Illustration accompanying call for boycott. © Julie Maroh.
The furor over the list of nominees for the Grand Prix of the Angoulême International Comics Festival (FIBD) should be understood as a typical example of a number of societal phenomena. I mean by this that the comics world is no more or less sexist than other communities: it’s just the same.
But I also mean that this controversy was a gift for the media and for those who love to dig into such a juicy morsel since it doesn’t cost anyone any money. Meanwhile, ninety percent of French cartoonists have been breaking their backs for over a year trying to bring attention to their now-obligatory enrollment in retirement funds (RAAP) and higher retirement payments. Some are finding themselves forced to give up on the profession or to take on a second career. They’re having trouble making rent and dressing their kids. But nobody cares: societal woes don’t get good ratings.
How did all this furor really begin? The morning of Tuesday, January 5, most cartoonists learned that the FIBD had just published the list of thirty nominees for the Grand Prix and were asking them to vote for three finalists. Since the dissolution a few years ago of the Académie de Grand Prix (made up of former winners), it is now the festival that decides on the nominees and the final vote. I say “the festival” but actually the matter is handled by a mini-elite of the company 9eArt+ (the for-profit company that manages the festival), including Franck Bondoux, its executive officer, each of whom have their interests. All of which is just to say that no, the cartoonists don’t really elect their Grand Prix.
That morning, along with my colleagues in the Collectif de créatrices de bande dessinée contre le sexisme (BD Egalité), I discovered the list and saw that there was not a single woman among the thirty nominees listed. This is an international roster, so that means that for the FIBD there is not a single woman in the entire world who merits being on this list. And it’s not as if candidates are lacking! What a rude awakening. Unable to let this injustice stand, we started to organize. Given that one month earlier we had sent the FIBD a detailed report lamenting the lack of female representation on their juries, it was all the more difficult to swallow. Here we see unveiled a gulf between the FIBD's professed conduct and the reality of the impossibility of dialogue between that institution and our collective of two hundred female professionals (who aren't just a bunch of nobodies, by the way). Given the FIBD’s level of responsibility, we expected a higher degree of competence.
While we worked on deciding which steps to take and organizing a boycott, we spread the word to our friends and colleagues, letting them know that BD Egalité was preparing a press release, that we were refusing to vote, and that everyone was invited to spread the word. Our male friends got on board—some even apologized for not having noticed at first—and were sincerely shocked. The affair started to ricochet all over the Web. At 2 p.m. that day, BD Egalité published its call to boycott, which was widely shared, often accompanied by a slogan or caricature. Jessica Abel, a member of BD Egalité, contacted some of the American nominees to explain the situation and to encourage them to act. At 5:30 p.m., Riad Sattouf became the first nominee to announce on Facebook that he was withdrawing his name from the list because of the lack of female representation. Within hours his post had already been liked more than 33,000 times and shared about 8,100 times, and the media have had a field day with it.
More nominees joined the boycott we had launched, including those contacted by Jessica Abel. The media buzz got ratcheted up a notch. However, the press preferred to latch on to the “famous [male] cartoonists.” Les Échos led with “Accused of sexism, the FIBD is boycotted by famous [male] cartoonists,” La Parisienne noted it “admires” Riad Sattouf’s political engagement, the French version of Huffington Post featured Joann Sfar, who for his part thanks Riad, “thanks to whom . . . ” everything is back in order: the guys have it under control.
Don’t get me wrong, when each of these male nominees withdrew their names from the list I danced for joy. I am thrilled by the collective conscience and by the actions of my male colleagues. What I’m pointing out here is a typical media phenomenon born of social conditioning. If, as a feminist group, we cry wolf and demand reparations, we’ll be easily dismissed as whiny hags with nothing better to do, or who need to get laid. (You think I’m exaggerating? Go take a look on Twitter or Facebook.) Once a single man takes interest in our cause he is seen as a knight coming to rescue the princesses and is showered with praise.
Feminism needs everybody. I’d much rather see my male friends allied to our cause than shrugging their shoulders. Let’s just be wary of the myth of natural social advancement. Social progress is an election slogan. It’s the struggles of minorities that generate progress only to then be appropriated by the masses and integrated into the social fabric, all the while keeping those minority instigators on the fringe. Feminism is a good example. This phenomenon has been around a long time; it even has a name: Social Cryptomnesia.
So We Won?
Franck Bondoux treated all female cartoonists with contempt and condescension on French television the evening of Wednesday, January 6, when he complained the festival was “buried in these female problems,” incapable of recognizing the well-justified outcry that the absence of women on the list had provoked, even as a Claire Brétécher retrospective is drawing crowds at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. He offered no mea culpa. His answers are very deceptive if not shocking.
While it’s true that our boycott has earned us the promise of a truly democratic election of the Grand Prix without a pre-established list of nominees, the outcry has brought to light once again the underlying problems: the festival’s lack of transparency regarding its rules, its internal workings, and its finances; the high price of entry (for the right to flip through some books, an adult day pass costs a minimum of sixteen euros); the lack of [gender] parity in the composition of the grand jury and in the selection and awarding of the Fauves (the festival’s book awards); and—last but not least—the festival's imprecise head-counting of our cartoonist’s march against retirement reform (RAAP) last year, which leads one to believe that the head-counting of visitors during the festival is biased . . .
As I said, the comics world is just as sexist as other domains. We can add that it is as also just as gangrenous. Once the buzz dies down, our struggles will continue.
Editor’s note: Following the outcry, the FIBD scrapped the list of nominees and opened the voting to cartoonists, resulting in a shortlist of England’s Alan Moore, France’s Claire Wendling (who, horrified, took to Facebook to beg people not to vote for her), and the eventual winner, Belgium’s Hermann.
© 2016 Julie Maroh. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Matt Madden. All rights reserved.