That’s What She Said

Posted by on December 5th, 2010 at 9:12 AM

Below is my review of Alison Bechdel’s The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. TCJ first ran the article a year ago, but I’m reposting it because I saw some edits I wanted to do. Anybody who wants to compare and contrast can look here.

And now … “That’s What She Said.”

In the following article you will find phrases like “dicks become a big part of life” and “penetration is in.” Traditionally, among a certain class of people, these phrases call for a quick “so to speak” or the beloved “That’s what she said.” The second phrase is especially popular. It operates on the premise that any conceivably sexual expression must indeed be sexual if you can pretend it was spoken by a woman; most especially, any blank pronoun will refer to a penis. I love it, so to speak, because it makes everything funny right away, sometimes to an improbable degree. But here we are discussing Alison Bechdel and Dykes to Watch Out For. Bechdel is a lesbian, her strip is about lesbians. Now somebody comes along and sticks “that’s what she said” after her 500 or so installments of a story about gay women. All I can say is, it belongs there. It fits.

Because Dykes–how does one put this?–has a lot more about dick than you’d expect. Of course, dick and dick-bearing creatures aren’t the same thing. The women in Bechdel’s strip don’t need men; but man, do they need dick. They need it in their bodies, they need it in their souls. Which is to say they need to be penetrated and they need to penetrate. Without dick they are incomplete, and that notion is a long way from how the series began.

Dykes to Watch Out For is a lot of things: a sweet-natured comedy about people, a slightly acrid comedy about culture, a gentle soap opera about daily living, and a showcase for well-imagined characters, tightly engineered panels, and busy, detailed line work. But I believe it’s also the living record of one woman’s attempt at modifying her personality, of integrating necessary pieces that had been left out. Lots of people try, and lots of people sit down to create stories that readers will want to read. Most people fail at both. Bechdel succeeded and she did it through a neo-Victorian mix of intelligence and hard work. She had a project, two projects, and she carried them through. And one result, in Dykes, is the sight of someone secretly but publicly attaining the personality that belongs to her, a personality that can flourish because at last the world is willing to admit that man is not quite “man,” as the term has always been understood, and woman is not quite “woman.”

Some of what we know about Bechdel: She’s now 50 years old and she became a cartoonist in the early 1980s, just after graduating from Oberlin. Her early cartoons are warm and funny and entirely about the young women she has observed, about their karate classes and lentil cookery and “activism” and flirtation. The cartoons are good-natured anthropology about types, hence the otherwise baffling title Dykes to Watch Out For. All the types on display are subdivisions of one type, the lesbian who is in her 20s, left-wing and surrounded by other lesbians who are in their 20s and left-wing. “Freethinkers! Vegetarians! Pacifists!” a cartoon Bechdel says in the introduction to Essential. “They just seemed essentially … well … more highly evolved!” This is the land of Happy Vulva. Reality is reconfigured around herbivore principles and a gentle, gynocentric aesthetic; men and penises — phallocentrism — are written out of existence. The ’80s stuff is an idyll. Bechdel’s Edward Gorey influence shows strongly in the figures and their eyes, but the tone is all sunshine.

Dykes began running in gay and lesbian newspapers, and in 1987 the series picked up continuing characters and became a serial. Bechdel kept turning out installments every two weeks, increasingly dense multideck affairs with detailed panels and crowded dialogue. At some point she also entered therapy. And toward the end of the 1990s she began work on Fun Home, a memoir about her closeted father and the bizarre childhood he forced upon her: She was a butch lesbian, he wanted a femme daughter, and on top of that he had many, many secrets to hide. Fun Home became a literary hit even as Bechdel chugged along with Dykes. In 2008 she suspended work on the series so she could get on with her next memoir, and now her Fun Home publisher has gathered Dykes into a coffee-table collection that should plant the series firmly in libraries across the nation. The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For is a handsome piece of work that takes readers from one end of the continuing series to the other, from 1987 to 2008, with exactly 137 episodes left out to keep the price down. The missing episodes and Bechdel’s pre-serial work can be found in her paperback collections, nine of which have been published by Firebrand Books and two by Alyson Books.

Dykes became a continuing story when it introduced Mo and Lois, two pals who form a contrast. Mo is a fretful, self-righteous twitch, Lois a dashing girl-playboy. Lois scores at will, Mo must be loved despite herself and not because; she looks something like Bechdel, but her stumblebum tendencies make her a stand-in for the reader. Soon enough the two buddies were joined by Clarice and Toni, the committed couple in the series, and by Lois’s housemates, Ginger and Sparrow. These six characters form the core of the series, and together they cover the waterfront: couple, commune, single (because Mo lives alone). Of the six, Toni and Sparrow are femme; the rest are butch in different styles and to different degrees.

