Theorizing “The Plunge”

(Queer) Girls’ Adolescence, Risk, and Subjectivity in Blue is the Warmest Color

in Girlhood Studies
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  • 1 OCAD University Michellemiller@faculty.ocadu.ca

ABSTRACT

This article explores the graphic representation of queer adolescent sexuality on offer in the coming-of-age graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color. This representation, read alongside object relations psychoanalysis and in terms of feminist sexuality education theorizing, invites adult readers to reconsider the ways in which we think of the relationship between girls, risk, and sexuality. I propose that in order to honor girls’ sexual subjectivity, we must treat romantic risk-taking as an ordinary, healthy and essential aspect of growing up.

In 2013, Julie Maroh’s Le bleu est une couleur chaude was translated by Ivanka Hahnenberger and published in English as Blue is the Warmest Color. Maroh’s text was concurrently adapted into a Palme D’Or-winning film by director Abdellatif Kechichie. The text—remarkable partially because at the time she wrote it, Maroh was nineteen—has primarily become well known because of this film adaptation that was both a critical and a commercial success.1 While the film is not faithful to the plot of the comic book, both versions detail the perils and the pleasures of young lesbian love and lust, offering a case study of young love that is relevant across the sexuality spectrum.

In Maroh’s comic version of Blue is the Warmest Color, high school student Clementine (Adele in the film) falls in love with the famously blue-haired Emma, an older artist. While Clem has always assumed herself to be heterosexual and straight, upon seeing Emma for the first time she is struck by desire, and spends much of the text negotiating her anxiety—both positive and negative—regarding the queer future she comes to want despite her awareness of the social and familial consequences this future would hold. The story is told primarily through Clem’s diary entries, read by an adult Emma after her death. It covers Clem’s pressing sexual desires, her trepidation about acting on them, her want of and resistance to both adulthood and queer life and the devastating heartbreak she experiences in the aftermath of this relationship. Here, Kechichie’s film version differs significantly: Maroh has Clementine suffer drug addiction, physical and emotional undoing, and then death, while Kechichie, after offering a similar (though much more class-inflected) account of the breakdown of Emma and Adele’s relationship,2 offers some ambiguity: in the end, Adele claims an expansive future for herself, one that the viewer must imagine. She walks away from both Emma and a male suitor, demanding an independence and an agency that highlight the possibilities of finding life after heartbreak.3

Each version explores the adolescent girl’s experience of taking risks in forming an adult identity that feels both satisfying and real. Each features a young woman consumed with discovering what love costs and what it is worth. Each also offers a glimpse of a young woman negotiating her fears and desires and opting to take the risk to find out. In this article I focus on the comic version of Blue is the Warmest Color in order to theorize girls’ relationships to risk by looking outside of the popular association of sexual risk and danger. Here I follow critical sex education theorists in treating risk-taking as a sign of health and as a necessary and desirable part of young women’s lives (Fields and Tolman 2006; Gilbert 2014; Irvine 2002). In order to reconfigure thinking on girls’ sexuality and risk-taking I turn to fiction: reading compassionately and capaciously, we can treat girls like Clem as amongst those who work creatively and intellectually to make their sexual and romantic choices. This article offers a case study for asking the following four questions. What might attention to girls’ thoughtful navigation of the costs and consequences of their risk-taking teach us about the nature of risk itself? And how might a reconsideration of risk—which proliferates our theorizing on girls’ sexualities—affect our modes of thinking about girlhood? What can we learn from theorizing girls’ sexual desire and risk-taking through a focused reading of queer romantic risk-taking in graphic representations? Without romanticizing forms of risk that put the self in danger, what might adults make of adolescent girls’ desire for forms of sexual and romantic love that might feel risky to us?

