Essay / inkt|art issues

Cowardly Lion to King of the Forest? Skim and the Risky Business of Adolescence

BY CATHERINE KYLE
Skim1In Skim, a 2008 graphic narrative written by Toronto-based author Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by her cousin Jillian Tamaki, the emotional and intellectual development of the protagonist hinges on the risks she is willing to take in matters of romantic attraction. Prior to her first brush with love, 16-year-old Kim is largely submissive and non-confrontational when faced with uncomfortable situations, subtle bullying, and even outright insults. However, upon taking her first real risk—one that specifically involves the active pursuit of a love interest—she is launched into a more honest and assertive identity that affects not only her attitudes about sexuality and romance, but also her dealings with friendship, spirituality, and self-image.
In the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, April Spisak places Skim within the Bildungsroman tradition (369), and indeed, the text traces Kim’s progression from innocence to understanding and from childlike passivity to a more mature form of agency on several fronts. Spisak goes on to claim that readers are likely to identify with Kim because she is

“a girl struggling, against all odds, to find a self that feels true and meaningful [,…] a fight for relevance and maturity that adolescent readers, to varying degrees, likely find themselves waging on a daily basis” (370).

Risk within the context of romantic attraction galvanizes this struggle for Kim, and according to recent research on the identity construction of young adults, this may be a highly relatable phenomenon for many readers.
In their analysis of recent studies on adolescent romantic relationships, psychologists W. Andrew Collins, Deborah P. Welsh, and Wyndol Furman conclude that although they have often been treated as “trivial” and “transitory […] adolescent romantic relationships increasingly are regarded as potentially significant relational factors in individual development and well-being” (632). They state that in fact, there are “statistically reliable associations between adolescents’ romantic experiences and multiple aspects of individual development,” including “forming a personal identity, adjusting to changes in familial relationships, furthering harmonious relationships with peers, succeeding (or not) in school, looking ahead to future careers, and developing sexuality” (644). The authors go on to state that the study of the impact on romantic attraction and risk on adolescent identity is growing within the psychological research community—not just in North America, but worldwide—with the number of books and articles devoted to the subject “increas[ing] annually since 2000” (632).

Clearly, the dismissal of adolescent romantic relationships as innocuous episodes of “puppy love” is misguided. The authors conclude that romantic encounters may be one of the most important aspects of adolescent identity construction, with such experiences being strongly linked to the development of general “self-esteem, self-confidence, and social competence” in all other areas of life (644).

This idea of romance paving the way for other types of growth and risk plays out in Skim in interesting ways. In an interview with the Canadian Theatre Review, Mariko Tamaki herself states that “Falling in love changes everything for Skim” (Slone 35). And indeed, with the dawning of Kim’s pursuit of her love interest, we see her transform from a listless recipient of emotional discomfort to a far more grounded and courageous young woman.
Early in the narrative, Kim endures multiple attacks on her self-esteem and self-worth. Her best friend Lisa—who is also her only friend, until later in the text—calls her a “loser” (9), a “wannabe” (14), a “weirdo” (30), a “spaz” (30), a “psycho bitch” (33), and a poor independent thinker (34). Lisa is often aggressive and disrespectful toward Kim, dismissing her comments with “Whatever”s (20) and once cutting off contact altogether when she feels Kim is in the wrong (even though she, Lisa, instigated the conflict) (35). In a flashback, we also see that the shy and withdrawn Kim has suffered bullying at the hands of several of the more outgoing and popular girls at school. In this sequence, Kim attends a costume party dressed as the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. All the other girls, she observes, are dressed as “ballerina[s]” and “figure skater[s]” (83).

This distinction sets Kim apart both because the other girls’ outfits emphasize their skinny bodies in contrast to Kim’s curvier one, and because their choice of costumes marks them as performatively feminine, whereas Kim’s is more androgynous.

Kim also sets herself apart by watching television with Hien, the only other Asian at the party, rather than talking about boys with the Caucasian girls (84). Eventually, the ballerinas and figure skaters throw Kim and Hien out of the party (84-85).