Bechdel’s earliest stuff, pre-serial, is notable for its loose charm, whereas the first few years of the serial proper are a bit clumsy or worse, especially in the writing. The early character drawing can be wobbly and broad-lined, and dialogue falls into a pro-and-con ping-pong: Mo is conscience-stricken, Lois says live for now; Sparrow is a therapy addict, Lois says therapy is a waste. It’s like MacNeil-Lehrer for 28-year-old lesbians and written by a school librarian. A lot of the strips end with “ho ho” punchlines that journey to you across impossible dimensions of clunk: “It’s just wonderful to have such an empowered employee, Mo. Now you can start making some revolutionary gestures with this,” the this being a feather duster handed to Mo by her boss. But, from the first episode on, the pages have good structure; the panels and their contents are lined up the right way for the page to hold together and get across the piles of information Bechdel has in mind. The drawing captures the personalities at some very nice moments, especially Lois: her slouch in the first episode, and her poker face when she suggests that maybe she and Mo could hook up.

As the years go by, the strip’s warmth and observation stay, but all other aspects of the series get tougher, more controlled. The pages’ engineering becomes subtler and more involved, and it manages an increasing traffic in people, objects and words. The humor slowly dries out until the typical punch line is an offhand little dropper: “Dang, that was some tasty remoulade.” The strip’s climate also begins to change. The first years of the serial take place in the same sheltered, happy land as Bechdel’s warm-up cartoons. Characters say “Goddess,” as in “Goddess knows, us women of color have a hard enough time in this country.” Mo and Lois work at Madwimmin Books, a lesbian-feminist bookstore, and they hang out at Café Topaz, a dyke garden of women where Mo can sit on a Sunday morning and pine after half a dozen possible lovers. Men are nowhere to be seen. Then Clarice and Toni, the couple, have a child and it’s a little boy. The little boy needs a man around the house, so a fellow named Carlos gets written in. These events are in 1993 and 1996, respectively. Raffi, the little boy, proves to be “all boy,” as people used to say: He roughhouses and waves around long objects with which to break things. Then, in 1998, the cast takes the enormous and unexpected step of adding a character who’s not just a man but a heterosexual, one who’s getting it on with Lois’s pro-therapy housemate, Sparrow.

Yet the penis bearers are not really the great change in the strip. Before they came along the private little land of Happy Vulva was already disappearing. “Goddess” pops up for the last time in the early ’90s. In 1992, we have Essential’s last Café Topaz appearance; after that the place is just gone, not even mentioned. Instead there’s Java Jones, a coffee joint, and we catch sight of the occasional hipster chap along with the women. Then there’s the biggest change of all. Dicks become part of life, a much bigger part of life (so to speak) than men. Before then penises were more or less ruled out of the universe. “Lois, I’m still trying to adjust to lesbians using dildos!” Mo says in 1994, and it’s only their second mention. Early Bechdel features slurpy, nonphallic sex: jello masturbation, mud-wrestling, backrubs and candles, a good deal of lapping. “Monique licked the melted papaya ice cream from Ursula’s fingers,” Mo reads in Vanilla Leather Love when she’s lonely and masturbating. Like the “Goddess” talk, it’s all pretty much what a straight male would expect of politically conscious lesbian feminists. But, as Mo squawks about lesbians and dildos, Lois delivers the new law: “Love is a many-gendered thing, pal. Get used to it.” There’s no MacNeil-Lehrer here, no A-B, just a slam dunk. Lois continues: “The point is that we’re all just ourselves, and not categories. Instead of two rigid genders, there’s an infinite sexual continuum!” Happy Vulva, like many cozy places, was built around the idea of inside and outside, us and them. Now there is no us and them, just variation.

