Wikipedia had to put Garfield’s page on lockdown last week after a 60-hour editing war in which the character’s listed gender vacillated back and forth indeterminately like a cartoon version of Schrödinger’s cat: male one minute; not the next.
“He may have been a boy in 1981, but he’s not now,” one editor argued.
The debate has spilled into the broader Internet, where a Heat Street writer complained of “cultural marxists” bent on “turning one of pop culture’s most iconic men into a gender fluid abomination.”
It all started with a comment Garfield’s creator, Jim Davis, made two years ago in an interview with Mental Floss — titled innocuously: “20 Things You Might Not Know About Garfield.”
Between the site’s plugs for Garfield DVDs, Davis revealed a few harmless curiosities about the cat: Garfield is named Gustav in Sweden. Garfield and his owner Jon Arbuckle live in Muncie, Ind.
“Garfield is very universal,” Davis told Mental Floss mid-interview. “By virtue of being a cat, really, he’s not really male or female or any particular race or nationality, young or old.”
The remark caused no fuss. At first.
Until last week, when the satirist Virgil Texas dug the quote up and used it to make a bold claim and bold move:
A brief note about Virgil Texas: He’s been known to troll before. The writer once co-created a fictional pundit named Carl “The Dig” Diggler to parody the media and annoy Nate Silver.
But Texas told The Washington Post he was only concerned about “Garfield canon,” in this case.
Texas said he came across Davis’s old quote while watching a five-hour, live-action, dark interpretation of Garfield (yes, really). So he invented a Wikipedia editor (anyone can do it) named David “The Milk” Milkberg last week, and changed Garfield’s gender from “male” to “none.”
Almost instantly, the universe of Garfield fans clawed in.
A Wikipedia editor reverted Garfield’s gender back to male less than an hour after Texas’s change.
One minute later, someone in the Philippines made Garfield genderless again.
And so on. Behind the scenes, Wikipedia users debated how to resolve the raging “edit war.”
“Every character (including Garfield himself!) constantly refers to Garfield unambiguously as male, and always using male pronouns,” one editor wrote — listing nearly three dozen comic strips across nearly four decades to prove the point:
The one where Jon tells Garfield “good boy!” before Garfield shoves a newspaper into his owner’s mouth.
The one where the cat’s “magical talking bathroom scale (probably a proxy for Garfield himself) refers to Garfield as a ‘young man’ and a ‘boy.’ ”
But another editor argued that only one of those examples “looks at self-identification” — a 1981 strip in which Garfield thinks, “I’m a bad boy” after eating a fern.
And Milkberg/Texas stuck to his claims: “If one could locate another source where Jim Davis states … that Garfield’s gender is male or female, then this would give rise to a serious controversy in Garfield canon,” he wrote on the Wikipedia debate page. “Yet no such source has been identified, and I highly doubt one will ever emerge.”
Threads of competing evidence spiraled through Twitter, where one commenter compared the Garfield dispute to Krazy Kat: a sexually ambiguous cartoon predecessor, profiled last month by the New Yorker.
Some hunted beyond the comic section in search of answers, into the ambiguous world of Garfield-themed merchandise and quasi-canonical arguments.
And some took the whole thing as a joke.
But others chided or philosophized: “Why must we care what Garfield is or isn’t?” Jimmy King asked. “Who cares what someone else perceives as him being male or female?”
Many pondered the meaning of Davis’s words in 2014, which were confusing because the creator referred to Garfield as “he” while suggesting the cat was neither he nor she.
A Wikipedia user proposed a compromise — “to provide both genders, each appropriately referenced: ‘Male and/or none.” That didn’t get much traction.
Garfield’s gender swapped 20 times over 2½ days (during which his religion was briefly listed as Shiite Muslim for some reason) before an administrator was forced to step in.
Garfield was finally, officially listed as male on Wikipedia — citing four comic strips including one from 1979 in which a veterinarian says “he’s too fat.”
And the page was locked against more edits until March.
Yet a Heat Street writer dragged the argument to the very end of February — citing the spinoff character Garzooka’s “hard pecs” and “prominent bulge” as evidence of “a rugged, heterosexual American MAN.”
That didn’t resolve anything, of course.
Maybe this will:
“Garfield is male,” Davis told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “He has a girlfriend, Arlene.”
Presented with new evidence, the satirist deferred to the creator. “He’s in charge of the canon,” Texas said. “I’m just curious how it squares with his prior statement …
“If I had the opportunity I would interrogate him.”
But Wikipedia has already progressed beyond gender disputes. Now other aspects of the fat, lazy cat are being called into question.
“Forget about his gender and alleged Muslim faith,” a user wrote Monday. “Need we really list Arlene under the ‘spouse’ category?”