A work of fiction involving two women, who are talking to each other about something other than a man, is the premise of the Bechdel Test. The test, co-conceived by Liz Wallace, gained ground after its first appearance in Alison Bechdel’s 'Dykes to Watch Out For', and has since been used as an indicator of gender inequality in fiction. While this remains the most illustrious legacy of Dykes to Watch Out For, the comic strips are equally remarkable for highlighting the everyday existence of lesbian counterculture. Greeshma Giresh writes. This piece is from our 7th issue 'Others'. To read the complete issue, please subscribe.
A book pervades your consciousness when it leaves behind traces of itself in an otherwise mundane existence. I recall that is exactly what happened with The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For. I was barely five graphic novels old when I stumbled upon this book at a classmate’s hostel room. Strangely enough, that day in her room, we were two women who were talking to each other about everything under the sun but boys.
Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For began publication as an independent comic strip in 1983. Two years later, it gained syndication on the comics page of 'Funny Times', an American humour-centric newspaper, and various gay and lesbian dailies. It soon assumed the status of a ground-breaking phenomenon because of its portrayal of lesbian women that was not merely accessible, but also relatable to the readership of these newspapers, which did not impose a particular politics of portrayal while printing the comic strips. The trouble with mainstream portrayal of lesbian lives is that it is often construed around a series of lumpy assumptions — chief among which is that women indulge in lesbianism solely for a male audience. Its legitimacy in and of itself is therefore disregarded.
The writing of Bechdel’s characters therefore constitutes a radical departure from the usual phallic norm, wherein the women are not bound by that magical appendage called the penis. The strips are not just R-rated sexy, slanderous and on occasion, extremely silly, but also serene depictions of the real, lived experiences of these women. It declares its cognizance of its radical nature in the introduction to the collection written by Bechdel upon its first appearance:
"By drawing the everyday lives of women like me, I hoped to make lesbians more visible not just to ourselves but to everyone. If people could only see us… How could they help but love us? I mean, seriously! Lesbians were so
awesome! Free thinkers! Vegetarians! Pacifists! At the forefront of every social justice movement! They just seemed essentially…well…more highly evolved!"
The comic strip is enthralling in the manner in which it depicts the sexual lives of its various women. These women undergo heartbreaks, divorce, political confusion and flat tires like their regular, straight counterparts. Even though Mo is considered central to the story, she does not hoard the comic. The protagonists are often put through the wringer, but their identities are at the same time fashioned by their belief systems and disenchantments that come from being marginalized.
Contemporary American history unfolds in front of the reader as Bechdel’s characters — none of them apolitical — wade their way through various successive regimes, ranging from the Reagan administration to that of Bush Jr. They don T-shirts with witty slogans that go, ‘I Don’t Care If He’s Dead. I Still Want To Impeach Nixon’, read newspapers with such headlines as ‘Defendants’ Rights? Ha! Tell it to the Judge!’ and in a self-reflexive, even parodic act, own books titled The Drama of the Grumpy Child. The comics are peppered with dexterously employed one-liners. My favourite is this quip by Mo in strip number 164, titled …and baby makes three, where she retorts to her friends, Clarice and Toni with “Jeez, you guys! Is it asking too much that my best friends have the decency to ostracize my ex-lover?” These one-liners are very telling of their frustrations that arise from the conflict that exists between their mundane and radical counter-cultural selves.
Bechdel’s aim, especially in the light of the decade that these comic strips started to come out, is to warp and reimagine the prevalent notion of lesbian women as trite and grim. Nor are their lives a slice of life taken from a pornographer’s perspective. Instead, the depiction of these characters and their queer lives are centred on their sheer banality and absence of event. This renders the characters familiar owing to their essentially quotidian existence; this strategy pervades not only the present book, but also the memoirs Bechdel later published: Fun Home (2007) and Are You My Mother? (2012). These are books in which she articulates the experience of growing up with a closeted gay father, a man who affected outbursts, sternness and detachment in order to counter his obsession with aesthetics, and a repressed mother who disapproves of her daughter’s sexual orientation.
She deftly conveys how one can never detach from the legacy of one’s parents and completely leave one’s childhood behind. The personal becomes political in the manner in which Bechdel’s parents handle the news of her sexuality. The disapproving mother is manifested as a background character in DTWOF, deluding herself into thinking that her daughter is just going through a phase.