Editor’s Note: This post was recognized, along with two others, by the Comics Studies Society, garnering the Gilbert Seldes Prize for Public Scholarship in Comics Studies at CSS2019.
“Everyone’s Grandma is a Little Bit Feminist,” by Matt Fraction and Elsa Charretier is a story that appears in the anthology series Bitch Planet: Triple Feature. Set in the same world as the ongoing (but currently on hiatus) Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro, the five-issue series includes fifteen stories by a range of writers and artists fleshing out the setting. If the main series is mostly focused on life in the satellite prison for “NC” (or non-compliant) women who have run afoul of the dystopian patriarchy, Triple Feature gives us the world as its rulers mean for it to be—which allows some of its more subtle consequences to rise to the surface.
The story, as you might be able to tell from the title, is a playful reversal of the stock encounter with an older relative who holds on to outdated ways of thinking and talking when it comes to issues of race, gender, or sexuality. The idea that everyone’s grandma is a little bit racist and she can’t help it since she is “of her time” is a common one. I don’t want to spend too much time having to rehearse the argument against that flawed precept, but suffice to say that the “person of their time” argument erases the people who were (or at least worked to be) anti-racist in those very times, creates an awkward distinction between the targets of those policies and attitudes and “people,” and, in suggesting old people are incapable of being thoughtful and reflective, it is also ageist. Nevertheless, this excuse is commonly used to ignore the problematic shit that might stumble from a drunk uncle at Thanksgiving.
Look. I am not saying you shouldn’t figure out your own best ways to confront and navigate these situations. Not everyone is in a safe situation for that kind of confrontation and in other cases it may quite simply not be worth it to try (for example, the only Trump voter I have in my life literally has dementia, thus arguing with him about it seems like pointless torture for the both of us). What I am saying is that uncritically using the “generation” argument is a cop-out. If your response to grandma’s backwards views is a tepid admonishing to not talk that way in mixed company, all else being equal, I have to wonder about your own commitment to the cause.
What are we to make then of this comic book story which takes “impolite” ideas about race and swaps them out for fairly mainstream, if ardently spoken, attitudes about the agency of women? How does its setting’s bourgeois acceptance of the inherently subservient and delicate status of femininity—an ideology that frowns upon feminist attitudes at best and harshly punishes them at worst (with a whole range of medicinally-moderated options in between)—complicate that reversal?
We need to take a step back before we can continue, because as is usually the case, a simple substitution of positions is rarely so simple, and this story does not take a simple approach despite only being eight pages long.
The story begins with David Zeiss and his new fiancé, Kimmy (we never learn her last name), arriving at the latter’s home to celebrate the holidays…well, Christmas. David expresses some nervousness about whether Kimmy’s parents will accept him as part of the family given that he is Jewish. Kimmy does what she can to calm his worries saying that “Mom and dad won’t even care!” But then going on to quickly warn him to not listen to anything her nanna might have to say, as she gets “weird.” This sets us up to expect that it is grandma who is going have a problem with a Jewish grandson-in-law. However, we are immediately disabused of this when Kimmy’s father greets David with a “Happy Hakuna-Matata …or whatever you call it!” The young woman’s parents are delighted about their future son-in-law, but everything is couched in gross assumptions and stereotypes of the model minority. They are excited that he is a “money Jew” and is studying to be a doctor, and Kimmy encourages this by reminding them that “he is one of the good ones.” All of this is said in front of David, who is either unbothered by it, or has learned to swallow it wordlessly.
Of course, this being the world of Bitch Planet, we soon get to see that David’s willingness to tolerate provisional acceptance is predicated on what he gains as a man in a society that insists that women are best off when they are subservient to men and so pampered by them as to become discomfitingly infantilized sex objects. Our sympathy for David is tempered by his own boorish behavior. After Nanna objects to all the crowing about how David’s medical career—yes, he is a Jewish doctor, well, pre-Med—will allow him to take good care of Kimmy, going on about how in her day women had their own careers, Kimmy reprimands her grandma. Savoring her own righteous, Kimmy even refers to her own her retrograde misogynist apologia as “speaking truth to power.” While David defends Nanna’s “outbursts” as just being of “a different time,” the defense comes off more as dismissal of an old woman such a patriarchal culture has no further use for. The dismissal is just wrapped up in words about respecting the wisdom of “old folks.” He follows this up by patting Kimmy on the rear end and saying “Be a good girl and go get me a drink…Easy on the Seagram’s or else you won’t be able to light the ol’ menorah candle later…” Kimmy loves this cheeky talk, but Nanna clearly doesn’t.