Reading Adolescent Risk

Risk-based approaches to adolescent sexuality flourish in public thought (Egan and Hawker 2008; Gonick 2003; Renold and Ringrose 2011) and come to a head in school-based sexuality education curricula (Fields 2008; Irvine 2002; Kendall 2013) where official efforts to mediate and reduce adolescent risk-taking are the grounds upon which these programs are built and evaluated. Since at least 1988, when Michelle Fine published her “Missing Discourse of Desire,” critical feminist sex education theorists have tackled the complicated and inter-related issues of female desire, adolescent sexual risk-taking, sexual victimization, social and cultural pressure on young women and queer people’s sexuality, and the reality that the stories we encounter and tell about young women, sex, danger, and desire matter in a real way to how young women’s behaviour is taken up in policy, education, and theorizing. Fine notes that girls are considered to be always at risk of disease, pregnancy, social stigma, and predatory male desire, and are responsible for abstaining, for calming male sexual passions, and for bearing all of the social and medical consequences of sexual behaviour in which they participate. School discourses just reflect broader concerns for girls’ sexual safety (Kendall 2013), in which some girls—queer girls, working class girls and girls of colour—are more at risk than others (Fields 2008; Fine 1988; Gilbert 2007; Kendall 2013). Fields and Tolman reference Gayle Rubin’s “charmed circle” of “good, normal, natural, blessed sexuality,” which is heterosexual, happens within the confines of married, monogamous relationships, has procreation as its aim, and occurs without toys or pornography ([1984] 2011: 152). Fields and Tolman echo Rubin’s attention to the mainstream resistance to “queer” sex and the school and culture-based message that “risks exist everywhere outside that circle and so the only appropriate and available response to risk is to eliminate it—that is, to reside and to aspire to reside fully inside the charmed circle’s promise of protection” (Fields and Tolman 2006: 63). Discourses on girls’ sexual victimization and exploitation burgeon in both school and social culture to such an extent that it can be difficult to read girls’ adolescent sexuality—particularly queer girls’ sexuality—outside of discourses of risk. The stories we tell about girls, risk and sexuality matter (see, for example, Hemmings 2011). Susan Talburt describes how risk narratives “constitute a production of subject positions in which adults administer a group with problems and needs—and participate in inventing those whom we would help” (2004:18). Fields similarly discusses the problem of “made-up” or “archetypal” children: discourses of childhood, sexuality, innocence, and risk that come to structure all our methods for understanding and responding to youth and sex (2012: 6). Since adult preconceptions confine the kinds of narratives of girls’ sexuality to which we respond, I propose that we work to expand these discourses to other possibilities—ones that emphasize girls’ agency over their bodies and their choices.

Changing our theoretical relationships requires finding new ways to access knowledge. Sociologist Avery Gordon argues that literary engagement offers new possibilities for considering that “life is complicated.” She writes, “In the twentieth century, literature has not been restrained by the norms of professionalized social science, and thus it often teaches us, through imaginative design, what we need to know but cannot quite get access to with our given rules of method and modes of apprehension” (2008: 25). Janice Radway believes that theorizing through reading offers the opportunity for political change: “Radical political change will come about only when new forms of subjectivity and sociality can be forged by thinking beyond the limits of what is already comprehensible” (2008: xiii, emphasis in original). By opening narrative possibilities, we create the grounds for radical thinking, and literature offers a productive site for making these theoretical shifts. I am specifically interested in working with comics, which make use of the complex interplay between word-image-negative space to tell stories that take both the body and emotional life seriously (Chute 2010). Since the early days of countercultural comic texts, women have used the form to tell explicit and intimate stories—both fiction and memoir—about bodies, sexuality, desire, humiliation, power, and pleasure (Chute 2010; Robbins 1999). Blue is the Warmest Color uses this legacy in depicting a meaningful queer love story that possesses terrifying and violent risks, and in which the protagonist suffers the ultimate consequence, but goes to her grave believing that “the plunge” (Bussell 2013: n.p) she takes to fulfill her desires is worthwhile.

When we are reading, the absence of real girls to worry about may allow us to recognize that adolescents have complicated feelings about the risky behavior in which they engage, and we might likewise be able to recognize our own complicated feelings in encountering adolescent risk-taking. When, in real life, we may leap quickly to prevent risky behavior, in our textual engagements our moments of discomfort can become an essential part of the reading experience itself. Because literary texts are not tied to pedagogical requirements for representing the truth or teaching morals, they become ideal sites to take up the kinds of risks young people encounter in embarking ambivalently on sexual and romantic relationships. While literature is not an antidote to worrying, the unreality of fiction can offer a kind of laboratory for thinking capaciously, holding multiple possibilities in mind at once, including that of transforming risk from a dirty word to a fact of life, and to something that might even be pleasurable. These readings do not undermine the real threats to physical safety young girls may encounter in their sexual lives—in Maroh’s telling, Clementine does die, after all—but they do open our theoretical approaches to considering girls’ sexual lives from multiple vantage points.

Anxiety, Homophobia, and Growing up Queer

In Blue is the Warmest Color, readers and viewers encounter a depiction of young queer love acutely aware of the risks that sexual passion, experimentation, and expression might pose. This representation is of love in all its delicious and dangerous ambivalence. In Maroh’s (2013b) text, Clementine’s expectation and experience of homophobia is the dominant frame of the narrative—while she is consumed with her desire for Emma from the first moment they lay eyes on one another and are locked in a mutual gaze, she spends the first third of the book struggling against her queer desires, on the grounds that lesbianism is trouble. Her association is grounded in the homophobic and violent reactions to even a hint of lesbianism of her heterosexual school friends and parents, and her fear of being ostracized and meeting social violence leads her to adhere to a common association between queerness and unhappiness.

