Please Don’t Disturb My Complacency!

Sooooo….it appears some of you take your comics quite seriously. At least, should one be so foolish as to point out painfully obvious, boringly everyday occurrences of sexism.
Danimal asks of Comrade Physioprof: “So you are saying the comic reflects real life?”
What Physioprof said is this: “Every single one of the Foxtrots themselves represents absolute conformity to patriarchal gender norms. And the characters who are not part of the family who appear to violate those norms serve the patriarchal narrative purely as foils.”
Inasmuch as patriarchal gender norms represent Real LifeTM, or what you experience as real life, then to that extent the comic would represent real life.
The comic represents patriarchal gender norms. The particular comic I singled out represents a particular patriarchal gender norm, that girls are not good at math. This is so boringly obvious it’s almost unworthy of comment. I commented on it to point out exactly how dozens, hundreds, thousands of tiny shitty little bits like this comprise the gender smog we breathe daily. The comic strip on its own is barely worthy of notice. Who cares what Bill Amend thinks about women and math? His kids gotta eat, maybe he isn’t capable of actual humor like Stephen Pastis or Wiley Miller, sexism sells. The only thing interesting about it is how it functions as a particulate in the larger gender smog.
What’s just as interesting, however, is when you point something like this out, and you see the reaction. People falling all over themselves to insist no, no, no there’s nothing at all sexist going on here, nosiree, it’s just THE WAY THINGS ARE!!!!! In REAL LIFETM!!!!!!

  1. Cecil
    April 27, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    Just because a comic has a girl who’s bad at math certainly doesn’t imply the strip has a gender bias. The strip also has a girl who’s very good at math. The strip also has a boy who isn’t good at math.
    Why didn’t you read the strip and come to the conclusion that Bill Amend thinks all yellow-haired people are bad at math?
    Randall Munroe’s distills the sentiment:

  2. April 27, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    Are people really trying to say that Paige doesn’t represent the “Ditzy blonde who can only calculate percentages at a clearance sale” stereotype? Or that the presence of other girls in the strip somehow negates that stereotype? Or that Randall Munroe is trying to point out the overreactions of feminists???

  3. ChrisZ
    April 27, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    The problem comes from different people defining sexism in different ways. You’re defining it as anything that contributes to some overall inequity between sexes, which means these stupid little comics contribute to the “institutional sexism” or whatever the term is for that type of thing.
    Others think of sexism as a conscious disdain for the other sex. I might call this “active sexism.” Whether or not the “institutional sexism” is a bad thing, there is a gigantic difference between “active sexism” and “passive/institutional sexism,” and people who only think of the former when they hear the word sexism get quite upset when they or someone else is accused of sexism because of the latter.
    I would seriously recommend to any feminist to find a new word, because sexism clearly implies “active sexism,” and doesn’t clearly imply “institutional sexism.” They are two very different ideas, and they need different words.

  4. April 28, 2009 at 12:31 am

    I think PhysioProf’s analysis of the strip was spot-on. This all reminds me of an argument that a friend of mine had with a professional cartoonist years ago- although the cartoonist was basically sympathetic to feminism, he just could not grok the concept that depicting males as “us” and females as “them” was problematic. Have you ever noticed how a male cartoon animal will be drawn plainly while a female will have a signifier of its sexuality?

    Why didn’t you read the strip and come to the conclusion that Bill Amend thinks all yellow-haired people are bad at math?

    I thought Zuska was talking about the cartoon, not about Bill Amend. I must have missed the part where she gave a rat’s ass what he thinks.

  5. tbell
    April 28, 2009 at 2:02 am

    I love the smog metaphor btw.
    @Cecil, the point isn’t really what any particular cartoonist thinks, or what any particular instance of *potential* sexism’s deeper explanation is. It could really have been the case that the character in the cartoon who was bad at math just *happened* to be female in the mind of the artist. It’s just that when depictions in the media are viewed as a totality, it is an annoying fact that females are so much more often depicted as bad at math…
    And I don’t see anything wrong with calling attention to that fact, even if we are willing (or not) to grant that this particular cartoonist might have been acting perfectly innocently with no sexist intentions whatsoever.

