Recently, I’ve been reading the Image series Paper Girls (written by Brian K. Vaughan of Saga fame, and artwork by Jared K. Fletcher, Matthew Wilson, and Cliff Chiang). It’s fantastic in so many ways. Of course, I love female driven comics, and this one definitely delivers.
What’s great about the series is, not only does it have a female protagonist – it actually has four of them. And they don’t spend their time talking about the boys they’re crushing on – so no problem passing the Bechdel Test here. Too often, stories (in pretty much all media) in which all of the major characters are women are relegated to the ranks of romantic comedies or Lifetime movies. It’s like they’re slapped with a big, pink tag and labeled “women’s stories.”
But Paper Girls isn’t like that. It’s a story about time travel and other crazy sci-fi themes. It realizes that females don’t just sit around getting mani-pedis all the time. It’s not pigeonholed into being just a “story for women.” When everything goes to hell in their small town, the girls’ parents are nowhere to be found, so it’s up to them to fend for themselves in some pretty extreme circumstances – and they prove themselves to be fully capable of stepping up to the plate.
And the same can be said for the girls themselves. The protagonists are four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls in Ohio named Mac, Erin, KJ, and Tiffany. And they’re definitely not girlie-girls. They know how to tell off the older boys who give them a hard time, and how to throw around a four-letter word. In short, they’re pretty badass.
At the same time, they’re not portrayed as being un-feminine. So they’re able to retain their femininity while also being opinionated and, in the case of Mac, a little brash. This is important because there’s still, to a certain extent, the assumption that femininity equals weakness/unintelligence, and that in order for a woman to be taken seriously, she has to try to mimic the boys and appear less feminine. That’s not to say that the characters would have been less compelling if they had been portrayed as less feminine. That is certainly not the case. But it is important to note that being feminine and being badass are not mutually exclusive.
It’s also significant because we all know that there are still misconceptions about girls and women who speak out. But the decision to portray these very sympathetic, female characters as being bold and outspoken challenges that convention.
And the fact that they’re girls – not adult women – is significant as well. Girls, being both young and female, are often portrayed as being the ultimate weaklings and/or potential victims. They’re conveyed as having very little power or agency. It’s like they’re damsels in even more distress than their adult counterparts. And while it’s true that girls – and children in general – of course need more protection than adults, anyone who has spent any time around a group of tween girls knows that they’re anything but weaklings. It’s time we start seeing a different, more empowering narrative.
Also noteworthy is the story’s treatment of homophobia. While Mac is generally portrayed as a sympathetic character, she becomes uncomfortable when a teenage boy from the future reveals that he’s had a boyfriend (it does take place almost 30 years ago, and the boy notes that the girls are living in “a messed up time”). The other girls call her on it immediately, letting the audience know that from their perspectives, acceptance should be the norm. It’s assumed that the people in their lives will be accepting of others, and Mac’s comments about the boy stick out like a sore thumb. To the extent that the media we consume can help to shape the reality we create, this is a step in a positive direction. We want a world where acceptance is the norm, and discrimination is called out! Granted, it might have been even more effective if the boy’s sexuality hadn’t been seen as an “issue” at all with any of the girls, but it does seem like the story is making an effort to call out homophobia.
So clearly, there are a lot of reasons why you should start reading this series. It’s a great story with a fun and unique premise, and its treatment of its female protagonists is great.