Cathy Renna

When the Sunday funnies aren't so funny.....

Filed By Cathy Renna | August 05, 2008 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: comic strip, gay cartoons and comics, LGBT youth, media, sexism, sexist comics, Sherman's Lagoon, trans kids, transgender youth

Recently, my daughter and I revived a tradition of mine from when I was little - Sherman's-Lagoon.jpgreading the Sunday comics together. As a child, I would crawl into my Dad's lap - or into my parents' bed if they were sleeping in - and ask to be read the latest adventures of Snoopy, Charlie Brown and the rest of the "funnies."

The Sunday comics were not as edgy or political as they are now, so I find it is a little more challenging. Since Rosemary is not yet three we skip Doonsbury, but she likes the ones with the animals. This past Sunday, though, I was appalled by Sherman's Lagoon, which promoted blatant gender stereotypes and was another example we run into all the time and which I am much more keenly aware of now that I am a parent.

See the cartoon for yourself. (Click to enlarge.)

All I could think about was Jim Toomey, the artist, making a blatantly offensive statement about boys who may want to play with dolls and having it be seen by millions of parents and children who may be in a similar position and the negative message they are getting. Did he even get that he was advocating violence as a "manly" trait.

As the mothers of a child who is clearly a dyed in the wool girly girl, we are very mindful of what she is seeing, hearing and consuming in the media. The inherent sexism in so much of what little girls see and hear from birth is something I was aware of, but now I am watching like a hawk. Feminine = weak = bad is not the equation I want her growing up with - we need a new math for all the girls and boys.

As a little girl - and a big tomboy - I was lucky. My parents were not only tolerant of my tomboy tendencies (which ran well into my teenage years and frankly, I still dress like a 15 year old boy when I can), they supported my decisions and choices. They put up with buying a GI Joe, skateboard and trucks, even when I could have had my sister's Barbie dolls foisted on me. I insisted on playing sports and wearing pants suits (it was the 70's after all). So no hand me down clothes from my sister either, not to mention the more frequent haircuts. I was blessed, I know far too many other people without such understanding parents and families, and the impact can be devastating. It was interesting to learn that my parents fears for me when I came out were much more about gender presentation than my sexual orientation.

Which brings me to something that could be helpful for anyone interested in these issues. We had the honor of working on a groundbreaking and amazing book recently, called The Transgender Child. One of the co- authors, Stephanie Brill, founded and heads up Gender Spectrum, one of the best resources in existence for parents and families with gender non-conforming and transgender children. It is, remarkably, the only book of it kind.

Given the recent attention to transgender youth and the increased discussion in the LGBT community, I could not recommend it more highly to anyone interested in the topic of gender stereotypes and how forcing kids into the "boy" box or the "girl" box is not only overly simplistic for most kids, but damaging.

So it can be something as "innocent" as reading the funny pages or the litany of sexist and stereotypical media representations of men and women, but we must think about the current - and next - generation of youth and how they are impacted by this. Study are study shows young people are less interested in labels, Jim Toomey and other adults would do well to take a lesson from them.

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The funny pages aren't innocent. I agree with you 100% here, Cathy, but the problem is much, much bigger than this.

I actually read a great blog that focuses on criticizing the daily comics. (, I know, it's sounds silly, but the blogger is hilarious.) One of the things that's great about blogging a subject is that it brings people together to discuss a topic, continuously, and in that way they can start to analyze it more as a medium instead of instances of insanity.

The comics are stuck in the 1950's on morality, lifestyles, families, and even technology sometimes (if you do one more panel about some basic piece of technology like a cell phone being hard to use, Ziggy, I swear...).

Soap strips feature dramatic, sexless characters. Women (outside of a few notable exceptions, like Cathy and Sally Forth and Lois of Hi and Lois) generally don't work outside the home. LGBT people don't exist (except for that one character who never appears anymore in For Better or For Worse or that lame-o comic 9 Chickweed Lane). And most black people are segregated off into a few certain comics, like Herb and Jamal, the now retired Boondocks, and Curtis.

Looking at the comics page makes you wonder if the 1960's cultural revolutions ever happened. And since a lot of the comics in the funny pages right now are just lifting jokes, frames, and entire strips from the 50's, it makes sense. Many of the authors should have retired long ago, many have but are in reruns, and many larger strips have been taken over by committees committed to maintaining the original author's sense of humor, which can date all the way back to the 1920's.

While the gender policing in that SL is definitely worth criticizing, it should be taken in the context of its medium 9to criticize this medium). Elizabeth Patterson is getting married to the man her parents chose for her, after realizing that having a career means a woman is evil (like her fiance's ex-wife Therese, who was a ridiculously evil career woman) and that adventure is for immature little girls. The mothers in Marmaduke, The Family Circus, Curtis, and many, many other strips are never shown doing anything besides cooking and cleaning. There are only two women in Beetle Bailey, one who's sexy and gets harassed by her boss all the time (all in good fun, of course) and the other who's ugly and gets ignored (and was even named "Blips" because the only thing about her worth noting was that her breasts were small, and that's actually why she was named that).

I guess the idea is to appeal to the Value Voter set. And then they complain about declining comics readership, not noticing that they're appealing to a decreasing segment of the population. And so they'll keep on dying because of things like this.

Times like this make me wish I was still doing my queer comics criticism blog....

I want to commend your old Queering the Qomics site, Alex - I found it through the Comics Curmudgeon (which I agree is a great site), and it was through your site I found Bilerico.