Skim 2Kim wanders home alone and lies to her mother about what happened (88). In addition to this singular incident, we learn that Kim’s weight has been a constant source of bullying, earning her the sarcastic nickname “Skim” among her peers (27). In one final instance of mistreatment, when Lisa and Kim attend a Wiccan gathering in an attempt to further their knowledge of witchcraft, one of the attendees—a middle-aged man—touches Kim’s breast under the pretense of feeling her heartbeat (19).
It is not that Kim is unaware of these forms of abuse or that she does not react to them internally. With regard to Lisa’s constant verbal assaults, Kim exhibits some degree of self-respect, venting in several diary entries, “You can tell when Lisa’s nervous because she acts like I’m an idiot” (15), “Lisa is full of crap” (63), and “Everything Lisa says drives me crazy these days” (71). She calls her peers a “goldfish tank of stupid” (45) and says about the man who touches her breast, “I had all these thoughts like, ‘THIS is something […] people warn you about,’ and, ‘He wants a handjob” (19). However, in spite of her awareness of these wrongs, Kim does nothing to confront or correct them. With the exception of one minor retaliation, she permits Lisa to hurl insults at her, tolerates the cruel treatment by her peers, and simply stares blankly at the man who touches her breast. In none of these cases does Kim take a risk to preserve her own self-worth. She dabbles in Wicca, hoping to learn a spell or two that will quietly enact changes in her life, but she demonstrates no drive to actively change things on her own.

In short, Kim is passive both in terms of social relationships and her relationship with her own desires.
Much of this changes when Kim falls in love with her English teacher, Ms. Archer. Though the reciprocity of the relationship remains ambiguous throughout the text, the two share at least one kiss, which is portrayed in the graphic narrative’s only two-page spread, highlighting its importance (40-41).

Skim 3Kim describes their regular talks in a forest near the school as “this thing [we have]” (31) and remarks that Ms. Archer “says she can’t stop looking at [her] eyes” (31). Kim’s averted eyes in the panel in which she replies, “Nothing’s happening” to Lisa’s question, “What’s going on with you and Ms. Archer?” (37) also imply, to some extent, that something romantic or even sensual is in fact routinely “happening.” That said, there is no evidence suggesting that Ms. Archer and Kim have had sex. Though ultimately the precarious relationship fizzles and Ms. Archer leaves the school, the experience leaves Kim indelibly altered. When Kim falls in love with Ms. Archer, she begins taking risks and working to actively manifest her desires. She looks up Ms. Archer’s address in the school directory and figures out how to get to her house by bus (46-47). She first leaves a drawing in her mailbox, then begins returning regularly when Ms. Archer is home with various gifts, including her treasured pack of tarot cards (73). Though eventually Ms. Archer tells Kim not to come over anymore, Kim’s risk pays off insofar as she becomes a more competent and assertive person because of it, advancing toward the “true and meaningful self” of Spisak’s analysis. This progress is apparent through both Kim’s self-reflections and in the actions she takes. Combined, they demonstrate the extent to which Kim has been emboldened by her first experience with love.

Through her diary entries, Kim articulates the changes that are going on inside her, linking her experience of falling in love to the Wiccan concept of “The Charge,” which one of her books describes as “that moment in our lives when we feel the Magick of the Universe coursing through us for the very first time” (39). In other words, she pinpoints her romantic experience as a uniquely pivotal moment in her psychological, emotional, and spiritual development. She later muses that “everything you do and everything people do to you leaves a mark, or […] affects who you are” (125). These reflections signal the beginning of Kim’s departure from passivity to agency in areas of her life other than romance.

She concurrently realizes that spells cannot bring about the outcomes she desires in her life, writing in her diary the day after Ms. Archer leaves for good, “Witchcraft = total crap” (106). The following day, she strikes up a conversation with the enigmatic Katie Matthews, whom she has watched from afar for weeks. Kim reflects, “I don’t think I have ever talked to Katie Matthews. Ever” (108). Yet now, she has the courage to do so.