While there are cracks in this representation—her close male friend is gay and a girl friend passionately, and somewhat quixotically, kisses her—readers may forgive Clementine for worrying over the connection between queerness, violence, rejection, and unhappiness, both because of the events of the story that prop up such a relationship, and our own social and aesthetic experiences of narratives of queer youth, bullying, hardship, rejection by parents, homophobia, and mental illness (Gilbert 2014). Even if adults’ queer lives have included great happiness, it is difficult to escape representations that align queer lives with unhappiness (Cover 2012; Marshall 2010).

Sara Ahmed writes that public conceptions of “happiness” are used to “reinscribe social norms as social goods” (2010: 2). Queerness, which has not been absorbed into the culture as a good, then carries the threat of unhappiness: to be queer is to be firmly outside of that which promises happiness. Emma’s blue hair—a signifier of resistance to straight norms—becomes a lightning rod for Clem’s friends’ homophobic bullying (Maroh 2013b). While blue may be the warmest colour for Clem, this warmth is multiple and ambivalent—the warmth of blushing desire, the heat of passion, the temperature of bodies close together, the sparks of romance, and the burn of humiliation, shame and getting into hot water. Clem—despite being attracted specifically to Emma’s blue-ness—wants to be happy, or at least wants to avoid the trouble that carries unhappiness. She proclaims strikingly “I. Am. Not. A. Lesbian” (64) and wants to mean it even as she knows the homophobic responses from her friends are “bullshit” (65). Clem’s reading of her social world as saturated by homophobia is troubling. She reads her own desires as both an opportunity for pleasure, but also, more immediately, as a promise of unhappiness and of separation from the straight life she is used to. She is, reasonably, ambivalent about taking this up.

Even in Maroh’s text, the association of queerness and unhappiness is itself frequent. While Clem’s concerns are grounded in her social world, Emma’s story of her experience of queer sexuality differs significantly from the unhappiness Clem presumes. In an intimate conversation, Emma explains that while she originally struggled against her desires, her mother took the first step towards discussing sexuality with her. She tells Clem, “I would never have dared to take the first step… she didn’t push me one way or another… she just wanted me to be happy and accept who I was” (2013b: 76). Here, Emma’s mother subverts the bargain of the promise, where the proclamation “I’m happy if you’re happy” contains the caveat, “so be made happy by things that make me happy” and also the condition that “I’m only happy if you’re happy” (Ahmed 2010: 59, emphasis in original). Emma’s mother’s response is queer in itself since it disrupts the straight terms of the promise of happiness. For Emma’s mother, Emma’s self-acceptance is the happiness condition—as long as she is “herself” she can both be happy and make her mother happy. Further, Emma is able, through her queerness, to form a community. Her queerness becomes not only her sexuality, but also the grounds upon which she builds a satisfying adult identity.

While Clementine is pleased by Emma’s story, she is unable to envision such a future for herself. After all, her family is not queer—their later response to discovering that Emma and Clem are sexually involved is to disown their daughter, kicking her out of their home (Maroh 2013b). Also, Clem wants to be a schoolteacher—a traditionally dangerous occupation for LGBT people (Gilbert 2014). The life Clem wants is strikingly ordinary, and her happiness about her relationship with Emma—even when it is going well—is shot through with anxiety when the ordinary and the queer clash. She writes in her diary:

September 2, 1996

I didn’t see the summer go by… . Emma and I spent a lot of time together. … . Each time we met, I could hardly wait to see her. I couldn’t sleep; I was happy but anxious because I felt so great when I was with her, and I was afraid of losing her. And that was when something started to grow: my desire for her. My desire to be in her arms, to caress her, to kiss her, my desire for her to want it too, to want me. Now… we’re really close. I sometimes sense ambiguity… and I wait… holding my breath, in suspended animation. Then suddenly, shame takes over and I hate myself. I bury myself in the ball of fire that is screaming to get out of my guts (82–83).

This growing desire that Clem reports to her diary is not actually new; she has had dreams of sex with Emma since first seeing her. But the new closeness of their relationship leads to “ambiguity” where a sexual relationship—the fulfillment of Clem’s difficult wanting of Emma comes to feel horrible. She struggles between her desire to have a queer relationship wherein she might thrive (as Emma does), and the knowledge that these desires put everything else she knows about herself and her life at risk.

