‘My life became so much better when I stopped comparing or competing with other women’
Mirion Malle's League Of Super Feminists is a sharp, smart and funny tour through the ideas that underpin feminism
"The problem with the ‘Strong Female Character’ is they are always sexy and white and thin, and you have to ask who is making money from this portrayal?" Mirion Malle's League Of Super Feminists
Cartoonist Mirion Malle hadn’t necessarily planned on making the year’s most important child-friendly comic about feminist theory. “I had a blog when I was in comics school in Belgium, ” she tells me over Zoom from her home in Montreal. “It covered issues to do with gender and representation, sexism stuff like that. And that became a book, and after that my publisher asked if I’d want to work on a book that was specifically for kids. I thought it was a cool challenge because writing for kids is so different than adults. At the same time, I was finishing my master’s degree in sociology, and I thought maybe I could bring something from that to the table.”
The result of these labours, The League Of Super Feminists is a sharp, smart and funny tour through the ideas that underpin feminism, from the make-up of patriarchy, and the intersection of race and class, all the way to representations of women in film, TV and literature. The book makes decades of sociological theory not merely accessible, but compelling, which Malle ascribes to her desire to get around the loftier language of university departments, and convey instead the simple truths of lived experience.
“One of my main motivations was that universities can be very elitist,” she says, “and it’s very hard sometimes to understand university text because the language is so complicated. One of the ironies of social studies is that a lot of the texts can only be understood by people with a master’s degree in philosophy, but the concepts are not that complicated.”
These concepts are, indeed, so lucidly explained that most adults would gain something from reading along. The text treats the reader with respect, not shy of delving into theory, and extremely adept at dropping alarming, often depressing statistics. The issue of unrealistic beauty standards is one that’s well covered in the mainstream press, but one pauses afresh upon reading that “50 per cent of girls between the ages of 18 and 25 would rather be run over by a truck than be fat”.
Some of the most impactful passages are less dramatic, and see Malle confronting aspects of sexism which receive less media attention, but are just as glaring. Chief among these is a bravura section in which she investigates how rare female friendships are on screen. Male friendships, she demonstrates, are ubiquitous in all film and TV, whereas female friendships are ignored entirely unless the content is aimed directly at a female audience. Even then, she explains, these friendships are usually riven with internal fights between “mean girls” and “nice girls”. In one section she lists all the possible reasons why a girl might be thought of as “mean” and lays out, with dazzling clarity, the ways in which these are enforced for sexist reasons.
“Female friendship is something that’s very important to me” she says. “I used to do talks in schools and I noted the questions that were frequently asked. It’s something I wanted to put in the book because when I talk to teenagers or young girls, it’s always something I find they’re unused to seeing.”
Why then, does the “mean girl” trope persist, even in representations which do show female friendship?
“I think because it’s easier to divide and conquer. That’s why it’s useful to support each other. Like I say in the book, you don’t have to like every girl, but from a young age, we are taught to hate other women. We are not in competition with each other, except in boys’ eyes. I don’t like the idea of feminism as ‘self-help’, I think capitalism is trying to transform feminism and social justice into a brand, very centred around individuals, when I think it’s actually systemic. It’s not like, ‘I’m going to be feminist and my life is going to be better’. The only thing that is always beneficial is female solidarity and friendship.”
Malle relates some of these conflicts to her own experiences growing up, and realising that her early form of affirmation was in “rejecting” female tropes, an act that was itself symptomatic of the ways in which women are constantly pitted against each other.
“I defined myself as a feminist when I was very young,” she tells me, “maybe 14, but I don’t really think I knew what it meant at that time. I remember slut-shaming other girls, it took me a while to unlearn this. My life became so much better when I stopped comparing or competing with other women. I’m not going to say it never happens, you know. I can see a picture of a girl in a magazine and still think ‘I’m not as beautiful as her’ or things like that, because society is very good at brainwashing you. But I wish I would have seen other girls as friends, and as support, very much sooner than I did. If I could teach something it would be to tell people to stick together, because there are so many things that are going to be hard for you and you don’t want to add something you can avoid.”
