How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jew­ish Amer­i­can Iden­ti­ty in Con­tem­po­rary Graph­ic Memoirs

  • Review
By – April 4, 2016

In her provoca­tive­ly titled How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” Tah­neer Oks­man exam­ines por­traits of Jew­ish female iden­ti­ty depict­ed by sev­en female graph­ic mem­oirists. Aline Komin­sky Crumb uses phys­i­cal stereo­types to explore the cross-gen­er­a­tional ten­sions of indi­vid­ual and group iden­ti­ties. Vanes­sa Davis’s work delves into the con­struc­tion of pub­lic and pri­vate iden­ti­ties; she also looks at the ways in which iden­ti­ties evolve as one’s sense of home and exile changes. Miss Lasko-Gross and Lau­ren Wein­stein tell their sto­ries from the per­spec­tive of their child­hood selves. Sarah Glad­den and Miri­am Libic­ki grap­ple with the role of Israel in their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and Liana Fink exploits the bound­ary between remem­ber­ing and rewrit­ing the dis­tant past to cre­ate a present sense of self.

While graph­ic mem­oir as a genre may not res­onate with all read­ers, the themes that emerge from Oksman’s nuanced read­ing will be famil­iar, some­times uncom­fort­ably so, to women for whom female Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is an evolv­ing tapes­try. The book’s title comes from a series of pan­els from Komin­sky Crumb’s Nose Job” that depict the turn­ing point in a rela­tion­ship between high school girls when one gets a nose job. Do you still like me?” she asks. But the thought bub­ble above the one who kept her nose reads, I don’t know if I can like her any­more” and How come boys get to keep their noses?” The light­heart­ed­ness of the inter­ac­tion and the graph­ic form itself belie the deep­er themes. A nose job is, in some ways, a rejec­tion of a sig­ni­fi­er of iden­ti­ty. What has changed between the two girls is more than a face — and of course that par­tic­u­lar form of iden­ti­ty-rejec­tion tends to be gendered.

Oth­er gems include Vanes­sa Davis’s sub­tle dis­com­fort of dat­ing a non-Jew­ish man. In one pan­el she is resent­ful­ly scrunched up on one side of the bed while her boyfriend, on the oth­er side, stays up read­ing Hitler: The Ear­ly Years. In anoth­er scene, hav­ing moved from New York to Cal­i­for­nia, she falls asleep read­ing Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Com­plaint while think­ing, Isn’t home­sick­ness just part of self-exile? Isn’t it a Jew­ish lega­cy to not fit in real­ly any­where? Isn’t it always that you can take the girl out of Brook­lyn but not Brook­lyn out of the girl?”

The book has sev­er­al chal­lenges. It is deeply ana­lyt­i­cal, hav­ing evolved from the author’s dis­ser­ta­tion. The author also faces the well-worn dif­fi­cul­ty of ver­bal­ly describ­ing a medi­um — the graph­ic mem­oir — that is not pri­mar­i­ly ver­bal. Some of the pan­els Oks­man describes are repro­duced in the book (in black and white and in col­or) while oth­ers are absent, leav­ing the read­er to imag­ine their visu­al con­tent. But, for those inter­est­ed in the graph­ic form, the author pro­vides ample obser­va­tions and insights into the con­struc­tion of female Jew­ish iden­ti­ty to inspire fur­ther exploration.

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