Several times in the translated text, Clem describes herself as “anxious.” In her diary, she reports being “happy but anxious” (Maroh 2013b: 82) because of her enjoyment of the time she spends with Emma and her fear of losing this. Later, suffering from the ambivalence and the difficulty of her feelings, she writes in her diary that senior year calls for her to focus on her studies: “I want to show the maturity that is expected of me and I want this year to go by quickly… I’m anxious to meet people and to discover things… and to discover myself” (86). While respectable studying is for Clem a wish to bury her sexual self and the shame it causes her—“the ball of fire that is screaming to get out of [her] gut,” this anxiety contains the desire to discover two vague categories, “things” and “[her]self” that each contain and cover over sexuality. Anxious comes to be, in this work, a remarkably ambivalent word, suited to the push and pull in which Clem feels caught; its repetition throughout this text signals the internal struggle she takes up. Its range of meanings captures so many of the orientations of girlhood, simultaneously reflecting both worry and anticipation. In the original French, the anxiety to meet people and experience things is expressed thus: “j’ai soif,” which may be more directly translated as being thirsty or lustful for what life has to offer. We can read Clem’s anxiety to meet people and to discover herself as both a desire for newness (to become, as soon as possible, the version of the self she will be as an adult), and a worry that she might not like or be comfortable or satisfied or safe with what she might find.

Rather than “soif,” Clem’s anxiety regarding her relationship with Emma is expressed as “angoissee,” which translates to worried rather than lustful. Her worry about sexuality can be read as influencing her anticipation of what life may be and contain and who she may become as she approaches adulthood. For psychoanalyst DW Winnicott, the adolescent is charged with this problem of existing—at the same time as she builds an adult identity she must work to figure out what that identity will be. While queer youth have a particularly unsettling task in this time—each of the tasks that make up adolescent development are complicated by ordinary and extraordinary experiences of homophobia—all youth encounter this struggle in some form as they seek to “establish themselves as themselves” (Davis and Wallbridge 1981: 143).

Winnicott’s writing on the adolescent’s orientation to adulthood exposes Clem’s anxiety as being not solely related to her queerness. Clem’s worry is both specific to her queerness and prototypically adolescent, and her questions about the future are questions we have all faced: What will it mean to encounter all this newness? What will I lose in this developmental process? How will I know which future self is really me? Which things will press in on me? What will I discover about myself? How will I be humiliated? Will the world accept me? How will I find my place? Who will I love and who will love me? Clem’s anxiety should not be read only in terms of negative worries since being anxious can mean anticipation, or the simultaneous feelings of fear and excitement. Being soif (anxious) points to a desire for something to happen—a kind of pressure that arises when waiting can be difficult or even impossible. Winnicott uses the metaphor of doldrums to describe the adolescent’s temporal experience during which she may feel the pressure of simultaneous dread and desire to move forward while suffering the drag of time moving too slowly to bear (Winnicott [1963]1984). Clem experiences the difficulty of remaining stuck in the present—her family, her school, her friendships—when there is so much out there in the future of adulthood to experience. Yet that which threatens to push her out into the world—her queer sexual desire—causes her angoissee (trepidation). Her life seems small in a way that is both suffocating and comforting.

‘Life is Tragic, Love Hurts’: On Risk as Taking the Plunge

In an interview with Rachel Kramer Bussell, Maroh said of her book, “[L]ife is tragic, love hurts. Who hasn’t noticed yet? But hey, it doesn’t mean life and love aren’t worth taking the plunge” (2013: n.p.). The plunge, taken to its erotic limit in this text, becomes the redemptive moment of Clem’s queer desire (while also standing for the queer condition that undoes her domestic and, therefore, childhood life). The plunge comes after an extended period of weighing the risks and the potential pleasures, and of being overwhelmed by ambivalent anxiety regarding both desire and trepidation. Clementine commits to her queer wants: she seduces Emma in a graphic four-page, thirty-one-panel spread. As she does throughout the text, Maroh uses the negative space created by fixing the comic’s small panels (or small moments) apart on the page to express the electricity of bodies, close to each other. Maroh successfully and evocatively represents the pressure of sexual desire and the overwhelming wholeness of intense sexual focus in this manner. She withdraws her characters from the world, enveloping her close-up representations of specific parts of their bodies (wide, earnest, and desirous eyes, a wrist curved into a pelvis, lips on a breast, mouths slightly open, eyes squeezed shut, hands grasping sheets) in white space. Readers are tasked with the intense, and pleasurable, work of animating that scene—imagining the moments between the focused panels, imagining the sensation that forces the sheet to be grasped, the eyes to squeeze shut. In this extended moment, Clem’s anxieties about the pressures of the homophobic social world, her ambivalence and her fear drain away. She fully inhabits and affirms her participation in this moment of risk-taking. I refer to this sex as redemptive not incidentally—this sex (even if it cannot last forever and the rest of life soon does press in on the young lovers) certainly acts as a powerful, even utopian, force of beauty, altering the quality of that “ball of fire” (83) that represents Clem’s experience of fear. The two caress breasts and hold hands. Readers understand that the sex has been intimate and satisfying both emotionally and physically.