The speech comes up because a man who’s being operated on to become a woman wants Mo to change the title of the store’s reading series. “Lesbian writers” isn’t enough; it should say “transgender and bisexual women.” Mo anguishes over the thought of “bi women and drag queens” in the store. They’ll read stories about “schtupping their boyfriends,” she says. Lois responds, in so many words, “Why not?” She represents the leading edge of change in the strip. In 1996 Madwimmin Books starts selling dildos, and Lois is the reason. Jezanna, the store owner, struggles against the idea, then gives in to Lois’s badgering because Barnes and Noble (“Bunns and Noodle”) is stealing her book customers. The relevant strips don’t get into Essential but can be found in Hot, Throbbing Dykes, a Firebrand collection. Promotional copy describes the battle: “How far will Jezanna go to save the store? When Lois suggests the sale of sex toys, Jezanna’s literary aspirations are put to the test.” The phrase “literary aspirations” would suggest she just didn’t like the idea of selling appliances instead of books. But back in 1991 she was already selling crystals and “Venus of Willendorf coffee mugs” (one of Bechdel’s jokes about Happy Vulva kitsch). Jezanna’s first comment on dildos, in 1995, has to do with their maleness. Mo ordered some gay-man porn by accident, Clarice and Toni’s kid is running around, and Jezanna wonders what’s next: “Dildoes in the window display, probably, and alternative insemination clinics in the back room!” Jezanna has been selling lesbian porn for at least a couple of years, going by an earlier strip, so what she’s fussing about here is the maleness of the pictures: “Bob ‘N Rod” with their dicks sticking out.

In Essential we get the battle’s aftermath, which is Lois looking through the “Dicks for Chicks Wholesale Catalog” and deciding what to buy for the store. Jezanna has nothing more to say about dildos. Mo is disgruntled, of course, but that’s her problem. She’s always been self-righteous, the strip’s lecturer and complainer, a timid woman who needs to find people wrong so she can be right. From the mid-’90s on she’s going to learn a thing or two. In 1995 she meets Sydney, who becomes the love of her life. Sydney is a women’s-studies professor, but she’s also a dick — a dick who drinks tea, a cat person, but still a dick. “Come and get it,” Sydney says, holding a banana in front of her crotch. When the other characters are selfish, it’s because of human weakness. For them selfishness is a lapse; for Sydney it’s self, a sign she’s up and doing. She leads Mo a terrible time: lies, runs up debt, fucks other women. She also courts Mo, chases her, jumps her, orders her around. “It’s the best sex I ever had,” Mo tells Lois. When a mysterious charge to “Sex Toys ’R’ Us” shows up, the mystery is that Sydney was out of town that day.

By this point, we can assume, Mo is very used to the idea of lesbians with dildos. Slurpiness has all but disappeared from the series; penetration, so to speak, is in. When Lois daydreams about a bachelor pad, she sees herself smoking a cigar and sizing up a babe who “thinks a leftist is a southpaw fister.” In 1998, she gets it on with a young looker — one of Bechdel’s few magazine-pretty girls — and a two-headed dildo. The same strip shows one of the books now on sale at Madwimmin: The Ultimately Anal Guide to Sex for Women (Bechdel’s joke on The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women). Sex has become a lot noisier. “Don’t stop!” Jezanna tells her girlfriend. “@*#! me!”

The “Goddess” talk and melted papaya ice cream always seemed a bit out of character for Bechdel. Sticking “ess” at the end of “God” — maybe that’s all right for the crowd, but still … what a flat-footed response to being written out of your civilization. At one time Happy Vulva may have been necessary for Bechdel. Everybody needs to feel normal and the simplest way of doing so is to be around people like yourself and to keep telling each other that you’re all great. But she found out that the idea was built on a misunderstanding. The discovery is laid out in the introduction to Essential Dykes, a 12-page cartoon done in her wash style from Fun Home but with more humor and stronger drawing. Basically, she started out by thinking all lesbians were like the young women around her, meaning left-wing and crunchy and “evolved.” Then came news of Camille Paglia and Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, who were not left-wing and not crunchy. Reading Gender Trouble by Judith Butler sealed the deal. “Apparently no one was essentially anything!” the cartoon Bechdel says. From reading Essential Dykes, I would say Bechdel eventually replaced a word in that sentence, taking out “essentially” and putting in “necessarily.” A lesbian is not necessarily a vegetarian. A lesbian is not necessarily a woman, as the series proves when it brings in Sparrow’s guy, Stuart. A boy is not necessarily a boy, but he might be a boy: The series has both Jonas, who needs hormone injections so he can become a girl, and Raffi, who waves his yardsticks and light sabers and plays Vice City.

