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.

Doonesbury Goes to War, Part IV: Phred, B.D. and the Heartless Air Pirates.

Welcome back.

Last time out, I began writing about how Garry Trudeau addressed the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam war, looking at the experience of Kim and other refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. The second part of that series is going to look at the ways in which two soldiers, Phred and B.D., adjusted to post-war world; the third is going to look at American foreign and military policy in the immediate post-Vietnam era.

But as I started to write that second post, sketching out some ideas about Phred’s post-war career as a re-education officer in a united, communist Vietnam, I realized that there were important parts of his story that I hadn’t looked at, and that I needed to finish telling the story of his war, and the story of the war more generally, before moving on.

Upon assuming office in 1969, Richard Nixon began implementing a policy known as “Vietnamization,” which involved cutting the number of American soldiers in Vietnam while building up South Vietnam’s ability to attain its military objectives. By 1972 – the year when B.D. served – the United States had withdrawn some 400,000 troops from Vietnam. As America pulled back from its commitment to fighting in Vietnam, Garry Trudeau shifted much of his attention away from the experiences of American soldiers to provide a running commentary on the war through the eyes of those who suffered the most during the conflict: the people of south-east Asia. His principal Vietnamese character, Phred the Viet Cong terrorist, was transformed from a sidekick to a spokesperson for a region that, even as the American presence was starting to shrink, was still suffering under massive aerial bombardment (in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) in order to advance American foreign policy objectives.

GBT’s strips about the bombings marked a second major shift in how he covered the war in southeast Asia. When he started writing about the war, Trudeau used dark satire to underline the brutal nature of American militarism. When B.D. arrived in Vietnam, dark satire gave way to goofy humour that took a softer approach dealing with violence. The arrival of Phred showed readers that, despite the fundamentally dehumanizing nature of much of American discourse about the Vietnamese people (…a set of ideas that made war crimes such as the My Lai massacre possible) they were actually human beings with the full range of human emotions. And mothers.

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Phred’s reality. Doonesbury, 29 October 1972

Starting in October 1972, GBT stopped pulling his punches about the suffering caused by American aggression in south-east Asia. The Sunday, 29 October strip finds Phred in the jungle, writing to B.D. Using language that rarely appeared in the funny pages, Phred describes the “horror and agony of war”: “bombs rain daily” and his parents have again become refugees because his “hamlet was levelled.” While the strip ends on an uplifting note – Phred’s love of rock and roll helps “chase them naughty blues away” – it is fundamentally disturbing when compared to GBT’s previous Vietnam material. Death is no longer an abstraction: a familiar character is confronting it in a way that is much more real than we had previously seen. No softening, and no satirical exaggeration: people who, like us, love Elvis Presley records, are dying, and their homes are being destroyed.

Trudeau sometimes couched his increasingly pointed critiques of American actions n humour that played on the personalities of his characters. After Phred writes that letter to B.D., Boopsie interrupts B.D.’s huddle with the news that casualties from a recent American rocket attack on North Vietnam included cows, sheep, chickens and, worst of all, baby ducks. The punch-line is in Boopsie and Zonker’s reactions; two usually apolitical characters are shocked into understanding how horrible the war is because of some dead birds. A few days after this interlude, however, GBT gets real again. Zonker wants to talk with B.D. about how America has been bombing “schools and hospitals and defenceless hamlets.” Again, Trudeau is determined to use his voice to expose, in frank, clear, unambiguous language that was unique among syndicated comic strips, the horrors that were being done in the name of the American people.

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Baby ducks. Doonesbury, 30 October 1972

Shortly after the “baby ducks” strip, B.D. headed back to Vietnam – this time, not as a soldier, but as a tourist. His return visit allowed Trudeau to confront his readers with the helpless rage that the Vietnamese people must have felt as the American war dragged on with no end in sight. Foreshadowing Donald Trump’s vision of another communist Asian nation becoming a hot tourist destination, Phred invited B.D. to come see Vietnam before it was “spoiled” by the “tourists, resorts and hotels” that would come with the “impending threat of peace.” In fact, this was as much a planned exercise in consciousness-raising as it was a reunion of two war buddies.