Skim 4Eventually, Kim’s friendship with Katie turns out to be much healthier than the one she shared with Lisa, even blossoming into what, on the last page of the narrative, appears to be a new romance (142). Kim also dyes her hair while contemplating that the Death tarot card does not mean literal demise, but rather, “change” (126). Finally, in the climax of the text, Kim stands up to the girls who have bullied her in the past, assertively challenging their presumptuous and condescending attitudes about Katie’s ex-boyfriend John, who had recently commit suicide, allegedly because he was gay (131). All told, Kim makes significant changes to her appearance, her social relationships, her spiritual life, and her ability to stand up for her beliefs, all due to her experience with Ms. Archer. Given Kim’s choice of costume in the birthday party flashback, it is significant that Ms. Archer doodles a crown sitting atop a heart on Kim’s cast after she breaks her arm (27). As readers and viewers of The Wizard of Oz are well aware, the Cowardly Lion longs for courage so that he can become the “king of the forest.” The crown bestowed by Ms. Archer symbolically encourages Kim to seize her power as the “king” of her own destiny, casting off the role as the “pathetic, lonely lion,” as Kim calls herself in the flashback (87). Moreover, this illustration is accompanied by Ms. Archer’s line, “Maybe you can try wearing your rebel heart on your sleeve for a while” (27). A rebel is one who bucks the status quo, who endeavors to disrupt problematic social orders so that new ones can be ushered in. Kim does become far more of a courageous rebel after her brush with romance, to her own benefit and that of those around her. Significantly, the theme of the school dance where Kim stands up to her bullies is “Over the Rainbow” (128), tying into the Wizard of Oz motif, and the panel in which she most dramatically confronts her antagonists depicts her with her new blonde hair and a sort of “mane” of light around her head (131). Through her courage and risks in matters of romance, Kim has claimed her identity as the symbolic “king” of her life, leaving behind the cowardly lion.

In addition to the risks that this character takes within the story, Skim also takes risks as a text. With its themes of homosexuality, bullying, and suicide, Skim treads into some extremely sensitive territories that may be triggering for adolescent readers. As social scientist Gilad Padva notes, for many LGBTQ youth, popular media “may be the only source of evidence of sexualities that deviate from what is still posited as the heterosexual norm” (106). Likewise, in an opinion piece featured in Harvard University’s Gay and Lesbian Review, activist Don Gorton urges readers to consider the role that popular media can play in either the elimination or perpetuation of bullying in schools.

In this article, he focuses on the TV show Glee, but many of his points can apply to Skim as well. He commends Glee for its inclusion of gay and lesbian characters, but claims that “none of the show’s dysfunctional regulars offers much constructive insight into the lived experience of being bullied” (4). Throughout season one and early on in season two, during which time Gorton wrote this article, representations of bullying are often treated comically, prompting him to state that “Young victims of bullying might find Glee’s light-hearted but evocative portrayals of bullying distressing—and giving little in the way of practical advice,” and that “The subject matter can conjure dangerous emotions, but the narrative has tended to leave at-risk youth to cope with them on their own” (4). He concludes with a hope that the creators will inject some “simple but scientifically sound anti-bullying advice” into the show. As to what this “scientifically sound” advice looks like, a bullying prevention guide released by the Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services, which Gorton helped to author, advocates “School-wide initiatives that make the entire school safe, [e]ducating all staff […] and parents on bullying prevention, [p]rovid[ing] adequate adult supervision in outdoor areas, hallways, and other areas where bullying is likely to take place, [and] [e]ducat[ing] staff on how to intervene quickly and decidedly in bullying situations” (Parker-Roerden, Rudewick, and Gorton 2). It also discourages less effective strategies such as advising victims to stand up for themselves or suspending bullies without addressing the causes of their aggressive behavior. Incidentally, seasons two and three of Glee do delve much more solemnly into the topics of bullying, violence, and suicide among LGBTQ teens, even employing some of the tactics that Gorton wishes to see.
Although Skim is a sensitive and poignant text, there is very little “scientifically sound anti-bullying advice” to be found within its pages. On the contrary, attempts by adults and adolescents alike to help the school cope with John’s suicide are portrayed as misguided, ineffective, and even counterproductive. The “Girls Celebrate Life” club, led by the very same girls who bullied Kim at the birthday party, seem far more concerned with presenting themselves as model citizens than actually affecting change, as is evidenced by their ironic appearance as costumed angels (130) shortly following Kim’s observation, “Today I dropped my papier mâché head in art class and everyone laughed. Thus confirming my suspicion that despite all this touchy-feely stuff, the girls at my school are still jerks” (71). Kim and Lisa dismiss the efforts of well-meaning adults with sarcasm as well (22, 60). Katie, who is the most directly affected by John’s suicide, rips up the board that is set up in his memory and expresses contempt for the Girls Celebrate Life club’s attempts at raising money for a “Kids Help Line” (99) that one girl claims “would have saved [John’s] life” (131).While the Girls Celebrate Life club may be a self-congratulatory project more than a sincere one, the adults’ intervention and the suicide hotline more closely resemble the “scientifically sound” anti-bullying strategies Gorton and others suggest. So, is Skim promoting a problematic or even irresponsible message about the ways teens should cope with bullying or suicidal ideation by portraying the school’s efforts as pointless?
Importantly, Mariko Tamaki has stated in an interview that “Skim’s queerness is not about her getting any action, or really about Ms. Archer. It’s about the possibilities, a bigger queerness that she’s able to embark on because she falls in love.”

