Blue is the Warmest Color
By Julie Maroh
Where we board the identity train and take on Julie Maroh’s Blue is the Warmest Color taking in such sights as: How idealized should our questions be? How much does the mainstream help or hinder our defintions of ourselves? And gay pride NYPD patrol car – yay or nay?
Blue Is the Warmest Color is a French graphic novel by Julie Maroh first published back in March 2010. It’s a story about two young women in France at the end of the 1990s. It was made into a film which lots of people loved and it won the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
I’m very tempted just to leave it there and click “send” and let other people say things. Because that seems/feels like it would be the right thing to do. Only the established format we have here is that I say things to kick stuff off right? (Question: just because something is established does that mean it’s good we and should always do it? Answer: LOL. No. Of course not silly).
I’m going to be completely honest (and I hope that’s ok?) But yeah – I’m not really much of a fan of this comic. I’ve read it once and I thought it was alright but didn’t think it was anything special or interesting (which is me saying it in a very nice way). Like: I’m struggling to remember one single image or phrase or anything that stuck in my head: but all I can really remember is how everyone looked like they were made from ever-so-slightly melted play-doh.
But I wanted it down as a book we should talk about because there’s a part of me that’s kinda in love with the idea of diversity and a plurality of voices and ideas and perspectives (I am a Londoner after all): and I feel a little bit ashamed by the trend of Book Club books we’ve had so far: Scott Pilgrim, Preacher, The Filth, Judge Dredd, The Authority, The Dark Knight Strikes Again etc. It kinda smells like a men’s locker room. And that’s not a good smell. So I guess Blue is the Warmest Color is my small attempt to spray some air freshener into the place (if that makes sense?).
Only – another part of me kinda feels a little bit conflicted by this: because – like I said: unfortunately I don’t think Blue is the Warmest Color is a particular good comic. And ideally I kinda just want us to be talking about good comics (*cough* Scott Pilgrim) or if not that – at least comics which are awful in interesting ways (*cough* Holy Terror): but Blue (in my eyes) just kinda sits there not really doing much of anything.
Of course I get that me saying this isn’t a great look. I’m a white(ish) straight cis male: hasn’t the world had enough of my demographic spewing forth opinions? There are literally tons and tons and tons of comics (and comics criticism) coming from the white straight cis male perspective: so anything that comes from a different place is automatically going to better right? If everything is painted white then it someone comes in and paints something a different colour (let’s say blue – why not?) then that’s gotta be welcomed right? In fact – not even welcomed – but celebrated! Shouted out from the rooftops! And probably something like: “ABOUT FRIGGING TIME ALREADY.”
I’m trying to check my privilege as I say this: but yeah when it comes to the stuff I read I suffer from “Selfish Reader Syndrome” in that in the end as much of a social justice warrior (and proud!) I am in my daily life (intersectionality ftw): when it comes down to it: I just want to be entertained with something cool that hits my buttons. And as much as I want to champion excluded voices and ideas: if the thing isn’t actually any good (but what is “good” anyway?) then I guess I’m just a little – meh.
But then writing this I realise that I’m wrapping myself up in a little trap of: hey – let’s be cool and open-minded and talk about the comic from a different point of view! Only I can’t stop talking about how it’s a comic from a different point of view: which isn’t actually all that open-minded is it?
But then also: I guess as with most things the problem here is capitalism and the market and how most of the time the things that are socially acceptable are the things which manage to capitulate most to the status quo. Like: it’s not a coincidence that Blue is kinda dull and bland and that (from my memory of it at least) it’s basically just Romeo and Juliet with a gender-swapped Romeo. Which seems kinda emblematic of the struggle between two opposing forces – one which says that your sexuality is just a small part of who you are and the other that says it’s a defining characteristic (see also: the Sulu being gay thing).
All of which I guess is just a very roundabout why of saying: I really wish that Blue is the Warmest Color was a lot better than it actually is.
But – hey – what do you think?
I think it’s ironic that this comic was chosen more by accident than deliberate curation. It seemed very deliberate to me when I saw it in the rotation because it isn’t one of the queer female centric comics that has the critical or cultural zeitgeist behind it. That, I think, would go to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. BITWC is a deeply important comic to me, as is the film and Julie Maroh’s activism within comics. So this is a special treat for me because while I’ve written about all three, it’s always been casting out into the void without a dialogue attached or anything to bounce off from.
BITWC is, at its core, a comic about how heteronormativity kills. Generally speaking, when it comes to homophobic and/or transphobic violence in popular narratives, what we typically see is harsh and immediately physical violence or slurs. What rarely gets portrayed in a palpable way is the psychological violence of the closet and the anxieties that develop from the pressure to conform to expectations of gender and sexuality, which is what not only dooms Clementine and Emma’s relationship, but ultimately kills the former through the drug problem she developed. The concerns of the characters and the forces that doom them to their fate are rooted in France’s social and political reality from 1994-2008, encapsulating -among other events- Jean-Marie Le Pen’s near success at grasping the French presidency in 2002. (Which is a gruesome reality that the US and UK are both being forced to contend with in their next nearest equivalents.)
This comic is, I think, an experience that is going to lose a lot of its power for an audience who has not experienced the closet and the insidious ways that it crushes people. The idea that there’s a conflict in the comic about how much a person’s sexuality should define them in this comic is a misapprehension that I think tends to originate in how straight dominated spaces conceive of queerness and its place in life and storytelling. You get these statements from all over that sort of request characters that “just happen” to be within the LBGTQIA spectrum, but that’s not really coming from actual members of the community. I don’t know anyone who, you know, says I just happen to be gay. There aren’t real people who see themselves that way that I’m aware of. It’s couched in a request for assimilation. My queerness isn’t the whole of who I am, but it’s definitely one of the dominant lenses through which I see the world. The way I conceive of Wonder Woman, for example, must intersect with my conception of femininity, which is, in turn, is inextricably linked to being transgender and being attracted to other women. I’m not going to see the character the same way as a cisgender woman or a man.
