SELF-REPRESENTATION, particularly drawing oneself, is, for women, an act of bravery. Such an admission can be disheartening: framing a work of art as a feat by virtue simply of existing might hinder an audience from closely regarding that work’s formal bearing, its structure, its storytelling power. For many creators, this acknowledgment is an unwelcome distraction.
But art doesn’t emerge fully fledged out of a void; the artist has a body that moves in particular ways, sources from which she gathers her materials. In her everyday life she inhabits environments filled with a host of characters influencing her and shaping her acts of construction. For Sylvie Rancourt — a woman who was born and raised in rural Quebec then moved to Montreal in 1980 and began drawing her experiences as a strip club performer — those characters include the boyfriend who initially suggests she take up “exotic dancing,” her co-workers and bosses, the men (mostly) who watch her perform, and a few stray family members. Rancourt’s Melody: Story of a Nude Dancer is a reprinted and translated compilation of seven chapters of comics (six issues initially appeared at newsstands in Montreal in the mid-1980s) that recount the protagonist’s exploits within this network of loved ones and strangers. In many ways the central focus of the narrative — described by some as the first Canadian autobiographical comic — is what it means to be brave, particularly in the context of posture or exhibition. Through simple, often bold visual and verbal pronouncements, the text connects the act of drawing the self with the act of putting the self on display, scantily clad in front of a group of strangers. Both undertakings, the work suggests, require the kind of bravura that emerges from a heroically unapologetic pursuit of pleasure.
For others to exhibit women engaging in pleasurable behaviors, to shape and frame these as voyeuristic enterprises, to catch women in the act, is par for the course. For a woman to present herself in pursuit and exploration, to record the process of figuring out what her body means to her, even while putting on a show, ostensibly, for others, is something of a subversive gesture. Melody might not have been the one to come up with the idea of dancing for money — cut to a close-up of her face following her boyfriend’s suggestion, her eyes wide, her lips pursed, and a question mark dangling boldly over her head — but there is a quick and certain fearlessness to her look, softer, now smiling, when she is told over the phone to “drop by at seven to audition.” At the club, her new boss reflects on her naïveté, telling himself, “It’s hard not to take advantage of her.” But on the facing page, which depicts Melody in a series of eight rectangular panels evenly splayed over two rows, undressing first with eyes tilted downward and then expressing emotions ranging from confusion and contentment to excitement and vulnerability, it is difficult to imagine her as anyone’s victim. Her journey, as told by the series, is hers alone, and the comic insists upon Melody/Sylvie’s role as an artist. In another scene, she brings a small puppet to work, poking a finger through its nether region to suggest a naked and overwhelming male organ. She incorporates the puppet into her dance routine, luxuriating in a series of panels over this humorous, recalibrated substitution of roles, the tiny figure a stand-in for the many single-minded men who surround her. The routine is nixed, but only after Melody has had her fair share of the joke.
Rancourt’s depictions of Melody rarely stray outside a narrow range of facial expressions, gestures, and comments, her motives and any deeper analysis or emotion only occasionally apparent. In one unusual image, Melody is pictured following a visit from the police with her hands cupping her face, two dramatic tears indicating the gravity of the situation and her inner turmoil at that moment. But the story quickly turns away from this exceptional image — the intensely feeling Melody — even as she continues, throughout the chapter, to grapple with the police presence at work and eventually finds herself thrown in jail along with other dancers at the club. Half a page later, a blithe Melody flags down a cab outside the jailhouse, her long hair innocently curling as she nonchalantly tilts a petite hailing finger upward. In the subsequent chapter, “Melody’s Orgy, ” her bliss is recorded in the same insouciant lines, her innocence neither downplayed nor emphasized as she engages in another new experience.
Without giving away too much of the storyline, the climax of Melody is marked by a full-page depiction of an unidentified bridge looming over a body of water and blocking our heroine from her home in Montreal. She has just experienced a traumatic and atypical moment of powerlessness, of finding herself, against her will and without recourse, subject to the whims of others. As she is picked up by a lone truck driver and begins to account for her situation, he interjects. “No need to explain,” he says. “I know the tune. I pick up lots of girls like you this time of night.” Melody is horrified by the declaration: “Really???” Within the speech bubble, Rancourt punctuates her question with three lines of strung-together question marks and exclamation points, a rare display of fervor. What is most obviously shocking for Melody is the realization that others frequently find themselves stranded in what appears to be a remote, unexpected location. But perhaps what is also startling here is Melody’s recognition that her story, of unexpectedly finding herself in a desperate situation, of needing to show bravery in the face of danger, is not so uncommon after all. While most do not illustrate their journeys, the open pursuit of pleasure in a bustling, modern metropolis involves, for all women, something of a courageous disposition.
Tahneer Oksman’s book “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs is forthcoming from Columbia University Press in February 2016.