Becoming Unbecoming

Martha Blow

Edited by Abigail Eardley

Art by Livi Prendergast https://liviprendergast.wordpress.com/

On the 5th October 2017, The Times published a story presenting decades of allegations of sexual harassment against film mogul Harvey Weinstein. What followed was the uncovering of an endemic culture of sexual harassment within Hollywood, followed by the seismic #MeToo hashtag. The Weinstein Scandal forced the conversation about sexual violence into global discourse and brought to light its ubiquity. While Becoming Unbecoming was published in 2015, prior to the Weinstein Scandal, it nonetheless addresses the rape culture that normalised Weinstein’s—amongst others—actions. That the graphic novel is set in the 1970s does not diminish its relevance to contemporary society, as evidenced by Weinstein’s exposure, and for that reason it is crucially important to academic curricula.

Becoming Unbecoming is a memoir-style graphic novel that delineates Una’s upbringing and experiences of sexual abuse in the 1970s against a backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper’s crimes. The text’s form is integral to its content: the voice of a rape survivor is rarely heard in dominant literature and media, and by removing the narrative from standard forms—i.e. the long-form literary novel—Una creates a space for that voice to be heard. The image of a blank speech bubble on the cover signals from the outset that the survivor’s silence is a key theme. It becomes a recurring motif, haunting the reader repeatedly throughout the pages, and symbolising the burden of silence which sexual abuse survivors are forced to carry. The inclusion of contemporary headlines, quotes, and societal attitudes provides context for this silence, indicating the oppressive atmosphere of victim-blaming survivors must face: ‘GIRLS WARNED IN RIPPER HUNT’ (Una 29). Victim-blaming is a key component of rape culture and is not, sadly, restricted to the 1970s. In 2017, high-profile fashion designer Donna Karan defended Weinstein, stating ‘you look at everything all over the world today and how women are dressing and what they are asking by just presenting themselves the way they do. What are they asking for? Trouble.’ (Malkin para 11). The damaging notion that a person’s clothing choices can be irresponsible, or render them culpable in their own abuse, is debunked in Una’s account: ‘[on] that particular day I was wearing jeans…Jeans (n): hard-wearing casual trousers made of denim or other cotton fabric’ (35–36). Karan’s suggestion that women are ‘asking for trouble’ again normalises sexual violence and contributes to the silencing of abuse survivors. While this view is purported, survivors are prevented from coming forward with their story: ‘words failed me…they didn’t present such a problem to others!’ (Una 79).

While Una illustrates how society erases survivors’ narratives in cases of sexual violence, she also creates a space in which they can be heard. If words have been used to diminish survivors’ stories, then images are a rebellion against this. This is highlighted through Una’s use of font. A standard sans-serif font is used to represent a normalised voice, such as in instances as ‘why do you have to bring gender into it?’ (Una 114). In contrast, non-standard handwritten fonts are used for Una’s own voice, thereby indicating to the reader the divergence between the narratives received in the media and the narratives left out of public view. This divergence is also signalled through the nuance of image: an illustration of Wilma McCann, murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper, uses the same base image as a portrait of Una’s own mother later in the text. The former is accompanied by the caption ‘she may have needed to come and go quietly to conceal the fact…she was leaving her children alone to go out drinking’—a detail which was used in the media at the time to depict her as a woman of ‘loose morals’ (Una 61, 62). By using the same image for both Wilma and her own mother, Una highlights the similarity between the two women and humanises Wilma, distancing her from the skewed narrative of blame presented in contemporary news stories.

Moreover, images allow the unspeakable nature of trauma to be translated onto the page. Images generate meaning in collaboration with the reader who is forced to interpret each frame, and in this process Una is able to portray her experiences without needing to utter a word. Her illustrations are at their most powerful at the book’s conclusion: a series of portraits of the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims. These women have been defined by their murderer, and the use of images to visualise ‘what they would be doing now’ returns the agency stripped of them by the media to the women themselves. It legitimises their existence, without the need to modify it by mentioning the Yorkshire Ripper (169).

While the graphic novel has been largely neglected as a valid literary form since its inception, in recent years it has started to be taken more seriously by critics—indeed, the 2018 Man Booker longlist includes a graphic novel for the first time ever. Critics such as Andrés Romero-Jódar demonstrate the graphic novel’s significance to trauma studies, initiated by works such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Becoming Unbecoming progresses this research, moving away from war-trauma by bringing trauma studies of the graphic novel into the #MeToo era. The Weinstein Scandal has highlighted the vital importance of listening to survivors’ stories, and the inclusion of Becoming Unbecoming on university syllabi would not only expand reading lists beyond the canon, but also work to undo the erasure of survivors’ voices.

Works cited

Malkin, Bonnie. ‘Donna Karan defends Harvey Weinstein: “Are women asking for it?”’. The Guardian, 10 Oct. 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/oct/10/donna-karan-defends-harvey-weinstein-women. Accessed 22 July 2018.

Una. Becoming Unbecoming. Myriad Editions, 2015.

About the author

Martha Blow is a recent English Literature graduate from the University of Glasgow who is currently preparing for her postgraduate degree at the University of York. Martha is interested in the representation of the imperial museum within literature and the intersection of literary and museum studies.

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