At the climax of this graphic scene, Emma gives Clem an experience of oral sex. Clem is noisy—as she comes, she cries. The two look into one another’s eyes and then both are crying. When Clem seeks to reciprocate, however, she is stopped. Emma says “No, wait. You’ve never done it before” (Maroh 2013b: 96). Clem’s status as a beginner gives weight to this act that Emma has performed a number of times before. Clem’s wide eyes remind readers of her innocence but also her emotional presence in the scene; she responds passionately: “I want to do everything with you. Everything that’s possible in a lifetime.” The narration, from Clem’s diary, read by an adult Emma, captures the emotional excess of this sexual event: “[W]hat pleasure… this pleasure, her body, this madness” (97).

This scene, and the larger work from which it comes, represents the intensity of girls’ desire and the capacity for risk-taking to be positive, educative, and even a beautiful thing. It runs the gamut of young people’s sexual experience, and includes attention to short-term and long-term consequences, as well as to the decision-making process that precedes sexual risk-taking. It represents the pleasure of putting bodies and desires together and seeing what happens, and the difficulty of narrating the events of sexuality except obliquely, and the stakes of “taking the plunge” (Bussell 2013: n.p.). It represents the violence of homophobia and the effects of traumatic loss. While Clem dies at the end of the text, she assures readers, Emma, and herself that she does so “without any regrets and at peace” (154). This scene also provides a model for how adult readers might learn from representations of adolescence. Here, when read closely and capaciously, Blue is the Warmest Color opens new modes of engaging with the kinds of sexual and romantic risks young girls might take. Perhaps most importantly, this text allows us to accompany a young person while she works intellectually, socially, and creatively to navigate the stakes of the risks she fears and wants. In reading Blue is the Warmest Color, we have the opportunity to enter into adolescence ourselves and we come to know that girls are not blind, reckless risk-takers, but that they are acutely aware of both positive and negative consequences and must find ways to experiment nonetheless since experimentation is one way though which the adolescent forges an adult identity that feels true to the self. This sex scene offers Clementine and Emma something that feels for Clementine worth risking both the unhappy associations she makes with queer life, and the other, more general anxiety she feels about discovering herself. Along with Clem, readers glimpse the anxious negative possibilities associated with her taking the plunge. But an expansive reading of the text can invite us now to reconsider risk, to wonder what else it contains, leaving danger aside for the time. We might wonder what risk does for adolescent girls and how we might we expand our definitions of risk to reflect its expansive possibilities.

Reading Risk Differently: Girls and Sexual Subjectivity

When risk is regarded as wholly negative, as it so often is, it is only rational to attempt to mitigate it. But what would it look like to theorize about risk outside of an impulse to say no to it (Berlant and Edelman 2014); to read closely and compassionately narratives about girls’ falling in love, having sex, forging relationships, and taking chances on building lives and identities that feel meaningful? What if we take the lead from this representation of young female characters considering risks and taking them, both thriving and suffering consequences but firm that their plunge was worth it? This representation offers readers a site of inquiry that addresses issues of adolescent sexual subjectivity.

Jessica Fields and Deborah Tolman argue that we need a new definition of risk as it pertains to sexuality—one that makes use of the ambivalence and ambiguity that comprises sexuality rather than attempting to remove it. Rather than reading risk as a source of danger, a threat of something unpleasant or unwelcome, or as exposure to harm, they wonder how sexuality education might benefit from a definition of risk as

a necessary part of life, as something that turns out well, as something that people sometimes willingly take on in order to push forward and grow, [and] as a function not of individual decision-making but instead as a function of social relations (2006: 72).

A re-thinking of this sort requires that adults grant young women this kind of sexual subjectivity: that we honor girls by recognizing and respecting that their lives are complicated and filled with unsettled meanings.

