Until I got to graduate school, I had learned more about modern feminism from reading Doonesbury than from anywhere else.
This may be an exaggeration, but there’s a truth behind it: the social and political dimensions of post-World War Two feminism are a central thematic element in GBT’s work, and he has long made it a point to bring feminist messages to the funny pages by featuring strong, independent female characters and using their voices to advocate for policies that support women. Doonesbury’s cast is male-centred, built around what I think of as a “Core Four” of Mike, B.D., Mark Slackmeyer and Zonker. Notwithstanding that, characters like Joanie Caucus, Ginny Slade, Lacey Davenport, Ellie, Honey Huan, Kim Rosenthal-Doonesbury, and Alex Doonesbury reveal Trudeau’s dedication to making smart, independent, competent and complex women a key part of his work. Even Boopsie, written for decades as a stereotypical “bimbo,” was shown to be smarter, more resourceful and wiser than she had previously been portrayed when faced with the challenge of B.D. losing his leg in Iraq. Beyond populating his strip with a diverse cast of impressive women, Trudeau has consistently pointed out how the deck is stacked against women and put their struggles against sexism in the foreground. Doonesbury has been a vehicle for exploring issues facing women including sexism in the classroom (from kindergarten through Berkeley law school), access to abortion, pay inequality, sexualization, and widowhood.
But before I get too far into Doonesbury’s feminist dimensions, I have to deal with an uncomfortable truth: in the first year of Doonesbury’s run, Trudeau did not embrace the feminist outlook that defines much of the strip, but instead reproduced the misogyny that was common in many of the underground comix, and youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s more generally.
In my last post, I wrote that Doonesbury brought some of the style and energy of underground comix, themselves an expression of the youth cultural/political rebellion of the 1960s and 70s, to the mainstream American newspaper comics page. One element of that movement was a tendency to portray women not as fully-developed human beings, but as potential targets of sexual conquest. As Margaret Galvan writes, a “whole set of misogynist underground comics [featured] sexually attractive women drawn for the purposes of objectification in sexual situations.” Beyond that, comix artists often portrayed women as targets of violence. As comics creator and herstorian Trina Robbins notes, it was “almost de rigeur for male underground cartoonists to include violence against women in their comix, and to portray this violence as humour.” [1.]
Reading the first year of Doonesbury, we can see how Trudeau drew on this dimension of the underground comix to bring a harder edge to a tendency in newspaper comics, seen in characters such as Beetle Bailey’s Miss Buxley or B.C.’s Cute Chick and Fat Broad, to portray women as objects of desire and/or ridicule. Throughout Doonesbury’s first year, we encounter strips that are impossible to reconcile with the idea of Trudeau as a feminist voice in the funny pages; overwhelmingly, the women we meet are presented as potential sexual conquests or as objects of derision because they are too ugly or stupid to count as such.
A few examples: In a pair of strips from January 1971, a female college applicant embodies a middle-aged man’s sexual fantasy about liberated co-eds. (In the original Bull Tales version of the strip, things are even more risque; she walks into the office wearing nothing but the beret). These strips are part of a consistent thread in the early Doonesbury, as Trudeau repeatedly portrays relationships between men and women as a competition in which the goal is for the man to “score.” This is a situation that, for Mike, required professional help in the person of Sam Smooth, a precursor to the “pick-up artists” of our times. B.D., of course, as quarterback of the football team, needed no such help, having his own “screaming herd of females.”
The women Mike and B.D. pursued were quite often nameless and always devoid of any defining characteristic besides their sexuality. The only thing we know about one of Mike’s girlfriend’s is that she is a “nice-looking chick.” Once successful, GBT’s male characters show little interest in forming any lasting attachment to these women, preferring to “recycle” them when things get stale.
When women aren’t desirable, their role is to show us how that lack of desirability marks men as failures and losers. The third strip introduces a running gag: Mike is a laughing-stock because he dates unattractive women. One strip from December 1970 shows Mike being set up with a woman who is portrayed as more animal than human, maybe not the kind of violence that Robbins was referring to, but a dehumanizing and thus rhetorically violent move on Trudeau’s part.
Feminism came to Doonesbury in March 1971, not as the core value, but as an emasculating threat that needed to be ridiculed. Mike is on a date with a woman whose dialog is limited to shouting caricatures of feminist slogans. Note that she is drawn differently from the other women who had thus far appeared in the strip: she has the eyes that in Doonesbury’s visual language signify an alert and reasoning adult (Rounded eyes signify, depending on the context, being high, shock, childhood innocence, or cluelessness and stupidity; GBT usually drew women with these.). But her sharp eyes are not a sign that she has something to say that is worth listening to; rather, they warn us that she is a threat to masculinity – albeit one that is relatively easily disarmed with a little bullshit Mike probably picked up from Sam Smooth.
If that episode set readers up to expect the stereotype of the man-hating militant feminist to be a recurring theme, a strip from a week later featuring Mike and campus radical Mark Slackmeyer watching a televised interview with Gloria Steinem foreshadowed a shift in how Trudeau would deal with feminism. Steinem calls for an end to “sexual oppression” (a term I’m willing to bet had never appeared in the comics pages before then), and Mark notes that Steinem is “[telling] it like it ought to be.” Mike replies, with a shit-eating grin, that she has “nice legs.” To me, this feels different from other cracks Trudeau’s characters had made about women. Steinem’s words read as more reasoned and reasonable than the gross simplifications of the week before; I see the joke here not as lying in Mike’s objectification of a woman, but in Mark’s amazement at and disgust in this display of cluelessness on his friend’s part.
Mark’s disapproving glare hints at the emergence of a completely different handling of female characters that took root with the appearance of Nichole on 29 September 1971. Nichole’s position as a feminist icon in Doonesbury eventually became overshadowed by the centrality of Joanie Caucus’s story in the overall narrative arc, but she was the first character that confronted the sexist attitudes shared by many of the male cast members. If Mike’s date from the week before was crude caricature of feminism, Nichole is the real deal; she is smart (and knows it!), self-assured, and more than willing to call out male characters for not thinking of or treating women as their equals – or betters. From this point, GBT puts the joke on characters like Mike who are too slow to understand that their frat-boy attitudes are no longer relevant to Doonesbury’s emerging feminist ethos.
Most of the strips I’ve written about here were carryovers from Bull Tales, the Yale student newspaper strip that was an incubator for Doonesbury. As much as they reveal the energy and desire to break boundaries that defined alternative comics/comix of the day, they also reflect the hatred that was, and remains, a part of comics/comix culture (see the criticism being levelled at Howard Chaykin’s The Divided States of Hysteria for just a taste of the issue.) Moreover, seeing as most of the strips mentioned here originally ran in Trudeau’s Yale newspaper strip, we have to see these early strips as reflecting the deep-seated misogyny that remains a part of campus culture.
As we move through Doonesbury’s history, we’ll see that in the weeks, months and years following Nichole’s debut, Trudeau did important work in bringing feminist characters and ideas to newspaper comics; as I learn more about that history, I will also be learning and writing about female comics creators and how they worked to challenge the boy’s club mentality of the funny pages. That said, the first year of Trudeau’s run reminds us that the rebellious era that GBT documented was both progressive AND deeply rooted in, and reproduced, profound anti-woman sentiment. That’s something that historians of the era still need to fully come to terms with.
First appearances mentioned in this post: Nichole, 29 September 1971.
[1.] Margaret Galvan, “Feminism Underground: The Comics Rhetoric of Lee Marrs and Roberta Gregory,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 43, no. 3/4 (2015): 203–22.