Griselda Pollock’s feminism – in comics?

Between her two major books on feminist art history, Old Mistresses (1981, co-authored by Rozsika Parker) and Vision and Difference (1987), Griselda Pollock published an article titled “Women, Art, and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians”¹. In part a summary of the former book, it outlines Pollock’s notion of a feminist art history (or should that rather be “feminism in art history”?). The problem with previous feminist art historians, according to Pollock’s essay, is that they only tried to amend the canon of art history by adding female artists that had been omitted before. Pollock calls this an “unthreatening and additive feminism”. Instead, she argues, “a central task for feminist art historians is […] to critique art history itself”, because art history (as well as its object of study, art) is a system that “actively constructs and secures the patriarchal definitions for the category Woman”.

How, then, is a feminist art history possible at all? “The important questions” need to be asked: “how and why an art object or text was made, for whom was it made, for what purpose was it made, within what constraints and possibilites was it produced and initially used?” The importance of such questions to any art historical analysis seems self-evident today, and in fact they were already being asked back then – Marxist art history and the social history of art were a big thing. But they didn’t satisfy Pollock, who says that Marxist thinking about art, which treats “art as a reflection of the society that produced it”, has some severe shortcomings: it “oversimplifies the processes whereby an art product […] represents social processes that are themselves enormously complicated, mobile, and opaque”; it “condemns women effectively to a homogenenous, gender-defined category” and “effaces the specificity and heterogeneity of women’s artistic production”; it places works of art in ideological categories when in fact “ideologies are often fractured and contradictory”, etc.

So the overall tendency of Pollock’s feminist art history is: specificity, particularity, complexity and heterogeneity instead of generalisation and categorisation. Clearly, such a kind of art history is a radical shift away from scholarship as it is traditionally understood. It is perhaps best summed up in Pollock’s demand that “the relations between women, art, and ideology have to be studied as a set of varying and unpredictable relationships.” However, when Pollock’s essay provides some examples of what such an analysis might look like (taken from Old Mistresses), they don’t seem quite so radical after all. Sofonisba Anguissola’s 1561 Self Portrait With Spinet and Attendant is interpreted as a display of the artist’s aristocratic class position which allowed her to become a professional painter, unlike women of lower classes. Johann Zoffany’s 1772 The Academicians of the Royal Academy, in which the only two female Academy members are not part of the group in the room but represented as portrait paintings on the wall, shows how the system of the art academy actively constructed “distinct identities for the artist who was a man – the artist, and the artist who was a woman – the woman artist.” The late 18th-century family portraits by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun show how the ideal of the woman at that time had changed to that of “the happy mother, the woman fulfilled by childbearing and childrearing.”

Thus, in contrast to ‘mainstream’ art history, Pollock’s vantage point is always the (female) artist’s biography. Let’s see where this approach takes us when applied to a random comic.

The last comic by a female author that I read was Moe Yukimaru’s Suisai (more on that manga in a later post) vol. 1. What can we find out about this mangaka? Born in 1986, Yukimaru worked as an assistant to Nana Haruta (on another shōjo manga, Love Berrish) before debuting as a mangaka in 2006. Most of her manga were published in the shōjo magazine Ribon. Suisai started in 2015, i.e. when Yukimaru was 28 or 29. According to e.g. her Japanese Wikipedia page, her dream for the future is to become a “mangaka and charismatic housewife at the same time”. However, we don’t know when and under which circumstances she said that.

Yukimaru also has a weblog, yukimarublog.jugem.jp. She hasn’t posted for a while and her latest blogposts are about her current manga, Hatsukoi Retake, and transitioning from print to digital-first publishing. But her earlier posts from around the time when she was working on Suisai are quite interesting. In one of them, from late 2014, she apologises for “not having a particularly stylish lifestyle to blog about” and not being one of those “bloggers who write about highly feminine content with fashionable images every day”. Apart from promoting her manga work, though, there is quite a lot of cat content, food pics, and even a post about Yukimaru doing her fingernails.

So the image that we can perceive of Yukimaru is that of a ‘highly feminine’ artist who is firmly associated with the shōjo manga segment. Interestingly, Suisai doesn’t quite reflect this image. Although often labeled ‘romance’, this first volume at least is not so much of a girl-meets-boy story (there is something of that, too) but more of a ‘girl-meets-flute’ story of a high school student who enters her school’s brass band. It is a music manga first and foremost. Other music manga, e.g. Naoshi Arakawa’s Shigatsu wa kimi no uso / Your Lie in April, have been published in shо̄nen magazines. Granted, that one had both a male protagonist and a male author, but the point is that demographic categorisations such as shо̄jo or shо̄nen are often quite artificial, and that Suisai isn’t a particularly ‘girly’ manga.

Taking a closer look at Suisai, however, we find some interesting points being raised in terms of gender. Right at the beginning, we learn that the protagonist, Urara, had been a successful track-and-field athlete in middle school. But now in high school, she wants to “try something new” instead of a sports club – so that she can spend more time wearing the “cute” sailor uniform of her new school. “After quitting the [track-and-field] club, I have grown my hair long just for that”, she says, which prompts her classmate to say: “So there is an actual girl hidden in you after all.”

In the following course of the story, there are several scenes in which Urara’s energetic and bold nature is seen as undesirable and un-girly, and her lack of “cuteness” is pointed out. Thus we could read this coming-of-age story as the story of Urara moving on not only from middle to high school, but also from a sports to a music club, leaving her boyish childhood behind and becoming a woman. As Griselda Pollock would perhaps say, Urara succumbs to the allure of this artificially created category of Woman; a category created both by the fictional society in the manga and real society, including Moe Yukimaru, her publisher, and her readers.

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog

¹ First published in Woman’s Art Journal Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 1983), pp. 39–47, https://doi.org/10.2307/1358100; re-published in Women’s Studies Quarterly Vol. 15, No. 1/2, Teaching about Women and the Visual Arts (Spring – Summer, 1987), pp. 2–9, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40004832.


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