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. April 27, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    Yeah, the defensive reactions always bother and offend me far more than the one little example of sexism I (or someone else) may have been pointing out. But I guess it’s threatening.

  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. J
    April 28, 2009 at 9:05 am

    I never did see any response to the often repeated point that the comic strip features a boy who is even worse at math and a girl who is the best. Zuska, care to address that point? Or is no there no way to interpret sexism into that? I wouldn’t want to get too defensive by objectively pointing out the facts.

  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. mpatter
    April 28, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    Hi Zuska (& commenters): I commented on the original post, and I’d like to clarify.
    I can see the argument that this comic, when combined with a million other sly little references dotted around the world, contributes to a culture with a strong “bitter aftertaste” from recent history’s repression of women.
    But on the other hand, even in a (hypothetical!) world where sexual inequality and prejudices had been totally obliterated, it would be possible for someone suitably inclined to selectively home in on and count up instances of (what appeared to be) sexist attitudes. You can see almost anything through gender-coloured spectacles, and grow to think that today’s world is more harsh and intolerant than it really is. (Observational comedy like this strip, which admittedly relies on familiar stereotypes for its humour, is particularly vulnerable to such inferences.)
    Inspired by #4 above, another way to put this would be: definitions of sexism can be subjective, and yours seems to be rather sensitive. It’s all subjective, but I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt.
    If your sensitivity helps us achieve an egalitarian future where our biological inclinations to sexist behaviour are placed fully under control, then maybe it is a force for good. But to call “victim!” at little pieces of culture where gender-stereotyping motives are vague and disputable, just doesn’t help anyone.

  10. anon
    April 28, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Moving along, what is a reasonable way to have a comic strip in which some characters are good at math and some aren’t? Since the female character who’s good at math is apparently reinforcing patriarchal gender norms just as much as the female character who is bad at math, is there any fair and reasonable way to have a comic strip in which characters either display mathematical ability or a lack thereof?
    Maybe the topic of mathematical ability is simply too steeped in social baggage to make it possible to fairly address it in a comic strip, and it would be better if cartoonists simply steer clear of it.

  11. April 28, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    Wow, I a comment a made actually made the front page on a SB. That’s a first. I am honored. My question in response to CPP’s post was an attempt a humor.

  12. April 28, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    Oh, come on, Ray Ingles! What’s the point of asking that question? Zuska is NEVER wrong! Remember: “I am a Goddess, an Empress, and an Avenging Angel. You are welcome to argue with me but it is unlikely you will win.”

  13. deang
    April 28, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    It’s also annoying when people claim that humor, whether it be in comics, TV shows, movies, comedy clubs, or elsewhere, is not about anything at all, that it’s just about making you laugh, the equivalent of making a funny face. They’re in effect saying, ignore the content and just laugh because you’re supposed to. Some such people even get irritated when you point out the knowledge required in order to understand the humor, and of course they get even angrier when you analyze the content and find it lacking or stupid.

  14. MartinB
    April 29, 2009 at 4:51 am

    “And the characters who are not part of the family who appear to violate those norms serve the patriarchal narrative purely as foils.”
    Sorry, but this seems ridiculous to me:
    “This cartoon is sexist because in it girls are bad at maths.”
    “But there are also girls who are good at maths.”
    “That’s just a foil, it is still sexist.”
    I do agree that there is some sexist bias in many media, but obviously this comic is not a good example.

  15. April 29, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    I view the cartoon is an example of art imitating life. Which is fine with me… I’m more upset by examples of life imitating art.
    You seem upset that the Patriarch has a patriarchal view. Would you expect him to have the matriarchal view?
    If the patriarchal gender norms view females and males as having different strengths. What are the matriarchal gender norms?
    If we lived in a matriarchal society, would men complain about matriarchal gender norms?

  16. MarkusR
    April 29, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    The character I don’t get in Pearls Before Swine is the croc dad. Why does he speak like that? Do all idiots speak bad English? Sound racist to me.

  17. mk
    April 29, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    It’s one more perfect stereotype of a female character. It’s not a particular lense that Zuska is looking through – in fact, if you remove the lense of social norm, the points that Zuska are trying to make become painfully obvious.
    I understand that the joke between Paige and Jason is supposed specific to to their characters but any reference to girls not being good at math should sound alarm bells because of the stereotype that girls ARE bad at math. Remember the talking barbie doll, “math is hard”. It’s true that this is not as bad as that that but publishing it without noticing it’s inarguable similarity to that was simply irresponsible.

