repulsed by the poor, unsuccessful versions of self, reminded that lack of economic success can lead to lack of beauty and an endless downward spiral.
In “The Real Resume,” all of Gilbert’s work may be classified as manual labor in some way. In the popular sense, she often performs so-called unskilled labor, depending on the strength and stamina of, or even the sexual desire inspired by her body to bring her money. The skilled labor, her art, is manual through the Latin root, manus, meaning hand, and depends on the strength and skill of those fine muscles and ligaments. Her face and head are generally beside the point, leading us to believe that her body has been her primary social capital, even when she is drawn in such a way that this body looks small, dwarfed by an enormous head.
The continuing focus on the body, and the seeming disconnect between body and head, is taken further in “Pregnate?” Whereas “Resume” saw Gilbert’s avatar as unsexed, generally dressed in a genderless outfit, here she wears a sleeveless mini-dress and high-heels. Though her eyes are once more blank, and rather than hair huge antennae sprout from her head, an insectoid creature unlike any other figure in the comic (except her imagined husband), her face is clearly meant to code female with long lashes and a thick dark line of mouth, as if she were wearing lipstick. As she ponders the economic impossibilities of raising a child, or even the cost of aborting her early pregnancy that—as an added injury—she cannot even afford to confirm, she sits waiting to apply for a job “selling fuck books for $6.00 an hour” (22.2).
Unable to afford an abortion, and unwilling to face the stark reminders of how male desire is placed above female autonomy (children pregnant through abuse, protestors threatening violence outside the clinic), she imagines instead going through with the pregnancy and birth: “Maybe I’ll wait it out the next lonely 9 months or so, I’ll get all fat & sweaty as I await the arrival of the defective rubber child” (23.7). Gilbert, as the result of her beauty capital and inspiration of desire, of doing that which she is valued for, will become the abject (fat and sweaty) and then give birth to the abject. Throughout, Gilbert keeps her glib, absurd approach, adding to the sense that her experiences, though particularly bizarre and horrifying, are a possibility for any woman. The birth is an explosion, Gilbert like a swollen tick smashed, an insect, as we again return to the body leaking blood, pus, fluid, a result of the defective (condom), giving birth to the defective (child). The most horrifying panels in “Pregnate?” are directly related to what Gilbert sees as her valuation. In the second panel on 24, she reaches her most insectoid version of self, her splayed legs becoming jagged like a beetle or grasshopper, hips up, like a gynecological exam. From out of panel, a clumsy hand wields a needle and thread to sew the gaping wound that has ripped her from leg to leg, leaving a tiny black dot identified as “hole.” At the top of the panel, she writes, “I could give birth—hope they have the decency to hook me up with a few extra stitches down there.” Right below, her avatar, actively being stitched, her face grimacing in pain, and holding her condom child, remembers her most important purpose in life: “Better to be a tight fuck than a loose lay…”
Because of the failure of the condom, Eve establishes the threat of parenthood (which here must be linked to economic ruin) as ever present during sex. With her body traumatized and reshaped by the birth of her latex mistake, she imagines her future self as defined by the men at a truck stop, and her legacy as a “good lay.” In this section of the comic, we see a separation between the avatar and the current narratorial voice of Gilbert, critiquing her future self but also, I believe, critiquing how this seemingly minor issue, the failure of a piece of latex, can spin out into the destruction of a life (here we should note that there has been no mention of the lover since the first panel of this comic—he continues on without punishment despite his equal participation in creating this disaster). Beauty has been destroyed, “Cuz even though my breasts will be sagging down to my knees, my hips spreading from here to Albequerque, I might have the itch to do it again,” but the potential for Gilbert’s desire, and to be an object of sexual gratification still exist (24. 3). Below this, her avatar says, “He’s kinda cute…I wonder what he’s like in bed?” “He” is a lumpy, gummy, madman’s face. Her self-valuation (and also social valuation) of beauty has dropped, pushing her to go for someone awful and ugly; the itch to have sex, the common itch, is now the itch to ruin oneself. The next panel is again narrated, “Yeah, I might just be stupid enough to do it again, maybe in Texas with a coffee shop lover, some night when all the stars are all out I may just go do it again” (24.4). Her breasts sag to one side, she looks less ecstatic with pleasure as surprised, horrified, afraid as the misshapen body crushes her. Even the presence of the starry night is not enough to lift the scene. This is not the sort of sexual image that we’d go to Wild J’s to buy.