That kind of conflict over performance of gender and sexuality that festers between Clementine and Emma isn’t so much about the degree that their queerness informs their lives, it’s the nuances of the public performance of it. Emma feels compelled to overtly politicize her performance of queerness as an act of defiance against heteronormativity, while Clementine is never able to assert herself and is, throughout the comic, far more sensitive to the slights that the straight world throws her way, especially her parents throwing her out. Romeo and Juliet isn’t the Shakespeare tragedy you want to be drawing allusions to when it comes to BITWC, it’s Hamlet. There’s certainly an applicable reading to be made there especially if you subscribe to the reading that Romeo and Juliet is meant as a political allegory meant to highlight the ways that the schism between the Catholic and Anglican churches was tearing England apart, but that’s an external viewpoint of the couple at the center of BITWC that reduces them to yet more queer fictional martyrs, of which contemporary media is bursting at the seams with.
Clementine, in the Shakespearean sense, makes sense to me as an Ophelia-like figure caught in the whirlwind of not only her own discordant view of the world but Emma’s complex and defensive performance of queerness as well. The modern interpretation of Hamlet’s “madness” is that it was a calculated, defensive performance he put on to process his father’s death and conceal his motives from the king and his allies that eventually spun out of control to his ruin. There’s a strong correlation between Hamlet’s oppositional performance that separates him from the rest of the world and the manifestations of queer identity that frequently arise out of trauma and form protective, sometimes literally spiky shells against the abuses of the straight world. As we find Emma in the comic, she’s built a supportive and like-minded peer group in the overlap of the art and queer worlds she inhabits, but sustaining that, for her, also requires an outwardly aggressive performance of queerness. Everything about her from her hair and clothes to her posture are calculated to radiate her queerness in a way that both intoxicates and intimidates Clementine from the first time they pass on the street to the end of her life.
The title implies an inversion to the natural order, interpreting something as basic and fundamental as a primary color in the opposite way of what’s accepted. It’s asking us to see what we’re taught to read into red, the color we’ve interpreted to mean intensity and passion since humans first started painting themselves and cave walls, into blue instead. That’s the conception of the queer condition being forwarded by Maroh, the most fundamental inversion imaginable. How that gets enacted in the comic is by using blue as the signifying color for Clementine’s desire for Emma, building from disembodied hands into her future lover’s hair. It becomes fairly self evident as the story progresses, but Emma’s hair is meant to be a clear physical marker for just how completely she’s embraced that inversion and built a Hamlet like public persona around it. Emma has embraced that she sees blue where the rest of the world sees red, but like Ophelia, Clementine struggles with that dissonance until it undoes her, driving her into unfulfilling affairs that in turn fuel Emma’s own insecurity that she’ll inevitably be left for a man.
One of the most fascinating things about where the movie and the film diverge to me is how they exchange identity for politics. In the comic, the protests, elections, and major political events that take place across the story are deeply specific and anchor the narrative in that time and place. The film goes the opposite route by painting the broad strokes of political action and protest without engaging in any specificity. In matters of identity and manifestations of queerness, the comic lets emotion and color draw out Emma and Clementine’s worldviews with no obvious or purposeful concessions to a broader, straight audience. Again, the film goes in an opposite direction, perhaps out of necessity, but it does so in an utterly novel way.
As a straight man, the director Abdelatif Kechiche couldn’t identify with the specific alienation and anxieties experienced by queer women, and so to find a toe hold to open up Clementine (renamed Adele for the film) and Emma’s worlds for a wider audience, he drew on his own identity as an immigrant in France to attempt to close the gap in their experiences and build solidarity between disconnected groups on the fringes of French society. It’s something I’ve gone into considerable depth on elsewhere, but Kechiche essentially built up the social act of cooking and eating as he understood it as a unifying metaphor within the film that hit its apotheosis as Adele eats the distinctly yonic oysters at dinner with Emma’s parents. It’s probably the greatest oral sex sight gag in film history. The film also included the insertion of an Arab actor who acts as a kind of surrogate or fiction suit for Kechiche to engage Adele in a dialogue about the public performances that assimilation demands of the marginalized, telling her about how there’s always work in American movies for people like him. “They love it when we yell Allah Akbar,” he tells her when they first meet, and when they see each other at the end of the movie, when she leaves Emma’s latest show, distraught that she’s found the happiness she longed for without her, he tells her that he’s quit acting.
Returning to the comic after the film, it really clarified to me just how much of a closed circuit it is, intended much more for a queer audience with little particular regard for a wider straight audience in terms of the kind of accommodations or alterations a narrative typically undergoes to strive for mainstream appeal. It’s something that I’ve come to see as a hallmark of Maroh’s personality as both an artist and an activist, and a major reason why i consider her to be a personal hero of mine. I’ll never forget how she chided the media for their sensationalist coverage of the action against the Angouleme Grand Prix nominations in an opinion piece accompanied by an illustration of a bunch of faceless men in suits holding up naked barbie dolls. Saying, among other things, that she’d been at FIBD the year before with a group investigating irregularities in how attendance was being measured and calling for an overhaul of the pension program that BD artists have to pay into without attracting salacious media coverage.
Accidental or not, I think that there are few comics who we could benefit from re-evaluating in the present moment more than BITWC considering the surface and latent issues in play. I’m also, you know, really enjoying the whiplash of going from Scott Pilgrim into this. I had the option to hang back and let you guys wrap that one up before I joined in for this, and I’m glad I took the plunge instead. The 180 degree turn in Joel’s preface alone is pretty great, I think, but also a lot of the discussion about coming of age narratives and tortured relationships that went on last round come home to roost for me in this one.
Blue is the Warmest Color is a gut-wrenching book, deeply affecting. And to echo part of Emma’s sentiment, it is truly an important work of LGBT fiction, a gripping coming-of-age story that, at its core, is about the dangers of homophobia, transphobia, and also heteronormativity in general. I can’t say whether or not Blue is the Warmest Color loses its power or has less impact upon straight people/people that haven’t experienced the closet. (I don’t know any straight people that have read it, unfortunately. Maybe someone will weigh-in below.) I truly hope it doesn’t lose impact for straight people, though. There is a strong sense of humanity that Julie Maroh injects into her narrative. She seems to cultivate ways for readers, even non-queer readers, to empathize so well. It pains me to imagine someone unable to relate to the tragedy and pitfalls of heteronormativity expressed in her story simply because they haven’t gone through it in real life. I think Blue is the Warmest Color is a universally accessible text for all, one that we all can learn from. True, the book is definitely more intended for a queer audience, and it certainly is much more intended for the queer audience than the movie adaptation, but that, doesn’t mean the book isn’t accessible—more so it means the movie fails miserably to achieve the same effect. One of the things I love about the book is that it is a true LGBT story and radical queer novel, but at the same time is accessible to all and can function as a valuable teaching tool for LGBT folk and heteronormative folk alike.