  18. amish451
    April 30, 2009 at 9:13 am

    “it’s just the way things are real life..”
    Pretty much the point here, and that sucks.

  19. April 30, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    mpatter, there is a lot out there on looking for things to get mad about and on sexism as “subjective.” Those things are pretty basic to understanding critical theory and feminist critique. (That second link should actually answer some of what ChrisZ brought up on the question of vocab, too.)
    What’s sexist in this case isn’t that there is one female character who is bad at math. It’s that it plays into historically sexist tropes which were actively used to dissuade women from pursuing certain careers. It’s all about context. This kind of thing is ALWAYS all about context.
    Mike, you really brought up the straw matriarchy?? HA!!
    What is with this need to look carefully for the possibility of that rare instance where a piece of art or cartoon or whatnot happens to perfectly mimic what has historically been a damaging and oppression-furthering stereotype, but in THIS case that’s not what it means? Bullshit. The joke was put out there as a joke because it plays on the idea of women being flighty and obsessed with shopping and unable to do academic things like abstract math. As Zuska pointed out, it would have been made in the first place without the contexts of women = shopping and women ≠ math.

  20. MartinB
    May 1, 2009 at 5:20 am

    The joke was about a person that is bad at math. Would it not work if the person was male? Why not? I laugh about Calvin & Hobbes, where Calvin uses his Spaceman-Spiff ability to find out that 5+6=6 or that 2+2=1 billion. (Of course that comic has its own somewhat stereotypical girl, but that’s not the point here, I think.)
    So your claim that math-jokes won’t work with males is not true.
    You will surely (vehemently) disagree with this, but to me the fact that you immediately look for sexist content/context when some joke is about a girl reveals that *even to you* the default sex of a person is male – if a joke is about a male, it is about the person, if it is about a female, it is about females in general.

  21. MartinB
    May 2, 2009 at 4:22 am

    Dear Zuska,
    thanks for the patience in explaining this. I believe (I hope) I do understand your point better now. I still would not agree that every joke involving a girl being bad at math out of necessity involves sexist stereotypes for the following reason: Imagine you have a funny idea for a joke involving someone being bad at maths and imagine that as far as you can tell, this joke does not in any way depend on the gender of the person involved. According to your logic, you *have* to make the person male because otherwise, out of necessity, everybody will perceive the stereotype. That’s what I mean when I said that even to you the default person is male.
    In some sense, this is the reversed version of the cartoon cited above, like this
    Panel 1: Woman looking at a comic where a boy is bad at maths.
    Woman “This is funny”.
    Panel 2: Woman looking at a comic where a girl is bad at maths.
    Woman “This is sexist”.
    I do understand that your point is that these stereotypes are so deeply engrained in our society that it is impossible not to associate them. I’m not sure I’m buying this – to use an analogy you yourself introduced: substitute black for woman.
    I don’t think anything involving a black person out of necessity is a statement about race (if such a thing exists). I’ve never seen Ben Sisko (from Deep Space 9) first and foremost as black, or Capt. Janeway (or Carter from Stargate – yes, I’m a Scifi nerd) first and foremost as women. They all had their function and character and happened to be women or black.
    Considering that Paige-cartoon (which I did not see in the original), first of all, I do not think it is particular funny, but if there is anything funny about it, it is that the boy is so nerdy that he takes the pains to actually encode a message in mathematical language, all the time knowing that Paige will never be able to decode it, making the whole exercise useless – to me, the joke is as much on him as on her.
    If you are right, and it is indeed impossible not to think in these stereotypes, then I would be very much interested in a suggestion what the solution can be. Only tell stories/jokes where girls are good at maths? Wouldn’t that just enforce the stereotype backwards -besides being wrong, cause surely there are some girls who are bad at maths? Not tell anything at all about girls and maths? Then where do we get role-models? Is there a simple solution from feminism 101 that I missed?

  22. May 3, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    Martin, consider this: the whole subject of “math humor” as it relates to women is only of interest BECAUSE we have a cultural stereotype that women are bad at math. With men, it’s the “math nerd” stereotype that we draw on for our math humor. If we didn’t have either of these stereotypes, what, exactly, would we make our math humor out of?
    In other words – what would non-sexist math humor look like? (Because make no mistake, “math nerd” is the opposite side of the coin of the stupid-girl-no-good-at-math – they are both types of sexist humor. Or, should I say, humor that depends on patriarchal stereotypes.)

