Greg Baldino writes:
There’s a bit of a paradox when it comes to Disney movies, possibly a conundrum. “Disney” gets used quite often as a derisive adjective, even though Disney movies are still recognized as being high water marks for feature length animation. The conflict is this: we want illustrated media with the level of craft and attention that actually goes into a Disney movie, but we need them at a rapid enough rate of release that we can get enough of them that there’s actual diversity–in content, in representation, in story structure.
Which brings me to Jen Wang’s new graphic novel, The Prince and the Dressmaker, which is basically, as good as a Disney film, only a graphic novel.
The set up is about 3/4 standard-issue fairy tale readymade. Frances is a poor girl working in a tailor shop who wants to be a fashion designer, and Sebastian is the son of the Belgian royal family who are eager to have him married off to a princess. When Frances’ dress for an aristocratic daughter sparks controversy, Sebastian seeks her out–except what brings them together isn’t a cross-class romantic infatuation, but something 100% more interesting: He wants her to make dresses for him. And thus commences an absolutely amazing relationship between two artists and their audiences. Under Sebastian’s patronage, Frances gets to explore and create the fantastic dresses that hitherto had only existed in her head. With Frances’ intimate friendship, Sebastian gets to explore his own gender curiosity; having now a second life as “The Lady Crystallia.” What brings them together isn’t teenage infatuation, but a constructive enabling.
And then, everything goes wrong.
But not in the way you expect! And what happens after that is further unexpected and a delight. It’s not really a spoiler to say that Sebastian’s secret identity does get exposed; in a narrative which hinges upon a secret, that’s kind of inevitable. The moment when Sebastian is outed is a scene which is not nice but is nested in a book which is ultimately kind. Here, Wang effectively underplays the turning point. It’s not belabored to force sympathy because it doesn’t need to be.
Except, double reverse spoiler: that’s not even the turning point. It’s the turning point after the turning point, and it’s not even the last twist in the elegant spiral staircase of a third act.
This is a fantastic LGBTQ graphic novel for young readers. Sebastian and Frances’ identities are never 100% spelt out; not out of any kind of queer-baiting, but out of a kind of narrative inclusivity and openness. The characters are young, barely beginning to understand themselves, and in a world where the terminology we have today simply didn’t exist. Which is great because they get to speak as characters to a wide range of readers looking for representation. Sebastian can be read as a trans girl, as genderfluid, as queer, as exploring, even as a drag performer. There are multiple readings for Frances as well. As the story unfolds and the two become close, intimate feelings begin to emerge between them. Is Frances attracted to Sebastian when he’s presenting as female, to his identity as fashion diva Crystallia? Maybe, but could she also be attracted to Sebastian because of how his gender expression shapes his personal masculinity? Also maybe! And does Sebastian’s attraction to Frances come from him as masculinity attracted to feminity or femininity attracted to femininity? ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. We get a lot of possible readings from this book, and that’s okay.
The book itself is more than “okay,” though. Jen Wang has done a superb job with her third graphic novel. The locations in the book are fully realized, her settings feel real and integral to the scenes playing out within them. In a book about incredibly pretty dresses, you need to have incredibly pretty dresses, and Wang nails that with astounding ability. The dresses Frances crafts and Sebastian wears have a cinematic dynamic to them; fashion illustration in motion. You almost feel like you can see the fabric rustle as the Lady Crystallia twirls on the catwalk. The structure of the book and the pacing of the scenes is spot on, and she has set a new bar for how to convey montage in a static medium.
It’s a very good book, and a book that is much needed for young audiences. But it’s not the only one. Alongside Molly Ostertag’s Witch Boy and The Backstagers by James Tynion IV and Rian Sygh, we’re seeing a growing body of graphic novels exploring young male characters who aren’t conventionally masculine and who are exploring the possibilities of gender expression and identity. More of this please; because at this point we’ve got an overstock on young male protagonists being introduced as Chosen Ones, and a gross deficiency in them being told that they can be different from what is expected of them.
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang, First Second, $16.99
Greg Baldino was not kidding about turning this into Autostraddle. Next week expect a recap of Karolina and Nico on Runaways and the latest posts from Gaby Dunn’s instagram. He’s somewhere in the midwest, possibly waiting for raspberry champagne cupcakes to finish baking.
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