I’d rather not delve too deeply into analysis of the Blue is the Warmest Color film adaptation by Abdelatif Kechiche (and a bunch of other leering men), but it’s sort of hard not to do a little comparison, especially since I despise the film and like the book. Maroh’s original story is ten-fold queerer and more subversive than Kechiche’s film, part of the reason the book holds more weight. Kechiche not only couldn’t identify with queer women, he might as well have been on a completely different planet too. I’m boggled by why he got to direct this film. Kechiche is a talented filmmaker, but the movie was stripped of its queer identity with this guy at the helm. One of my main problems with the film is that the characters are not developed. You never see Emma and Clem (Adele) engage in their relationship positively. You don’t see the cuteness, true connection, couple-ish conversations, and fun interaction that a love story should provide when developing a romantic relationship. Instead, Kechiche, from his extremely male-gazey pedestal and with a confused conception of queer identity, chose to highlight only two things: the fucking and the fighting. The film is all about the “mystical power” of the female orgasm, which is grossly fetishized in the most heavy-handed ways. The film fails because it is the “queer story” but told entirely through the eyes of a man. The sexual-political and sociopolitical messages are stripped bare to the point that they are basically unrecognizable. The film version of Blue is the Warmest Color is heteronormativity appropriating queerness. It’s like that gay pride NYPD patrol car. No thanks.
Having seen the movie before reading the book, I was nervous that some of the issues I had with the movie might pop up in the novel, even despite it being the work of Maroh and Maroh alone. Thankfully, the book’s story is pretty divergent. The book is a tragedy, but it is a love story. The book’s focus is on Clem’s identity and struggle and growth (and ultimate demise in the face of sociopolitical oppression). The book also focuses on Clem and Emma as a couple and shows us what makes them tick (as opposed to wasting way too much time on tangential straight characters during Clem’s teaching gig). The book is highly personal and treats its characters with respect and dignity. We are with the characters, not gawking at them omnisciently. And the book really is about queerness at its center, as it should be.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the art. Maroh’s style took a little getting used to, but I found it to be charming and tone-fitting. The subtle use of the watercolors reminds me a bit of Matt Kindt and Sharlene Kindt’s current Dept H ongoing for Dark Horse. And the not-so-subtle use of the titular blue to draw attention to certain parts of certain panels, while maybe not quite original, works very well both visually and narratively. Maroh’s pencils capture facial expressions in a way that most artists simply cannot pull off. Big-time kudos to her work here. The lettering in my English-translated version was pretty subpar, especially the cursive journal entries, but that’s just a tiny niggle that doesn’t take away from the overall goodness.
As always, there’s always a lot more to say, but I’ll leave it at that for now. 😉
Love the art, hate the story. Conceived in 2004, published in 2010, while I know nothing of what it’s like growing up as a middle-class white lesbian in turn of the millennium suburban France it read to me like it was set about ten to fifteen years previous to that, no signs of modern life intruding (in the same way mobile phones didn’t make it to Sunnydale until ‘Buffy’s last season). I liked the story, right up until the point a sudden,incurable and previously undetected heart disease kills off one of the characters. Because, it’s like a metaphor, you see? ‘Bury Your Gays’ is a deeply troubling trope. It doesn’t prevent me from liking stuff, but when it’s deployed in a ‘well, I’ve got to end the book somehow’ way, such as here, it tends to have an effect.
There’s nothing that makes me cringe harder than hearing the phrase “Bury Your Gays.” Tropes in general have a way of narrowing and flattening the evaluation of a work in a way that measurably detracts from media literacy and criticism. They’re also a word that has gotten thrown around so much that I can never tell what exactly someone means when they use it. My presumption is that it’s just kind of overtaken cliche.
But the thing about this whole “Bury Your Gays” thing is that it can’t distinguish between critique of heteronormativity in media and pleas to be coddled, burped, and tucked into bed. That spectrum is always going to be contained in resistance to any worrying pattern in media, but the goalposts set up around that particular topic have always been to just flat out stop killing LBGTQIA characters. Which is ludicrous and infantile in it’s omissions. I mean, can you imagine if this had come around twenty or thirty years ago when Rent and Angels in America were breaking through into the mainstream to force the human cost of the AIDS crisis out into the open? Hypothetically, that trope/hashtag/social media crusade isn’t meant to address self directed queer narratives that grapple with death in the many ways that it haunts the community, but there’s never been any evidence of that nuance or a deeper examination of just what separates an acceptable death from an unacceptable one. This whole thing kind of springs out of Gail Simone’s Women in the Refrigerator polemic in terms of contemporary media criticism, and in that instance the delineations were clear, that a “fridging” constituted the death, maiming, or rape of a female character done for the purpose of furthering a male character’s emotional journey. You see some of that language mirrored in that ghastly Clexa Pledge, but there’s no real broader dialogue about the ins and outs of this within the circles that it sprung out of.
Katy Skelly gave a really bare knuckled interview the other day where she said that the place of women in comics, and the discourse around it, went off the road into the ditch back in the sixties and hasn’t really moved in the fifty years since, and the overall discourse around LBGTQIA representation in popular media is right there holding a broken tire iron. I read Carol recently, the Patricia Highsmith novel that got a recent film adaptation, and the edition I read had a post script from her written in the eighties talking about how LBGTQIA stories didn’t get happy endings or fully fleshed out characters back when she wrote it in the fifties. So here we are, you know, sixty years later having the same conversations in different permutations. But you know, it has to be said and recognized that death and misery have very consistently stalked us wearing different masks over the years from AIDS to police brutality and bathroom bills. That’s a very real part of the queer condition that has to be incorporated into our response to the times that we live in. So, to me it’s like yeah, there’s a space in the conversation to critique Clementine’s death, but it has to come with a context and dialogue that a trope or hash tag can’t convey. It’s worth noting though, that while her heart condition is only revealed late in the third act, it’s the result of prescription medication abuse. My reading of it has always been that it isn’t so much of an abstract metaphor but an implied throughline that the pressures of trying to maintain a same gender relationship under the conditions were the trigger for that addiction.
