Melissa Seymour: Female Force

October 22, 2013 / By: UST Newsroom (Madeline Szempruch)
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Melissa Seymour (photo by Mike Ekern '02)

Melissa Seymour is arguably one of author J.K. Rowling’s biggest fans. Some of her fondest childhood memories include spending time with her friends simply sitting in the same room and reading Harry Potter. She has even met Rowling, and refers to the experience as the best moment of her life.

“Yeah, I am so nerdy,” Seymour laughed. “I even have a Harry Potter tattoo on my foot.” The tattoo reads “Always” in script with a lightning bolt next to it.

An English and justice and peace studies double major, Seymour devotes much of her time to reading, writing and championing the empowerment of women. The senior recently was recognized by Huffington Post for writing a biographical comic on Gloria Steinem for the Female Force series. She also has contributed a comic on Melinda Gates.

The series features courageous and influential women who have made a positive impact on their world. Talk to Seymour for two minutes and you’ll discover that she’s itching to have the same impact.

Seymour’s comic writing began in 2012, but her inspiration can be traced to a 10th-grade trip she took to China. Hearing the stories of the Chinese women was life changing. It also gave Seymour her first look at how culture intersects with the oppression of women and girls, which led her to take a closer look at the topic.

“After exploring cultural differences and learning about the tragic stories of loss and female infanticide, I became very interested in human rights.” Those conversations fed into many projects in justice and peace studies once she reached college.

“I started to research why boys are more valued than girls,” she explained. Because of the one-child policy in China, boys are favored because they are viewed as more capable of providing for the family, and they can pass on the family name. The idea of such discrimination against women was difficult for her, Seymour said. And what she learned has had a lasting impact on many of the justice and peace studies projects she has worked on in college.

“I don’t know why this is such a problem,” Seymour said of society’s tendency to neglect women. “We need to value women. We need to value girls. Girls should have an education and they should not have to fight for it. A woman can change an entire community.”

Seymour stumbled across Bluewater Productions, the publisher of Female Force, while doing class research on strong female characters in fiction and nonfiction. Fortunately, the company had a position open. It was an opportunity Seymour could not ignore.

According to Bluewater Productions, the purpose of the Female Force series is to “deliver an informed and illustrated look into the lives” of strong, influential women. The series also serves as a platform for awareness about issues concerning women, like breast cancer and mental illness.

The work that goes into writing a comic is surprisingly time-consuming, Seymour said, noting that the hardest part is the research. “You want to be clear and simple in each panel,” she explained. The comic format especially appeals to young readers. “If I was a kid, or even as an adult, this is such a fun way to read it,” Seymour said, comparing reading a biography online or in a book to reading in a comic format. Given her love of children’s literature, that is paramount.

Heather Bouwman, an associate professor in the English Department who has worked closely with Seymour through the Young Scholars program, believes that comics hold a greater appeal for younger generations that have grown up “digitally oriented.” Kids can “read and interpret images more intuitively than older people can,” Bouwman said, adding “When kids have to do informational research, it’s definitely a more fun way to do that.”

So, what better way to empower women than to feature them in a comic book?

“Women aren’t really taken seriously in the media today, which makes me sad,” Seymour said. “It’s so great writing for a company that doesn’t just shine a light on them, it holds them up.”

Seymour is working on new comics that will feature comedian Chelsea Handler, singer-songwriter Barbara Streisand and author Helen Gurley Brown.

Empowered with personal details of so many powerful women, one might imagine that choosing a single role model might be difficult. But when prompted, Seymour responds without hesitation. “I would have to say J.K. Rowling – 100 percent.”

“I love her strong female characters,” Seymour continued, citing the Hermione and Professor McGonagall characters. Yet her attachment to the Harry Potter series goes far beyond fond childhood memories. They represent an entry into literature, something Seymour believes is important for all children. In the future she hopes to write her own children’s literature, especially books for “middle-grade” readers, ages 8 to 12.

“It’s amazing because those books hook readers at such a young age who might not have been readers otherwise,” she said.

Seymour’s work with Female Force does the same. It gives children countless female role models and no shortage of inspiration to do great things with their lives; further, says Seymour, valuing women gives young girls a chance to realize their potential. It’s up to us to show them how much they are capable of, she said.

Seymour has already begun to promote feminism, encourage young women, and steep herself in the world of children’s literature as a college student. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and attends writing conferences in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. Her work with Female Force has caught the attention of national news media. She recently was contacted by actress Amy Poehler’s feminist organization Smart Girls at the Party about doing an interview. Yet amidst it all, Seymour remains focused on communicating a single idea.

Her overall message to young women everywhere? “You’re important, you have value, you are enough, and you can change the world despite what society is telling you.”