‘Becoming Unbecoming’ and the Toll Extracted From Survivors

This graphic novel offers an incomparably powerful critique of misogyny and male sexual violence against women.

Becoming Unbecoming is among the most powerful books published on misogyny, sexual assault and survival in recent years. It’s a graphic novel that often doesn’t read like one, alternating between personal and historical narratives and fact-filled reflections and analyses. It combines the strengths of these various forms to offer a powerful critique of the personal and social violence committed by men against women, and the ways in which these forms of violence are still supported and encouraged by a deeply misogynistic society.

Una’s story is a deeply personal one: she tells the story of her own growing up in England during the ’70s and ’80s, as the victim of sexual assault and rape, of slut-shaming, of psychological abuse, of consistent and ongoing sexual harassment and sexual abuse. It’s a harrowing tale, told with a clear and deeply honest sense of self-awareness. The simple graphical portrayal of the characters contrasts meaningfully with the complexity of the social narratives in which they are imbricated: the backdrops are often dark and shaded, against which the characters appear with the simplicity of the everyday.

Una juxtaposes the tale of her personal experiences against the backdrop of a serial murderer who terrorized her community and eluded police when she was growing up. Peter Sutcliffe — the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ — didn’t elude police through any particular abilities of his own; as subsequent studies have shown, the police thoroughly botched the investigation. Driven by their conviction that Sutcliffe was targeting prostitutes, they ignored evidence and testimony alike that didn’t match up to their preconceived, and eminently sexist, expectations. The result was that they in fact interviewed Sutcliffe several times, always releasing him to continue killing, until a neighbouring county’s police team stumbled upon incontrovertible evidence almost by accident.

The case said a lot about prevailing misogyny toward sex workers — letters were even taken out in local newspapers urging the killer to turn himself in, conveying sympathy toward his anti-sex-worker attacks yet also concern that now he was starting to accidentally attack “innocent” girls as well — but also about misogyny more broadly. Una uses this to underscore her main point: that male violence toward women is not exceptional or the product of rogue or broken men, but is deeply systemic and both protected and encouraged by a society that remains fascinated and enthralled by male violence against women. It’s true, she notes, that this is not the exclusive form of gendered violence — there are such phenomena as violent women, and men do commit sexualized violence against other men — yet male violence against women remains statistically the overwhelming norm, despite changing patterns in other forms of crimes.

The outstanding quality of Becoming Unbecoming lies in the manner in which it operates at multiple scales to reveal the complex nature of male violence against women. By telling the very personal story of her own childhood, Una reveals how young girls growing up experience gendered and sexualized violence: from the male gaze, to the dismissiveness and silence of adults, to slut-shaming and rape. By juxtaposing this against the backdrop of the Sutcliffe case, in which misogyny not only drove Sutcliffe to murder women but also led the police to completely botch their investigation for several years, Una demonstrates how the sort of horrifying and violent experiences she had growing up were not unique, but are deeply systemic and part of a broad and societally entrenched pattern of male violence against women. The ‘system’ — schools, psychiatrists, parents — failed her as a childhood victim of sexual assault and abuse, just as the ‘system’ — police, media, courts — failed the victims of Sutcliffe’s murders.

These two intertwined stories provide the narrative, but the second half of the book turns deeply analytical as well. Una underscores her point about the ubiquity of male violence against women with a broad-based consideration of gendered (and intersectional) violence against women, hammering the reader with statistics from the United Kingdom, United States and Canada. She also explores efforts to tackle sexual violence, reflecting on the importance of support provided by under-funded activists and agencies, the importance of challenging sexism and misogyny in popular culture, and the deeply societally embedded tendencies toward victim-blaming.

“Blaming the victim is an act of refuge and self-deception,” she writes in an afterword. The deception is exposed by society’s contrasting fascination with those who commit the violence. This is something she tackles head-on throughout the graphic narrative.

Films, books, comics, TV dramas, operas, paintings, songs, jokes… So many cultural forms use the rape and murder of women as a narrative device, primarily for excitement and dramatic effect… The prevalence of murdered or raped female bodies in stories from the popular to the highbrow is odd because murder especially is much more of a guy thing. More than two-thirds of bodies on slabs are male… put there by another man. Perhaps that doesn’t make good drama? I like a good horror as much as the next person but… images of rape, sexual assault and male violence against women exist in a specific climate… an ancient landscape of prohibition from wealth, education, suffrage… an ocean of objectification.