  6. April 28, 2009 at 11:29 am

    J, I read only a few comments on the first post, and even I saw a response to that question. Even quoted above in this post, PP said “And the characters who are not part of the family who appear to violate those norms serve the patriarchal narrative purely as foils.”
    It’s fine to disagree, or not understand, but it’s not like nobody commented on that point. Personally, I think that the other characters you mention do ameliorate the problem. But just because the cartoon could have been more sexist doesn’t mean that it’s not sexist at all.
    I think it’s important to note that Zuska is not at all trying to say that this cartoon in particular sparked all of the gender problems we have today, or that it is worse than anything else in particular. Something that makes the cartoonist less offensive than it otherwise would have been to me personally is that if he had written his whole comic the other way (genders of all characters reversed for the whole series), it would probably read as provocative, even confusing at times, and many wouldn’t have found it funny. But even if it’s only about as sexist as the prevailing culture, does that make it ok to be sexist?

  7. m
    April 28, 2009 at 11:35 am

    Zuska– I liked the original post and am shocked to see the defensive reactions. It pisses me off more than the original comic. Which, whether you want to call it “sexist” or “representing patriarchal gender norms” or part of the daily “gender smog” we breath (great analogy,) the fact remains: It was a painfully unfunny comic.
    Keep up the good work!

  8. becca
    April 28, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Actually ChrisZ, Zuska only used the word “sexist” as a contrast to the rationalizations for and attempts to normalize the comic, not the comic itself. In other words, the comic is reflective of patriarchal gender norms. The instinctive defending of patriarchal gender norms, and the act of telling the woman that objects to patriarchal gender norms that she’s not seeing reality, is what’s sexist. In other words, it is behavior that constitutes both 1. and 2. below:
    sex·ism (sěk’sĭz’əm)
    1. Discrimination based on gender, especially discrimination against women.
    2. Attitudes, conditions, or behaviors that promote stereotyping of social roles based on gender.
    sex’ist adj. & n.
    I know. That definition is inconceivable!!

  9. April 28, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Okay, does anyone want to answer this question that nobody seemed to want to tackle from the last thread:
    If, just hypothetically, Zuska were wrong about a particular case, how would the response differ from what’s been seen here?

  10. tbell
    April 28, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    @Ray Ingles
    I don’t believe my response would be different, since I concede it may be the case that this particular cartoon was not in fact motivated by sexism. I view the ‘smog’ as a statistical phenomenon. And I believe it is a good thing to call attention to it.
    It’s not like I don’t understand the complaint about picking on particular instances. I mean it is very problematic to treat any female character as representative of *all* females, or any particular male of *all* males, or any member of an ethnic or religious group as representative of *all* members of that group, and then complain when a particular character is not portrayed in a desirable manner. To always do so is to limit art and expression in an unacceptable manner. However I do *not* believe it is wrong to note, by bringing up particular examples, that there is a constant low grade reinforcement of crappy stereotypes.

  11. highschoolphysics
    April 28, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    One of my favorite online comics covered this nicely:

  12. April 28, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    What a ridiculous discussion. Thanks for the laugh.

  13. becca
    April 29, 2009 at 12:15 am

    anon- pi plus C, baby. Pi plus C (
    also highschoolphysics seems to have one

  14. April 29, 2009 at 8:36 am

    tbell – I’m sorry, I was referring to the “response” from people disputing the particular example (and I actually can’t find anyone on the previous thread or this one disputing that there exists a stereotype of girls in general being bad at math, or even that people do make jokes about it, even in comics). All I’ve seen is people thinking Zuska over-read on this particular example – and if you look at her previous post, at least 80% of it is devoted to two Foxtrot strips.
    I disagreed with how she remembered a previous strip, and described why, and then found a link to that older strip so others could compare our presentations for themselves.
    What should I have done differently?
    Zuska – Of course I know you’re never wrong, that’s why I said “just hypothetically”. What can I say, I’m a science fiction fan. :->