Admittedly, the story of B.D.’s Vietnamese vacation was marked by the the goofy buddy humour that dominated his stint as a GI, much of which deliberately minimized the horror of the war: Phred admits to blowing up a man’s bicycle because he supported the Thieu regime, and he rejoices at finding his old desk in the bombed-out wreckage of his former school. We also get the incongruous images of B.D. and Phred getting drunk and singing Christmas carols and enjoying a gourmet meal in the middle of a war zone.

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Phred’s having a bad day. Doonesbury, 21 December 1972

But these moments of lightness stand in sharp contrast to what we learn about the horrors of the war as it was experienced by Phred and his people. Phred takes B.D. to visit his mother at a refugee camp; there is “destitution as far as the eye can see.” A few days later, B.D. and Phred get caught in an artillery attack. When B.D. suggests they help a wounded man, Phred lashes out, screaming that the man is “just ONE of the millions of civilians who have been wounded or killed” since the war began, a statistic that’s repeated in a strip that ran a week later. Trudeau wanted his readers to understand just how tragic the war was for the Vietnamese people. He also wanted them to understand something about the logic that drove their suffering.

As B.D.’s trip was winding down, Trudeau introduced two characters who, although they never directly interacted with Phred, represented the power that was systematically destroying his people’s lives and livelihoods. After an American airstrike forces B.D. and Phred to take shelter, Phred impotently screams his rage at the “heartless air pirates” who dropped the bombs: “I hope you can live with all the destruction and carnage you’ve brought to my little country!!” Meanwhile, the Heartless Air Pirates, several thousand feet above, are insulated from, and seemingly oblivious to, what is happening below them.

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Introducing the Heartless Air Pirates, Doonesbury, 29 December 1972

The appearance of the Heartless Air Pirates made GBT’s writing about Vietnam even more surrealist. War is a fundamentally insane endeavour, and the only way for the people tasked with executing it is to embrace the cognitive dissonance that defines existence in a war zone. Trudeau had already hinted at the insanity of the logic of American bombing in two throwaway panels earlier in 1972. Zonker reads that the Pentagon planned to drop 50,000,000 tons of bombs on Vietnam. The only rationale provided for this radical act of violence came from an official who justified it by reminding Americans that the lives of Vietnamese people were of exactly zero consequence: “Well, why not? You know? I mean, what the heck.” The Heartless Air Pirates allowed Trudeau articulate the gap between that bizarre logic and the ability of the people who had to operate within it to maintain their sanity. For America, the Vietnamese people were human beings of a lesser order, and their lives were secondary to strategic and geopolitical priorities: “In order to save the village, we had to destroy it.” The only way for the perpetrators to live within that logic is to do whatever they can to insulate themselves from it; but that’s only a stopgap measure. The inherent contradictions ultimately reinforce the systemic insanity. This was a key theme in 1960s and 1970s anti-war culture, as seen in popular novels and films like Catch-22 and M*A*S*H. Like Milo Minderbinder and Hawkeye Pierce, the Heartless Air Pirates know they are living with insanity, but as they attempt to make peace with that insanity, its depths are made all the more apparent because the contradiction is just too big.

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He was just askin’…Doonesbury, 30 December 1972

High above the carnage they cause, the Heartless Air Pirates have a perspective on the war that in no way reflects the reality below. One of them is touched by a recent gift he received: a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Two ideas about flight that were central to the culture of the era – the well-meaning, if somewhat empty-headed hippie idealism of Richard Bach’s poetic novel and a B-52 dropping tons of ordinance on peaceful villagers – are forced into the same frame, revealing the insanity of the times in sharp contrast. In their last appearance, the Heartless Air Pirates take “one last spin over the Delta,” because “it’s a beautiful day” to look at “some kinda country.” How that country looks, of course, depends on where you look at it from. The Heartless Air Pirates watch in awe as the bombs they drop “[catch] the sunlight as they [disappear] into the clouds,” leading something akin to a Fourth of July celebration; however, as one of them notes, things probably “looked different from the other end.” Phred’s impotent rage at the Heartless Air Pirates gives us a hint at how things looked from the other end. I have yet to find another widely-syndicated newspaper comic strip that did so much to force American readers to reckon with the human costs of what their government was doing in their name.