I think there’s a thread to be picked up there with Carol because it’s a fascinating little novel that really does endeavor, insofar as Highsmith could at that time, construct an interior view of the closet and the anxieties and paranoias that it produces. The age gap between Therese and Carol is much wider than Clementine/Adele and Emma, but many of the dynamics and inner struggles experienced by the characters are incredibly similar. The most notable difference, other than the explicitness of the sex, is that Carol resolves itself with a reconciliation between the two that eluded both screen and comic iterations of Emma and Clementine/Adele. So that’s a tangent that I’d be more than willing to chase down if anyone else has read Carol or seen the film. There’s also A Single Man, which is the only other popular narrative I know of that I can point to and say that it does its level best to convey the cumulative psychological damage that the closet produces. I think we can confidently say that Tom Ford evoked that era pretty cleanly. I can’t speak to what the exact experience of coming of age in France on the cusp of the new millennium was like in terms of homophobia, but I do know what it was like to come of age in North America in that same timeframe, 1998-2008.
If BITWC had taken place in the US or Canada, the story would have begun in the weeks leading up to or following the Columbine shooting, which was an utterly terrifying time to be a young person who defied any societal norms. If you wore the wrong thing or were thought to listen to Marilyn Manson or wrote moody poetry, you were singled out to be the next person to bring a gun into a classroom. Sylvia Plath would have been looked upon as a mass murderer in waiting had she gone to school with me at the time. You look around right now, and things are bad and getting worse in a variety of ways, ways that tighten that vise. Jay Eididin wrote a brutal essay recently about how, by coming out as transgender and presenting as male in public, he was bringing his husband Miles into a world of potential violence that he’d never bargained on or could have anticipated. Theirs was, prior to Jay coming out, a relationship seen by the outside world as a normative heterosexual one, and now, it would be perceived as a gay one. Which forced Jay to grapple with how the prejudices of the world around us have forced him to contemplate how his performance of gender could become a threat to his partner.
So that’s kind of what I was hedging at in terms of how much of the power of the narrative is going to depend on the reader’s experience with the closet. I can’t remember who it was who conceived of the “ache” of Scott Pilgrim being integral to the experience and its association with a time in their life, but same rules apply. I think, or at least I’ve sort of seen, that a lot of LBGTQIA folks have their own narrative, in terms of the dark ones, that they focus that network of emotion on. Rent had that kind of effect on a generational scale and that’s where I come into BITWC, more or less.
Wish there was an edit button in here, there’s some confusion in the dates. It wouldn’t have begun around Columbine, but would have been more or less bisected by it and Matthew Shepard’s murder in 1998.
I’m not sure what I wrote that made it seem that BITWC was chosen more by accident than deliberate curation. It felt like a deliberate choice when I made it. I mean I’ve been running the Barbican Comic Forum for a while now (this month’s meeting = tomorrow!) and during that time I’ve had the pleasure to meet a whole bunch of different people with all sorts of different tastes (all of which I respect – with the exception of Fables which is the worst comic of all time: but let’s not digress….). Doing the London Graphic Novel Network – one of my many impluses is to try and steer the conversations into interesting places (which I’d define as places where I don’t quite know what’s right and wrong but I do know that I have all sorts of questions….) but also (and this may be more important) to create somesort of space that feels inclusive. Because well yeah – being inclusive is just being cool isn’t it? Like – If I had to choose between going to a party where everyone was the same: or going to a party where everyone was different and had an interesting new perspective: well then yeah – I’m going to that one. Mostly just because it sounds like more fun (for some reason the image that springs to mind is the Zion Rave in the Matrix Reloaded: but that is probably just me).
Like: if the books I chose where just the ones that interested me then right now we’d be doing more 2000AD plus East of West and the Manhattan Projects (altho – god: did The Sun Beyond The Stars feel like a rubbish Saturday morning cartoon or was it just me?). But then there’s not always a match up between the comics that I like reading and the ones that are interesting to discuss – although ok yeah I’ll admit – sometimes there is an overlap *cough* Scott Pilgrim *cough.*
Plus: well yeah – also: part of the idea behind this all is get more people using their local library (sublimimal message alert: USE YOUR LOCAL LIBRARY): and so mostly the books that we talk about are (hopefully) books that you can get from your local library – which does mean that we’re steering pretty much in the mainstream and doing books that people have heard of which – sadly – means that more obscure stuff doesn’t get talked about. Because hey – if we were gonna talk about The Forever War (oh my god – COOL COMIC GUYS): then I’m guessing it would just be me. And no one wants that.
But hey – we did talk about Fun Home (altho it was a while back): https://londongraphicnovelnetwork.com/2014/08/14/to-explain-to-you-why-you-are-wrong/ and I am trying my best to make sure that – I dunno – this is a cool place for cool people to come and share ideas and be cool with each other. Because yeah – that just seems like the cool thing to do?
Speaking of the comic in question: hell yes – I totally totally love this: “The title implies an inversion to the natural order, interpreting something as basic and fundamental as a primary color in the opposite way of what’s accepted.” More fool me – that wasn’t something that I realied before and now I think it’s my favourite thing about it. But yeah – am planning on rereading it soon.
And also: I’d really like to get into the whole sexuality as identity thing because yes identity and how it’s constructed is one of my favourite things to think about because I’m not completely sure what the right answers are. But mostly I guess I think that the things that make us who we are is way beyond how we like to stimulate our private parts or what our skin looks like: but then also – hey – I know I need to check my priviledge before I say anything like that. So maybe I should just keep my mouth shut?
I dunno. Let’s see what happens.
