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Real Life Wonder Woman. Nicola Streeten

Text by: Ankita Jain

Popularly known for the novel, Billy, Me & You, Nicola Streeten is an award winning British graphic novelist. Streeten created the character Billy inspired by her son who died at the age of two. Moreover, the novel is a graphic memoir that offers acutely observed snapshots of the couple through the decade and a half that follows: their savage grief, deep despair, dreams of suicide; the wildly differing reactions of those around them; Billy’s funeral and more.

Streeten was recently in the valley to host a workshop exploring themes of female role models in the form of cartoons and illustrations. It was organised as a part of an international project, Creating Heroines by the British Council, which explores the stories behind the side-lined heroines of history and mythology and uses them to inspire new creations to spark debate, challenge stereotypes and share women’s stories. In an email interview, Nicola Streeten talks about the necessity of focusing on real women problems through the medium of cartoons and illustrations. Excerpts:

Female protagonists with less-than-perfect bodies and strong characters are tearing up the sales chart. Your comments…

One point to make is of key importance (this may not be the right question, but is worth noting). With the surge of, for example, female Marvel comics characters during the past few years, there has been popular media declaration of a feminist triumph. But feminism is about more than imaginary cartoon women, it is about real women with real lives. In most cases, the editors, directors, artists and writers of these female cartoon characters and their narratives remain predominantly male, mainly white, with real pay and status. Until balance is imposed on the production process and the positions of power this cannot really be recognised as a feminist triumph.

Is it challenging to imbue realistic stories with a touch of the fantastical?

I think a touch of the fantastical can certainly add to the power of a narrative, making it work on two levels. However, it depends on whose fantasy it is and what the fantasy is. If the fantasy is a female character with appearance and behaviour based on male pornography, it is of less interest to me, less relatable. If the fantasy or imaginary elements are realistic, such as acceptance of difference in the characters then this is something to celebrate.

For me, fantasy characters can be problematic sometimes. For example, a female superhero with the power of invisibility is something of an irony for me as an aging woman struggling with the social invisibility that accompanies aging. It does not feel like a superpower! However, for a child, the inspirations may be different!

The graphic novel does the work of bridging the gap over various issues; still, many associate it with children’s comic books. Why?

Historically, in Britain (which is my own area of expertise and knowledge) the target market for the first comics, during the 1800s was adult. However, towards the end of the 19th century comics were directed to a younger audience. The immediate financial success generated a market that has been mainly for children in the UK and the USA since then. This recent history explains the wide association of comics being for children. From the 1960s, a so-called alternative culture introduced comics that addressed more adult themes including radical politics, sex, drugs and rock n roll, introducing a different association with the form. As part of this development, the idea of using the form for more serious subject matters became popularised.

Early cartoons offered one-dimensional characters that fulfilled gender role clichés, while more recently, cartoon creators have helped remedy the debacle with the girl power. Your thoughts…

It is difficult to generalise and in every age, the context of time and place dictate the stories we tell and our forms of entertainment. The idea of “girl power” has been present in the West since the 1990s offering a different manifestation of feminism that we may refer to as the third wave feminism. There is room for different narratives and different characters in popular culture and if a female cartoon character is inspiring for young girls this is surely a positive development.

Female cartoons last year were more subversive than ever, cutting down stereotypes left and right and emerging as a heroic figure. According to you, does the society require more such female characters to relate themselves with and understand females well?

There is a need for a balance of fictional and realistic female characters. If a character is produced that relies on superpowers that are impossible to achieve, this may provide inspirational entertainment. However, we also need to continue the sharing of women’s experiences with more difficult subject matters, such as rape and abuse. Popular culture is an accessible way of addressing uncomfortable or taboo subjects that are often hidden, in a way that can provoke discussion. The visual is a particularly powerful way of doing this. Through the visual, we can present not only the damaging behaviours in society but also the effects on the recipients of anti-social and often illegal behaviours. The visual introduces a subtlety; a show does not tell that can have more impact on a viewer or reader. Because the comics form has a more recognisable status than for example fine art, it has the potential to be a powerful vehicle for tackling a variety of subjects. Awareness and discussion around such narratives and their characters have the potential to lead to social transformation.

What social issues faced by women should be addressed through the means of illustration?

As mentioned above the social issues may include the more serious where moral and/or government laws are being broken in the way women are treated. The visual can also be used to highlight less obvious areas of distress and inequality for people in society. Such subjects may include the isolation experienced by women within a domestic setting or the distress caused by the social expectations around marriage and childbearing.

Why do you think female characters should play a poignant role in graphics and illustrations?

It is because popular culture should visually represent society. Since half the population is female, this should be reflected in the images and narratives that surround us – in whatever form. Such reflection should go beyond a binary reflection and aim for inclusion of differences in people, including sexuality, race, ableism.

With your collaboration with Creating Heroines, what new portfolio of original and innovative content that champion positive representation of women and girls can be expected?

We are keen not to impose restrictions on the process of producing content. I will be working closely with the British Council and a gathering of professional women artist from different countries to develop content emerging from an in-depth and personal discussion process. To this, we will bring our experiences as women, both shared and different, as well as our professional expertise in art and design. Our knowledge of the existing characters and narratives in popular culture will inform the content and style of the produced artworks. It is our ambition to see the outcome of our collaborative work applied in a number of educational contexts to promote the positive representation of women and girls in society.