Student Life

How Master’s Student Melody Gray Helped Showcase Women in Comics


Melody Gray is studying for an MA in Global Communications and is the current Communications Director of AUP’s Graduate Student Council. Recently, she helped organize an exhibition in the AUP Library looking at the role and representation of women in French-language graphic novels. The Festival BD: Quand les femmes s’emparent des bulles (Women taking over the world of comics) took place March 15–April 3. It was a cross-departmental collaboration between the library, the Department of French Studies and Modern Languages, and the ReSisters student club.

MA Candidate Melody Gray

How did you get involved with the festival?

As part of the Digital Media Writing Practicum last semester, I wrote an op-ed on why AUP should offer a class on the bande dessinée – or French graphic novel – as a medium. In 2022, BDs were accepted into the College de France as recognized learning material. The experience of reading them is kind of like watching a film, but slowed down to the point that readers become a co-author in the construction of the narrative. Professor Anne-Marie Picard read my article on Peacock Plume and contacted me about the festival.

What inspired the festival’s theme?

There has been some controversy in recent years surrounding France’s largest comic book festival, the Festival de la bande dessinée d’Angoulême, partly due to the involvement of authors whose work has at times been criticized for misogynistic and even pedophilic themes. In 2016, not a single woman was nominated for their work at Angoulême! It brought up questions about how women have been represented throughout the history of the medium, and it has opened up a conversation about where the line is between drawing something because it fits your story and doing so because you don’t know how to create a narrative outside your own experience. We wanted to use the festival to explore what we can do to improve women’s representation in comics.

How did that work in practice?

The first part of the exhibition was on the history of comics, looking at classics like Lucky Luke, Gaston Lagaffe, and Tintin, which often have either no women or very stylized, sexualized representations of women. We also addressed the lack of women authors in this period. The second part looked at the Angoulême controversies, talking about this ongoing problem of representation in comics and what we might be able to do about it. The third part was more aimed at work women have produced, which is something that’s really changing in the field. We asked how the industry might change even more as more women authors, including amateurs, get exposure. Will this lead to better representation of women in the BDs themselves?

What’s one example of the kind of work you were doing for the festival?

I helped with organizing the inauguration event with guest speaker, Dr. Catriona MacLeod (University of London Institute in Paris). She wrote a book called Invisible Presence: The Representation of Women in French-Language Comics, which is exactly what our exhibition was about. Other speakers included the illustrator Sara Lomuscio, who led two campus workshops on creating your own comic strip, and the BD artist Jeanne Puchol, who shared insights from her four-decade career.

What did the experience teach you?

I discovered there really is a growing field for amateur BD art, because I reached out to amateur women bédéistes (comic creators) on Instagram. Social media can become a kind of comic strip, where you swipe through ten different photos as if they were comic panels. It’s helped make BDs a more accessible craft. I also learned a lot about event coordination and collaboration. Those are huge skills I will take with me into any workplace. Learning to work in an intercultural environment was great; I’m American, Professor Picard is French, and Jorge Sosa the librarian is from Ecuador.

Have you always been interested in French graphic novels?

As an undergrad, I double majored in archaeology and French and francophone studies on a literature track. For my thesis, I designed a creative project where I proposed writing a BD about archaeological objects in the Louvre. Because BDs are very visual, they go along well with archaeology, where representation in popular imagination is a big issue. I did a lot of research on BDs as educational tools, and there’s great support for the idea that they can help with language acquisition, for example. I ended up writing a fiction story instead, but that’s where my interest came from.

Have you been able to explore these topics through your master’s at AUP?

In the MAGC program, we talk a lot about visual production and semiotics – the study of symbols – and I feel like comics and BDs are the best examples for a semiotic analysis. They are a system of signs created by the author, which then need to be decoded in a way that the reader can understand. I think the rise of social media has increased access to images, even for young kids, which has made developing visual literacy an important part of the learning process. BDs can be a great way to do that; they help people understand and decode the messages they are exposed to through, for example, marketing and branding.