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Probably it did. Doonesbury, 4 February 1973

B.D., however, was not ready to reckon with what his country had done to the Vietnamese people; in the months following his Vietnamese vacation, he continued to wholeheartedly support the American war. The beginning of his reckoning with Vietnam would start when the last helicopters brought the last Americans off of the roof of the American embassy in Saigon, and the process would take decades; it’s still unfolding. Stay tuned.

“Just Some Silly Dame”: Boopsie Takes a Stand.

In a previous post, I discussed how the 1971 arrival of Nicole as a semi-regular cast member signaled an important shift in Garry Trudeau’s approach to writing about women. Before Nicole joined the cast, women in Doonesbury were either sexpots who existed solely to fulfill adolescent sexual fantasies or pathetic figures to be ridiculed because they were too unattractive to be desired. Nicole’s presence as an independent, thinking woman who was sharply critical of the cluelessness expressed by Mike and the other male denizens of Walden campus paved the way for Doonesbury to become an explicitly feminist strip.

That said, one of GBT’s most prominent female characters (possibly the woman he has drawn the most, but I haven’t counted) troubles the strip’s long-standing reputation as a feminist bastion on the funny pages. I’m talking of course, about Boopsie. Yet while Boopsie was portrayed for decades as an empty-headed sexpot, she too eventually became the kind of strong, self-reliant, independent woman that typifies Doonesbury’s female cast.

Sometime in the 1990s I stopped keeping up with Doonesbury compilations; I still read the strip every day without fail, but I no longer went through the archives on a regular basis. As a result, I’ve discovered a number of mis-rememberings on my part as I reread strips for the first time in decades. One such “false memory” was my belief that Boopsie’s transformation from being the butt of “dumb blonde” jokes to a strong, independent female character happened rather abruptly after B.D. lost his leg in Iraq in April 2004. I was wrong. Several months prior to that moment, Boopsie revealed that she had already become much more than the naive eye-candy that Trudeau had portrayed her as throughout much of the strip’s history. The event that fully marked this transition was Trudeau’s unflinching look at rape culture in college athletics.

Barbara Ann Boopstien (Originally Boopsy for a few strips until the more familiar spelling settled in) joined the cast on 15 September 1971 as B.D.’s girlfriend. Boopsie was a perfect match for B.D. He was the vain dumb jock, the star of the football team, and the kind of guy who only saw women as potential conquests. Boopsie was a cheerleader, an empty-headed sexpot, a stereotypical “dumb blonde” who was, like many of the woman in Doonesbury’s pre-Nicole/pre-Joanie days, little more than an eager object of male desire. 16SEP71

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Boopsie was in many ways a holdout from GBT’s frat-boy cheap sex humour days. Doonesbury, 16 September 1971 and 1 October 1971.

After Trudeau’s 1980s sabbatical, B.D. took an even larger role in Boopsie’s life: he became her professional manager as well as her life partner. In his absence, however, she took her first steps away from her “dumb blonde” persona. When B.D. was reactivated to fight in the 1990-91 Gulf War, Boopsie, in the absence of her husband and manager, began to exercise agency in a way she never had before, over her career and over the sexiness that had long been her defining characteristic. Boopsie’s discovery that B.D. had cheated on her while on R&R cemented her commitment to no longer allow men to treat her as a doormat; she laid down the law with her husband and made it clear that she would no longer allow herself to be disrespected.

