You have surely heard about the Bechdel Test by now. You may have heard of Fun Home, either the sorta-recent musical or the wonderful graphic novel, both of which are about Alison Bechdel’s life. Fewer people seem to talk about Dykes to Watch Out For, the comic Bechdel wrote/drew for more than twenty years.
After reading and loving Fun Home, I read every bit of Bechdel’s work available. This led me to The Indelible Alison Bechdel, quoted at length below.
In describing her fascination with drawing men and struggle with learning to draw women, she wrote:
“In a way, the men I drew weren’t as much men as they were neutral, generic people. If I could have figured out how to draw women in a way that didn’t preclude their peoplehood, I would have done it.
“But kids don’t learn to draw on a blank slate. They don’t study the essence of a real tree in order to draw a tree; they draw it from a combination of memory, imagination, and convention. The way to draw a girl, I somehow absorbed, was to draw a regular person, then add certain signifiers: long hair, a skirt, high heels, huge curling eyelashes. I didn’t look like that, and there was something instinctively offensive to me about overgeneralizing women merely as a way to differentiate them from ‘regular’ – i.e. male – people.
“I hadn’t read The Second Sex yet – in fact, I hadn’t learned to read – but it was clear to me that this treatment of ‘woman’ as some special case, as something other than a regular person, was a serious problem. All the comics, illustrations, and animated cartoons I grew up with reinforced this otherness one way or another. I’ve isolated four of the most common techniques they employed, all of which are still in use now, thirty years later.
“Woman as Mutant. The Female Character is drawn as if she’s a completely different species from the male. Witness the female cat’s bizarre, human lips.
“Woman as Fetish. Women’s sexual features are emphasized and exaggerated. This is such a common practice that it’s often invisible.
“I didn’t really notice it until I saw my first cartoons by gay men and realized that if Dagwood were drawn in the same way Blondie is, this is what he’d look like.
“All-Male Revue. Women are nonexistent except, perhaps, for one sacrificial victim. Children’s literature is full of scenarios like this. Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, Hergé’s ‘Tintin’ comics. Entire universes where everyone is male except for the occasional mother or love interest.
“But my own propensity for an all-male cast can’t be explained completely by this tidy feminist analysis. There was another force at work that I don’t understand as clearly. Simply put, I was fascinated by masculinity. Some girls drew horses. I drew detailed studies of muscles, facial hair, football players, and the finer points of haberdashery.” – pages 14-18
Amazing, isn’t it? I love the way Bechdel drew all the women in Dykes to Look Out For. They look like people!
What do you think about the way women are depicted in comics? What have you noticed?