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Drawing like a girl

14/11/2013

helvetica001Tomorrow (Friday 15 November) I’m going to be in Wellington, talking in a colloquium on women and cartoons. I’m writing my speech now, about my experience as a cartoonist-for-hire, and being one of the few women in a male-dominated field. This is a slide from my talk-to-be, musing on how back in design school typography was more highly valued than illustration, a department dominated by women.

I’ve been trying to figure out why there are so few female cartoonists in New Zealand – or if that is even a valid statement. On further investigation I’ve discovered that there are quite a few women drawing comics out there, only they aren’t considered slick enough to be included in glossy anthologies or histories, or else they’ve distributed their comics through a handful of photocopied zines, or they don’t take themselves seriously enough to do the hustle required to be noticed by mainstream media. Perhaps they don’t want to be noticed by mainstream media – one of the pleasures of comics and zine culture is that it is underground.

I have a few theories about why women’s comics aren’t valued as highly – many male cartoonists have grown up on a diet of superhero comics with its streak of misogyny, which is off-putting to a female reader. That’s the kind of art they aspire to and value, but women don’t – they’ve been looking elsewhere for inspiration. If they’re anything like me, they’ve been admiring cartoonists like Alison Bechdel, Julie Doucet and Lynda Barry, Marjane Satrapi and Gabrielle Bell. Sure, I read and loved Tintin as a child, but even then it bugged me that it was such a man’s world, and Bianca Castifiore was hardly a character I could relate to with her glass-breaking voice and titanic bosom. Perhaps as women haven’t seen many female role models out there, they’ve turned to illustration as a mode of expression. But illustration isn’t considered to be art, and nor is craft or many other art forms traditionally in the female domain. I have been accused a number of times of ‘drawing like a girl’ and I wonder if that’s the issue – I’m just not speaking the right visual language.

Another one of my theories is that women’s issues aren’t considered universally appealing. What’s interesting to everybody is what’s in the news – war, politics, environmental destruction, violent crime. Or city things – going out drinking and eating, going to shows and gigs and places. The domestic sphere is demarcated for women. It belongs in the ‘Women’s Interest’ section of the magazine shop. Men don’t have to engage in that kind of thing if they don’t want to, even though the dramas you find on the news play out on a small scale in the family and the community. I always find it confounding that women will read books by both men and women, but men are more likely to read books by other men. It feels a little bit like New Zealand’s relationship to the US or the UK – we know a lot about them because we are saturated with their culture, but they don’t know as much about us. They don’t need to – we’re just a place people move to if all else fails.

But listen – I’m beginning to generalise and get myself into trouble. Of course there are lots of men who engage in the domestic sphere and who want to read comics about experiences in motherhood. There’s a great new comic book by Toby Morris called ‘Don’t puke on your dad.’ And it’s probably socially irresponsible of me to concentrate on small-scale domestic dramas when I could be writing about politics and trying to enact change. The personal may be the political but the political is what gets you noticed.

So where are you, all you women cartoonists? Stand up and be counted! Leave your tumblr link in the comments! And if you have any thoughts on this topic, any theories you can add, please let me know – my speech isn’t finished yet.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Emma Jean permalink
    14/11/2013 11:24 am

    “The personal may be the political but the political is what gets you noticed”.
    This comment reminds me of the suggestion that ‘feminism is like vacuuming, you have to keep doing it every few years’. We’re still facing the same dilemmas aren’t we? By representing our own experience and sphere we risk being seen as concentrating on the ‘small-scale’. But isn’t the ‘domestic drama’ precisely where all the important stuff happens? It’s where kids learn, and adults interact, and it’s where we consciously or not develop a large part of our understanding of the world including how gender regulates us, if only in our own heads. So I say please keep ‘drawing like a girl’ – I for one find your work encouraging, liberating, comforting and provocative. I hope that one day we’ll be analyzing WHY someone should make a statement like ‘you draw like a girl’. It certainly doesn’t reflect on your work in any way but says a heck of a lot about that person’s understanding of the world. But I’m sounding a bit like Michel Foucault 101 so I’ll stop now. Have a great presentation!

    • Sarah Laing permalink
      14/11/2013 12:23 pm

      Thanks, Emma! Yes, my thoughts precisely! And when our neighbour turns up to play, who speaks in an accent because her parents are immigrants, who is always hungry, and who lives with her 5 siblings in a 2 bedroom house, and my older kids make fun of her accent, I have to tell them off and tell them how wonderful diversity is, how terrible inequality and poverty is, and how it translates to the world as a whole – it seems to me that the domestic sphere is a totally political place! And it should be considered as such.

  2. 14/11/2013 12:38 pm

    I love your work. Can’t wait to read your next book! Good luck with the speech tomorrow. 🙂

  3. 14/11/2013 8:26 pm

    Hmm, makes me think…

    Rosemary McLeod used to do great feminist, political cartoons for the Listener, back in the day – mainstream mag, wide appeal.

    Also, Peter has just reminded me about Sharon Alston who did cartoons/ graphic illustrations for Broadsheet.

    And of course, perhaps flying more under the radar, there have been publications like Strip Club in the nineties http://womenincomics.wikia.com/wiki/Strip_Club and illustrations and cartoons by talented artists like Paula Clayton (eg http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/ephemera/30288/larf-festival)

    I’m not sure there’s any lack of female cartoonists in NZ, just that they don’t seem to be getting the mainstream acceptance as much as the chaps. I hope this is changing and I’m thinking about young illustrators like Sandi McKechnie and Jess Lunnon who illustrated the Wellington Book & NZ Book http://www.thewellingtonbook.co.nz/about/

    Go Sarah! Can;t make your talk, sadly, but I’m sure it will be brilliant!

  4. kiwikathleen permalink
    16/11/2013 10:14 am

    How did the talk go?

    I was thinking just the other day about how my son’s preferred reading began to differ from mine once he was heading into his teens. Till then we’d shared an interest in fantasy by both male and female authors, but as he got older he moved much more to males. Male bonding? Part of the son breaking away from the mother? I notice from his Goodreads listings that he reads both again now.

    But, sadly, raising boys to shun “girl’s things” is still alive and well. A man and his 2 sons came into the bookshop not so long ago and were looking for a Geronimo Stilton book for a gift. The older boy thought one of them looked really good. His father looked at it and said “This is for girls.” I looked at it later. As in the others, the narrator is Geronimo. But, horror of horrors, the blurb at the back was talking about when his assistant – a female – first came to work for the newspaper.

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