Dykes to Watch Out For
Dykes to Watch Out For (DTWOF) is a lesbian soap opera with political themes, populated by a variety of fascinating women who come in all shapes, ages, races, and inclinations. The books poke fun at the foibles of human behavior, making this an entertaining read for anyone, regardless of sexual preference.
The first book is a collection of single-page strips about such topics as lesbian etiquette, wearing short hair and being mistaken for a guy, the perils of roommates and relationships, and taking a partner for granted. Intermingled are alphabetical illustrated couplets of a variety of women, such as
G is for Gretchen, who knew at age seven.
H is for Hope, who would not go to heaven.
Gretchen is a girl pitching baseball, while Hope is wearing a nun’s habit and a devilish smile. This first volume also taught me the very important Bechdel’s Movie Rule: Only go to a movie if it has at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man.
The second book, More DTWOF, starts with similar stand-alone pieces, although they’re more fleshed out than some of the cartoons in the first book. Politics also come to the fore, with strips about prejudice and fear of harassment. (Twenty years later, these concerns are still relevant, with conservatives trying to prevent legal recognition of gay relationships.)
They’re bridging the gap to becoming stories instead of just setups for punchlines, and the figures populating these early strips resemble some of the continuing characters met later. There’s also a longer story called “The Crush” about falling in love at a martial arts camp.
After that starts the continuing DTWOF story, all about Mo, her friends, their lives, and their loves. Mo’s a romantic bemoaning her celibacy. The women she knows aren’t political enough, or intellectual enough, or aren’t available. Her friend Lois is more interested in sex than love, while Clarice (Mo’s ex-lover) and Toni are a happily committed couple. They introduce Mo to Harriet at a march, and the two slowly work their way around to dating.
Mo is tightly wound and sometimes tiring, but lovable all the same. Her friends get frustrated with her but keep putting up with her. The passion that makes her so annoying also makes her attractive and fun to read about. Her anxiety is inspirational when it’s not catching.
The women are delineated in a thin-line style heavy on expression. They’re comfortable with their bodies, and so is the artist. This is not a series for people who avoid nudity and lovemaking in their comics. Sex is an important part of the characters’ lives, and that’s reflected in the stories. The portrayal runs the gamut from seeing sex everywhere when you’re not getting any to all but ignoring it while in a committed relationship.
New, Improved! DTWOF expands the cast to include Jezanna, owner of a feminist bookstore, and Lois’ housemates Ginger, a Ph.D. student, and Sparrow, a New Ager. Mo and Harriet become a couple, Lois pines after an older woman who’s just come out, and Clarice and Toni talk about having a baby at the same time Clarice ponders an affair with Ginger. Plus, Mo tries therapy when she starts losing her righteous indignation.
In DTWOF: The Sequel, all is not well. Harriet is jealous of Mo’s time with her therapist, while Lois applauds and Mo seethes over lesbians who call themselves non-dykes. Is diversity good for the group, or does it make them less special? Are they reclaiming patriarchal expectations in a new way, or selling out, or just being themselves? I did a double-take when I read the rants about impeaching Bush and our thoughtless use of oil driving us to war in the Mideast; they’re as timely now as they were in 1990.
Harriet and Mo continue to have problems in Spawn of DTWOF, while Clarice and Toni try to get pregnant and Ginger deals with a long-distance romance. Mo develops a crush on Thea, her coworker at the bookstore, even though Thea’s in a committed relationship. As expected from the title, the book ends with a lengthy segment showing the birthing process and delivery, as the family of characters gathers round.
Mo is just about the only character not coupled up in Unnatural DTWOF, but there are sometimes benefits to single life. (Strangely, Harriet’s new partner resembles Mo, only more so.) After being treated for back trouble, Mo finds a new energy for accomplishment, including getting in shape and learning new technology. Meanwhile, Jezanna’s store faces competition from a new chain book superstore, and Sparrow’s girlfriend June is getting used to sobriety.
Time is passing for these women, and they’re dealing with more concerns in life than who to sleep with. To emphasize how far they’ve come, the book ends with an oral history section in which the characters reveal how they first met each other, in various combinations, at a march on Washington. The sense of history is magnified by looking at the issues they were concerned with then, and what they’re worried about now.
In Hot, Throbbing DTWOF, Mo keeps getting involved in arguments with Sydney, a women’s studies professor who works with Ginger. Sydney’s an urban snob and disagrees with everyone and everything, although she’s interested in studying Lois’ turn as a drag king. Clarice and Toni are coping with toddler Raffi (aided by male role model Carlos) at the same time Toni inadvertently comes out to her conservative, disapproving parents. The book concludes with a lengthy story about a sex-friendly fundraiser to save the bookstore.
Most everyone’s looking for new lodgings in Split-Level DTWOF. Clarice, Toni, and Raffi are thinking about moving to the suburbs, while Sparrow, Lois, and Ginger’s landlord is selling their house out from under them. Mo’s disturbed by the level of debt Sydney has, complicated by her continuing to acquire more stuff. Anyone’s who’s ever tried to move a household can relate to the concluding story, about coordinating use of a rental truck and having all your friends pitch in to schlep boxes.
Post-DTWOF finds Stuart, Sparrow’s boyfriend, moving into their household in a relationship both romantic and financial. The new suburbanites are having trouble with their neighbors, and Sydney’s hiding her online fling from Mo. The challenges the characters face have changed over the years, but the basic desire to be loved mentally and physically remains.
The introduction to Dykes and Sundry Other Carbon-Based Life Forms to Watch Out For makes two important points: stories about lesbians are human stories that can be enjoyed by anyone, and “the whole point of a liberation movement… is to render itself obsolete.” The strips deal with the materialism of popular culture, civil unions, the Gore/Bush election, general struggles of adulthood, and the loss of a beloved supporting cast member.
Thankfully, for those of us who only read the strips in the collections every couple of years, Invasion of the DTWOF begins with a “where are they now” section. The strip’s cast has grown over the years to the point where catching up with the characters takes over four pages.
The blend of political commentary and soap opera is still the draw. In the foreground, the characters talk about pressing social issues while trying their best to deal with the everyday domestic challenges that come with families and roommates. Change is managed but rarely welcomed, just like in real life, since so often the ramifications are negative or at best, unexpected. That’s especially obvious as the various kids grow up and deal with their own role and gender issues.
Things aren’t often very happy, but then, given the past few years, that’s realistic as well. The overwhelming matter on everyone’s mind is going to war with Iraq. Later on, the conflict of the day becomes “should we get married” once it’s temporarily legal. Getting a chance to spend time with these fully rounded characters again is enjoyable, even if what they’re facing isn’t. Through it all, at least they have each other.
Under all of this appealing and addictive soap opera, the series explores the fundamental question of how much a group not part of the mainstream should adopt their customs, including monogamy. Mo’s deathly afraid of conservatism and complacency; she fears fitting in. It’s a fascinating learning experience to see someone so similar to me and yet so different work her way through life.
The Dykes to Watch Out For website has more information about the strip and the author. A personal retrospective, The Indelible Alison Bechdel: Confessions, Comix, and Miscellaneous Dykes to Watch Out For, collects comics not found in the book series, including work from anthologies and from the DTWOF calendars, as well as information on Bechdel’s life and development as an artist, with drawings beginning at age 3 that pace her life changes and attitudes. Essays discuss the nature of auto-biographical cartooning (several examples of which are included) and analyze the limited range of women’s roles in comics. There’s also a timeline of character and strip events and lots of commentary by the artist.