It’s Hard To Be A Girl: Self Image, or Selling Image?

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It's Hard to be a Girl, girl problems comicIt’s Hard To Be A Girl

Bach (creator),  Nora Goldberg (translator)
Soaring Penguin Press
October 2015

I went to the launch for It’s Hard To Be A Girl in late October. The event was, in a word, delightful.

Soaring Press organized a very nice evening, held at the Québec Government Office in London. It featured opening remarks by a Québecois representative, a member of Soaring Penguin staff, and the comic’s creator, Bach, herself. We were treated to lots of wine, delicious appetizers, and a live drawing session, so we could see the artist at work. I chatted with friends, Soaring Press staff, and even got a chance to talk to Bach about the comic and her experience.

Attending a launch with the creator present is particularly rewarding when the work is semi-autobiographical. I was able to see the protagonist walk and talk before I actually saw her on the page. I had a brief interaction with her two best friends, who also appear, and even noted the pair of heels that would later feature in the work. Bach is Québecois (the comic was originally written in French and translated to English) so even the setting—during which some French was indeed spoken—added to the flavor of the experience. If you think about it, meeting the creator of an autobio comic is not unlike seeing a live action adaptation—except the adaptation is actually the original. Life being stranger than fiction, etc. It’s fascinating because the launch is me interacting with the text before I’ve even read it. I have read very few autobio comics, so the additional layer that the launch added gave me a lot of food for thought.

But a couple of months have gone by since the launch—and indeed, since I actually read the comic—and I found myself grappling with how to respond. I’ve already mentioned that I have read very few autobio comics, but this is the first one that I am trying to write about and I’m finding it hard.

There are lots of things to like about it, certainly. For the most part, it’s a light and fun read. The style is very cute—pastel pink and blue backgrounds—with a refreshing variety in hairstyles and outfits from scene to scene, and a strong emphasis on female friendships. And indeed, I think if you take the comic as intended, it’s a nice thing to have in your bag to read on the bus or while waiting to be seen at the bank.

But intent is not everything.

It's Hard to be a Girl, girl problems comicThis comic was difficult for me to enjoy from a political perspective. It began with the title. Even knowing this was a semi-autobiographical work, the image of a woman standing in the middle of shoes and clothes underneath the title It’s Hard To A Girl threw me. When I think of how hard it is to be a girl, I think about street harassment, about sexism in the workplace, about the pressures to look and act a certain way. As a result, even with the cover as a warning, I was a little disappointed when the comic largely contained anecdotes about shopping, makeup, and clothes.

It’s hard to know what to think in a case like this—how do I weigh what I feel are the political responsibilities of representing women in media with this creator’s lived experience? It would be thoroughly unfeminist of me to slap the label ‘unfeminist’ on a woman’s perspective on her own life—especially when some of the anecdotes did resonate with me. Politics aside, I am a somewhat feminine woman who does like a bit of shopping, a bit of makeup, and nice clothes. I too have found myself with a bit of extra time, decided to paint my nails, and then lost track of time and ruined my nails while I’m rushing about. What Bach is depicting is definitely part of my reality—but I do wonder if it was a reality that needed to be described as, “it’s hard to be a girl.” These experiences are definitely real, but they’re ones that have, for so long, been used as the sole definition of what being a girl is.

Beyond the problems of the title, there were other moments in a similar vein which gave me pause. One of the stories in the comic is titled “The Freak,” and features the protagonist and her best friend discussing, well, a stalker. The protagonist’s best friend notes that a man has been following her—he appears when she’s gone jogging, sends her flowers at work, and has even been seen outside her house. At the end of the scene, there’s a gag (I hope!) about the man being outside the coffee shop where they’re talking. This is all well and good—until a few segments later when the best friend starts dating her stalker, because he “charmed” her.

This is, ostensibly, a true story. And it is also a story that paints harassment/stalking as something thatIt's Hard to be a Girl, girl problems comic is eventually charming. It’s a story that reifies messages that are damaging to women and men alike—but, it is true. So, again: what’s to do? Is the creator meant to hold back on aspects of her life that don’t hold to the party line? Can she be critiqued for reporting things the way that they happened?

It seems unfair, but I am tempted to say yes. Even if the comic is not purporting itself to be a political text, everything is political. Everything participates in our societal system and everything does some kind of work to either reify or subvert its structures; there is no opt-out clause. Despite the fact that real life does not align to any particular ideology, that life is frequently not under our control—a comic is. A comic is created—and published—as a result of individuals making specific choices. Even if something did happen in a certain way, that doesn’t mean it needs to be included in a story exactly the way it happened, especially in a semi-autobiographical one. In this case, the anecdote’s inclusion does more harm than good. The laughs aren’t worth it.

