This Week in Doonesbury: “What’s Gender-Fluid?”

(Note: This was actually last week in Doonesbury, but a nasty bike crash has slowed me down a bit.)

This year, I reviewed two comics that told women’s stories as they experienced gender transition: Julia Kaye’s Super Late Bloomer, and Sabrina Symington’s First Year Out. Both books provide intimate and nuanced accounts of the triumphs and challenges involved in living a life that subverts the gender dichotomy. Both books also speak to the the revolutionary nature of the fight for trans acceptance. Trans people are asking us – and, I pray, will eventually force us – to undo something that lies at the heart of much of human oppression, the arbitrary categorization of human beings into a hierarchy based on their reproductive organs. If we can undo that construct and thereby nullify the power it produces, the whole rotten system very well might fall apart.

This week’s Doonesbury addressed the question of people who don’t comfortably fit into a world that treats gender as an immutable biological category. The scene is the breakfast table: B.D., Boopsie, and Samantha are discussing Samantha’s future career. Sam is contemplating enlisting in the Marines, much to the shock of her parents, who don’t want to see their daughter suffer a fate similar to that of her father: as Boopsie puts it, this family has sacrificed enough for their country.

More to the point, Boopsie notes, Sam can’t enlist: she is gender-fluid. This is relevant because the Trump administration wants to prevent trans people from serving their country, a policy that speaks to the cruelty of the current president when it comes to the lives of marginalized people, as well as the way in which he has embraced the religious right’s social agenda as a means to secure and maintain power. Sam, disappointed, sees her mother’s logic and puts aside her thoughts of enlisting. Once she’s out of earshot, B.D. asks a question that I imagine many comics readers his age asked: “What’s gender-fluid?”

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Sam’s disappointment; B.D.’s confusion; Boopsie’s quick thinking. Doonesbury, 25 November 2018.

While Boopsie claims – or perhaps feigns – ignorance (more on this later), Trudeau actually answered B.D.’s question two years ago, when Sam met somebody who opened her mind to the possibilities for personal identity that exist outside the male/female dichotomy.

On 11 December, 2016, Sam had lunch with Jan, a gender-nonconforming fellow student at Walden College. Sam asks what Jan’s pronouns are. Jan, we learn, is “non-binary, meaning outside of cisnormativity,” and therefore has no preference regarding pronouns. Jan believes it’s “unfair to ask friends to customize their grammar” for someone who “can’t commit to an identity.”

Sam is “a bit confused” by Jan’s revelation, and wonders if Jan can help her by choosing a point on a graph: “if the x-axis is male, and the y-axis is female,” Sam asks, where would Jan be? Sam’s attempt to get Jan to commit to a defined category is fruitless: Jan is “gender-fluid,” and “on a journey,” and therefore doesn’t fit in any one place on the graph.

While Sam’s intellectual understanding of Jan’s gender identity may still be a little fuzzy, her heart is more certain: in the final panel, she makes it clear that she’s attracted to Jan no matter where Jan’s journey may end. Jan, meanwhile, opens up a space in which Sam may start to interrogate some of her assumptions about her own identity, a process that we see is still unfolding in this week’s strip.

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Jan IS cute. Doonesbury, 11 December 2016.

The theme of radical acceptance is central to both Kaye and Symington’s books. Both are, at heart, stories about people learning to accept themselves as they are as the the people around them learn, or fail to learn, to see them for who they really are, and not for what the bodies they were born into tell us they are “supposed” to be. Likewise, while Sam may be somewhat confused by Jan’s lack of a defined gendered identity, she doesn’t let her confusion stand in the way of accepting Jan as a human being and a potential romantic partner.

Last week’s Doonesbury strip is about how ignorance stands in the way of acceptance. The strip is a commentary on the Trump regime’s decision to disallow gender-nonconforming people from serving their country: B.D. and Boopsie may well be glad that the policy will keep Sam out of harm’s way, but, Sam’s disappointment at being denied an opportunity because of who she is is palpable.

There is another way in which the strip is about ignorance standing in the way of acceptance. Boopsie’s final comment in the strip – “That was close” – can be read in two ways. I first read it as her simply expressing relief at finding a way to talk Sam out of her plan to enlist. But as @mister_borogove, one of my Twitter followers, suggested, it’s just as likely that Boopsie is relieved that she was able to dodge B.D.’s question about what it means that Sam is “gender-fluid.” B.D.’s conservative worldview has softened dramatically since he was wounded, but it’s not unlikely that accepting his daughter as anything other than a cis-normative woman may be too much of a leap for him to make. Perhaps Boopsie feels she has to protect Sam from the potential rejection Sam would experience should her father understand what she’s saying about herself.

These strips are far from the first time that gender-nonconformity has appeared in the mainstream newspaper comics pages. Famously, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat’s “gender … was never stable.” And, as Robert Boyd points out, in the 1930s, Popeye strips often featured the titular character appearing in drag, and, at one point, saying “I yam amphibious. I wears both women’s an man’s clothes.” (thanks to Mark Pitcavage for directing me to that analysis of Popeye.) *

While GBT was not the first cartoonist to address the blurring of gendered categories in the funny pages, these strips about Jan and Sam represent another example of his engagement with shifts in how our culture has understood gender and relationships between the genders. Apart from his overarching commitment to feminist ideals, (notwithstanding some missteps) Trudeau has addressed, and faced censure and censorship for addressing, issues such as pre-marital sex, contraception and safe sex, homosexuality, asexuality, and the politics and human costs of HIV-AIDS, all moments that broke ground in the development of the comics page as a site for social commentary. After nearly fifty years of writing for the funny pages, Trudeau is still learning, and still unafraid to use his characters to push his readers to new understandings.

*The world of contemporary independent comics and webcomics features the work of many trans and gender-nonconforming artists addressing the issues they face, and I will in the future write more about them. I also welcome any comments about these questions appearing in the mainstream comics pages over the decades.