OK so it’s kind of weird that I’m jumping in at this point, since despite enjoying the conversations here very much I’ve never gotten involved before (HI HELLO I’M DZIUGAS), haven’t read Blue Is the Warmest Color, and am 100% positive someone will respond to this point way more eloquently than I’ll be able to. But here it goes –
The point you make at the end – yeah, you called it, privilege, and I’m not using that word, nor do I ever, in an accusatory, “the problems of the world are your fault” kinda way. The thing is – and this is something I’ve been trying to confront in myself, increasingly – that privilege allows us to live in an idealized, perfect world where a lot of problems basically don’t exist. I’ve been working through a bunch of things about my personal identity this year, and I’ve had the thought you expressed a bunch of times – how is this super specific thing really impacting my identity? Why do I need the terms to differentiate myself from the majority of the population? Why, when I genuinely feel I’m not actually that different from other people other than what I personally view as an above-average capacity for introspection, do terms related to gender or sexuality even matter to me? But here’s the thing – I always come back to those being very fine questions for an idealized world I do not live in. That, to me, is the main thing about privilege. There may be a hypothetical world where “male” is nothing other than a biological term; having about as much of a bearing on my life as other random gene configurations do as nobody feels the fact of it gives them the right to make assumptions about who I am, who I enjoy spending time with, and how, in general, I want to be. That world would be a LOT simpler to live in. A lot less of my brain would be dedicated to vocabulary to describe a range of identities I’m only beginning to fully understand. Here’s the thing though – that is not the world we live in, plainly and simply. And it’s really easy to not see that if you don’t feel that dissonance, if that gulf is not experienced in your day to day.
It’s easy for sexuality and gender to not be a part of your identity if the entirety of culture looks at it as the norm. If, on the other hand, you can no longer parse where you being viewed as fundamentally different and weird by everyone around you for your entire life (possibly for reasons you could never put into words until encountering a very specific vocabulary developed on Tumblr, of all places) ends, and your actual identity begins… That’s different. And while that’s not, directly speaking, my personal experience, I imagine that spending your entire life in a culture where each time you even think about kissing someone, holding their hand, saying you love them is a controversial, even radical political act – frankly, I can’t see how that WOULDN’T be a hugely important part of your personal identity. What’s more personal than those feelings, after all?
Just to pick up from what was said above – struck me that that feeling of being outside the norm is fertile breeding ground (ok unfortunate metaphor apologies) for any kind of subculture. The example I’d be most familiar with is geekdom, which I guess (before we all became geeks watching GoT and playing Pokemon) was also an identity that defined itself against the mainstream. Subcultures are in part support networks for people who feel they don’t quite fit, and that sense of solidarity can become quite powerful shaper of your identity (which the cynical me thinks is always defined with others and ~against~ others). If you think about it in this way, it should come as no surprise that there are subcultures created around different kinds of sexualities.
To relate it back to comics, one of the books that really brings this home to me is Dykes To Watch Out For, which more than BITWC brings out the sense of community that is created around a sexual identity. One of the most interesting things about that book is the identity battles that the characters fight (within themselves as much as anything). For e.g. for some characters lesbianism is tied up with radical politics and feminism, so the prospect of other lesbians who are Republicans or want to get married and have kids is viewed as a betrayal in some way of the founding tenents of the subculture.
And interestingly the very fact that those options are now available is both a sign of the progress being made, and perhaps a weakening of the subculture that served as a place of refuge in trying times. In the UK now we have a female Tory minister for education who is in a relationship with a woman, and the female Scottish Tory leader is also gay. I wonder if as these things become more ‘normal’ to people, the need or necessity to carve out an identity against heterosexuality becomes weaker – in the same way that its harder and harder to determine exactly who is a geek now (as opposed to for eg determining who was a goth in the 80s), because geekiness is such an accepted part of our culture.
(Apologies if this is all blatantly obvious already – I just didn’t think of it until now).
All aboard the identity train! I think Ilia’s points about subcultures are very interesting and probably very accurate. I think subcultures do stem from a need to carve out your own space when you don’t feel represented, protected or valued in mainstream cultures.
I’m not sure how much geekdom has defined itself against the mainstream – in some regards, sure, but in terms of pop culture a lot of geekdom is more about a difference in expressing enthusiasm and discussing pop culture that everyone enjoys. And then there are subcultures, like the 80s goth or new wave subcultures, that want to be very visibly different from the mainstream. It’s easier to tell if someone’s a goth than if they’re a geek or if they’re queer!
In this way, every subculture is unique depending on its reasons for existing, what sort of a community it wants to provide, the shared values of its members. And every subculture evolves. Goth fashion has changed since the 80s. Geek interests have changed, too. And queer subcultures have evolved as progress is being made.
Straightness remains the perceived norm in western culture and I think it’s a really interesting point to consider: will queer subcultures, like the lesbian subculture from Dykes To Watch Out For, continue to place themselves in opposition to heterosexual mainstream culture? Will those subcultures become quieter as the need to separate yourself from the mainstream lessens? As the mainstream includes you in it?
Firstly, I would like to mention that geekdom and goth/new wave/punk/whatever subcultures ARE NOT equivalent to subcultures and communities surrounding marginalisation, like sexuality, gender identity, ethnic identity, disability and mental health, etc. The fact remains that geek, rock and many Goth subcultures are still very white and very cismale, and separating yourself from the mainstream based on attitudes, interests, values is very different to BEING separated from the mainstream due to arbitrary, innate factors that construct your identity. That marginalisation still happens within subcultures of all kinds. Of course it’s more socially acceptable to enjoy a TV show that airs globally than it is to be perceived as inherently and unchangeably “other” to the norm in our society. Nobody commits hate crimes over whether you picked Bulbasaur or Charmander.
So I don’t think communities and subcultures based around marginalised identity will ever go away. Instead they evolve. White gay cismen experience more privilege now than ever before and that’s reflected in some attitudes within that community. In the same way that white ciswomen frequently don’t allow for women of colour, disabled women, transwomen to be heard or visible or valued within female communities. It’s no coincidence, either, that mainstream society is more willing to accept white gay cispeople than any other intersection.
