Sara Van Meerbergen, 12 mars 2020, 13:00 - 14:30 via Zoom [på svenska]

In this project, I aim to analyze how hair is used as a semiotic resource to express meanings of otherness, silence and social exclusion, but also motherhood and empowerment, in the picture book “Mère Méduse” (2014) by Belgian picture book artist Kitty Crowther.

   When Crowther was awarded the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2010, she was praised for her ability to portray “people in difficulty” and for “showing ways in which weakness can be turned into strength” (ALMA-Jury, 2010). Crowther herself has described her character mother Medusa as “an anarchistic, wild, a bit dangerous but very loving mother […] an alcoholic, a thief, even a prostitute” (Crowther 2015).

   Already on the cover but also throughout the book, Medusas hair receives great salience within the multimodal composition because of its size, the bright and golden color and because it often covers most of Medusas face and body parts.

   To analyze the meaning potential of hair in this picture book, a social semiotic approach is used. Here signs are seen as (socially) motivated and communication is believed to build upon the re-using of culturally available signs in new contexts to create new meanings (Van Leeuwen 2005; Kress 2010). In this sense all communication and production of meaning can be seen as a ‘remediation of semiotic material’ (Banda, Jimaima, and Mokwena 2018).

   In my analysis, I focus on the multimodal depiction of the character of Medusa and I explore the different potential meanings connected to her hair using a systemic functional linguistic framework (Kress and Van Leeuwen 2006; Halliday and Matthiessen 2004).

   On an ideational level I explore the use of Medusas hair as a symbolic attribute representing meanings of motherhood and empowerment. By using the concept of ‘provenance’ (cf. Kress and Van Leeuwen 2001), I aim to analyze culturally and historically initiated potential meanings connected to Medusas depiction. These meanings are put in connection to discourses about ‘female duality’ and ‘the power of women’s hair’ (cf. Gitter 1984) represented in folk tales, mythology, art from the Victorian age, but also in other tales for children and within a broader societal context.

   Furthermore, I analyze Medusas hair as a resource for interpersonal meanings of social distance, more specifically social involvement versus social exclusion. This is related to an analysis of hair as a resource for the (non-)establishment of physical contact and proximity between the depicted characters in the picture book story (see also Painter, Martin, and Unsworth 2013). Here hair is used as a semiotic resource for expressing potential meanings of otherness, silence and social exclusion.



Banda, Felix, Hambaba Jimaima, and Lorato Mokwena. 2018. ‘5. Semiotic Remediation of Chinese Signage in the Linguistic Landscapes of Two Rural Areas of Zambia’. In Making Signs, Translanguaging Ethnographies, edited by Ari Sherris and Elisabetta Adami, 74–90. Bristol, Blue Ridge Summit: Multilingual Matters.

Crowther, Kitty. 2015. What makes a mother? Kitty Crowther about her book Mother Medusa.

Gitter, Elisabeth G. 1984. ‘The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination’. PMLA 99 (5): 936–54.

Halliday, M. A. K., and Christian M. I. M. Matthiessen. 2004. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. 3rd ed. London: New York: Arnold; Distributed in the United States of America by Oxford University Press.

Kress, Gunther R. 2010. Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication. London; New York: Routledge.

Kress, Gunther R., and Theo Van Leeuwen. 2001. Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London: Arnold.

———. 2006. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. London: Routledge.

Painter, Clare, J. R. Martin, and Len Unsworth. 2013. Reading Visual Narratives: Image Analysis of Children’s Picture Books. Sheffield: Equinox.

Van Leeuwen, Theo. 2005. Introducing Social Semiotics. London: Routledge.