This Week in Doonesbury: #MeToo Runs for Office.

On Sunday, March 4, Garry Trudeau began a storyline that brings together three themes that have been central to Doonesbury for many years: feminism and the political empowerment of women; the challenges facing American soldiers and veterans; and electoral politics.

Melissa Wheeler, a former army helicopter mechanic, asks Joanie Caucus for help with her political campaign. Melissa is running for office (exactly what she’s running for is left unsaid, but I’m assuming she’s gunning for a seat in the House of Representatives). Her platform is veterans’ issues: she wants to “make sure our our country does right by them.” One issue that is of particular interest to both Melissa and GBT is sexual assault in the armed services.

Melissa was introduced to readers in March 2007 as a fellow client at the veteran’s centre where B.D. sees his counsellor. Melissa allowed Trudeau to explore the ramifications of a phenomenon that goes largely unrecognized in the public sphere, let alone the comics page: she is a survivor of command rape – sexual assault at the hands of a superior officer. Trudeau’s sensitive and powerful recounting of Melissa’s story gave readers a glimpse of the systemic nature of rape culture in the military, and the ways in which the structures of military life facilitate sexual assault. Melissa’s experience shows us how the chain of command and the structures of military justice work to give men the opportunity to sexually abuse the soldiers under their command and to protect them from facing any consequences for their actions. Her commander gave her a choice between having sex with him or losing her position as a mechanic in favour of sentry duty; he then wrote her up for an infraction in order to make it look like any report she might make was an act of retaliation on her part; when she eventually decided to go to a superior, that officer talked her out of making a report by making her feel guilty about the implications for other soldiers if her assailant was removed from duty. Every step of the way, military structures worked to facilitate her being assaulted and to protect her assaulter.

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Doonesbury, 20 July 2007

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Doonesbury, 19 July 2007. She never had a chance.

In recent years, according to some reports, survivors of sexual assault in the military have been better able to report offences. Nonetheless, sexual assault in the military remains a serious issue: a quarter of all women in the service are sexually assaulted. That said, despite – or perhaps because of – the central role that the military plays in America’s self-image, sexual assault in the military has not been an area of principle focus in our #MeToo/#TimesUp moment, or at least, not to the extent that the entertainment, sports, media, and political spheres have.

The prevalence of sexual assault by powerful men has come to light in no small part because of the election of a self-declared serial sexual predator to the presidency. In response to Trump’s egregious crimes in specific and the abuses of powerful men more generally, the movement against rape culture is taking an increasingly political form. This political movement announced itself with mass protests by women following Trump’s inauguration (…and again on its one-year anniversary); it is now taking the form of a sharp increase in the number of women seeking political office at all levels, starting with the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.

And so, in keeping with the times, GBT has thrown Melissa’s hat into the ring. This isn’t the first time that he’s written about a woman’s political campaign. In 1976, Joanie cut her political teeth managing Ginny Slade’s campaign for a seat in Congress, a race that Ginny lost to Lacey Davenport. In 1980, Joanie went to work for Lacey’s reelection campaign. Ginny’s 1976 bid was feminist at its core: in her campaign launch speech, she pointed to “an insensitivity at the highest levels of government to the needs and rights of half of the citizens of this country – women” as a key reason for running. Forty-two years later, a political campaign focused on issues of critical importance to women is set to become part of GBT’s history of bringing feminist politics to the funny pages. Given the different contexts in which each character is rooted – the fact that Melissa was an army helicopter mechanic is due in no small part to the struggles of Joanie’s generation of feminist activists – the campaign could be interesting ground for Trudeau to explore the points of agreement, differing assumptions, and tensions within and between successive generations of feminist activists.

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Ginny announces her run. Doonesbury, 24 March 1976

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Joanie’s second campaign. Doonesbury, 1 September 1982

My only disappointment with this development is the fact that, if Trudeau has permanently abandoned daily strips, this arc won’t get nearly the attention it deserves. Women stepping up to challenge a fundamentally anti-woman system and a fundamentally anti-woman president represents a critical development in American politics; I would be thrilled to see GBT chronicle that in a more extended manner.

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Rick knows what buttons to push. Doonesbury, 4 March 2018

A quick note about one the presence of one of my favourite Doonesbury characters in the strip. We begin with Joanie putting her partner Rick in his place by telling him that B.D.’s friend who will be dropping by is an “army helicopter mechanic,” and not the “campus snowflake” that Rick had assumed was coming by. Rick redeems himself by the end of the strip. He observes Joanie’s conversation with Melissa with a look that says that he’s impressed by the younger woman. When Joanie attempts to beg off helping on the campaign because she believes she’s too old to undertake the commitment, Rick’s strategically-delivered smart-ass comment gets Joanie to overcome her reticence and do the right thing.

This November, if there’s one on your ballot, please vote for a woman who’s committed to using political power to challenge systems that foster and protect sexual abusers.

This Week in Doonesbury: A Missed Opportunity.