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This was a big change. Doonesbury, 17 April 1991.

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No longer B.D.’s doormat. Doonesbury, 17 August 1991.

On 11 November 2002 – Veterans’ Day – B.D. learned that he was again being reactivated, this time for the impending invasion of Iraq. In order to ensure that B.D. not lose his job as head coach of Walden College’s football team in his absence, Boopsie proposed that she take the job on an interim basis. Boopsie’s clever reasoning relied on her reputation as an unintelligent woman: because she was a “just some silly dame,” she figured, the team was bound to keep losing; while an interim coach who led the team to victory would likely be offered the job on a permanent basis, Boopsie’s presumed failure would keep B.D.’s position intact.

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Smart. Doonesbury, 13 November 2002.

Before taking up the coaching mantle, Boopsie already had a history with the team; many of the players had followed her acting career and actively lusted after her.  Boopsie’s first practice as coach the team went just like we might expect – she showed up wearing a sports bra, much to the players’ approval. However, GBT opted not to take the obvious route and run arcs that focused on the team being distracted by Boopsie’s sexiness; rather, we only catch up with the team at the end of their championship season, one complete with a bowl invite.

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Her reputation preceded her. Doonesbury, 29 March 1999.

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Oh, God, indeed. Doonesbury, 1 March 2004.

After the following season, with B.D. fighting in Iraq, the Coach Boopsie storyline took a dark turn as Trudeau addressed an issue that had been hiding in plain sight for years as we had followed B.D.’s attempts to recruit players for Walden: sexual assault in college athletics. On 1 March 2004, an anonymous woman – we see her only in silhouette – placed a letter in Boopsie’s mailbox; the letter, which we never get to read, accused members of the football team of sexual assault. We later learn that the woman who wrote the letter was “not the first woman to come forward,” and that the assaults took place at “recruiting parties.” B.D.’s professed ignorance of what took place at the parties angers Boopsie, but B.D.’s refusal to believe her, and by extension the women who were raped, is not the only resistance that Boopsie faces as she fights for the team’s victims. Against B.D.’s wishes, Boopsie suspends Walden’s football program, a move that causes a campus riot and leads to President King firing her.

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B.D. knew. Doonesbury, 3 March 2004.

Looking back, one wonders if, in the years leading up to the crisis, GBT hadn’t been creating background for the story behind Boopsie’s brave decision. B.D. certainly helped create the conditions that led to Walden football’s rape crisis. He told one recruit that should he be “accuse[d] of date rape,” Walden would “set [him] up with a top legal team” and a “publicist to get out [his] side of the story.” B.D. also fostered a culture of inappropriate sexual behaviour in the locker room: when he announced to his players that Boopsie would be taking over, the squad’s first concern is whether or not team’s regular pornography viewing session would continue under her leadership.

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Walden’s got your back, Son. Doonesbury, 25 March 1998.

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That’s probably a bad idea. Doonesbury 15 November 2002.

Trudeau wrote the arc in response to an unfolding sexual assault crisis at the University of Colorado,  where, among other abuses, “sex parties” were part of the football team’s recruiting strategy. While UC ended up paying a large settlement to some of the university’s victims, the case did little to reduce sexual assault in the world of college sports. In recent years, we’ve learned that college athletic programs are still experiencing, facilitating, perpetuating, and covering up sexual assault in epidemic proportions. The examples are far too numerous to mention. As I write this, Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) stands accused of turning a blind eye to a years-long pattern of sexual abuse of Ohio State wrestlers . Two Midwestern universities that I have a personal connection with had appalling controversies when I was on campus. While I was doing my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, the college was under investigation for its handling of the sexual misconduct of a football player. While I attended Michigan, my partner attended Michigan State. We lived in East Lansing and Lansing for four years; I wrote the bulk of my dissertation at a carrel in the MSU library, and I made many close friends in the MSU community. I don’t need to remind you of the horror show that was unfolding on campus the whole time.

