This Woman’s Work, by cartoonist Julie Delporte and published by Drawn & Quarterly, seems unassuming at first. It creeps up on you with its wistful tone, delicate colored pencil drawings, and reflections on the limitations of being a woman.
Gradually, the tone becomes more potent and more personal. Delporte tackles sexual assault, including her own. Pencilled images of young children and blood accompany a brief description of her cousin violating her, in her first experience of sex. She calls it her family’s story but also, heartbreakingly, “the story of all women.”
The text, like the illustrations, is in hand-drawn colored pencil. And Delporte finds expressive potential in this cursive lettering. For instance, when she writes about her assault being a universal story, the text is big, dark, and stark. And at one point, she writes, “I often look at my family tree and wonder: which of these women were raped?” The text is neatly positioned across the top of the page. The rest of the page is left blank, the abundant white space allowing for answers that clearly won’t ever come.
Delporte also deals with women’s limited presence in the art world as creators — although the bodies of women and girls are omnipresent as inspiration, and sometimes exploitation, for male artists. This isn’t just about lack of respect within the art world, or lack of credence given to women who are victimized by men. Delporte also reflects, in her spare, unpretentious way, on the many domestic and caregiving demands placed on women’s time: “It seems women will never have enough time to make art.”
And she considers her own physicality, but in a way that’s far removed from the romanticizing or hypersexualizing tendencies of certain male artists. She wonders about, and draws, her sagging breasts. She’s very aware of being taller than men in heels. She’s deeply ambivalent about pregnancy. And her depression, with its physical limpness, is linked to her experiences of gendered pop culture or art, whether that’s realizing that women have been shut out of a comics award, or feeling queasy about young women–older men relationships in films (mirroring her own experiences).
The counterpoint to all of this is Delporte’s admiration of Tove Jansson, the creator of the Finnish cartoon characters Moomins. It’s a surprising choice. Moomins — those doughy, endearing hippo-ish creatures that oddly lack mouths — are innocent fantasy creatures who never face real problems.
But Delporte spells out the appeal — possibly too much, as this doesn’t leave much space for readers to spot connections. She writes, “I’ve fallen in love with the Moomin way of being. They are ‘happy idiots who forgive one another and never realize they’re being fooled,’ wrote Tove in 1961. I’d give almost anything to be like them.”
And then there’s the impressive Jansson, whom Delporte seems to admire as much for her unconventional personal life as for her creative output. Jansson never married or had children, and had relationships with men and women. Delporte documents the time she spends in Jansson’s native Helsinki, in order to write about her role model. The cold, quiet, moody city is a good fit for Delporte’s introspective style.
This Woman’s Work gets a charge about two thirds of the way through, when Delporte’s sadness is finally transmuted into anger. She writes about the gender pay gap (though without noting that this gap is especially wide for female artists of color). She rages against the gap in studio time between female and male visual artists. She starts to look forward to aging, after being inspired by the vital work Jansson made in her 60s.
And she resolves to stop chasing the admiration of men who can feel freer in their bodies, and less aware that the world is full of dangers. Near the end, she writes, “I’m starting to fall in love with the idea of being a woman.” Clearly, part of a woman’s work is trying to reach this conclusion.