It may be impossible for me to review Montreal-based artist, illustrator, graphic novelist, and animator Meags Fitzgerald’s graphic memoir Long Red Hair with any sense of how this book might affect people other than me, or people very similar to me. The fact is, while I was reading this lovely series of interlaced vignettes about Fitzgerald’s growing up / teenage years, all I keep thinking was: oh my god, it’s like Meags Fitzgerald is writing about my life! Partially, of course, it’s that our basic backgrounds are very similar: we’re both white, bisexual, middle-class Canadian women born in the mid-80s. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Let me tell you!
First of all, this memoir is full of the kind of weird stuff I was super into when I was a teenager and a young person, which was totally validating and nostalgia-inducing for me, and I’m sure is for others too. When I say weird, I mean mostly paranormal, like conducting séances and chanting Bloody Mary at sleepovers, wanting to be a witch / identifying very strongly with witches, watching scary movies, and being obsessed with make-believe and the powers of your imagination at an age when you’ve supposed to have grown out of that already.
Another reason why I connected so strongly with this memoir was that it felt like the movie and TV references were, like, made for me. There’s something so validating about reading a book where you not only get all the cultural references, but you’re intimately familiar with them. Most of all, I was thrilled at how many Buffy the Vampire Slayer references there were, but there was also The Princess Bride, Edward Scissorhands, Hocus Pocus, Labyrinth, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and BeetleJuice, all of these creepy and witchy movies and TV shows I had grown up watching and loved. Ugh, the nostalgia! Fitzgerald also mentions lots of books, not for nostalgic purposes so much as interesting recommendations for books that have influenced her: A History of Celibacy by Elizabeth Abbott, Memnoch The Devil: The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice, Sex at Dawn by Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan, and The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy.
Of course, what also resonated for me in Long Red Hair was the coming-of-age, coming out, and teenage rebellion that lots of teens, regardless of sexual orientation, deal with. The coming out, though, is bisexual, making it a much needed addition to the plethora of great coming out tales available today. It’s heartbreaking when Meags tells her friend: “I just want to be gay or straight. Being bisexual is way too confusing … If I’m bi that means I don’t have a soulmate and I’ll never be satisfied loving just one person for the rest of my life. It’d be like … a curse.” Below this teenage conversation is an astute interrogation of the representations of bi people (or lack thereof) on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Willow’s new [lesbian] identity was positively received by viewers but the new label ignored the two year relationship she’d had with Oz, a man (and werewolf). No one was calling Willow bisexual. There weren’t any bisexuals on TV.” The juxtaposition of Meags’s teenage confession that she doesn’t want to be bi and can’t imagine a life for herself as a bi woman with the total disregard for even the possibility of bi identity on one of her favourite shows is just brilliant, and tragic.
The coming out scene with Meags’s parents is all too familiar, both painful and hilarious. The family is sitting down to dinner. “Would you like some roast?” her mom politely asks her. 16-year-old Meags, currently sporting a fauxhawk with the front piece dyed bright red, responds: “You know that I’m a VEGETARIAN now.” A few moments later, getting up in a huff out of nowhere, Meags half yells, half sobs “I’m bisexual!” before storming off to her room, crying and slamming the door. One of her younger siblings innocently asks “What does bisexual mean?” Man, life—and figuring out who you are in this life—is so hard.
In a side note, while for the vast majority of this book I loved the representation of bisexuality and bi identity, there’s a very strange note about terminology at the end of the text that left a funny taste in my mouth. It says : “I’ve used the term bisexual in this book, as it was the only term like it that I knew as a teenager, and therefore, the one I most closely identified with. At the time of this publication, many people prefer other terms that have a more inclusive nature, such as pansexual. Personally, I simply identify as queer.” What the fuck? Obviously, it’s totally fine for everyone to use whatever words that they want to describe themselves. If Fitzgerald no longer uses the term bi for herself, that’s cool. But this pseudo apology for the very term bisexual reeks of biphobia, and I hate that people who identify under the bi/pan/non-monosexual umbrella would buy into (ha ha, no pun intended) the biphobic idea that the term bisexual is somehow not inclusive or more oppressive than others.
Of course bisexual is an imperfect word, like all language. Let’s not forget, for example, “lesbian” technically means resident of the Greek island Lesbos. But many bisexuals, like me, simply define the term as attracted to more than one gender. See Robyn Och’s commonly cited, very inclusive definition: “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.” If you’re interested in learning more about this problem, check out this great article “Biphobia: Not in My Name” or, if you want to read a lot more, check out Shiri Eisner’s book Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution. Honestly, that little note is an unfortunate spot on what I thought was otherwise an amazing interrogation of bisexual identity.
Anyway, enough ranting about biphobia for now. In some of the later scenes, where Fitzgerald is in her early twenties, the memoir meditates on relationships: the possibilities and potential of choosing celibacy, how to be in relationships, trying to figure out what relationship models might work for you, and how to be yourself when you’re dating someone. There are some really fascinating conversations in the last part of the memoir, ones that are continuing the earlier explorations of identity. You can tell Meags has grown from the earlier episodes, but there’s still that yearning for figuring out who you are and who you want to be that, it turns out, doesn’t end with adolescence.
Last but not least, one other thing I loved about this memoir was the art. There’s a gorgeous sepia-induced colour palette, with brown-gray-black lines accompanied with muted oranges and greens. It is so beautiful! The drawings feel like old photographs, which fit perfectly with the nostalgic and contemplative tone of Long Red Hair. If you don’t feel nostalgic, introspective, and /or like dying your hair red after reading this astonishing graphic memoir, I’ll eat my (witch’s) hat.