On the funny pages, as in real life, little good came out of Walden’s crisis. A press conference held by members of the football team revealed how sexual assault had been normalized on campus, complete with standard blanket denials, the singling out of “a few bad apples,” and a persistent inability on the part of men to understand the meaning of a simple two-letter word: no.  Meanwhile, President King empaneled a task force whose findings were predetermined, and the campus community branded Boopsie a “head case” for thinking that a zero-tolerance policy on sexual misconduct was a reasonable solution. B.D. was never held accountable for his role in the crisis: the man who had, at best, turned a blind eye to endemic rape in his program and refused to stand by his wife when the shit hit the fan remained in charge of the program.

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My dog understands what “NO” means. Just sayin’. Doonesbury, 12 March 2004.

Trudeau’s decision to not address this part of B.D.’s past when he returned to Walden’s sidelines could well be excused as another continuity slip in the strip’s long history – there have been a few, and I’ll write about them at some juncture. In the years following Walden football’s rape crisis, GBT has continued to address the topic of rape culture, with examples ranging from the characterization of noted sex criminal Arnold Schwarzenegger as “Herr Gropenfuhrer,” a giant hand that wallows in inappropriate comments about women to, of course, his chronicling of Melissa Wheeler’s recovery from being raped by her commanding officer in Afghanistan. Recently, Boopsie expressed her concerns about her daughter Sam’s potential interactions with young men who lack “impulse control.”

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The “new” Boopsie is pretty awesome. Doonesbury, 17 May 2004 and 15 July 2018.

When B.D. lost his leg in Iraq and then developed a severe case of PTSD, Boopsie was saddled with responsibilities that no person can ever prepare for, and, as we will see in future installments, she revealed levels of strength and wisdom that would have been inconceivable for earlier iterations of her character. No longer B.D.’s arm candy, she truly became his right hand, an equal partner in a family’s struggle to endure tragedy. That said, before those tragedies struck, her response to the tragedies experienced by the unnamed victims of Walden’s football team showed us that she was already another one of the strong, independent, and insightful women of Doonesbury.

 

“Welcome, You Dumb Honky.” Race in the Early Doonesbury Strips, Part II: Rufus

In my last “Long Strange Trip” post, I looked at how Garry Trudeau wrote about Black radicalism in the early 1970s, focusing on the character of Calvin and Trudeau’s depiction of the 1971 New Haven trial of nine members of the Black Panther Party for the murder of a suspected FBI informant. When Trudeau wrote about Calvin and the Panthers, he did not bring the their ideas to the comics page as much as he drew attention to the often awkward and self-serving ways in which whites engaged with, and attached themselves to, the Black liberation struggle. In effect, Calvin’s most important role was as a mirror, reflecting back white people’s racism and their inability and unwillingness to engage with Black radical ideas on terms set by African-Americans.

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Introducing Rufus: Doonesbury, 5 April 1971.

Trudeau introduced two Black characters to the Doonesbury cast in 1971.  Calvin essentially disappeared from the strip after the Panther trial drew to a close. The second named Black character to appear in Doonesbury,  Rufus “Thor” Jackson,  is a young (his age is given in different strips as either five or eight years old) African-American boy from a ghetto (this is Rufus’s preferred term for his neighbourhood, and the one I will use here) near Walden College whom Mike tutors. Rufus was a regular presence for almost three years. While arcs featuring Calvin tended to be more strictly political, the relationship that develops between Rufus and Mike allows Trudeau to blend political satire with developing the personality of a central character. While Calvin’s appearances focused on the tensions and miscommunications between Black radical activists and well-intentioned but often clueless white progressives, Mike’s interactions with Rufus speak to a much more complex relationship. The dynamics that define Calvin’s interactions with the rest of the Doonesbury cast are still there, notably the white liberal guilt that underpins much of these interactions in the first place. On the other hand, at an individual level, Mike and Rufus develop a relationship that both characters cherish and which helps each of them grow. This is especially true for Mike, who, as he teaches and learns from Rufus, becomes much more than the loser and scapegoat he is often portrayed as.

