(Book Review) Brazen: Rebel Ladies… by Pénélope Bagieu

By Lisa Folkmire

In a time of offering to donate our organs to keep RBG alive and practicing, of threatened access to safe family planning, and in a time where anybody who doesn’t fall on the white conservative male side of an imaginary binary has to argue for their right to exist, we are in need of some skilled history tellers. This is exactly what Pénélope Bagieu portrays in her beautiful graphic novel, Brazen.

A few months ago, my boyfriend, Santino, and I were wandering around the nonfiction section of our favorite Michigan bookstore when I asked him who his favorite woman in history was. He paused, looked up contemplatively and sighed. “I think I’d have to say Queen Elizabeth. The First.”

I looked him up and down. And up and down. And up and down.

To be fair, he generally is a very well versed, intelligent, and ardent feminist. I think the world of him and therefore expect all answers to wow and surprise me. While Queen Elizabeth I is cool enough to have an entire span of history named after her, she’s a pretty common answer.

I couldn’t help but instruct. “It’s time that we study more women and less men.”

He nodded emphatically like the true scholar that he is, adding, “Agreed, totally.”

It wasn’t until months later when we were in another little bookstore in Burlington, Vermont, when I found myself headed toward the graphic novel section.

Now, to be clear, the graphic novel section is rarely one that I find myself in. I’m not anti-graphic novel, I’m just not naturally graphic-novel-curious.

But then I saw this teal and pink and gold book with a fist pushing through the Venus symbol and the word “BRAZEN” across the cover. I flipped through, glancing at the images, black and white based with splashes of color. They reminded me of the Eloise book my mother always pulled out around the holidays.

I was most drawn to the variety in women covered in the book. Women from all around the world, women from all different economic backgrounds and career types. There were a couple of names that I recognized instantly like Josephine Baker and Peggy Guggenheim, but there were other names that I had never even heard of in all of my years as a self-proclaimed history buff. With some convincing from Santino (I had reached the point in my vacation when I vowed to start saving money), I walked out with my very first graphic novel.

I sat down that night with the book, hoping to read a couple of the stories before going back to the novel I was in the middle of reading. A couple of hours later, I was halfway through.

I was instantly taken with Bagieu’s voice, which is akin to that of a fairy tale’s narrator. Each story opens at birth, and takes the reader through panels depicting the heroine’s entire life story. What would otherwise be a paragraph in a history book or a caption on a photo comes to life. Bagieu’s holistic approach to each woman’s life makes each one human, their life accomplishments and timelines almost reachable for each reader–no matter how incredible.

Perhaps one of the most impressive bouts of storytelling in the book focuses on Christine Jorgensen, who Bagieu subtitles as “Reluctant Celebrity,” which opens with the lines, “The Jorgensens live in the Bronx, in New York City. On May 30, 1926, they welcome their second child…who by all appearances is a boy. But as it turns out, this isn’t the case. They name their baby George Jr.—but deep down, George is a girl” (123). Christine Jorgensen changes from a name tied to the first well known sex change case in the U.S. to a woman who faced unwanted adversity. Read panel by panel, she becomes a person who deals with unwanted life circumstances as best as she can, naturally becoming an extraordinary figure in history. Continuing to refer to Christine as “she” regardless of the state of her body, Bagieu brings more focus to the stress and embarrassment that Christine endures rather than the science and fascination of the physical transformation.

In short, Bagieu allows the human aspects of these women to tell the story, enabling their accomplishments to reenter the realm of necessary history.

Not only does she offer a generous narrator to her reader, but Bagieu also allows the women to interact with the readers. Sometimes they stare wide-eyed at you, telling their concerns at certain points in their lives. Other times they are more snide, making jokes about other characters in the story. Or they tell their own ending, a victory with the last word.

Take Nzinga, Queen of Ndongo and Matamba, as an example. Bagieu plays with narrative, asides, and caricature to give her heroine a practical 3-D effect. In one panel, the narrator states, “They figure it will be sinfully easy to deal with an impressionable kid” (13). “They” being the Portuguese (at that time fighting against Ndongo), portrayed by a man with his back turned to the reader, as he mansplains a pistol to an eye-rolling Nzinga. In his aside, he calls her “little girl,” implying that no matter the status of the woman in front of him, he would never fear her. Her story proves this name calling (legend or not) wrong, as she (spoiler alert) eventually negotiates a peace deal with the Portuguese.

 

Another example of Bagieu’s honest asides, featuring Wu Zetian, the only Chinese Empress (135)

 

We don’t see these women as footnotes in history, but more as real people who happened to see an opportunity to literally stick it to the man.

Including gorgeous full color spreads of each woman’s peak in life (or afterlife, in one case), Bagieu sparks her readers’ curiosity about each woman, just before we turn the page to the next life story.

Reading across each panel depicting setbacks or victories, the concept of changing the world in a difficult time doesn’t seem as difficult as Bagieu splashes each life with her color and commentary. It’s with this quiet insistence that we continue to read more about each woman’s life outside of her book.

I spent my time in between this book’s pages researching each woman, looking up pictures, stories, and titles that I want to add to my bookshelf. Bagieu packs so much information and life into each panel that each woman becomes an inspiration in a completely new way from the one covered before her.

In an age of women’s marches, binary elimination, and continued struggles to secure human rights, Bagieu offers a gift, welcoming us to expand our knowledge on brave individuals who pushed societal boundaries as far back as 350 BCE. She holds up each woman’s story as another argument that women’s history is also men’s history, that these names and the names of other women are nothing short of extraordinary.

Brazen serves as a literary sampler of women that we all should know about. As I prepare to send this book over to my boyfriend’s reading queue, I wonder: which woman will he choose as a new favorite: Thérèse Clerc, the creator of a utopia for elderly women? Naziq Al-Abid, a Syrian aristocrat turned feminist activist? Or Nobel Peace Prize winner, Leymah Gbowee? Or one of the many other women covered in Brazen? Whomever he chooses, Bagieu’s point is clear: there’s a whole world of women who deserve the title of “favorite woman in history,” and she’s only scratching the surface.


Lisa Folkmire is an MFA graduate from Vermont College of Fine Arts’ program in writing, with an emphasis in poetry. Her work has appeared in Heron Tree Literary Arts Journal, Yellow Chair Review’s Rock the Chair Challenge, Erstwhile Magazine, Atlas & Alice, and one poem will be published in ThoughtCrime Press’s forthcoming Not My President anthology. She resides in Warren, Michigan.

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