So think about cismen and ciswomen; perceived as the norm, socially acceptable to be either – but still binary gender forms a key part of most cispeople’s identities. Whether you’re male or female. If we take the ultimate perceived norm of straight white cismale, being straight white cismale still plays an important part in that dude’s identity.
Like Dziugas said, privilege means you don’t have to pay attention to that identity all the time – it’s frequently not going to put you in harms way, or take away freedoms or otherwise affect daily life. But when you see a woman, you’re aware that you are a man. When you’re with your manly man mates, you’re aware that you’re a man. When you’re around queer folk, you’re aware that you are straight. Etc. And that awareness translates into lived experience, conscious and unconscious behaviours, and most importantly: the community around you. It’s not a subculture – just culture! – but the whole point of subcultures are the community. And you can see cispeople’s communities based on their gender anywhere you look. The most (perceived) normal mainstream thing (straight white cismale) STILL means forming an identity partly in direct “opposition” to other identities (male vs female or non binary, straight vs queer, etc.)
So I don’t think queer communities and subcultures will ever stop seeing themselves as ‘not straight’ because straight people do the same thing. But I do think queer subcultures have evolved to focus more on being queer rather than framing our identities around a perceived norm of being straight. Straight people are not, in fact, a sun for the rest of us to orbit; we can go off and create our own universes. But nonetheless whilst straight people continue to insist we assimilate and continue to make our place in society about THEM, there will absolutely always be subcultures based on values that define queerness in direct opposition to heterosexuality and follow radical ideas of queerness.
(Also, seeing identities in terms of oppositions does kinda place everything on a binary scale and that’s boring and not accurate to reality. Let’s just celebrate and acknowledge all the different intersections that exist in identity rather than constantly competing.)
TL;DR: marginalised identities will always seek community in some form or another, just like mainstream identities do. Queer subcultures have and will continue to evolve alongside changes in values, both within and without the community.
I HAVE BEEN TALKING FOR SO LONG, apologies and I hope this isn’t all too rambling. I love talking about identity! I also feel bad for not talking much about actual comics. Whoops.
Ooops. I was gonna write a big long thing about identity and etc (aka climbing aboard the identity train – next stop: universal harmony!) but then Dziugas and Zainabb both came to the Barbican Comic Forum last night (hey guys! was very cool to meet you both!) and then basically we did all the talking in person in the pub afterwards and pretty much all the stuff I was gonna write here kinda got flushed out (lego hats, islands of babies and the importance of eye colour etc).
aka Talking about this stuff is like an itch that I like to scratch and last night was a really great scratch. Talking in person ftw 😀
But yeah: I hope that I haven’t offended anyone with the stuff I wrote above. I don’t know if this is me being too kind to myself: but yeah – I don’t think I should have just written a few lines and left it at that because it’s very easy to take that stuff and misunderstand what I’m trying to say / where I’m coming from: because what I want to say is a little more complex than just a few isolated sentences. But yeah: this stuff is important right? (Right).
Hope you’re all good. 🙂
Ok. So I know no one really asked for this. But here’s a bunch of ill-thought out thoughts about “identity” and stuff. I still haven’t actually read the comic. Maybe I should read the comic. I dunno. (I should probably read the comic right?)
(Please keep in mind that I’m full of self-recrimination as I write this: so if you wanna take some pot-shots / take me down a peg or two or whatever then please feel free!)
So. What does “identity is important” mean? I mean – it sounds reasonable – the sort of thing that everyone should kinda agree with. Except it kinda makes my brain go a little bit: “huh?” and “what?” and “why?” Like: for those of you who’ve met me – I think it’s kinda clear that I’m a big fan of being exact with things. If I was one of those toys with pre-programmed catchphrases (do they still make those?) then I’m guessing one of those catchphrases would be: “Yeah – but what does that mean?” So with that in mind – why – what does “identity” mean and what does “important” mean?
Personal confession – I don’t know if this means anything – but in terms of my heritage or whatever the right word is – I’m a mix of lots of different stuff: Irish, French, German, Polish and Ghanian. Of course the thing that confuses a lot of people is that I look like a pasty white guy but erm yeah – my Grandad was black and my Mum is (to use her preferred phrase) “mixed-race” (which isn’t a term I hear all that often nowadays so maybe it’s offensive or something? If so – apologises). But yeah in addition to that she’s also like big into race and stuff. She does lecturing and teaching and stuff (to quote one thing: “she has a history of community development work with black and minority ethnic communities”) and walking with her through Brighton once literally every single black person we passed was all like “oh hey! How’s it going?” (it was funny the fifth time – but tenth time it just got strange). In fact – one of my formative memories is me playing lego cowboys and my mum seeing what I was doing and stopping me and taking me aside for a 20 minute talk about how it wasn’t cool that I made all the good guys have white hats and all the bad guys have black hats. Because well yeah – you know – ideology and stuff. Which is probably how my obsession with identity and everything got started: because hey – part of that is that – as a kid I was very much encouraged to see myself and talk about myself as “mixed race” (and when I tick applications and stuff I tick “White and Black African” because well – I guess that’s what I am?). Only well – if you see me: I “present” as a white guy. So much so – that I’ve been told that people who’ve known me for a while get a little confused when they meet my mum and tend to think that I’m adopted because you know – our skin colour isn’t the same.
Which I guess is why I tend to see “race” or whatever as being kinda bullshit.
And also – I guess – well: other kinds of identity as well.
Of course of course there are a whole bunch of problems with this: and well – I’d like to think that I’m aware of at least a few of them (I hope).
The main one of course is that “identity” as we think about it isn’t just racial identity. You know – it’s gender and sexuality and religion and lots of other stuff too. And I think part of the problem when we start to talk about identity is that we say something like “marginalised” people and just lump everything all in together. Which yeah – isn’t exactly clear or precise. I mean – it’s obvious beyond anything that our world is dominated by straight rich white cis men – but part of the fuckupness of that is how everyone else has to be defined as not straight rich white cis men: as if those are the only two binaries that can exist. The “normal” and the “other.” And just so we’re all totally clear – this is the point where I’ll say of course of course of course we live in a sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic etc society because well hey you know: open your eyes and just look around you. I’ll wait.