Gilbert’s future culminates with her new social circle’s creation of identity: “And even though I’ll smell like diapers and baby shit, I’ll be nice ‘n tight and all the truckers down at Ted’s truck shop will know.” “That Eve! She may look like an old sow ready to be put to pasture, but boy is she a good lay!” “Better’n my baby heifer!’ “Better’n my pet rabbit, Freddy!” “Yep! Someone stitched her up right’n tight!” (24.5). The truckers circumscribe her world, valuing her for her extra stitches, for the sacrifice she made to continue as an object of desire and worth, even as beauty fades.
Though Gilbert imagines herself as aged, wrecked, utterly un-beautiful, her body is still discussed in these ways that make her a passive object providing pleasure to the viewer, or in this case, fucker. Though she “might have the itch to do it again,” it seems that the itch is more related to putting her body forward for valuation, as much as for the pleasure of sex. “It” is not just sex, but the threat of childbirth, motherhood, economic ruin. As she sits in the porn shop imagining these futures, Gilbert is surrounded by literal valuations of sex, the cost printed on the front of the magazine. As a model is valued and sold based on body measurements, facial symmetry, and the ability to sell the products of another, the subjects of these porn magazines are valued and sold based not on the quality of their pleasure in producing the magazine, but on the ability to incite desire and satisfaction in another. The faked orgasm may even photograph more authentically than the real. Though the promise of sex and beauty are not the same, the ways in which sex is commodified in Gilbert makes the relation to Bordieu’s theories on beauty a good point of comparison.
Additionally, the extra stitches, colloquially known as the “husband stitch” are infamous for creating issues of sexual discomfort. There are few if any studies around this practice, often laughed off as urban legend, and so we must rely on the stories of women. Apparently, the husband stitch can cause not only sexual discomfort, but issues of continence, all without actually providing the desired effect: that “tight fuck” is based on the muscles of the pelvic floor, not on the diameter of the vaginal opening. Based on this, though, to posit that Gilbert sees her value as a “tight fuck” as of greater importance than her own pleasure, at least that she realizes this might be the case socially, that to be a tight fuck might make the rest of life easier, should unnerve us. Throughout this fantasy, we are reminded of the gender inequities in healthcare as well: Gilbert imagines this birth that will tear her up, force her to have a husband stitch, destroy her aesthetic potential, all because she cannot afford to have an abortion.
To create self in stories that depart from the strict confines of factual happenings may allow for women to create a more authentic version of self than that which is circumscribed by the demands of greater social narratives. When the body is refigured to remind us not of cheekbones (and how those cheekbones are valued, and how they incite desire, and how they succeed against demands for beauty) but of fears, desires, and frustrations, when lived experience is telegraphed on the skin, the very construct that limits women, the elevation of the visual presentation, becomes a means by which to powerfully present personal narrative. Yes, there is still a double-bind: not only is it radical for women to draw themselves in a way that is not meant to cater to the tastes of men, that does not put the viewer’s pleasure first, but if a woman draws a too beautiful version of self, that is also unacceptable. Essentially, the act of creating self through the autobiographical avatar is forced to be an act of rebellion; to be a woman writing and drawing oneself is an act of rebellion. Only those who circumvent the issue of gender, like Brosh, may be non-radical. We should be troubled that confrontation of a common fact of womanhood is forced into language of the political, but hopeful that as we investigate why these narratives are considered radical, rather than simply labeling them as such, may open our ability for reading and creating female self-fashioning.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.
Brosh, Allie. “Hyperbole and a Half.” Hyperbole and a Half, hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/.
Chute, Hillary L. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. Columbia University Press, 2010.
Diamond, Aidan and Lauranne Poharec. “Introduction: Freaked and Othered Bodies in Comics.” Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics, vol. 8, no. 5, Oct. 2017, pp. 402-416. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/21504857.2017.1355833.
Ferris, Emil. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. Fantagraphics Books, 2017.
“Fresh Face | Sarah Shermyen by Oscar Correcher.” Fashion Gone Rogue, 21 Nov. 2011, www.fashiongonerogue.com/fresh-face-sarah-shermyen-oscar-correcher/.
Gilbert, Eve. Tits, Ass & Real Estate. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2003.
“The Husband Stitch Isn’t Just a Horrifying Childbirth Myth.” Healthline, Healthline Media, www.healthline.com/health-news/husband-stitch-is-not-just-myth.
Oksman, Tahneer. “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs. Columbia University Press, 2016.
Quesenberry, Krista. “Intersectional and Non-Human Self-Representation in Women’s Autobiographical Comics.” Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics, vol. 8, no. 5, Oct. 2017, pp. 417-432. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/21504857.2017.1355831.