  15. jc
    April 29, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    @MartinB: “I do agree that there is some sexist bias in many media”
    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAH! DUDE! What planet are you on? Trade ya.
    Teevee news here on earth: I can name 3 major network frontwomen. Campbell Brown, Rachel Maddow, Katie Couric. I can name dudes well into the night.
    Google the word Scientist and look at the image links – THEY ARE ALL MALE ON THE FIRST PAGE. 100%. (Marie Curie has 2 Nobels and her daughter has a Nobel – Bueller? Bueller?)
    History books – uh, nope, foggy memory there. Sojourner Truth, Martha Washington, usually a section (of one chapter of a whole text) on Women’s suffage. Pretty much ALL MALE. Women don’t have much history I guess! We don’t do nuthin.
    Even my money has MEN ON IT.
    You must be thinking of some media we don’t have here on Earth.
    @Mike “If we lived in a matriarchal society, would men complain about matriarchal gender norms?”
    When a matriarchy happens, I’ll bake you a cookie. “would men complain?” HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH. Let’s treat men the way they treat women. Fair, ya know EQUALITY? How bout men get 70 cents on the dollar women make for starters. Let’s see if that pisses them off, ok?

  16. April 29, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    (Well, apparently Zuska’s too busy to approve my comment, so I’ll try it without the links to the previous thread. Click on the “painfully obvious” link up top to see what I’m talking about.)
    tbell – Sorry, I was referring to the response from people who thought that Zuska was overreading in the comic in question. I didn’t see anybody in this thread or the previous one disputing that there are common stereotypes in the media, comics included. Some people thought the examples she chose weren’t good illustrations of that, however. For example, I thought that Zuska had overlooked or forgotten some details from the older strip that she mentioned. I said what I remembered, explained how I interpreted it, and then went and found a link to the older strip so that people could compare our presentations and decide for themselves which one fit better.
    What should I have done differently?
    Zuska – I know you can’t be wrong, so I said “just hypothetically”. I like counterfactuals, I’m a science fiction fan. :->

  17. MartinB
    April 30, 2009 at 5:58 am

    @jc: First of all, it seems my tendency to use understatement failed here.
    Second, I think that if google returns only male scientists is not a *media* bias, but a *society* bias, right? Same with history books etc. (This does not make it better, quite the contrary – if it were just media, it would be easier to change this.)
    “Any reference to girls not being good at math should sound alarm bells”
    Yes, but sometimes the alarm may be false – that’s all this is about, does the alarm apply to *this* cartoon or not? And I still don’t accept the logic that a female character being bad as math is a sexist stereotype and a female character good at math soes not counter this but is just a foil.

  18. April 30, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    The very large major huge obvious point in the middle of the room you are missing MartinB:
    What is it, exactly, that makes a joke about a girl, any girl, being bad at math seem funny? It’s that implicit reference to the whole noxious cultural stereotype about girls being bad at math.
    Try making a joke about a boy being bad at math. What deep well of shared cultural norms do you have to draw on that your audience will immediately recognize – without bothering to notice that they recognize, because it’s so pervasive it’s invisible – that will draw forth their laughter at the poor hapless dude, unable to add 2 + 2 ?
    Oh wait. Just make your male black. Or poor white trash. (You know why poor people are poor – they can’t manage their money.) Then it all works.
    The cultural superiority implied by math prowess is not only gendered, it is raced and classed as well.
    Now, if you can’t even be bothered to be aware of BASIC knowledge like these, hie thee off to some blog site like Feminism 101 and go read and study for awhile. Then come back and rejoin the dialog.

  19. April 30, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    Ohhh stuck in moderation, sorry, there were links in my comment. I was being all nice and trying to help with the 101 stuff. Serves me right! 🙂

  20. May 1, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    Sigh. Heavy sigh.
    There’s probably no point in talking with you, Martin, since you are so determined not to see the point, but I’ll try once more…
    The Calvin & Hobbes example is not equivalent. Calvin is not consistently portrayed in that strip as a bumbling airheaded shopping obsessed math incompetent ( = stereotypical female). On the contrary, he is the stereotype of the young boy obsessed with sci-fi fantasy – his stereotype includes competence. The humor in the strip does not derive from this series of propositions: Calvin is bad at math; boys are bad at math; the fact that boys are bad at math is funny; therefore Calvin being bad at math is funny. The Foxtrot strip, however, does depend upon this series of linked propositions for its humor, except just substitute Paige for Calvin and girls for boys. That type of humor doesn’t work if you just reverse the genders because we don’t have cultural stereotypes about boys being dumb at math.
    This is not some new idea I am making up out of my head. This is pretty basic feminism 101 stuff.
    It’s just a fact that a lot of mainstream humor that centers on female characters draws on mainstream cultural stereotypes as the basis for that humor. I really have a hard time imagining a joke involving a female character and math that would not call up or draw upon those cultural stereotypes as a basis for the humor simply because those stereotypes are so pervasive and unavoidable. Even if the comedian didn’t intend it, that cultural backdrop would be there to envelope any individual joke. Seriously – can you explain to me why, exactly, jokes about women and math are funny in any way except as they connect to that stereotype? Take it away – take away the idea that dumb math-impaired girls are teh funny! – and how does Paige’s character remain anything other than pathetic?