I don’t like it either. On top of smacking of the Hefnerian notion of sexual liberation that benefits mostly men, David’s willingness to play up his ethnic appeal as playful exotification is gross. Nanna makes her displeasure known by loudly cracking walnuts in a menacing manner. She goes on to make it clear, “Man pats my ass and tells me to get him a drink, I’d take one of these to him…” She makes sure that David sees the nutcracker in her hand.
But Nanna’s fiery moment doesn’t last. Kimmy’s parents make apologies for her as she rolls away on her wheelchair, defeated in knowing she is alone in this feeling of outrage on her granddaughter’s behalf. Throughout the embarrassed apologies, David remains polite and understanding, but his patriarchal attitude remains evident, adding. “It’s okay really–my bubbe Leah was a total c. . .” We follow Nanna’s point of view as she leaves, so the word balloon is cut off and we don’t get to see what letters follow that “c,” but it isn’t hard to guess.
The scene that follows takes its beats from some Chicken Soup from the Soul-like Lifetime Movie. Kimmy goes after Nanna to explain how much she loves David, how she wishes Nanna wouldn’t try to “ruin it” for her, and how he is “the one,” etc… This is a moment that a more traditional form of this story would call upon us to value their human connection, where the family bond allows the grandma to be happy for her granddaughter, for them to come to some understanding, and even for nanna to force out some kind of apology for being stuck in her ways. Kimmy gets down on her knees in front of Nanna’s wheelchair, pleading with her. Nanna gently cups her granddaughter’s cheek. But instead of a reconciliation, the delightfully prickly grandma replies, “What a goddamned disappointment you turned out to be.” Perhaps “delightful” is not the right word, because while I can admire her sass from my position in time relative to this dystopian future, the sad conclusion of the story reinforces her isolation. The price Nanna ends up paying for her outburst is a trip to a “home.” Branded “NC” (this time short for “non compos [mentis]”) the final scene transitions to her waking up in a ward of post-menopausal women in orange jumpsuits with walkers or zonked out in front games of checkers. A nurse patronizingly informs her that since “she’s been having trouble with her ol’ thinker,” she will live here now instead of with her family. Institutionalization—prison or asylum—is how the patriarchy of Bitch Planet deals with women who do not conform to their values, especially those who would encourage other women to challenge it as well.
The story is a good little vignette. It feels like a feminist Twilight Zone episode where the familiar is reversed to strong effect but also daring to play with the complicating factor of interlocking oppressions of different marginalized identities, what with the “good natured” anti-Semitism, the willingness to tolerate it, and the complicity in sexism across ethnic difference. We even see positional differences in the degree of oppression in the figure of “Ole Smokey,” the family’s black servant, dressed like a bellhop in a 1940s musical comedy—calling everyone sir or ma’am. “Everyone’s Grandma is a Little Bit Feminist” delivers an emotional punch by asking the reader to identify with the grandma and thus feel her loneliness and abandonment when she is sent to the asylum for simply saying a woman does not need and should not need a man to feel fulfilled in life.
And yet, the story still leaves me a bit discomforted. Despite what it accomplishes in terms of affect, my concern is that reversal creates a false equivalence between belief in the agency of women and the racist, sexist, or queerphobic attitudes espoused by older relatives. While it is not a lesson I imagine many readers of Bitch Planet would take from the story, it nevertheless, through its appeal for sympathy for Nanna, resonates with the understandable desire to want to sympathize with an actual grandma or grandpa or great uncle and do what Kimmy did not: try and be understanding of outdated ideas. Conversely, Kimmy’s self-righteous calling out of her grandmother for her “feminist” comments puts Kimmy in the place of those who might struggle with the propriety of challenging their elders at those proverbial holiday gatherings, and thus the story’s request that we dislike her complicity in her own oppression threatens to associate her outspokenness with the objectionable perspective. This is especially concerning given her framing of her position as radical and progressive (i.e. “speaking truth to power”).