I recommend that adults make use of literary representations of adolescence so as to forge in those words, quoted earlier, of Janice Radway, “new forms of subjectivity and sociality…by thinking beyond the limits of what is already comprehensible” (2008: xiii). This is a way of thinking that can tolerate the emotion, experience, desire, and ambivalence, as well as the agency involved in girls’ sexual and romantic risk-taking. It is one that can recognize the messy and implicated nature of adult engagement with adolescent sexuality, in which we, as adults help to construct, through narrative, the very adolescents we hope to protect from the dangers we associate with sexuality.

Fields and Tolman’s (2006) desire for a redefinition of risk finds articulation in Gilbert’s radical question: “What would it mean for adults to see adolescents as sexual subjects, and as having a right to experience the risks of sexuality to create the conditions for thoughtfulness, care and curiosity both in and out of schools?” (2007: 48). Sexual subjectivity, which these scholars consider to be a vital component in healthy adolescent development, allows that young people are capable of holding “an awareness and appreciation of the tension between pleasure and danger that many young people face when negotiating and claiming their sexual lives” (71). In a formulation of adolescents as sexual subjects, sexual and romantic relationships may go poorly or well. Girls might enjoy them or be devastated by them (or even enjoy being devastated by them). They might learn about themselves and about the world through the sexual and romantic risks they take. This does not mean that as adults we jettison our reasonable concerns about educating for some forms of risk reduction since it is, of course, beneficial to teach adolescents how to encounter risks well, but it does require that we grant that girls are not deficient in, or incapable of, encountering and being educated by meaningful risks. Gilbert asks us to read risk as “a fragile place where hope turns up” (2014: 41).

In Blue is the Warmest Color, Maroh represents young women as putting themselves at risk by becoming vulnerable with and for the other. Bodily, socially and emotionally, Clementine and Emma encounter, struggle against, and then even embrace the risks that arise in the face of young love. And while the relationship does not work out in the sense of continuing forever, Clem may be read as benefitting from taking the plunge, because she was able to experience a love and a passion that were meaningful, and she was able to choose it for herself, to live in its consequences, and to experience it as a fully human person. Readers owe it to Clem to inhabit and respect her pleasure in the sexual risks she decides to take. By inhabiting young love and passion, adult readers can become re-positioned to re-experience the drama of first times, becoming re-positioned to theorize young people’s sexual relationships more generously.

The learning I propose is one that alters adult orientations to girls from focusing too distinctly on preventing risks and that leans, rather, towards recognizing the importance of their participation in a full range of human experiences, even painful ones. Gilbert writes, “We need to create or find narratives of experience that can bear to remember what it feels like to discover oneself in the middle of sex” (2004: 240). More expansive readings of risk may come to create a more expansive reading of girls’ adolescence in general. Susan Driver argues that studies of queer girls that attend to the multiple possibilities inherent in queer lives can “[de-centre] well-worn trajectories of girlhood, [and call] upon readers to unlearn those traits and languages that have become naturalized as a normal and expected part of what it means to grow up as a girl” (2007: 29). These trajectories too often fixate on the risks girls will face, and the role of adults in helping to protect girls from the dangers inherent in having a sexual life. In reading representations of young people in love, having sex, being hurt, and either surviving (or not—possible trajectories among many others), the adult reader of coming-of-age literature has the opportunity to make something of her automatic responses to girls’ sexual and romantic relationships, to putting aside well-worn trajectories and to consider new routes to adulthood, routes that require risk-taking and experimentation, weighing risks, and making choices.

This is precisely the pedagogical aim of Blue is the Warmest Color; it invites adults to re-think our methods of reading girlhood, and to come, as Sandlos writes about aesthetic encounters with sexuality, “into contact with the messy, at times difficult, world of adolescent emotion” (2010: 299) and then encounter both the possibility and the pleasure of girls’ making choices, and their learning from and about themselves and their desires from their willingness to take the plunge.

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Jen Gilbert, Lisa Farley, Chloe Brushwood Rose, Angela Robinson and Kate Doyle, April Madrona, and the anonymous peer reviewers for their generous advice on this work.

Notes
1

Kechichie’s lauded film version has garnered its share of controversy—particularly from lesbians who resented what felt to them like silly and exploitative sex scenes. Maroh was both supportive and critical of Kechichie’s telling, which she recognizes as a separate “version/vision/reality” from her text. She writes that the film is a “master stroke” which in many ways feels like her source text. However, she is deeply concerned about the “banging,” which she reads as being “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold” (2013a: n.p.). For Maroh, the absence of lesbians on the film set created an inability to tell a legitimately queer story.

2

Kechichie describes how his “obsession” with social justice is represented in this film by social class, which replaces homophobia to become the central conflict here.