Here’s the bit which you’ll probably all disagree with (and like I said – please feel free to correct me on the bits where I get it wrong): but is the solution to our messed up world to insist on our differences? To say (and how can I say this best because I’m not sure I know how) that there is a deep and real difference between “black people” and “white people”? Like: of course there’s a difference because our world is racist so “white people” get treated in one way (in a word: “privilege”) and “black people” get treated in another way (in a word: well – “racism”) and – stating the obvious I know – that is fucked up and wrong and messed up and evil and violent and oppressive and dehumanising and dumb and ugly and harmful and bad. And well – one of the results of that is that when people are made to think about themselves in a certain way then they will respond by thinking about themselves in the same way too (Right? Or wrong? You tell me).
Like there was an experiment that a teacher Jane Elliott conducted with a class of children back in the 1960s after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated where she divided her children into groups of eye color (“Blue eyes–Brown eyes”) to show them what segregation was like. So the blue eyed kids got special treatment and the brown eyes kids were made into second class citizens (with predictable response): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Elliott
The experiment only lasted a week. But hey – imagine it had lasted a month. Or a year. Or several generations. My opinion (and it’s just my opinion and please feel free to disagree) is that well – you’d end up with a society where everyone would internalise the difference between blues and brown eyes and that the colour of your eyes would (in some way) denote what kind of person you are. And even tho there would be an extent to which this was true (if you’re a brown eyed person and people treat you in a particular way because of it then of course that’s going to give you experiences that a blue eyed person would never experience and make you view yourself in a certain way and etc) there’s another extend to which it’s kinda bullshit – no? That a better world would be a world where your eye colour didn’t really mean anything. Which I guess is a stupid and roundabout way of describing my general approach to identity: of course it means something – but it’s also kinda bullshit. That oppression and violence and prejudice needs to be resisted and overcome: and one of the ways to do that is to say that race and all our other markers of identity are completely contingent and that in our utopian futures – people don’t see each other that way.
(I’m scared that maybe some part of this maybe makes me a bigot or a racist or whatever: so hey – let me know if there’s a part where I went wrong ok?).
Of course the question is: erm – how does this relate to comics exactly?
Whoops. Erm. Maybe next time?
I feel (could be way off) like this should be easily be settled with this – my identity is important to me. And I think that’s just where we’ll have to part. Because while I accept most of your arguments – yeah, a world where people didn’t treat people worse based on these factors would be better, cause of course it would – that doesn’t mean that my identity is meaningless. Mostly because we don’t live in that world, so any argument that hinges on “but wouldn’t it be better if these deeply entrenched cultural forces just didn’t exist” just kind of rings hollow to me – but also because I get to define what about me is important, and so does everyone (some people’s identities are going to be more difficult for the outside world to accept, and that’s a separate issue). Some of my identity is political, through no actions of my own – some aspects of my being, and of others’ (more so others’ than mine, generally), are going to be viewed through a prism of politics. Those get pushed into the forefront naturally. But that doesn’t mean that in a version of a world where politically, those aspects are irrelevant, those aspects of me would be irrelevant to me in my personal life. Nobody’s saying your ethnic background has to play a huge role in your life or your conception of yourself – you’re free to accept it however you like, and that’s facilitated for you if you’re privileged enough to not have it be super visible or affect you in real ways (not directed at you, you’re probably the only one who can say whether that’s the case – I know that it is the case for me on a bunch of counts).
I feel kind of dirty taking space away from comics and people who are way more qualified to talk on this. I’m probably less qualified than literally most to be making this argument. But here it is. And if someone wants to come along and argue this better, please do, I promise I’ll do a better job of just standing aside this time. But yeah, the best argument I can come up with right now is, ultimately, that my identity is important to me. And if you say it’s not – well, I’ll turn your catchphrase right back around on you and ask “what does that mean?” Cause I’m seriously confused by that statement. It’s not important to me? Or it shouldn’t be? Based on what expertise or definition? Am I doing harm?
Anyway, I promise next time I write in it’ll be at least kind of comics-related.
I’m gonna try and bring this somewhat back to comics (altho liked both Joel and Dziugas’s pieces). I finished reading Crossed 100 recently (which was excellently discussed in a previous edition of the LGNN), and it struck me that Joel’s attitude chimes a little with what Alan Moore was doing in that book. Moore’s protagonist happens to be a woman, but in the world in which she lives that doesn’t ~mean~ very much when it comes to understanding her character. The future society Moore depicts is one where gender becomes less pertinent to people’s understanding of themselves. I think this is purposeful, and may be part of Moore’s riff on the science fiction genre, which can provide the space to imagine social worlds very different from the one we inhabit, perhaps as a way to inspire people that alternatives are possible.
It feels like the purposes of a book like BITWC is very different, in that it’s a reflection on what the real world is like right now, where sexual difference is more prevalent in people’s understanding of themselves. In that case, the book may be an attempt to make readers understand the experience of being perceived as ‘different’, the pressures and the communities that creates. Perhaps to serve as a source of recognition to those with similar experiences, and a challenge to those (like myself) who have to infer what those experiences are like — partly through proxies (being a geek, negotiating my own attitude to masculinity, and so on).
I think both of those strategies are sound, and I don’t personally feel the need to choose which is more effective, but I guess depending on your own background one may be more impactful than the other.
The movie is so much better.
I gave reading the comic a go but comic books are so redundant now there’s comicbook movies that can take those ideas and make them alive and visceral.
Comics are an out of date medium.
My fave comics thing is the page filled with blocks with drawings inside them, then then a full page picture, then eventually a fight that’s two pages wide, then a caption thingy that says to be continued or concluded or FIN. #ace
Hello, like Dzuigas, this is the first time I’ve jumped into one of these online conversations, though I’ve enjoyed them, also the S.M.A.S.H. events at the Barbican. I am really happy that you chose BITWC for us to read, as I’m interested in exploring how a graphic novel might tell a – not less powerful – but perhaps more emotionally subtle story.