That Jonas has to become Janis indicates that Bechdel sees how our natures are built around certain unchangeable rocks. But Raffi is all boy before we know whether he’s gay or straight; maybe when he turns 15, he’ll turn out to like guys but continue being all boy. So far he’s been able to be all boy while wearing nail polish in one strip, so who knows? Reading Dykes, you get the feeling that, yes, our natures do have these irreducible components that won’t go away, but somehow these keystones change position and relative size from person to person. On the characters’ TV, an old guy with a Nascar cap tells a microphone, “In this post-human era, the very concepts of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ have become quaint fictions.” Man, woman, gay, straight are lazy generalizations that give shelter to very real, bedrock qualities; to put it a different way, these qualities don’t stop being real but they do jump around a lot. They show up wherever they want, in whatever combination they want. Look from one individual to the next, and you’ll see the qualities flicker back and forth, switch from one side of the gender line to the other, from one side of the orientation line to the other. “We’re all just ourselves, and not categories,” as Lois tells Mo. Or we get categories designed for ourselves. Accurate classification turns out to be a list instead of a label. Who is that young fellow playing croquet at the family cookout? He’s Percival, a “genderqueer boydyke geek with an Oxford cloth fetish.” Why, damn it, in the old days he would have been a sissy! Now he’s a locus for a particular assortment of preferences and social identifications. In late Bechdel, we all are.

I would guess that, as a cartoonist, Bechdel always knew this; it just took a while for her official thinking to catch up. Right from the start of Dykes we learn that people’s identities tend to be mix-and-match and that the balance between the elements can shift from moment to moment. Most of the characters are butch, but there are different kinds of butch. When the boy shows in Mo, it’s a different kind of boy than the one in Lois. And all the butch characters are plainly women, even Clarice the workadaddy and Lois the playboy. Clarice is a woman who finds it natural to sit like a man; both are facts and they get along. Bechdel learned all this by doing her work as a cartoonist, just as she learned about herself and her own personality mix though therapy, a different kind of work. One of the jobs involved two women sitting together in a room; the other job just had Bechdel, all by herself, slaving away. For someone writing about a community — the lesbian community — and a group of friends, Bechdel is a solitary type pursuing a lonely project. Since 1990, when she began doing Dykes full-time, she has lived off in Vermont, in a house where she can pick berries for breakfast and the nearest road turns to mud in the spring. Her chronicle of changing lesbian mores turns out to be a chronicle of what she has found on the Internet. Even when she was starting out, on the scene in Greenwich Village, she wasn’t in the thick of things. The introduction to Essential presents the splendid vista of a flock of young New York City lesbians before an Alix Dobkin concert, but the scene explains why Bechdel wanted to draw them all, not how she became a fully accepted member of the flock. Fun Home mentions the “humiliations” young Bechdel suffered and reenacts the long-ago snub a pretty girl inflicted on her. After a few unhappy years in New York, Bechdel moved to Massachusetts, then Minneapolis, then — way back in 1990 — the house in Vermont and the long years of turning out her stories about Mo, Clarice and the gang.

None of this means that Dykes is some kind of put-up job. It does mean that there’s a double life behind the likable, easygoing strip and its celebration of community. Take the principles of a lentil-eating ’80s lesbian girl: togetherness, spontaneity, nondomination, nonaggression, rounded edges. Bechdel evolved by acting on the opposite principles. She worked alone and she made Sydney, the charismatic bully, a linchpin of her series. Her drawing became more angular, and she carefully nailed together her page designs and nailed down her characters’ looks and postures; Bechdel has described her laborious, step-by-step process of writing a script, designing a layout, photographing people in the poses her characters will take, then copying these poses into the appropriate spots in the appropriate panels, along with drawings copied from Internet photos of au courant props, hairstyles and costumes. It’s a method and aesthetic based on control, dominance. In the old days, any good resident of Happy Vulva would have said dominance was a dick kind of thing — phallocentric. But for Bechdel this method and aesthetic work just fine. From the beginning, she says in the Essential introduction, her impulse was to pin down the girls she drew; check out the rod-like instrument her cartoon self has in hand when demonstrating this thought. For what it’s worth, the approach has a lot in common with the picture Fun Home gives of her father and his compulsive, unending attempt to nail down family and home into a tableau; Sydney and her father also look and act a good deal like Mr. Bechdel, what with their glasses, their bookishness and luxury, and their high-handed way with students.

Bechdel hasn’t abandoned the left or gayness or feminism. But she has indeed changed. Having spent 20 years being told she was a girl in skirts, she spent another decade trying to make a go of life in Happy Vulva. Then the butch lesbian discovered she didn’t have to be gynocentric or phallocentric, just the particular crazy quilt of inclinations nature bestowed upon her. Her work has shown the difference, and, personally, I think she’s on to something. All the pieces in our nature can’t be sorted out by a couple of labels. And every piece that belongs inside us must be allowed its place. If one is missing, then find it, put it in and never take it out. It’ll make you feel a lot better. Anyway, that’s what she said.

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