When the MacArthur Foundation’s ‘genius grant’ recipients were announced this morning, I was delighted to see that cartoonist Alison Bechdel was among the honorees.
Bechdel’s profile has increased dramatically in the past decade with the publication of two graphic novel memoirs, the 2006 book “Fun Home,” about her father, which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award and, in its adaptation as a musical, a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, and “Are You My Mother?” which came out in 2012. And the so-called Bechdel Test for popular culture, which asks whether a work contains at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man, has become a prominent part of an increasingly politicized discussion of mass culture, even though it has some obvious limitations.
On the occasion of Bechdel’s MacArthur, though, I want to encourage readers to explore the cartoonist’s earlier work in her long-running cartoon strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which is where the Bechdel Test originated. Just as Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” series wended its leisurely, funny and warm way through the evolving gay and transgender communities in San Francisco, “Dykes to Watch Out For” dives deep into a fictional lesbian community, considering the impact of transgender politics, marriage and even the death of independent bookstores on her characters.
Pop culture as a whole has had an unfortunate tendency, upon telling the stories of white, affluent gay men (and, less often, lipstick lesbians), to consider its task of diversification complete. “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which ran from 1983 to 2008, when Bechdel put it on hiatus, is a testament to just how much material other projects and other media have left on the table.
Her characters were multi-generational, multiracial and in all sorts of relationships, including marriages to gay men and house-sharing arrangements. They also ranged up and down the class spectrum: Mo Testa, the main character, started out as a bookstore clerk and ended up as a reference librarian, Toni Ortiz was a certified public accountant and several other characters were academics.
“Dykes to Watch Out For” also deftly captured many of the institutions that have been so supportive to lesbian communities.
When the strip began running, the fictional lesbian and feminist store Madwimmin Books employed a number of the characters and served as a meeting place for others. Eventually, like so many of its real-life counterparts, Madwimmin Books closed, unable to keep pace with book superstores (which Bechdel parodied in the strip). The characters also went to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and some story lines involved the women’s studies department of the local college. Sparrow, one of the key cast members, eventually took a job at NARAL in a nod to the work that so many lesbians have done in both reproductive and HIV-related health care.
And, of course, Bechdel captured so many of the external debates that rarely bubble to the surface of mainstream popular culture, whatever minority community is being depicted. The “Dykes to Watch Out For” characters protested the First Gulf War, dealt with the role of bisexual and even straight male members of their community, explored transgender politics and grappled with the rise of legally available marriage — and divorce.
Did I mention that the strip is fabulous, funny reading? If you want full evidence of Bechdel’s genius, it would be a disservice to yourself to stop at “Are You My Mother?” and “Fun Home.”