Perhaps it’s a finger on the pulse of a world to which I feel I belong, the class to which Adele also belongs—the working class. Emma belongs to an elite class: intellectual, artistic. Each of my heroines is defined by her social class. The difficulties they have with their relationship, that which causes them to break up and ultimately what the film is about, is their class differences, since it generates a difference in their personal aspirations (Festivale Cannes 2013: n.p.).

Maroh, however, tells a queer story meant to educate a non-queer audience about lesbians. In her blog, she writes, “I didn’t make a book in order to preach to the choir, nor only for lesbians. Since the beginning my wish was to catch the attention of those who:

had no clue

had the wrong picture, based on false ideas

hated me/ us” (2013a: n.p.).

This difference in aim reflects Maroh’s concern about the absence of lesbians on set. While she wrote the text because of her experience, as a young queer woman, of homophobia, Kechichie told Cannes, “[The conflict is] not at all their homosexuality, which would be more or less tolerated, or understood, by the world around them.” (n.p.) That a heterosexual man does not believe that queerness causes conflicts for young people indicates, perhaps more than clinical “banging” scenes, that queer people were needed on set.
3

From this point, my article will focus exclusively on the comic. While I am interested in extending my parallel reading, this article cannot sustain this because of length restrictions.

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  • Gilbert, Jen. 2014. Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

  • Gonick, Marnina. 2003. Between Femininities: Ambivalence, Identity and the Education of Girls. New York: SUNY.

  • Gordon, Avery. 2008. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

  • Hemmings, Claire. 2011. Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Irvine, Janice. 2002. Talk about Sex: The Battles over Sex Education in the United States. Berkeley: University of California.

  • Kendall, Nancy. 2013. The Sex Education Debates. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

  • Kramer Bussell, Rachel. 2013, 21 Sept. Blue is the Warmest Color author: ‘I’m a Feminist but it Doesn’t Make Me an Activist.’ Salon.com. <http://www.salon.com/2013/09/21/blue_is_the_warmest_color_author_im_a_feminist_but_it_doesnt_make_me_an_activist/> (accessed 16 June 2014).

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  • Maroh, Julie. 2013a. Adele’s blue: The original color. [Web Log]. <http://sd-4.archive-host.com/membres/up/204771422545612119/Adele_blue.pdf> (accessed 16 June 2014).

    • Export Citation
  • Maroh, Julie. 2013b. Blue is the Warmest Color. Trans. Ivanka Hahnenberger. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp.

  • Marshall, Daniel. 2010. Popular Culture, the ‘Victim’ Trope and Queer Youth Analytics. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 23, no. 1: 6585.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Radway, Janice. 2008. Foreword. In Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

  • Renold, Emma, and Jessica Ringrose. 2011. Schizoid Subjectivities? Re-theorizing Teen Girls’ Sexual Cultures in an Era of ‘Sexualization.’ Journal of Sociology 47, no. 4: 389409.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Robbins, Trina. 1999. From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Female Comics from Teens to Zines. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

  • Rubin, Gayle. [1984] 2011. Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Practice of Sexuality. Pp. 137181 in Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader. Durham: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sandlos, Karyn. 2010. On the Aesthetic Difficulties of Research on Sex Education: Toward a Methodology of Affect. Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning 10, no. 3: 299308.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Talburt, Susan. 2004. Intelligibility and Narrating Queer Youth. Pp. 1739 in Youth and Sexualities: Pleasure, Subversion and Insubordination in and Out of Schools, ed. Mary Lou Rasmussen, Eric Rofes and Susan Talburt. New York: Palgrave.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Vanier, Alan. 2001. Some Remarks on Adolescence with Particular Reference to Winnicott and Lacan. Psychoanalytic Quarterly 70: 579597

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Winnicott, Donald W. 1963/1984. The Nature and Origins of the Antisocial Tendency. Pp. 124133 in Deprivation and Delinquency, ed. Clare Winnicott, Ray Shepherd and Madeleine Davis. London: Tavistock Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Winnicott, Donald W. 1963/1984. Struggling Through the Doldrums. Pp. 145155 in Deprivation and Delinquency, ed. Clare Winnicott, Ray Shepherd and Madeleine Davis. London: Tavistock Press.

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Filmography

Kechichie, Abdellatif. 2013. Blue is the Warmest Color [DVD]. France.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

Contributor Notes

Michelle Miller is a lecturer in English at the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto. She teaches queer literature as well as comics and graphic narratives with special attention to contemporary Canadian literature. Her work is motivated by a commitment to queer and feminist politics, and focuses on representations of adolescent girlhood on offer in contemporary coming-of-age graphic narratives.