First of all, the title itself is brilliant: the use of the word “blue” suggesting something painterly but also, as someone said, subverting the norm, as blue is usually considered “cold.” And I think the actual use of the color blue to highlight Emma’s hair and other elements is great. I also like the style of illustration, the clean, crisp frames, and the streets of Paris are wonderfully evoked.
Of course, the story itself is powerful, as someone said, an updated version of “Romeo and Juliet,” and it makes one think. I have two problems, however, with the way the story is told.
The device of the diaries is, I think, a little lazy. It’s very clever in showing time passing, but I find so many words get in the way of the pictures. We shouldn’t need to read so much of what Clem feels; we hear enough through her friendship with Valentine. For me, the most powerful scenes in graphic novels, also films, are the ones without words: the emotional impact is that much more powerful and personal if the viewer is able to work out the meaning without the inevitably weighted intrusion of too many words.
Secondly, so much time is taken in setting up the relationship between Clem and Emma, but then the story suddenly skips ahead more than 10 years and then is told very quickly and sketchily. Clem’s breakdown almost comes out of nowhere – maybe we could have seen Clem make one last attempt to contact her father, or maybe show a scene between her and Antoine, showing her confusion and despair. Or did I miss something?
Anyway, I enjoy reading everyone’s comments; even if I don’t agree with everything, the conversation is always refreshingly open and honest.
I find the subtlety of your arguments persuasive, Ramsey. But I think you forgot to mention the panel where the two bad guys attack the good guy and he (yeah, it’s usually a straight, white “he”) ducks, so they hit each other.
End of sarcasm. I assume you’re being sarcastic too? 🙂 This being the internet, it’s good to check.
Ilia, Joel, et al. – interesting discussion regarding the purpose of the book. (I haven’t read it yet, got a copy on order when this thread started, but it’s taking it’s time getting here…) From what was said early on in the thread (by Emma IIRC), the book was aimed at the LGBTQ community, and the film more at the cis het male gaze. Which raises some interesting questions, (so, thanks!).
Does a piece of art have a purpose as such? And is that the same as aiming it at a particular audience?
Once a piece of art is released out into the world, people will inevitably see things in it that the author didn’t intend (e.g. co-opting of vintage Hollywood by some gay male subcultures, students’ appropriation of kids’ TV like The Clangers and The Magic Roundabout, and so on). The received wisdom on this is that that’s ok. So whereas the book of “Blue…” may be pitched at members of the LBGTQ community (maybe it makes no concessions to explain the conventions of that community, say), a cis het white reader can read it, and either struggle to understand the context and maybe gain some insights, or give up on it. If they do the former, then the book has spoken to them. They might have got some insights into what life’s like as a minority, as a lesbian, as a Parisian or a European, as a drug user, as a lover in a relationship that’s going wrong – or develop a pigheaded misunderstanding of what any of that is like, or anything inbetween. Maybe the very struggle to understand will give insights into what life as a marginalised community is like?
All of which may have nothing to do with what Julie Maroh saw as the “purpose” of the book. Was she simply looking to tell a story? To reach out to a particular kind of person? Did she have an audience, or audiences, in mind when she wrote & drew it? I guess some art is created more with a purpose in mind than others. The work of Joe Sacco, or Darryl Cunningham, say, is relatively purpose-laden, designed to inform and to put forward a specific point of view. At the other end, there’s Moebius’ “Airtight Garage” or even the abstract comics of Allan Haverholm or Ibn al Rabin, which can mean anything to anyone. And on a different axis, stuff like Charlie Brown or Heartbreak Soup, say, that’s presenting a bunch of characters interacting and letting the reader bring their own judgements. It feels to me like the “purpose” of each of these types of art is quite different. From what I’ve seen and heard of “Blue is the warmest colour”, it’s as much a presentation of interacting characters as it is a polemic about life as a minority. And there’s nothing to stop it from being both, and having been created with that breadth in mind.
I suppose I’m saying we bring our own purposes & perspectives to what we read. Sounds like this book can be read from a number of different perspectives.
PS: Quick reply to Pamela’s point that came in while I’m typing this – yes, I agree that too many words can slow a comic down, and some really good storytelling can be done without any words at all.
Just quickly on Dave’s point, totally agree that there is a spectrum when it comes to how ‘intentional’ the work of an artist might be. Some of the stuff we pick up may not be put there ~on purpose~ but still be meaningful to us, and might signpost things in the culture that have had a subconscious impact on what the artist puts in their work.
One of the reasons I suspect Maroh’s book is quite ‘purposeful’ is that it’s really well crafted in terms of form. I only remember it dimly, but was struck by how confident it was in using the medium of comics. (I think Maroh may have studied comics, and self-published several, before getting to BITWC, so she’s really put the work in).
In fact, at least part of BITWC seems to be about finding that confidence as an artist. I originally read the title in that way – people may think blue is a cold colour, but here is an entire book where I’ve made it into a warm one.
Also v quickly on the film. Fact checker point: the BITWC story was spliced together with another story the director was developing at the time, and I think that’s partly why they ended up as v different beasts. The original French title was smth like ‘The Life Of Adele Chapters 1 & 2’ which IMO is a much better fit for what the film turned out to be.
I don’t think it’s necessarily the case, Ilia, that well-crafted-ness (?!) equates to purposeful in a piece of art. Take Heartbreak Soup, for example, which displays a high degree of craft and mastery of the comics form, but scores very low on ‘purposeful’, I’d say. Not that it has no point, but that the story itself is the point. Here are a group of extreme & everyday characters, some changing dramatically, others staying the same, and you make whatever you want out of the story being told. Contrast with, say, Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales, which has a quite clear message about assimilating the mentally ill into society, an agenda he’s pushing.
So in a book that’s low on the purpose scale, the author may well be aware of many possible interpretations/reactions the reader might have, and be surprised by others – and even use the craft and skill at their disposal to keep the reader experience as open as possible.
Anyway, my copy of the book arrived yesterday, I’ve had a quick flick through and was very taken with the subtle colouring and Maroh’s command of facial expression. Looking forward to reading it, but there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance of me doing so this weekend, before the topic closes. Darn pesky constraints of space and time 😀
All the best, Dave
PS: Interesting to know that about the film being spliced in with another story.