The issue of feminism being co-opted recurs throughout our conversation. In 2020, as great strides are being made in so many avenues, there is sometimes a sense that “groundbreaking” female representations are still mired in masculine values. I mention the Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton, who hilariously satirised the ass-kicking superwoman trope with her short series Strong Female Characters. These feature a trio of scantily clad, gun-wielding maniacs who shout vaguely affirmative Girl Power-esque slogans, while contorting their bodies in sexy positions and catering to the male gaze.
“Yes,” she laughs, “I am very interested in well-written female characters, because okay, ‘strong female characters’ are cool but, for example, they always have to be sexy, and mainly there for men. For my master’s degree I interviewed a lot of TV writers and one of them told me: ‘Oh we have such a feminist character, for example she eats a lot of pizza and never gets fat.’”
The book goes to great pains to point out that, while women can and should get the opportunity to indulge in stereotypically “male” pursuits, doing so is not the be-all and end-all of representation, especially when traits coded as feminine are themselves devalued.
“When it comes to characters who are more explicitly ‘feminine’ you can see they’re often hated,” she says. “For example, Sansa in Game Of Thrones. I love Brienne, she was my favourite character, and everyone loves Arya, but everyone hates Sansa, even though really her character just has awful things happen to her and through it all she’s very resilient. We are programmed to hate women characters who have feminine traits, because those kinds of attributes are not valued, and if they do exhibit those traits, they’re just considered natural, and should be given for free. Of course, the other problem with the ‘Strong Female Character’ is they are always sexy and white and thin, and you have to ask who is making money from this portrayal? I wanted to show in the book the economic aspect of these things. The book is not Anti-Capitalism For Kids, but economics does have an impact.”
I ask if there are films or shows that do provide a more rounded experience for women, young and old, to latch onto.
“Birds of Prey was one of the best of this year,” she says. I add that I’d not seen the film and heard it was critically panned. “It was unfairly dismissed because a lot of people are snobby about that kind of entertainment. It didn’t fall into ‘Girl Power!’ stuff, which most of the time doesn’t involve any political thinking. It was also careful with the power dynamic within the characters, not just the women, but the villain. It’s rare that a film is made with that experience of women in mind. Strong female characters who are complex and funny, they’re not all the same.
“Other good ones are Betty, Skate Kitchen, The watermelon woman, Unpregnant, His Dark Materials, The Baby-Sitters Club. I would also add Fleabag and Please Like Me, but maybe more for young adults/adults.”
The book’s benefits are not solely for women, she’s quick to add, and throughout she is at pains to illustrate the ways in which boys and young men should be educated on these issues, especially in an information eco-system in which the so-called “manosphere” – a loose agglomeration of right-wing, anti-feminist media sources centred around YouTube and Reddit’s dingiest corners – are targeting young men in huge numbers. Malle says these issues are real, but not as intractable as she first thought.
“I realised something about young men,” she says. “I almost never argue with grown men because, online or in real life, I was wasting hours explaining very basic things to them, and they were only interested in telling me I was stupid. But with teen males and younger boys, I will engage. They’ll say: ‘What do you say about the feminazis?’ So, I ask them: ‘Who do you think is a better comparison for Nazis? The person who is arguing for their rights and trying to exist peacefully, or the ones refusing this and threatening them with death threats?’
“Their questions are sometimes influenced by the far right and YouTube etc, but when you answer male teens and young boys logically, they often understand and change their minds. That’s something that makes me optimistic; that you can explain stuff to boys and they are not going to try and insist that you are wrong. If you give them the right answers with logical truth. That’s encouraging.”
Malle takes most heart, however, from the reaction from young girls.
“What really makes me optimistic,” she concludes, “is when I’m doing talks in school with teens and young kids, even as young as eight or nine, they’re so much more aware than I was. It’s a thing we say, ‘Oh, kids are very cruel’, but also they are very intelligent, and I think with these new tools that we have, things are changing. I meet kids at signings, 12-year-old girls, who are incredible: ‘We’ve started a feminist club and we are teaching boys about periods and if they don’t like it we tell them off.’ They were saying things I didn’t say until I was maybe 20. That’s something that gives me hope.”