Girlhood Studies

An Interdisciplinary Journal

  • Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Berlant, Lauren and Edelman, Lee. 2014. Sex, or the Unbearable. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Chute, Hillary L. 2010. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia University.

  • Cover, Roger. 2012. Queer Youth Suicide, Culture and Identity: Unliveable Lives? Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing.

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  • Driver, Susan. 2007. Queer Girls and Popular Culture: Reading, Resisting and Creating Media. New York: Peter Lang.

  • Egan, Danielle, and Hawkes, Gail. 2008. Endangered Girls and Incendiary Objects: Unpacking the Discourse on Sexualization. Sexuality & Culture 12, no. 4: 291311.

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  • Festivale Cannes. Interview with Abdellatif Kechichie. http://www.festival-cannes.fr/assets/Image/Direct/049301.pdf (accessed 18 May 2016).

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  • Fields, Jessica. 2008. Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality. New Jersey: Rutgers University.

  • Fields, Jessica. 2012. Sexuality Education in the United States: Shared Cultural Ideas Across a Political Spectrum. Sociology Compass 6, no. 1: 114.

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  • Fields, Jessica, and Tolman, Deborah. 2006. Risky Business: Sexuality Education and Research in U.S. Schools. Sexuality Research & Social Policy 3, no. 4: 6376.

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  • Fine, Michelle. 1988. Sexuality, Schooling and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of Desire. Harvard Educational Review 58, no. 1: 2953.

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  • Gilbert, Jen. 2004. Literature as Sex Education. Changing English 11, no. 2: 233241.

  • Gilbert, Jen. 2007. Risking a Relation: Sex Education and Adolescent Development. Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning 7, no. 1: 4761.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gilbert, Jen. 2014. Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

  • Gonick, Marnina. 2003. Between Femininities: Ambivalence, Identity and the Education of Girls. New York: SUNY.

  • Gordon, Avery. 2008. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

  • Hemmings, Claire. 2011. Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Irvine, Janice. 2002. Talk about Sex: The Battles over Sex Education in the United States. Berkeley: University of California.

  • Kendall, Nancy. 2013. The Sex Education Debates. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

  • Kramer Bussell, Rachel. 2013, 21 Sept. Blue is the Warmest Color author: ‘I’m a Feminist but it Doesn’t Make Me an Activist.’ Salon.com. <http://www.salon.com/2013/09/21/blue_is_the_warmest_color_author_im_a_feminist_but_it_doesnt_make_me_an_activist/> (accessed 16 June 2014).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Maroh, Julie. 2013a. Adele’s blue: The original color. [Web Log]. <http://sd-4.archive-host.com/membres/up/204771422545612119/Adele_blue.pdf> (accessed 16 June 2014).

    • Export Citation
  • Maroh, Julie. 2013b. Blue is the Warmest Color. Trans. Ivanka Hahnenberger. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp.

  • Marshall, Daniel. 2010. Popular Culture, the ‘Victim’ Trope and Queer Youth Analytics. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 23, no. 1: 6585.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Radway, Janice. 2008. Foreword. In Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

  • Renold, Emma, and Jessica Ringrose. 2011. Schizoid Subjectivities? Re-theorizing Teen Girls’ Sexual Cultures in an Era of ‘Sexualization.’ Journal of Sociology 47, no. 4: 389409.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Robbins, Trina. 1999. From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Female Comics from Teens to Zines. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

  • Rubin, Gayle. [1984] 2011. Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Practice of Sexuality. Pp. 137181 in Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader. Durham: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sandlos, Karyn. 2010. On the Aesthetic Difficulties of Research on Sex Education: Toward a Methodology of Affect. Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning 10, no. 3: 299308.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Talburt, Susan. 2004. Intelligibility and Narrating Queer Youth. Pp. 1739 in Youth and Sexualities: Pleasure, Subversion and Insubordination in and Out of Schools, ed. Mary Lou Rasmussen, Eric Rofes and Susan Talburt. New York: Palgrave.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Vanier, Alan. 2001. Some Remarks on Adolescence with Particular Reference to Winnicott and Lacan. Psychoanalytic Quarterly 70: 579597

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Winnicott, Donald W. 1963/1984. The Nature and Origins of the Antisocial Tendency. Pp. 124133 in Deprivation and Delinquency, ed. Clare Winnicott, Ray Shepherd and Madeleine Davis. London: Tavistock Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Winnicott, Donald W. 1963/1984. Struggling Through the Doldrums. Pp. 145155 in Deprivation and Delinquency, ed. Clare Winnicott, Ray Shepherd and Madeleine Davis. London: Tavistock Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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