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Rufus speaking truth to power. Doonesbury, 26 January 1972.

In my last post, we saw how Mike’s engagement with the Black revolution is shaped by ignorance, insensitivity, and a desire for self-preservation. An arc from 1973 reminds us that Mike is the archetype of white liberal who tries to bridge the gap between himself and African-Americans, but ends up instead revealing his inability to engage with them without condescension. Mike appoints himself as an envoy to the Black students’ preferred cafeteria table. What begins as a naive, but arguably well-intentioned moment of outreach quickly turns awkward, leaving Mike floundering in his cluelessness and ultimately insulting the table by correcting one of the Black student’s grammar. Mike might want to do good, but he is unwilling and unable to put aside his preconceptions and listen, instead of imposing himself on a situation.

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A rush to fill an awkward silence. Doonesbury, 13 September 1973.

The spirit that drives Mike to reach out to the Black patrons of the cafeteria also lead him to take a job tutoring Rufus. A key theme in their interactions is the question of material stakes of the Black freedom struggle and the extent to which the insecurity and poverty experienced by Rufus’s family are the products of white supremacist social structures. Rufus is an early-1970s Jacob Riis, exposing readers to – or reminding them of – the conditions that exist a Zip Code or two away from them. He understands the links between racism and poverty, and tries to use that knowledge to his advantage. When the power company calls about an unpaid bill, Rufus gets that the situation reflects larger social dynamics that are in no small part determined by race. This is as true for the relationship between the Jacksons and the utility company as it is for the economy of childhood happiness. While Santa Claus may disappoint him every year, Rufus weaponizes his disappointment to inject a dose of guilt into Mike’s holiday. Beyond economic dynamics, Trudeau also uses Rufus’s experiences to reveal the broader social effects of systematic racism. A summertime postcard to Mike speaks to how urban poverty can alienate people from the natural environment; Rufus recounts seeing his “first tree” and describes it as “remarkably lifelike.” The strip’s punchline reminds readers of another social dynamic that accompanies racialized poverty, violence. While it’s unclear if the shots outside Rufus’s home are being fired by the police or other actors, Rufus’s poised attitude tells us that this isn’t the first time he’s witnessed this kind of thing (we also know that his brother has been stabbed).

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“Things seem to be picking up.” Doonesbury, 18 July 1971.

Rufus decides to capitalize on the exposition of urban poverty by offering up his services as a guide for white folks eager to experience a taste of ghetto life. In May 1972, Rufus played Virgil to Mike, Bernie, Scott and Boopsie’s Dante as they as they toured the ghetto he calls home. By now, Mike has seen enough of Rufus’s schemes to fall too hard for his schtick, but his companions are both amazed and appalled by the reality that Rufus shows them. They ooh and aah over authentic “ghetto artifacts” like an eviction notice, a nickel bag, and a canceled welfare cheque. Later, Bernie freaks out when he learns that a local “victim of the habit” will soon commit a robbery in order to feed his addiction. While Bernie is concerned for the victim of a potential impending crime, the entire group panics when their exercise in poverty tourism risks bringing them too close to the the social ills that concern them. As when he wrote about white flirtation with Black radicalism, Trudeau focuses on how white support for the anti-racist cause exists in tension with white fear of Black violence.10MAY72

