Queerness in Paper Girls

cover of the comic book "Paper girls"
Note: This was originally intended for a large and diverse audience, but I pulled it because I realized it was offensive and inappropriate for me to tell LGBT readers how to feel about the homophobic vocabulary of one character.

However, I do think it has some good points to make, so I’m republishing it here for my smaller readership. Please keep in mind that these are the conclusions I, personally draw from the comic based on my personal life experience and are not meant to reflect a universal experience.

My library has all the trades (multi-issue collections) of Paper Girls to date and I’ve been slowly working my way through them. This series follows a diverse group of 12-year-old girls as they have increasingly bizarre and confusing adventures. In addition to being female-centric, the story deals with significant real-world topics, including the gradual realization on the part of one character that she might be a lesbian. While all of the characters have interesting arcs, this one is especially gripping as it plays out against the homophobia and ignorance of the late 1980s in nuanced ways.Trigger warning for discussion of homophobia.

The story is about four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls from Ohio, starting in 1988. Tiffany is African-American, Erin is Vietnamese-American, KJ(sometimes called Kage)is Jewish and Mac struggles with an abusive home life. The girls don’t have much in common but since their routes start at 4am, they band together for protection on their routes, keeping in touch with walkie-talkies.

While the four are delivering papers, a variety of strange events take place and the girls find themselves travelling through space and time, meeting adult versions of themselves, and otherwise leading a weird existence that tumbles from crisis to  crisis. The plot is impossible to explain without spoilers. Actually, it’s impossible to explain at all, because the girls are clearly thrown into some sort of epic storyline that they only see tiny snippets of. Suffice to say that if you’ve ever wanted to see a battle between two giant tardigrades (AKA water bears) in the middle of a city this is probably your only chance. The art is vibrant and exciting and the number of pop culture references is just enough to be fun and not so much that it’s a “Greatest Hits” album.

In addition to dealing with the fantastical, the series also addresses real life issues.  In the first issue, Mac intimidates a bunch of guys by using a homophobic slur. I regret (and I mean this sincerely, not flippantly) that I was a young teenager in 1988 and that is exactly the language that the “tough kids” would use to insult other kids. However, the slur doesn’t go unchallenged – Erin tells her not to use the word and throws in a quick lesson about AIDS in the process. Later on Mac indicates disgust that two men who have saved the girls are lovers and the other girls call her out. Homophobia is pervasive enough that Mac feels comfortable expressing it (as a character from the future says, “You lived in an effed up time,” ) but not so pervasive that it’s shared by everyone.

As the story progresses, KJ has a vision of herself kissing Mac. In Volume Four KJ tells Mac, “Mac, when I grow up, I think I’m going to be a lesbian.” This makes Mac so uncomfortable that Mac asks Erin if KJ might have been “replaced by an imposter.” Erin is supportive of KJ and KJ seems to accept her sexuality with poise (Tiffany is out of the loop at the moment but she hasn’t been homophobic in previous issues). KJ also seems to have a crush on Mac, remembering aloud every detail of how they first met. But she doesn’t express hurt at Mac’s attitude so much as a desire to inform her.

KJ is a character who seems to be pretty level-headed by nature, and who also has a functional family and reasonable understanding of sexual health.She gets her first period in this series, and is completely matter-of-fact about it. In contrast, Mac is horrified about KJ’s period and reveals that she doesn’t know anything about periods or other feminine hygiene issues because her family won’t let her learn for religious reasons. The only things she “knows” are some snippets of “information”that her misogynist brother told her.

Mac is always on edge and cultivates her image as “tough.” Part of her cultivation of that image is to pretend that she knows more than she does – so she ridicules the things she is secretly most curious about,Given this last character trait, and the pressure form the other girls to be more accepting,it will be interesting to see where Mac ends up.

I can’t speak to KJ’s journey, because as a straight person it’s not a journey I had to make. However, I can speak to the casual homophobia and to the confusion about what being homosexual actually meant to tweens and younger teens in the mid-1980s, at least in my experience. The line “When I grow up I think I’m going to be a lesbian” hits the perfect tone of awkwardness and confusion that pervaded the discourse at my school. Some of us were mean, and some were nice, but none of us had any idea what we were talking about.

Today, my middle school daughter and her friends (ages 12-14) talk casually about a dozen or more potential labels for sexual and gender identity (pansexual, asexual, transgender, gender fluid, etc). Obviously these orientations existed in the 1980s whether there were labels for them or not.However,my group of friends had no idea they existed.We weren’t all malicious, but we were all stunningly ignorant compared to the Tumbler generation of today.That ignorance, both hostile (on the part of Mac) and friendly(the other girls) is one of many things that Paper Girls captures so well.

Obviously, Paper Girls might be triggery because of Mac’s homophobic attitude and words. For the first few issues, readers were concerned about where the comic would be going given that such an offensive slur was used in the first issue. However, each issue does make it more and more clear that Mac’s attitude is not one that the reader is supposed to emulate. Instead, it sets up a scenario in which instead of being ostracised for being gay, KJ is comfortable with herself and embraced by her friends. It’s Mac who is left an outsider.
Will KJ eventually reject Mac for Mac’s attitude or will Mac’s attitude change because of her friendship with KJ? I’m not expecting them to run off together to live in bliss – they are twelve. However, in a series full of predictions about future events that involve dinosaurs, giant robots, and more, Paper Girls resonates the most when it is about the personal details of our characters’ lives.




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