Graphic Medicine as Feminist Pedagogy

by: , January 27, 2020

Graphic medicine, as a genre and as a pedagogic practice, can render a powerful feminist strategy for supporting mental health. At the juncture of graphic narrative, the practice of clinical medicine, and the experience of illness, disability, or trauma, graphic medicine bears a particular emphasis on transversalising medical knowledges via the visual. The accompanying video essay takes up my own experiments with graphic medicine in the undergraduate classroom as a case study to consider the implications of graphic medicine for feminist pedagogy. Towards those ends, I consider the following as foundational to my practices of feminist pedagogy: citational practice, engagement, institutional analysis (in the Guattarian sense as a reflexive institutional remaking intended to dismantle structures of hierarchy and domination), reflective resilience, mentorship (student, peer, and reverse), and critical thinking/critical making. My argument is that graphic medicine holds great potential as a feminist pedagogic practice in light of shifting experiences and discourses of mental health and illness that transverse universities.

This year I embarked on a university program with a group of other faculty with a charge to look at ‘Pedagogic Strategies to Support Students with Mental Health Challenges’. At our inaugural meeting, representatives from our university counselling centre shared with us that students are not only experiencing more mental health struggles, but are also increasingly open to talking about the mental health struggles they experience. This may, of course, reflect shifting ground in the stigma attached to mental illness. At the same time, that students are increasingly open about mental illness, is a different matter from how students are talking about mental illness. How might we expand and diversify that how in both scholarly and therapeutic ways? In ways attentive to intersections of race, dis/ability, gender? What languages visual and otherwise might we develop that are adequate to current need?

As part of the program we each introduced a classroom intervention to address the topic. Mine was a reflection exercise built into a unit on graphic medicine I’ve been teaching for several semesters. Midway through the semester, students read excerpts from the Graphic Medicine Manifesto (Czerwiec et al: 2015) alongside one of three graphic memoirs related to mental health: Alison Bechdel’s Funhome (2006), Rachel Lindsay’s Rx (2018), or Ellen Forney’s Marbles (2012). The manifesto addresses not only the iconographies of mental illness and their usefulness both in health communication and therapeutics, but the importance of patient/client access to the means of representation to understand and render their experiences.

In Rachel Lindsay’s Rx (2018), one of three texts students read in class for the unit, students draw on prior coursework in visual formalism to identify the author’s use of line, repetition, and parallel framing to articulate her transitions between depressive and manic states. In Ellen Forney’s Marbles (2012), students analysed a different reliance on line via the manifest and the concealed in Forney’s rendering of her own experience with what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5) calls bipolar disorder.

This institutional research topic sits at an intersection of my investments in pedagogy, institutional service, and research. Working in visual cultural studies and feminist science and disability studies, and as a reader of Deleuze and Guattari, I have found that the frequent reduction of Deleuze and Guattari to just Deleuze performs an exclusion of Guattari (as activist and clinician as well as theorist) that mirrors the exclusion of mad/ness and mad persons in general from academic (as well as other) institutional spaces. To pressure the topic further, today’s students are tomorrow’s colleagues. Retaining faculty and staff with mental health challenges is important both to retaining students with mental health challenges and to diversifying and decolonizing the knowledges we create.

My pedagogic questions were thus: how do graphic medicine approaches to representations of mental illness affect student orientations towards mental health and experiences of mental illness via the languages available to them to witness such experiences? And: how might we work towards a more fully inclusive institution that recognises and supports mental health challenges among faculty and staff as well as students?

I turn to student work to explore how students took up graphic medicine themes of their own accord and in increasingly personal and articulate ways. Some students took up principles of graphic medicine to engage with other causes close to them. One student renders an ecofeminist reading of graphic medicine, casting our warming planet as a woman desperately trying to communicate with her doctor and facing resistance. One offers a playful yet critical graphic framing of Emily Martin’s canonical ‘The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles’ featuring an ovary tower in a fallopian fortress. Another student takes up graphic medicine in a final project she wrote about grief, telling the story of her grandmother’s death from the perspective of her mother. Such examples of student work gesture towards both the pedago-therapeutic potentials of image making and the challenges of student emotional distress in the classroom and more broadly.

In her entry to the Graphic Medicine Manifesto Susan Merrill Squier looks across disciplines from women’s studies to disability studies as ‘a mode of engaged scholarship and teaching’ (Czerwiec et al 2015: 49), situating graphic medicine as feminist activist and pedagogic practice. My findings illustrate this as well as what Donovan and Ustundag (2017) argue about the relevance of graphic novels for understanding and responding to trauma in a feminist social justice framework. Teaching graphic medicine, as does teaching any discipline oriented towards reflection and social justice, comes with productive challenges; it also offers possibilities for how I might practice feminist pedagogy and creates room for the necessary and bandwidth building work of play.


Bechdel, Alison (2006), Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, New York: Houghton Miflin.

Czerwiec, MK, Ian Williams, Susan Merrill Squier, Michael J. Green, Kimberly R. Myers & Scott T Smith (2015), Graphic Medicine Manifesto, University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Donovan, Courtney and Ebru Ustundag (2017), ‘Graphic Narratives, Trauma and Social Justice’, Studies in Social Justice, Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 221-237.

Forney, Ellen (2012), Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michealangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir, New York: Gotham Books.

Lindsay, Rachel (2018), RX, New York: Grand Central Publishing.

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