I wanted to see what Labelle would do with more space to expand into, the opportunity to dive deeper into things with more nuance and complexity than a four-panel strip provides.
(Ciel is NOT a graphic novel, by the way. It's concise at 188 pages but it's made up of text, just so you know).
The early part of the book left me feeling a little bit like everything about gender and identity was still being painted in primary colors, all platitudes and overly simplified viewpoints that imply more agreement among LGBTQIA people than actually exists. Labelle's Ciel refers to "another gender...than the one the doctors gave me at birth when they looked at my genitals (which are nobody's business, by the way!)" and goes on to complain that for children in many societies, "they're designated a girl or a boy, their room are painted a certain color, and they're given certain kinds of toys to play with".
But Sophie Labelle shifts to more politically complicated territory later on in the story. Tensions are explored around questions of sexual orientation and how they collide awkwardly with nonbinary gender identities, with characters such as Frank, who is involved with Ciel's best friend Stephie, a trans girl. Frank is starting to get facial hair and unclear on whether or not Stephie, who was assigned male, will also.
"You know, she wouldn't be any less a girl if she had a beard like a Viking, or an Adam's apple, or a low voice", Ciel tells him.
"But it would be a little weird."
"People might think I was going out with a guy, or something."
"And that would be a real tragedy, right?"
"That's not what I mean! Some of my friends say I'm gay because I'm going out with Stephie, and I don't care."
This conversation gets Ciel wondering about facial hair. Ciel doesn't identify as a boy or a girl. And although Ciel is taking puberty hormone blockers, they're not firmly committed to continuing to do so.
Over and over again, the characters in Labelle's book, in pondering their own identities and their expressions of them, find themselves considering how they are viewed by others. It's an unavoidable part of identity. Sociologists sometimes call it "altercasting" — the act of assigning identities to other people. We all do it, not always with bad intentions, not always with narrowly limited categories, but even when we are aware of all this diversity, we still tend to listen and watch and then regard a person as a trans woman or a genderfluid nonbinary person or a lesbian trans girl or whatever. And we all also spend time and energy imagining how we are perceived, and we take it into account when choosing how to interact, how to present.
In Ciel's case, there is the matter of what name to use. The school's records have Ciel's proper name down as "Alessandro". Ciel is somewhat awkward about asking to be referred to as "Alessandra" instead, more comfortable about asking ahead of time than correcting a teacher who started using the other name. Ciel is even more open and out on their YouTube channel, where videos openly explore what it is like to be trans and gender-nonconforming.
That provokes the most polarized and antagonistically hostile reaction that Ciel experiences in the book — from another transgender person. A video blogger named Bettie Bobbie posts: "Hi everybody! Today I watched a video that made me want to puke, about a gay boy who invented a gender for himself by saying he's neither a boy nor a girl...if you ask me, this video harms real trans people like me."
Sophie Labelle shows us that the world of LGBTQIA identities is intricate and that we struggle with identification and expression, and that there are hurt feelings and resentments and anger sometimes. This is honest and fair.
Through Ciel's tale, Labelle does a slow exploration of presentation by a gender nonconforming person (I would describe Ciel as genderfluid, myself, but the term isn't embraced in this story). Ciel's choice of clothing is presented as an internal dialog, facing the closet several mornings and deciding against the ostentatiously colorful apparel they're drawn to and instead putting on more drab and mundane garments. Only towards the end of the book does Labelle pull back and let us see that choice against the backdrop of Ciel's expectation of their classmates' attitudes and reactions.
Ciel, by Sophie Labelle, Second Story Press 2020 Toronto CA
You're secluded in quarantine, and all the performances and events have been cancelled, so it's a good time to read a book!
My book, GenderQueer: A Story From a Different Closet, has been published by Sunstone Press. It is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in paperback and ebook, and as ebook only from Apple, Kobo, and directly from Sunstone Press themselves.
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