OR In which the British comics scene (or a vocal fraction thereof) proclaims “I’m not sexist! Some of my best friends are women!”
This piece of writing is the first of two concerned with the UK comics scene. This one reflects on how we react to criticism collectively; the second will be about the challenges facing the British Comics Awards. I share these thoughts in the spirit of intervention and discussion, not in the spirit of antagonism. That said, I don’t expect everyone will agree with what I have to say.
A recent exchange between British comic artists about the issue of gender representation in the shortlist of the inaugural British Comic Awards (BCAs) upset the UK comics apple cart this week. The exchange in question stemmed from a recent interview in which comic artist Philippa Rice commented on what she perceived to be a gender imbalance in the make-up of the shortlist for the BCAs. The interview itself, and the ensuing Twitter conversation in which Phillipa defended her position and members of the BCA panel responded to her comments, then became the subject of an article on the New Statesman blog by Laura Sneddon.
The purpose of Sneddon’s article was to talk about how dissenting voices can be treated in the comics scene. She argues against the way in which a call to discuss feminism – and representation more broadly – in the UK comics scene had been met by the comics community, and in particular, those on the committee of the BCAs whose job it was to shortlist comics for the judging panel. This is an important and central argument in the piece.
The article is not without critique. I don’t think it pays enough attention to the consequences or difficulties associated with having a scene where people are friends and colleagues and how that might affect conflict. I think it too narrowly plays the question of diversity along gender lines and not, for example, in terms of ethnicity or sexuality, though it does move into that territory; I’d also like it to have gone farther in a discussion of aesthetic and stylistic diversity and how that might be related to the decision making process under critique, though she does touch on this.
The reason I bring up these points is because I believe they are intertwined. Art is inherently political: there is a relationship between who you are, how you identify yourself, and the work that you make. I think Philippa’s comments about nominees not being represented in a set of anthologies and also being absent from shortlists, extend beyond gender diversity and into this field of identity more broadly. I am what I make, and by not recognising what I make, you are not recognising who I am.
Consequently, I think the problem was compounded not by criticising the awards per se, but by doing so in such a way that exacerbated opprobrium via its emphasis on social media quotes. The result was that part of the audience took it ONLY along the lines of gender issues and via personal affront. What ensued was a relentless, and somewhat one-dimensional, set of arguments that are reducible in some – though not all – instances to I’M NOT SEXIST SO YOU MUST BE WRONG’. I think these missed the intention of Sneddon’s article and the message of Philippa’s comments in the first place, which I took to be a comment on the way in which criticism was met by the BCA representatives, and the scene more broadly. That response appeared to be one of hurt egos.
The provocation that I want to make here regards the concept of positionality and reflexivity - something Howard Hardiman sums up beautifully and succinctly in Sneddon’s article:
“I don’t think the nominating or the judging panel were guilty of any wilful bias, but I do think it’s important to be mindful of the notion that one of the fundamental signs of privilege is that you’re not aware of your privilege.
I think that people who are straight, white, non-disabled, men or of any other advantaged group should always try to be mindful of that [advantage] and not be affronted if people without those advantages find that there are barriers to being heard”
It behoves us to remember this. I consider myself to be feminist in my politics. I hold no conscious prejudice against women, or men, or along the lines of ethnicity and creed, sexuality or anything else. But power imbalances are subtle. They can be so ingrained in language, culture, society that unless you are vigilant you can reproduce the systems of prejudice against which you are opposed by accident. When I was first researching the BCAs I didn’t even see the gender imbalance. It doesn’t mean it isn’t there: it means as a white, straight, able-bodied male I sometimes don’t think of things in the terms that other people are forced, by virtue of position, to do.
So here’s the rub. Although Sneddon’s article was problematic in delivery, due I would imagine largely to time and editorial constraints, the response was not debate. In fact, the wider response to both Philippa and Sneddon seemed to be one of dismissal and disempowerment – a kind of rejection which in its clamour to decry sexism used that same power structure to, in some ways, reinforce it.
To wring hands and cry injustice because somebody, a respected and talented member of the scene no less, stands up and voices a concern is wrong and damaging. We must ask ourselves what would have happened if someone else wrote that article. What if the article was about another form of discrimination? Would we have reacted in the same way?
It bears emphasising that a lot of people are invested in the UK Comics scene, in a variety of ways; financially, socially, artistically, culturally and personally. We all care about our involvement and the well-being of the thing in which we are involved. That this topic should engender such a range of responses is perhaps unsurprising. But think first. In a social media age, valid debate, conversations and debate can get lost in a tide of reactionary responses.
When we talk about the scene, what it tries to do, its successes and its shortcomings, we need to do so with sensitivity and decorum. As we move forward towards greater respectability in the art form and towards greater recognition outside of established comics audiences the need to have an open, democratic and articulate scene that can speak clearly and carefully to criticism is greater than ever, especially when we’re still faced with, frankly, bullshit articles like this one from Giles Coren.
I’ll return to questions of transparency, diversity and representation in the BCAs, the challenge of small scenes and the personal politics of making, in more depth in my next post. Until then: think before you speak. If you organise something that claims to represent the British Comics scene, and someone says ‘I don’t think you’re being representative’, open a dialogue. If you can’t recognise the subtle politics of power, don’t take to a stage crying injustice. Because you don’t see gender imbalance and sexism, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Don’t (as a scene) stand there and allow your discourse to become part of a tide of bullying that hounds people into submission for airing their voice because you can’t look in the mirror long enough to ask yourself about the question. It’s not like we haven’t all got bigger fish to fry than turning on each other.