  21. jc
    May 2, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    Gender Smog: The Olympic Version
    Reporter: “So, how’s your uterus?”
    Athlete: “Good. Hasn’t fallen out yet.”
    h/t FemLawProfs

  22. MartinB
    May 4, 2009 at 3:15 am

    Finally, I think I got your point. If it is really not possible to have a math-joke without either a math-nerd or a math-idiot involved, then of course every math-joke draws on a stereotype.
    There is lots of math humour (just google for mathematician jokes) which, as far as I can tell, draws mainly on matematicians being out of touch with the world (is this a form of nerdy-ness?). In my opinion, these jokes work as well regardless of whether the mathematician involved is male or female.
    So I still think it is possible to make fun of people because they are stupid at maths or because they are math-nerds, without even considering what sex they are. (And at least some of the jokes you find with google do not even tell you the sex of the mathematician involved.)
    If I understand you correctly, you do not agree on this point, and you are saying that stereotypes are too deeply ingrained to be overcome that easily. If so, this is possibly something we simply have to agree to disagree upon.
    In any case, thanks again for explaining your point of view so patiently – I think I learned something from this discussion.

  23. May 5, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    I prefer to believe it will rain chocolate gumdrops. I feel an urge in me to defend that eating Big Macs will lower my cholesterol.
    Say, let’s all resolve to find the good in racist and heterosexist humor in the future, too! Just because someone tells a racist joke doesn’t mean we can’t IMAGINE that they didn’t really mean something positive! And if they did, why, what does it matter if the joke they told plays into decades, centuries, millennia of negative stereotypes???!??!!!
    Always look on the bright side of life (whistles).

  24. SKM
    May 7, 2009 at 9:36 am

    mpatter, nobody said anything about censoring cartoon strips. Critique != censorship.
    Also, nobody called the author of Foxtrot a sexist. His work is echoing sexist stereotypes, regardless of his intent. I’m sure you see the difference. When one’s work falls in line with stereotypes, one does not have to intend to support the status quo; it just comes naturally. Intent is not relevant.
    Finally, if your take home message from this essay is that “it’s very much an opinion piece”, then you have entirely missed the point, which is that sexism can be objectively assessed.

  25. SKM
    May 8, 2009 at 10:02 am

    mpatter, that is not my essay; it is Melissa McEwan’s. I am a different contributor at Shakesville.

  26. May 8, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    The objectivity in question comes from examining culture without ignoring history – i.e., just recognizing the historical framings that inform how we talk about things today. It’s not some wild set of opinions we’re talking about here.
    (I think that using your essay’s definitions, the comic’s premise would be sexist but the author wouldn’t be “a sexist”? Still, that’s semantics.)
    It’s fundamentally not semantics, actually. On the one hand, there’s a term, phrase, image, comic, joke, etc. that draws on historically sexist framings. This is sometimes intentional and sometimes unintentional; and it says nothing specific about the character of the person who said or drew it. On the other hand, intent says something about a person’s character – whether or not they are fundamentally sexist in their outlook. We tend to regard people with extremely bigoted outlooks as morally suspect and socially dangerous (for pretty damn good reasons). And a lack of understanding of that difference is behind a lot of unnecessarily defensive reactions that people have to being called out on [unintentionally] saying or doing something sexist.
    A lack of intent doesn’t make it unimportant, either, because unthinkingly bigoted language systematically reinforces the much more sinister and intentional oppression that marginalized groups routinely deal with.
    I don’t think anyone is calling for government censorship. Calling people on shit so they start to notice and think about it, though, that can make a difference. Slowly.

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