Cultural fascination with violent males leads to them being celebrated through the arts in documentary and fiction: books, films, TV dramas, theatre, comics, and songs. So many popular cultural monuments to Sutcliffe have been built by men. Perhaps it’s easier to see it as just another story, if you don’t belong to the group of people the Ripper wanted to kill?

The book also offers an example of one of the most effective uses of the comic form. For the most part the drawing is simple, even cartoony. But this belies the powerful and gut-wrenching impact of its subject matter; rendering it all the more impactful. In this sort of telling, the silences and still-frames are just as powerful as the narrative sequences. Exceptionally powerful is her graphic tribute to Sutcliffe’s victims at the very end of the book, imagining the lives they might have had.

Becoming Unbecoming reads with a visceral, gut-wrenching power that cannot be ignored. It’s a quick read but surveys powerfully and broadly the ubiquity and horror of male violence against women. Profoundly thoughtful and reflective, it resonates with a deep sense of rage. It’s a book that will doubtless both resonate and prove deeply triggering for many readers; hopefully the impact in producing a resolve for change will be equally powerful. Una uses her own story as an example of survival, but cautions that stories of individual survival will not eradicate systemic misogyny.

The notion of the strong survivor should be treated with caution. It could seem that the causes of sexual violence don’t require our collective attention… Because its consequences are managed so beautifully by those on the receiving end of it. The shock is absorbed by them. Suffering caused by sexual violence is the result of human action… personal choice. Unlike natural disasters, which are beyond our control. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, I’m glad to be alive, to have a life… But I wonder who I would have been, had I not been interrupted so rudely?

You’re a survivor, they tell me. I understand it’s meant kindly — to be empowering — but surviving has been… What a waste of my valuable time surviving has been! Hours, days, years… decades! So much time struggling. Precious energy spent, managing the damage so that I can live my life. In a different landscape I might have put that time and energy to better use.

In her analysis, Una draws heavily from Joan Smith’s 1989 collection Misogynies. She notes that when it comes to violent, murderous men like Sutcliffe, explanations tend to focus on such men as being the products of a breakdown of traditional morality, as existing outside of mainstream cultural norms, of being somehow fundamentally flawed. These explanations are patently wrong, Una argues, and are dangerous because they depict these violent men as exceptions to mainstream society.

Rather, mainstream society and the misogynistic attitudes that still hold it in thrall are what produce such exceptionally violent men, Una argues. They may appear to us — because they are depicted as — exceptionally violent (although statistics indicate misogynistic violence and murder is still horrifically prevalent) but they are not rogue exceptions to mainstream society. Such thinking, says Una, is “flawed and stands in the way of understanding why misogynistic violence happens. The idea that there is something embedded deep within the culture that produces eruptions of gendered violence and allows them to flourish, rather than their being random and motiveless, is becoming mainstream, and is what drives this book.”

Indeed, the very naming of these characters — Jack the Ripper, the Yorkshire Ripper, etc. — is part of the social strategy which draws attention away from the systemic and mainstream roots of male violence. Una notes that it’s part of the same strategy which teaches women that the male predator is a cloaked figure lurking in the shadows, rather than the stronger likelihood it’s someone in their everyday environment: “there is a strong impulse to assign an identity to an unknown violent male — an insubstantial figure can be turned into someone known — with disastrous results. This is a disaster mainly because it directs the collective gaze away from the ordinariness of male violence.”

When it comes to tackling male violence, she notes that it’s not good enough to blame abstract systems, whether social, political or biological. Fundamentally, the failure of all of these is a reflection of a collective failure of will. “You have to want to change,” she writes.

“There’s no doubt we need a reliable system of justice, but we can’t blame the justice system for the things it thinks and does, if it just thinks and does the same things as everyone else. Those are people, behind the uniforms and robes, and when they manage to bring a case to court, twelve people, people like you and I, chosen at random, get the last word. And the words and images we use… Are all part of the same landscape. Change takes time, I hear you say. We’ve had a few thousand years. How much longer before we are rid of this dead weight?”

RATING 10 / 10