Typical Girls: The Rhetoric of Womanhood in Comic Strips. Ohio State University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
It’s tempting to open this review of Susan E. Kirtley’s readable, engaging analysis of depictions of femininities in newspaper comic strips with something trite, like “Comics aren’t just for boys anymore!” In the popular imaginary, comics—and especially comic books—have for much of the last eighty years been pegged as something for a particular kind of reader: young, male, perhaps reluctant to read other types of stories. Of course, girls and women have always been present in the readership of all kinds of comics. But there is one place where stories about women’s lives—sometimes even written by women!—have been a recognized mainstay of comics: the newspaper funny pages.
It’s refreshing to see this book-length take on the domestic stories that populate(d) those pages. Kirtley offers chapter-length analyses of each of Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy, Lynn Johnston’s For Better or for Worse, Nicole Hollander’s Sylvia, Lynda Barry’s Ernie Pook’s Comeek, Barbara Brandon-Croft’s Where I’m Coming from, Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out for, and Jan Eliot’s Stone Soup. Kirtley’s selections are well made, offering an opportunity to trace the way feminism and women’s lives have been depicted on the comics page from 1976 to the present; they include Black and queer stories, with more attention to representation and diversity than we see reflected on newspaper comic strip pages themselves. The analysis explores how debates in the wider world about feminism, gender stereotypes, women’s roles, and the shifting makeup of the family found themselves articulated—sometimes challenged and sometimes mimicked—in these comic strips. Kirtley is clear-eyed, and her admiration for the form is as present as her desire to see comic strips as a whole take more from the examples she draws upon; she reflects on the structural limitations of these critiques and representations nestled in between strips that trade in gender stereotypes. As Kirtley notes towards the end of the chapter on Stone Soup, which serves as a de facto conclusion, the newspaper funny pages remain “a stalwart bulwark against change” reflecting a “simulacrum of a conservative, homogenous society that never really existed.” This is what makes the selections Kirtley focuses her attention on so compelling: the patriarchal comics mainstream can make space for an array of voices, but so often—as, perhaps, with mass media and culture writ large—chooses not to.
Overall, the scholarly comic strip reader will find a lot to enjoy in this collection, as will anyone interested in newspaper print culture, and the book functions well as a cohesive whole. I had few quibbles with the analysis, though there are certainly places in the chapter on For Better or for Worse where readers of Canadian Literature will twig to the typical elisions of a reading that largely subsumes Johnston’s iconic Canadian comic strip under a larger reading that serves the book’s purpose of exploring “those comics created by women that rendered and reflected the history of feminism in the United States.” This is forgiven, though, in light of the nuanced and careful analysis Kirtley provides of what I would argue is a woefully under-studied comic with huge cultural significance given its readership and ubiquity. (Indeed, with the exception of Bechdel and Barry, the cartoonists Kirtley analyzes have been similarly under-studied, and the light she shines on these texts is an important contribution to the discipline.) Kirtley is attuned to the complexity of Johnston’s depiction of motherhood, which is rooted in Johnston’s own traumatic childhood and her struggles to find herself as a parent and as a woman. This is the strongest chapter of a strong book; it fills a gap in Canadian comics scholarship and sits well alongside work by Sam Hester and Christine Schreyer in exploring the cultural resonances of this long-running institution.
Reading Typical Girls was a reminder of the once-critical communal space of the daily or weekly newspaper, where the zeitgeist was explored, reflected, challenged, and consumed across sections and modalities. It is particularly fascinating—and indeed inspiring and invigorating—to see how critiques of social norms and expectations find their way into the otherwise hegemonic, patriarchal structure of the newspaper, snuck in through the “back door” of the funny pages. Kirtley’s analysis is astute and timely, and it offers a thoughtful reimagining of the possibilities of these kinds of spaces. Typical Girls also leaves room for further analysis: as Kirtley notes, many readers have fled to webcomics to find more diverse and representative stories, and it would be productive to extend her political analysis to those spaces to consider how the structural changes impact what is possible. It would be likewise interesting to compare these texts with some of the dominant stories about women not penned by women, like Mary Worth (pre-2004) and Sally Forth. Typical Girls reminds us that the comic strip is fertile ground for analysis, with much work left to be done. It is a welcome addition to this emergent field.