The symbol of the lion is introduced early on in the story when Evelyn’s art teacher, Ms. Shipley, gives the class a presentation on prehistoric cave paintings. Evelyn is captivated by the images, especially those of the lions leaping across the ceiling of the cave. Even more so, Evelyn is empowered by the idea that the cave painters were not painting pictures of past hunts, but using their artistic abilities to influence the success of future ones. “The hunters hunted, but these cave artists had another job,” Ms. Shipley explains. “They could see the future and they could make it happen.”
Symbols are such powerful storytelling devices because they utilize a common language of imagery, emotion, and understanding that can often communicate volumes with only a single word or phrase. Just as effectively, symbols can convey negative biases and reinforce gender stereotypes without a reader always consciously aware of the messages being sent.
Traditionally, lions are symbols of power and authority because of their dominance in the animal kingdom; however, because it is the male lion’s role to protect the pride while the females hunt, the lion is often viewed as a symbol of masculinity. As a result, such lion-like qualities as strength and courage are reinforced as exclusively male attributes. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Evelyn is attracted to the symbol of the lion. She is drawn to these lion-like qualities in others and she aspires to them herself. This becomes evident in her art, in her female role models, and in her choice of friends.
It is not surprising then, that when the students are asked to paint self-portraits using the theme of masks, Evelyn chooses the image of a little girl wearing a plastic lion’s head, “standing alone in a field of grass, barefoot and wearing a sun dress. Her arms are raised in the air and her little fists are curled like cat paws.” The image celebrates her femininity, while at the same time revealing her inner strength and courage. She is delicate and powerful, gentle and ferocious. As conflicts between Evelyn and her bullies escalate, she struggles with these two sides of herself. And as Evelyn attempts to find her balance, the painting will go on to include the disemboweled corpse of a boy wearing a zebra mask, and eventually an angry mob of villagers with torches and pitchforks.
Hopefully, the lion symbolism in THE REVENGE ARTIST manages to undermine some of those gender stereotypes about what girls can and can’t be and maybe even openly challenge them a bit. It is Evelyn’s fiercely protective friend Karen that is probably the most outwardly lion-like character in the story. When the girls decide to venture out from their usual lunch spot behind the art rooms and brave the main food court, Karen quickly puts one particular sexual harasser in his place by verbally emasculating him with a very explicit insult traditionally—and anatomically—reserved for the boys. In the jungle that is sometimes high school, Karen definitely shows herself to be one of the dominant animals.
Originally Published: Literature Young Adult Fiction