Notwithstanding their fear of Black violence, Mike and his friends do believe that they are in a position to help undo racism and its effects. While GBT usually allowed white characters to embarrass themselves in their interactions with Calvin, Rufus frequently calls out white liberals for the shortcomings of their attempts to help African-Americans. While Calvin’s usual reaction to the clueless and awkward musings of his white liberal supporters is a silent grimace – after all, he cannot afford to alienate political allies – Rufus speaks truth to power in a way that only children can. Rufus’s first words to Mike – “Welcome, you dumb honky” – establish that he will not fawn over Mike’s liberal do-goodism, a sentiment he repeats after a few months of working with Mike. Beyond keeping Mike in line, Rufus offers cynical commentary on all varieties of white anti-racist activism. His limited enthusiasm for busing resonates with the attitudes of many African-American activists who saw the policy as, at best, a stop-gap measure that could not undo a long history of discriminatory educational policies. Rufus also calls out Scott Sloane for the “slightly patronizing flavour” of the food offered in the Reverend’s “free breakfast program for ghetto kids” and, when Sloane recalls hearing Martin Luther King speak at the March on Washington, expresses his doubts about the radical priest’s commitment – and that of white liberals more generally – to Black empowerment. And “empowerment” is a term that is close to Rufus’s heart.

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Calvin’s politics are largely implied through his association with the Black Panthers; Rufus, on the other hand, is given more opportunity to explicitly outline his vision of Black radical politics. His focus is on the seizure of power; Rufus wants his people to have “a lasting piece of the action,” and dreams of being a nuclear physicist so that he can help his people “harness the atom” to put themselves in “a better position to bargain with the whites.” Four years before the release of Parliament-Funkadelic’s 1975 hit “Chocolate City,” in which George Clinton proposes an America led by Muhammad Ali as President, James Brown as VP and Richard Pryor as Secretary of Education, Rufus laid out his own vision of American leadership: Huey Newton as Prime Minister and Miles Davis as Attorney General (…given the times in which we live, we’re just going to skate past the Bill Cosby reference in this strip).

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Rufus’s radical vision. Doonesbury, 7 April 1971; 14 November 1971.

While Rufus is quick to criticize white engagement with the Black struggle, he is not unflagging in his support of Black leadership. One of the few critiques of Black political activism offered by Doonesbury in the 1970s came in the form of Rufus expressing his disappointment that he could not attend an Angela Davis event because tickets were fifty dollars, “which ain’t bad bread for an avowed communist.” That said, Rufus refuses to acknowledge critiques coming from outside the Black community. Scott’s musings about how Black leaders no longer “[dream] of mobilizing their communities and shaping their own destinies,” draw nothing more than a dismissive shrug from the young Black radical.

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Rufus calls it as he sees it. Doonesbury 6 August 1972.

And yet: while Rufus demonstrates a fair amount of disdain for the white people who attach themselves to the Black struggle, he also develops a strong connection to, and a profound gratitude for, Mike and his efforts to help him learn. Soon after they meet, Rufus awakens Mike for some late-night help with his science homework; Mike’s annoyance is quickly replaced by a genuine sense of self-worth that runs against his usual “loser” persona. A few months later, Rufus realizes that, instead of being happy for a summer break from Mike’s lessons, he actually misses the “crazy honky.” It turns out that, “for a liberal,” Mike is “pretty lovable.” In February 1973, Rufus invited Mike into his family, asking him to be the godfather for his adopted baby brother (who later turns out to be a sister named Norma Jean). When he meets Norma Jean, Mike reveals a sense of compassion that Trudeau rarely ascribes to him. He is overwhelmed by the responsibility he has taken on, and he wants to shelter Norma Jean for as long as possible from the ugly truths that will shape her life in a white supremacist society.

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Mike’s alright, once you get to know him. Doonesbury, 9 April 1971; 6 April 1972.

In the strip’s early years, Mike is most often the scapegoat; his peers are as quick to ridicule him as he is to embarrass himself, and his conduct towards women, especially, reveals him to be selfish and insensitive. And yet, even read through the lens of GBT’s critique of white liberalism, Mike’s relationship with Rufus is an early example of the Mike’s evolution into a character who is is more aware and caring than originally presented. Writing and drawing Rufus allowed Trudeau to deliver cutting satire about the relationships between Black and white Americans at a time when those relationships were being increasingly interrogated and challenged by young people. It also allowed him to start writing his titular character as more than a loser.

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Mike at his best. Doonesbury, 3 March 1973.