ManEaters: Where Multimodality Does Not Equal Quality

by Tara Lawson-Harris

In seventh grade, I had a group of about four boys yell at me in front of the entire class for daring to speak up in social studies. Their main argument: “she doesn’t know what she’s talking about because she’s on her period.” I wasn’t on my period. But how was I supposed to prove that? So I let them shout me into silence, hoping that my female teacher would tell them about the inappropriateness of their comments. Instead, when I fell silent the teacher turned to the boys and engaged them in conversation. Not a single girl spoke up for the rest of class. 

Seventh grade was fourteen years ago for me, and I still remember that moment. I remember the anger, the humiliation, the knowledge that what I had to say mattered, and the realization that no one cared. Those feelings still resonate for me. I wanted ManEaters to take that rage and turn it into something cathartic and powerful. Instead, I got ads for the fictional EstroPop and a nonsensical plot.

My primary issue with ManEaters comes from the way that it is written, not from its politics. There are currently ten issues out, and 20% of those issues do not address the storyline at all. One of the issues is a magazine from the fictional world, and another issue is the instructions to a game. The remaining issues have entire pages dedicated to fake ads, most of them for EstroPop, the drink for men to avoid having too much estrogen in their systems. Comic books only have about 22 pages to tell their story, and nearly 1/4 of the story so far isn’t telling the story. The few moments that do focus on the story are condensed into fewer pages, and as a result, major details and transitions get overlooked.

For example, issue number 7 ends with a missing girl being found by the main character’s mom hiding in the main character’s house. Then the mom says that the girl is not a panther, and the reader finds out that the mom is a panther. Issue number 8 is the instructions to a game. Issue number 9 starts with the main character and the no-longer-missing girl in a recovery camp. Which makes no sense. Why would the rebellious panther mom put her daughter in a recovery camp? Were they forced to go to this camp because it was discovered that the main character had gotten her period? At some point the reader finds out that there’s a “plan” for the recovery center, but why this specific center? 

I want to like ManEaters. I want to be charmed by the genre bending issues that are instructions to a game or fake magazines. To be impressed with the fake ads for EstroPop. To feel like I understand and relate to the plot. As a feminist, I feel obligated to love this book because it was written by a woman and has a feminist message (at least, I’ve been told it does). It even got nominated for an Eisner Award, which is one of the highest awards a comic book creator can get. But I Just. Do. Not. Like. It. Wasting so much of the reader’s time with multimodal gimmicks is just bad writing. 

Multimodal gimmicks can work in more traditional storylines — for example, look at Squirrel Girl and how every issue starts off with a twitter thread. However, the attempts to have a radical plot overlaid with the gimmicks makes the narrative come across as scattered and uncoordinated at best. After that incident in middle school, I wanted to read a book that talked about getting your period. I didn’t want the book to focus on menstrual cycles per se, but I did want them addressed. I used to read a lot of fantasy, which meant that I was reading about characters that didn’t have bathrooms or tampons, and I always wondered how the female characters dealt with this lack of resources. Even in modern YA, I’ve never read about someone bleeding through their pants or being paranoid about leaving a stain on a chair. A feminist comic book where girls and women getting their periods was the main point of the story seemed like the perfect first step to normalize representations of women’s periods. A step to normalizing the idea that periods and pms-ing does not make women crazy. 

Without some type of traditional storytelling move (plot, setting, narration), the book comes across as not knowing what it’s about. It comes across as being thrown together in an emotional dump at the last minute and expecting all women to say it speaks to their experiences. A lack of trans representation aside, this experience absolutely does not speak to me. It doesn’t come close to the anger I felt, or to the anger I know other girls feel. It doesn’t speak to the struggle of hiding a thick wad of plastic up your sleeve while you walk to the bathroom. The anger because you shouldn’t have to hide a hygiene product. 

I want to love Chelsea Cain’s ManEaters. But when a book doesn’t try to relate to your emotional experiences and relies only on flashy gimmicks, the reader isn’t going to be emotionally invested in the book. I wasn’t.  

As a feminist reader, this review is difficult for me. I want to support this book. I want to feel angry and fired up about the stereotypes around menstrual cycles. Instead, I read that book and was annoyed that I had spent time and money on it. But giving the book a negative review could mean that someone wouldn’t read it. If they aren’t reading it, then they aren’t buying it, and if they aren’t buying it then the creators don’t get any money and the publishing company doesn’t get any data saying that talking about periods is a selling point for some readers. So am I obligated to buy a book that I don’t enjoy because of the feminist issues behind it? If I do buy it, am I telling the publishing industry that I am okay with bad writing as long as it’s feminist? It’s a conflicting place to be in as a reader, and I still don’t have an answer that I’m satisfied with. 

Have opinions on the book? Sound off in the comments below. 

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