Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe

When I was a teenager, I came across a list of the most commonly banned books in the USA - and, of course, I posted it on my bulletin board and ran down the list, checking them off one by one as I read them all. (I do have one asterisk: I only skimmed Our Bodies, Ourselves in the library, for fairly obvious not-my-body reasons.) I like to think I wasn't alone in that. Bans can work to suppress things, but they also call attention to the things they ban, in a Streisand Effect, and if those things are good and supported by enough people, the bans only make them more visible.

In those days, the reasons for banning were more varied, and the would-be banners more diverse: there were still a lot of lefty groups complaining about racist language in Huck Finn and similar books, for example. But the bulk of the complaints, even then, were clearly from the conservative side, about lives that didn't fit into their neat little boxes or revealed uncomfortable things to little Timmy and Stacy that they might then repeat to parents who would prefer not to hear any of that. Books about sex education, of course, like Our Bodies. The Diary of Anne Frank - always, ostensibly, for her few glancing mentions of sexuality, but we all knew the real reasons. Lots of books by Black writers - that may have been the peak of Toni Morrison's place on those lists - which were usually couched as complaints about "vulgar language."

There was a lot of that. Books that were obviously objected to for an unstated reason - the author was Black or gay or Jewish or Native or wrote about those lives in a compelling way - but the stated reason was something nitpicky about language, because the ever-more-right-wing book-banners weren't yet comfortable bluntly expressing white supremacy in public.

Times have changed.

Maia Kobabe's comics memoir Gender Queer leaped to the top of those lists almost as soon as it was published in 2019. As before, the stated reasons are usually "explicit sex." Now, I've read a bunch of comics with explicit sex in them - I was around for the '90s smut boom, and more recently read things like Sex Criminals and Gilbert Hernandez's Blubber - so perhaps my smut detector has been burnt out from overuse. There is some nudity in Gender Queen, though not much: Kobabe is unhappy with eir body most of the time; that's the point of the book. There are two unpleasant gynecological exams, which is where some of the nudity comes in. But the only panels depicting "sex" I can remember or find now are two in which Kobabe and eir female partner engage in oral sex on a strap-on dildo, which, as you know Bob, does not actually involve the genitals of either person.

And, frankly, I have to expect that "explicit sex" focus is deeply frustrating for Kobabe, eir editors and publishers, and all the librarians and teachers who have championed this book, since it's primarily about a lack of sexual desire, about how Kobabe doesn't fit into standard expectations of pairing and dating and lust and life. To be blunt, a major thread in the book is Kobabe's growing realization that e cares about sex and intimate relationships vastly less than most people: this is a book largely about finding out that you don't really care that much about sex, and can do without it, thank you.

It's almost as if the banners are grabbing something easy to understand, though completely incorrect, because it's a convenient stick to hit something they don't like for other reasons.

No, not "almost." Actually.

Gender Queer is a loose collection of vignettes and pseudo-chapters of comics pages that tell Kobabe's life - or the parts of it that intersect with eir understanding and investigations of eir gender - but it's not tightly structured. Kobabe starts off in childhood, but bounces around a lot, as e tells various pieces of eir life. I'm probably not a good person to boil down eir complex understanding of gender and eir place in that, but, if I had to put it into a few words, I'd say Kobabe feels most comfortable as a person who sits between the two major genders, and who particularly avoids "feminine" things, possibly because e was AFAB and brought up as "a girl."

By the way, you've probably noticed that Kobabe uses "Spivak pronouns" - e, em, eir. I still think the less-used pronouns can set their users up for a lot of additional microaggression and worse in their lives, especially as them/they is actually getting traction as a singular pronoun in wide culture, but I don't get to decide those things for other people. I will say that having more pronouns, and more specific, particular ones, can make it easier for writers to make it clear which person is doing what in a narrative, so I'm in favor of them for that one selfish reason. I would like to puckishly insist that all groups should have one him, one her, one em, one ze, one they, and one xie.

Kobabe has a clean, cartoony line, well enhanced with mostly-bright colors by eir sibling Phoebe Kobabe, and an equally rounded, very legible lettering font, too. The latter is good, since Gender Queer is a book with a lot of words: Kobabe had to process a lot of stuff, and this book is the record of that.

And this book will be an eye-opener to a lot of people, particularly young people. Particularly young people who could be figuring out their own places on their own gender spectra, how they want to interact with other people, what the options are.

That, again, is why some people want to ban books like this. Can't let Ethan and Emma get ideas!

I could wish that Gender Queer had more to it, but it's clear Kobabe is a very private person by nature, and what e put on the page already may feel like way too much to eir. In particular, I wonder about eir parents: e presents them as loving, granola-esque Northern California types, but I suspect they were oblivious or distracted in some important ways. Kobabe describes serious learning issues in eir childhood that two parents who are both labeled as teachers should presumably have done something about. I get a vague impression that Kobabe was basically left to do whatever e wanted to do as a child, maybe some kind of pseudo-radical "free range parenting" thing. But, as all parents discover (or should), every kid needs a different style of parenting, and you don't get to do things your way consistently if you want to do it right.

I hope Gender Queer stays in libraries and schools: it belongs there, and has important work to do there. The people trying to ban it are a mixture of the misled and the actively hostile; it may be possible to engage with the former but the latter deserve only scorn and derision.

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