This Sherman's Lagoon is unpleasant - but, seriously For Better or For Worse is even worse. I think Alex actually understated the horrible messages being reinforced in that comic. It seems to say if you're a woman, why try? Marry yourself a nice boy and subordinate to his dreams and you will be happier than you ever dreamed. Uch.

I think the problem with newspaper comic strips is the same as with most fast food: it has to be blanded up to appeal to the most people. And who reads newspapers? Well, according to pollsters, older Americans (I'm not an older American, I read the paper, but I don't count). And older Americans are supposedly more conservative, hence the comics skew more conservative. If the creator has sold out and has no more creativity left in his or her cynical body.

No, I'm not bitter.

Good piece, Cathy. From one tomboy to another.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | August 6, 2008 8:49 AM

As surely as Jon Stewart could make fun of the "New Yorker" Obama cover as satire we need to remember: "Folks, these are the comics!"

I do not think that the author of the comics was offering violence as a manly reaction. It was a sharkly meat. I read all the comics, particularly on Sunday when they were in color and I never read them to learn anything or applied them to any decision in my life.

As someone who was born in the 1950's let me say that I think you are thinking too much about what was intended to be funny. I would have pointed out to the child the long history of men getting together talking about anything and coming off like boobs. "So Archie was at the bar after an argument with Edith, or Ralph and Norton were at the bowling alley talking..."

Most messages on advertising or in media today show men as uncomfortable in their own skin and they have reason to be. They are hanging around hoping that they are not obsolete. We have come a long, long way from where I started when boys would not even cry.

In short Cathy you cannot have it two ways. "Girls Rule and Boys Drool" OK, probably right. This is another example of it to be celebrated. Male insecurity is nothing new. And thank goodness your child gets these messages so that you will have an example of something to teach her what is wrong. Something that you do not believe in and feel is not right can be discussed.

If all that your child was exposed to was vanilla she could never handle "peaches and cream" or "rocky road."

Thanks so much, fantwho! And I looooooooove CC!

cathy Renna | August 6, 2008 11:59 AM

thanks for the comments - of course this is a much bigger issue - but as my child is getting older it is so striking to me how cafeful you need to be

no need to worry about her being too vanilla...she is exposed to more diversity and creative life than most kids her age and i think she is definitely going to have an expanded view on life and people in general....we only joke about send her ot the convent when before puberty sets in ;-)


I respect your comment but i have to stand up here and say that you are neglecting to recognize the fact that males have the power in American culture and they always have.

Yes there has been progress. No, I don't agree that it is okay to bash men as stupid.

However, I think Cathy was trying to convey that females have been overwhelmingly targeted and oppressed in American history...and it still holds true today even though so many people claim that their is equality, or better yet, liberation among all gender identities.

Sexism is still a solid foundation on which this country stands. If it wasn't homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia would not be this big of an issue.

These phobias and the discrimination against people who deviate from sexual and gender norms are rooted in sexism.

So, what I'm trying to say is this:
regardless of whether or not the author of this comic was attempting to endorse violence against women, it sends that message. It sends the message that boys do 'this', girls do 'that', and crossing those boundaries is STILL not acceptable. Not to mention, these sort of messages are scattered throughout our society outside of the weekly funnies. The funny could not be funny without targeting an audience of people who can relate to poor 'ole' sherman and his fear that he has failed to teach his son to be manly...whatever that means.

And this also goes to show that men too carry some of the burdens of socially constructed gender.

I'm a middle-aged gay man still in therapy dealing, among other things, with the traumatic aftermath of being a gender-atypical boy growing up in the 1960s. I have relatives where the father is concerned when his 6-year-old son wants to play with dolls. That's a real problem to me, and thankfully the mother is accepting and working to educate and reassure her husband. So I'm sensitive to these issues.

To me this cartoon really seemed to be satirizing parents--like my relative--who are threatened by their kids playing in ways that don't conform to gender stereotypes. That's absolutely how it came across to me.

And obviously it came across differently to others!

The thing about art, even comics, is that it is very dangerous to assume that the reaction the art work elicits in a particular viewer or listener is what the artist intended or reinforces in another. Now I don't know if Toomey was trying to reinforce stereotypes and parental behaviors or ridicule them. He may not know himself; lots of art is created of what intuitively and the artist isn't fully aware of the subconscious forces shaping what he does.

What I am sure of is that to say, for example, "this comic . . .sends that message that . . ." is to take one's own response and project onto the artist and those who view it. And the atist/artwork/interpreter is much, much too subjective for that to be the case.

Yes, some people may see this and somehow have their prejudices reinforced. But I'm sure many others saw it and had their sense of the ridiculous ness of certain prejudices reinforced. To ascribe a static, universal meaning and sociological effect to something like is futile. None of us is on safe ground generalizing from our own reaction.

If my kids were still small, and I read this with one of them on a Sunday morning, I'd say, "see how silly it is when people think there's something wrong with a boy playing with a Barbie?"

Regardless of the Toomey's intent, a comic like this makes for a great teachable moment with a kid. We all have to learn how to deal with a world in which gender stereotypes still exist. And a parent could choose to frame a discussion about this or a similar comic in a way that empowers the child. How can we raise kids equipped to be secure in themselves and able to deal with stereotypes unless they encounter sexism and homophobia and heterosexism and we help them develop empoering interpretations?

Wow - what a great post and even better comment thread! I loved QFQ too, Fantomas. I wish Alex would revive it here on TBP like he used to do before we went national. It'd be great Sunday content!