Within theses pages is a sensitively rendered yet powerful exploration of the blame and shame culture that surrounds sexual violence.
Set in the seventies in the era of serial murderer Peter Sutcliffe, known as The Yorkshire Ripper, this graphic novel examines how the reporting and investigation of the Sutcliffe killings undermined, devalued and restricted many female lives.
It’s 1977 and Una is a naive 12 year-old who likes to play her guitar while many of her peers are raving about The Sex Pistols. The imagery from the era contrasts the scantily clad dancers on Top of the Pops with the flashy rockers while Una tries on different personas to give her confidence, the current one being supplied by Val Doonican and his song Walk Tall.
This scene is followed by a stunning simple image of repression where Una’s body is tied down, rooted to the earth, unable to blossom and grow.
Una contrasts cosy home life with the key events of the seventies: strikes, power cuts, the IRA and race riots among others. She describes how there was a lot of talk about Yorkshire boundaries at the time the Sutcliffe murders began and from then on many boundaries are crossed and obliterated, as females of all ages from all backgrounds became a target for violence and abuse. Much is left to the imagination rather than depicted on the page and the story telling is all the more powerful for it.
Una highlights the language used at the time in the press that dictated that ‘good girls’ would be safe.
However, as Una herself learns, no female is ever truly ‘safe’ regardless of whether she is a good girl or not, and sometimes being a ‘good girl’ can lead to profound physical and emotional trauma.
The weight of what Una cannot express at the time is depicted in the form of a sack that she carries on her back, that expands as she encounters male sexual violence. The obsession some people have with what females are wearing at the time of an attack is dismissed as not relevant by Una, as she draws the thick top and jeans she was wearing as cutout pieces that could be put on a paper doll. Easily removed and discarded to get to the body beneath.
Una also explores the impact of sexual violence on the psyche, explaining how there is no right or wrong way for a survivor to respond to what’s happened to them, and that people need to look beneath the surface of the behaviour that’s out of character to find the root cause of it. She quietly demonstrates how people are too quick to brand what they don’t understand, how disbelief and name calling can reinforce the shame and confusion and effectively silence the victims and survivors. Everything is questioned between these pages, from what classifies as loose morals to whether or not moral fibre can come loose, like pulling stuffing from a sofa, all in a dry sarcastic tone which serves to emphasise how ridiculous it is to lay the blame on the victim.
And then the women of the seventies find their voice and start to fight back, which is the reason for this tale, to say that the shame and guilt should lie with the perpetrator, not the victims or the survivors.
Becoming Unbecoming should be read by everyone, so that you can challenge the status quo surrounding sexual violence from a place of strength and understanding. This is a novel that asks you to examine the conditioning of both sexes when violence towards females occurs and requests that you stop and think before you make a judgement.
Whether a female is young, old, fat, thin, tall or short, a sex worker or any kind of worker, a wife, mother, sister, aunt, daughter, grandmother or friend, they all have the right to decide what happens to their body and when. And should the worst happen all females should be able to reach out for help without being judged against an ‘if only’ list:
If only she hadn’t worn that. If only she hadn’t been drinking. If only she hadn’t been out after dark. If only she had done this or that.
If a male wants to hurt a female and acts on that desire, they will do so regardless of anything she wears, says or does and until people accept that fact the shame and blame game will go on.
Every female is a human being deserving of love and understanding, not violence and shame, and nothing makes that clearer than the last few heartbreakingly tender pages of this graphic novel.
With thanks to Myriad Editions for the review copy.