And then there are yet other aspects that add further dimensions to the question of politics versus reality. For example: one of the themes of It’s Hard To Be A Girl is the fear of gaining weight and/or being perceived as fat. It’s usually played as humor—the protagonist’s boyfriend not knowing what the right answer is when she asks whether she looks fat in an item of clothing; the protagonist refusing to try a larger dress size; a gag about being mistaken for a pregnant woman, etc. To me, this material reads as fat shaming. The jokes rely on the idea that the one thing the protagonist (and by extension, all women) would never want, is to be is fat. That women will do ridiculous things to prevent themselves from either feeling like they’re fat or gaining weight.

Though the protagonist is drawn with a bit of a belly on the cover and occasionally appears with love handles. In general, she isn’t depicted as being even chubby, never mind fat. And yet, the constant worry that she’s fat is there. Even if the joke is meant to be that women worry about this unnecessarily and unreasonably, the societal pressures that cause the worry are real. In my experience, regardless of a woman’s size, most if not all of us have worried or are worrying about being “too fat”—and, of course, that includes me.

It's Hard to be a Girl, girl problems comicTo be clear: this ‘fat = bad’ notion is just a social construct. I know, rationally-speaking, that my worries about my “extra” weight are built on something meant to cage me in the first place. Worrying about it lets the bad men win. But the feelings happen. And the comic doesn’t disrupt the cycle.

I think a lot about this—how to discuss and frame my body issues in a way that is not reifying society’s own fat shaming. I’m somewhat chubby, but calling myself fat is disrespectful to those who actually are—not because being fat is shameful, but instead because I won’t face the same discrimination and dehumanization that fat people, particularly fat women, have to deal with. But it’s a weird machine with lots of moving parts. I feel like I’m fat. I worry about it—and I feel resentment towards the comic’s protagonist, who is ostensibly smaller than me, but is worrying about being fat too. So the reason I say it’s a weird machine is because I know that same resentment must be directed towards me when I express similar fears in the presence of women larger than I am.

So what is the responsible thing to do here—for this comic and for us all? Because fatness is amorphous and subjective, the oppressed-oppressor axis suddenly becomes this odd sliding scale. Still, I want to believe there was a way to talk about the pressures on the protagonist without simultaneously reinforcing the very thing that has caused them. Is the right answer to keep quiet in the presence of those whose suffering is greater than our own? And what does that mean for storytelling for the masses, when we can’t know who is going to pick up our book and where they fit in the paradigm?

I’m still not sure.

If I step back from themes and politics, I definitely see that It’s Hard To Be A Girl is meant to be a light, fun read. I see in it absolutely no intent to harm—if anything, I see intent of the opposite—and no attempt to speak for anyone’s experience but the creator’s. And in fact: there are women out there for whom this book could be great.

If the decades-long message has been “women don’t like comics,” or specifically, “traditionally feminine women don’t like comics,” then a comic specifically speaking to traditionally feminine women about traditionally feminine things in comic form could be just what the doctor ordered. I just wish this celebration of the feminine didn’t reinforce the notion that the feminine is all that we are.

Because, you know? It’s hard to be a girl. And the ideas and structures that make it so don’t need any more help.

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About Author

JAM's been reading comics since she was 8. As a critic, she focuses on race and gender issues. She also writes prose fiction, comics, and the occasional angry tweet before bedtime. Find her on Twitter at @elevenafter.

1 Comment

  1. J.A. Micheline,
    I would love your opinion of the first three books of the series of books my daughters, Isabella (13) and Sophia (9) have been writing since Isabella was 3 1/2 and Sophia was a newborn. Six years ago they chose the illustrator because, they said, he made real illustrations ‘like you see in a comic book’; you know, the kind real kids like. Grown ups with a history of advertising and marketing complain to me about the illustrations, but the children don’t. Mario, our illustrator, is kind of childlike himself. I think that’s why he captures the princesses emotions so well, but leaves room for children to fill in some blanks.
    The books pick up where Happily Ever After left off. It bothered me that so many of the princesses had overcome so much, possessed such talent and great attitudes, met a great guy and had all of those resources and then closed the book. For me, that’s just when it gets interesting! So, instead of fighting the rising tide of princessmania, I let it be and took the princesses forward.
    Our site is http://www.princesseswithatwist.com and you can find us on FB at Princesses With A Twist – PWAT.
    I would love your opinion.
    Thank you!
    Amelia Case
    P.S. Just got our first run self-published after a successful Kickstarter Campaign last summer where we raised 30K! Yay!!