Wrong on the internet, part 2: Women in newspaper strips

by  in Comic News Comment
Wrong on the internet, part 2: Women in newspaper strips

The Daily Cartoonist put me on to this research paper by a graduate student at the University of Florida, which concluded that women are underrepresented in newspaper comics:

An analysis of six of the most popular nationally syndicated comic strips over the course of a year shows that women appeared less than half the time and when they did the gag was on them, said Daniel Fernandez-Baca, a UF graduate student in sociology. He presented his paper at a meeting of the American Sociological Association this week.

“When they do appear, for the most part, women don’t say anything funny or act humorously, but merely set up the joke and allow men to create the humor,” he said.

Other than being a straight man or foil to the laugh-inspiring male character, women were used mostly to reinforce certain humorous stereotypes, such as the harried or henpecking housewife, Fernandez-Baca said.

“Other research on comic strips typically looks at where women are portrayed – in the kitchen, in the work force, inside the home or out in the world at large,” he said. “This study goes a step further by asking why women are in comics in the first place and how they contribute to the humor of the situation.”

There is a certain circularity to this study, a logical flaw that should disqualify it as serious research: The six strips Fernandez-Baca chose are Blondie, Beetle Bailey, Family Circus, Hagar, Garfield and Dilbert. He chose them because they are all carried in over 1,500 papers, but the first four on that list are legacy strips that all originated in a time when gender roles, in popular entertainment as well as real life, were very different, and none of them are exactly cutting-edge comedy. It would have been more to the point for Fernandez-Baca to look at the entire comics page in a couple of leading newspapers, where he would have seen a bigger picture. Some points:

1. The selection method favors older comics. It’s a reality of the marketplace that the older strips will be in more papers, even if they are bad, because once a paper starts running a strip it’s very hard to stop; the fifteen or so readers who follow a strip will rise up in protest every time. Why else would Garfield be in so many papers? It can’t be because it’s funny and witty, because… it’s not.

2. Older comics tend to have more old-fashioned gender roles because the people who write and draw them don’t have a lot of flexibility; the characters aren’t theirs, and they seem to think that readers want the old, comfortable characters doing the same things over and over again.

3. Two other strips, Peanuts and For Better or For Worse, appear in over 1,500 comics but were not considered because they don’t include new material. I would argue that the six that were cited don’t include any new material either, but aside from that, eliminating For Better or For Worse, which is newly drawn comics of old material, seems particularly unjust. On the other hand, including it would have interfered with the researcher’s foregone conclusion, because FBoFW is a very female-centered comic.

4. Four of the cited strips are simply about guys. There’s nothing wrong with that. Stone Soup is about women; guys appear only to set up jokes and in supporting roles, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. I don’t see this as sexism; it’s just context.

5. The survey completely ignores the actual experience of reading the funny papers. The comics page is a big place, and most people pick and choose. I don’t read any of the six strips Fernandez-Baca cited, but I do read Rhymes With Orange, Stone Soup, Sylvia, Cul de Sac, and Arlo and Janis. While these strips may not be carried in 1,500 papers, every paper I have ever read has balanced the old chestnuts with some fresher, newer strips; perhaps they have Six Chix instead of Stone Soup, but the effect is the same.

I would like to say that this survey has one use, to encourage editors to ditch the legacy strips, but in fact it has probably made things worse by leaving them open to accusations of “political correctness.” But if there was a way to measure who actually reads which strips, I doubt any of these six would last very long.