On 14 January, Garry Trudeau addressed the single most important social, cultural, and political issue of our time: the movement by women to raise awareness of, and fight back against, systematic sexual abuse by men in a number of fields, including politics, the entertainment industry, the news media, sports, and the tech world. In recent months, women have revealed that powerful men ranging from Donald Trump to Al Franken to Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer have long histories of not respecting values of consent, of using their power as a way to coerce women into sex, and of committing rape. Social media feeds are filled with posts in which a host of women, both celebrities and the people we work or went to college with,  tell us that the misdeeds and crimes of famous men reflect a larger culture in which every date, job interview, subway ride, or meeting with a professor carries the risk of an unwanted sexual comment, an inappropriate proposal, an undesired touch, or worse. Hashtags like #MeToo and #TimesUp speak to the ubiquitous nature of unwanted sexual advances and sexual assault in our communities, that women have had enough, and will, in an organized way, fight back.

In one of my first blog posts, I discussed misogyny and feminism in the early Doonesbury strips. GBT played a major role in bringing feminist ideas and values to the daily newspaper comics page, but his feminist values exist in tension with an ugly misogynist streak that ran through his early strips. Beginning with the introduction in the first year of Doonesbury’s existence of Second-Wave feminist characters like Nichole and Joanie Caucus, women who challenged traditional ideas about women, work, and family, through more recent strips that addressed sexual assault in the military, Trudeau has a long history of using his voice to amplify feminist messages. However, in many of his early strips, Trudeau’s work reflected the anti-woman attitudes that were intrinsic to much of the underground comix aesthetic and culture that he brought to the daily papers. While the limitations of the mainstream funny pages meant that he couldn’t push boundaries in the same way as his alternative press contemporaries, the attitudes about women expressed by characters like Mike and B.D. in the earliest strips were deeply informed by the misogyny prevalent in the many of the underground strips (…and, of course, the mainstream comics). Women existed primarily as potential sexual conquests, those who didn’t put out or meet particular beauty standards were portrayed in a derogatory way, and feminists were likened to insane ideologues.

The 14 January strip was not the first time that GBT addressed the #MeToo moment. On 3 December, he published a strip that lampooned the cluelessness of men who were gradually coming to the realization that the game was up and they would no longer be able to get away with their usual behaviour towards women. While former President Trff Bmzklfrpz of Berzerkistan notes that in his country, “sexual harassment is considered a huge compliment,” Duke laments the fact that he can no longer ogle his female employees. This strip uses satire to make a valuable point: the problem is men and how their beliefs about women and sex allow them to justify abhorrent conduct.

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Duke yearns for an earlier, simpler time. Doonesbury, 3 December 2017.

This week’s strip, however, while addressing the same issues, falls short of the mark. It’s a mailbag strip, in which Mike and Mark respond to an enquiry about sexual harassment in the Doonesbury universe. Letters about sexual misconduct have been “pouring in,” and I was hopeful that Mike’s unease at reading them signaled that Trudeau was going to address an ugly skeleton in the Doonesbury closet, specifically Mike’s (and other characters’) early-days attitudes and conduct towards women.

Instead, GBT took the easy way out. Instead of addressing strips in which women were to be “recycled” after they ceased to entertain men, where early versions of our era’s “pick-up artists” are able to disarm women with a glance in some sort of adolescent fantasy, and where undesirable women were drawn as animals, Trudeau ran with an old joke about Mike being a hopeless nebbish. Trudeau could have turned the lens back on his own work and owned up to the fact that, in the earliest days of the strip, he didn’t live up to the feminist values that define the overwhelming majority of his work. Instead, he played to the idea that Mike Doonesbury is an unremarkable loser, “harmless and inoffensive, doing the best he can.” The letter – from the strip’s female characters – means that Mike is “in the clear.”

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Damn right he doesn’t want to talk about this. Doonesbury, 14 January 2018.

Mike gets to breathe a big sigh of relief, one that, I’d wager, in this moment, many men hope to be able to share. In the wake of the current discourse about men, women, and sex, men should be thinking hard about their past behaviour, and, at the very least, pledging to move forward with a renewed commitment to values of respect for women as human beings. Doonesbury, like so much of the culture that surrounds us, is not totally “in the clear” when it comes to how it dealt with relationships between men and women. Trudeau had a great chance to address a relatively small number of missteps in an otherwise remarkable history of writing about women and their struggles. I wish he’d taken it.

 

A Screaming Herd of Females: Women and Misogyny in the Early Doonesbury Strips.

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.

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Nichole, Doonesbury’s first feminist character.

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.

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Bull Tales, date unknown.

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Doonesbury, 16 January 1971. Some things don’t change, some things do.

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 masculinityalbeit one that is relatively easily disarmed with a little bullshit Mike probably picked up from Sam Smooth.

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Doonesbury meets feminism for the first time, 4 March 1971.

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.

 

Character Tracker:

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.