She says that “With Skim I really wanted to make a portrait of a person’s coming out experience that was about love and loss without having that loss delve into tragedy. I wanted to write a story where someone’s queerness didn’t result in some sort of epic crisis of self” (Slone 35).

This is indeed an admirable goal, yet simultaneously, Tamaki’s story includes a boy who ends his life in part because he is gay. Thus, feasibly, a reader could come away with a confusing mixed message: On the one hand, Kim’s lesbianism is not treated as a “crisis” in the text, a positive narrative representation that furthers the normalization of same-sex relationships. On the other hand, Kim does insist to Lisa that she is not a “giant lesbo” because she spends so much time with Ms. Archer, indicating her discomfort with the idea of a public lesbian identity in spite of her attraction to women (37). Given that one of the photos of John that hangs in the school is vandalized with the slur “fag” after his death (88), Kim’s anxiety that she might suffer backlash if she were to come out is definitely not unwarranted. She may be subjectively at peace with her lesbianism, but she is well aware that her societal surroundings are not. What message, then, can readers take away?
Tamaki is an activist herself, having performed with groups that focus on fat and queer activism since the early 2000s (Slone 32). Erin Kobayashi writes that Tamaki “felt a particular responsibility to the girls she knew would read her book” to depict Kim as a likeable and relatable character who is yet “marginalized” in terms of race, socioeconomic class, body shape, and sexuality, as Tamaki says she was in high school (46).

Given the author’s activist leanings and the book’s genuinely sensitive treatment of a lesbian relationship, it is difficult to condemn Skim as problematic even in spite of its questionable commentary on “scientifically sound anti-bullying advice.” If anything, I suggest that the book is critiquing the silence that surrounds the connections between homosexuality, bullying, depression, and suicide more than the school’s attempts at helping its students cope with loss.

At a small ceremony held in John’s honor, Kim observes that “No one talked about John being gay […] Although Julie Peters practically ripped Anna Canard’s tongue out when she brought it up afterwards” (95). I believe that this silence is the real failing the text seeks to address. By focusing on the tragedy of John’s suicide but imposing silence on what is presented as a major source of his depression—his inability to come out publicly and without backlash—the Girls Celebrate Life club and the school counselors alike fail to truly address the situation. This is the greatest “risk” at the center of the text, one that is intimately linked to anti-bullying efforts. Gorton discourages schools from expelling bullies without identifying the sources of their behavior, and in this text, the school attempts to enforce a sort of “zero tolerance” policy for suicide without actually examining the many pressures and antagonistic treatments to which John was likely exposed. The book arguably does take a “risk” in criticizing suicide prevention programs, school counselors, and support groups, but in doing so, it encourages readers to look more closely at the numerous interlocking causes of bullying, suicide, and depression among LGBTQ youth. In this way, it has the potential to serve as a tool that may be able to help adolescent readers work, like Kim, toward their own unique “true and meaningful” selves without fear of discrimination.

Catherine Kyle is a Ph.D. student in English at Western Michigan University. She has published articles on the representations of female superheroes in popular culture in Colloquy and the anthology Heroines of Film and Television (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Her website is www.catherinebaileykyle.com.

Works Cited
Collins, W. Andrew, Deborah P. Welsh, and Wyndol Furman. “Adolescent Romantic Relationships.” Annual Review of Psychology 60 (2009): 631-652. Print.
Gorton, Don. “How Popular Culture can Combat Bullying.” The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide 18.1 (2011): 4. Print.
Kobayashi, Erin. “Mariko Tamaki Shows Some Skim.” Broken Pencil 39 (2008): 46-47. Print.
Padva, Gilad. “Media and Popular Culture Representations of LGBT Bullying.” Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services 19:3-4 (2008): 105-118. Print.
Parker-Roerden, Laura, David Rudewick, and Donald Gorton. “Direct From the Field: A Guide to Bullying Prevention (Bullying Data and Guide Overview).”    Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 2007. 1-2. Web. 12 June 2013.
Slone, Abi. “Funny Girl: An Interview with Mariko Tamaki.” Canadian Theatre Review 149 (2012): 31-35. Print.
Spisak, April. “The Big Picture: Skim.” Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books 61.9 (2008): 369-370. Print.
Tamaki, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. Skim. Toronto: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2008. Print.

One thought on “Cowardly Lion to King of the Forest? Skim and the Risky Business of Adolescence

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