Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Thirteen Going on Eighteen

I have been following, with great interest, several exchanges and posts dealing with women in comics, some of which can be seen here, here, and here.

This topic has been on my mind because issue #272 of The Comics Journal (Nov '05) contains copious extracts from a "teen girl's" comic from the 60s drawn by John Stanley called Thirteen Going on Eighteen.

The book depicts the youthful romantic travails of Val, Judy, and Jane, and their nemesis Janie Killboy, all "normal," white American young women. It might be of no surprise to you that these girls pretty much seem to have nothing but boys on their minds. I came away from reading these well-drawn, entertaining comics thinking that they provided a clear example of the concept of cultural hegemony.

Now, I'm not saying that Stanley wrote propandistic tripe; I enjoyed reading his comics. But Stanley's depiction of these girls, (for whom he holds affection that's apparent), conveys a clear "message" about who young American girls are, how they should behave and act, how they should select their partners, and how they should judge their peers. The hegemonic part is the sense that the norms and values depicted and conveyed are not only the "right" ones, but they're also the ones that adolescent girls should be reading about, learning about, and patterning for one another. They're not just norms, they're natural truths, in the sense that Stanley didn't come up with them himself: it was up to humankind to discover them.

But, of course, those norms and standards were anything but natural (since they were sustained/maintained by living men and women). What fascinates me is that in reading comics like Stanley's Thirteen we can see not only how a set of values is held up as the norm, but we can also discern how human beings more generally think about the values we hold. Most fascinating to me is that I'll bet anyone a dollar that Stanley (were he alive) would tell me that he didn't write these "girl stories" to espouse any values at all, but rather produced them to entertain and make money to feed and support his family. I totally accept this, because it gets to the heart of what hegemony is actually all about: since these values are "natural," everyone (by definition) shares them, and no propagandization about them is actually necessary.

I suppose what tends to get to me is that most of these comics that produce defining depictions of teenage girl characters are determined by men. (hmm, unnecessary alliteration aside)

It's part, I guess, about why the midriff look annoys me so. It's something our teenage girls have adopted, but it's largely inspired by pop-culture media that's still a predominantly male-dominated industry.

Though it's not just men of course, it's women too. Like, to take an extreme example, the horrifically bad portrayals of women in Romance Novels.

I guess it gets to me that when I like a female character, I have to do it in spite of all of this other baggage. (Regardless about whether the author/artist is male or female)
I've never really understood why Stanley's comics about teenagers are so highly regarded. I'd much rather read Hilda Terry's TEENA. Hilda's artwork has an observed quality that, frankly, is totally missing from Stanley's stuff. Hilda knows how real teenagers look and move; Stanley doesn't. Furthermore, Hilda's female characters, while still a little boy-obsessed, are never as over-the-top, hysterical as Val seems to be, more often than not. Stanley's teenage girls are always ON, like the characters is a sit-com; Hilda's teenage girls exhibit a range of emotion, both subtle and overt, that make them seem more realistically human.
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I can't find a scintilla of evidence in Thirteen that John Stanley is trying to define what teen girls 'should' be like. Nor is there any reason to have to choose between Stanley and Hilda Terry, they each have distinct strengths. I'm glad to have both of them.
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