Nevertheless, I think the story works best as a warning against the very ability for common cultural ideas to shift in extreme ways over short periods of time. I certainly did not imagine as wide a representation or even public discussion of queer folks could happen in my life time based on the American culture I knew growing up. As such, I try to remain cognizant that as fast as it seemed to change, it could shift back even faster in the dark directions Bitch Planet predicts. Unfortunately, regression is always possible. We don’t have to imagine it happening, because if the various policies both implemented and abandoned by the current administration to purposefully further marginalize and physically endanger trans folks is anything to go by (which it is) such efforts are already happening.
And that might be the scariest part of “Everyone’s Grandma is a Little Bit Feminist,” that the family thinks of itself as tolerant and progressive. Nanna’s explicit reference to gay experimentation in college marks her as an educated woman of some privilege, whose son nonetheless became the quintessential WASP icon of manhood: the casually anti-Semitic racial hierarchy-reinforcing sexist father who eventually sends his own mother to prison. In other words, the affluent liberal bubble was no defense against the encroaching allure of white male power.
Furthermore, the shifting ground of privilege means that alliances can be made between the dominant culture and members of a potentially marginalized group. White race solidarity might sound like the kind of thing that’d be limited to the Richard Spencer types of the world, but as my forthcoming chapter in Unstable Masks: Whiteness and the American Superhero on Marvel’s 2016 event Secret Empire explores, it is something that white Americans participate in both passively and actively with near complete and total invisibility and deniability. As Karen Brodkin suggests in How Jews Become White Folks and What that Says (1998), the elasticity of whiteness as a category, while remaining socially policed, is a bulwark against nonwhite others. However, as she also reminds us, different ethnic groups can be moved back and forth across that line. For example, Jews were largely assimilated into the “white” category in the U.S. until the waves of immigration in the 1880s changed America’s relationship with the group as a result of concentrated communities in impoverished urban neighborhoods. In the Bitch Planet: Triple Feature story, David’s Jewishness may mark him as an outsider in the family (explicitly painting the Bitch Planet patriarchy with a Christian hue, though more suburban WASP respectability than evangelical extremism of the type found in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale), but his bond in whiteness with Kimmy’s family is a strategic alliance built on the willingness to maintain the heteropatriarchy. Simultaneously, the comic takes advantage of its form to suggest David’s precarious position when—while explaining that his family comes from “what use to be Austria”—behind him on the wall is a portrait of some military officer with a riding crop. Is it another member of his fiancé’s family? Someone who participated in whatever imperial push led to the founding of the current patriarchal government? Perhaps, though it might also be an example of the custom of hanging a portrait of a dictator or fascist leader in your home when living under those regimes. Either way, it echoes with a promise of doom for David and his people. In “Caged and Enraged: Bitch Planet Comics Studies Round Table (part one),” Jeanette Roane discusses how the stereotype of the meek and compliant Asian serves the family of Bitch Planet prisoner, Meiko Maki, in resisting the status quo unnoticed. In this story, however, there is no sense David Zeiss is putting positive stereotypes for use in this way. Instead, assumptions that come along with his Jewish identity, that he is ambitious, smart, and good with money, are as likely to mark him as a threat or they are to be seen as paralleling goyish values (as they seem to do here).
In thinking about “Everyone’s Grandma is a Little Bit Racist” in order to write this post, I found my initial worries about the unintended consequences of its substitution were mostly abated by my analysis. The story strikes me as a fantastic site for interrogating a variety of interlocking toxic social affinities. The way in which the story apes the beats of the sentimental family drama makes the story adhere and allows for it to pack so much into such a small space by relying on a familiar story shape. The success of Fraction’s plot is largely made possible by Charretier’s fantastic cartooning and Nick Filardi’s use of colors to create ambient warmth that threatens to turn cold or fiery in turns. Charretier draws expressions and body language with a fluid ease, which also makes the emotional content pack a punch. In terms of its role as part of the expanding world of Bitch Planet, the story—as most of the stories included in Bitch Planet: Triple Feature—complicates the dystopia and gives us a sense of the way women struggle on a day to day level against the forces that would seek to limit their choices and ask them to be thankful for it. Christmas, or any holiday or occasion that draws a family together, is a fraught time when those day-to-day struggles enter the crucible of an expectation to uncritically participate in rituals that seem neutral, but that are deeply shaped by the inescapable politics of human relations—especially family.