  23. mpatter
    May 5, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    @volcanista: I am no expert on the history and detail of feminist critique, so thank you for having the grace to help me kick-start my education. The Shakesville posts are very much opinion pieces, but they are elegantly expressed and quite compelling.
    Society is rife with evidence that men’s & women’s positions in Western culture is – even today – far from equal. The comic uses a stereotype of the “airhead blonde” which is, arguably, a strand in a wider patriarchal mindset which still exists in our culture.
    But I still think the comic was a poorly chosen example. I feel in me an urge to jump to the defence of the author, because he (I assume it is a he) didn’t necessarily *intend* to be demeaning. Conciously he could be as great a proponent of sexual equality as anyone. And it’s porbable that some women avoid education because they identify themselves with this stereotype.
    But to eradicate prejudice, must we stamp on every joke which has someone at the sore end? Humour with stereotypes can be good for us, if we identify and reflect on what we are seeing. It would be doubly funny – and raise the reader’s consciousness a bit – if Paige actually finished the puzzle in the next strip. Then the joke would be on the arrogant kid for underestimating someone.
    So, I guess, being prepared to use gender stereotypes in humour doesn’t necessarily make a person a sexist (though they might be). I’d prefer this to pretending the stereotype didn’t exist in reality.
    (Sidenote: I don’t care for the “matrix” vision of cultural influence because it opens the door for a debate-blocker along the lines of “you just don’t get my cause because society has brainwashed you”. Do you believe that a person of intelligence and self-enforced open-mindedness can still never break free of their cultural bias? Are there no consciousness-raisers powerful enough to beat sexism? Because if that’s true, we’re all doomed and activism is just peeing in the wind.)

  24. mpatter
    May 5, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    Call me a hopeless idealist… I’m not exactly proposing we sit down for tea and cake with Fred Phelps.
    I just don’t think this particular publication is a sexist joke – it’s considerably more subtle. Would you propose censoring this kind of stuff? Ought there to be a law?
    While we’re whistling and making posies, why not reflect on just how much better society has become in the last century or so, from a not-too-distant time of male-only suffrage and higher education? The very fact that this throwaway-humorist could be seen as at all repressive speaks volumes for how far the pendulum has swung in favour of equality. I wouldn’t say for a second that we’ve arrived, only that we’re heading in the right direction.
    Thanks in no small part to a generation of excellent role models like yourself. 🙂

  25. mpatter
    May 7, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    Re: censorship. I brought up the idea of censorship, “unprovoked” as it were. I’d like to make it an open question, about what Zuska (and you) would consider an acceptable pathway to rubbing these offending references out of society. Censorship by legislation is one strategy that could be pursued – the first that came to my mind. I’d enjoy getting your opinion about it. Presumably you would rather live in a world without gender smog… but how would you go about attaining one? Or is the milder strategy of vocal critique (including on this blog and yours) of the stereotypes you find likely to bring about change, in your opinions?
    I do see the difference between deliberate discrimination and unwitting conformity to discriminatory social norms. I’m happy that you do too, and you explore it nicely in your essay. (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.)
    But the central message of your essay seems to be: Sexism can be objectively evaluated, but only if one “learns the patterns of the patriarchy and the history of women’s oppression”. The skeptic in me reads that as “change your subjective viewpoint to my equally subjective viewpoint.”
    Actually, I think it’s a shame, because I like and agree with your viewpoint – I just don’t step to using the language of objectivity. I dream of a world where one day we might remove the inbuilt, subconscious /biological/ bias that leads humans in isolation to default to male-dominated social structures. (I think there is one; that’s hard to prove, and so a bit contentious.)
    But, I recognise that there’s no objective way to decide how to run the world. My morality happens to start with a default setting of “equal rights for all fully-grown human beings”. But some people’s morals lay weight on respect for authority, or tradition, or reverence for God, or the perpetuation of female repression, because they think in their heart of hearts that it’s right.
    So it’s not really about who’s right… only who wins.
    (if this conversation is getting too long for the comments on this blog, someone please let me know)

  26. mpatter
    May 8, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    I’m sorry, my mistake.

  27. mpatter
    May 9, 2009 at 9:40 am

    @volcanista: Sadly, I don’t think it’s possible for you or anyone else to be objective, when dealing with an issue that you are so passionate about. To come to Melissa’s conclusions means not just being aware of history, but taking a very particular view on the role history has played in influencing the current state of the genders in culture.
    You have an opinion-biased stance, but one that is increasingly acceptable in some parts of the world – so history might just be on your side.
    – –
    Also, I’m now pretty sure we both understand the very real issue of the difference between damaging words and the intent behind them. There is room for disagreement about what constitutes “a sexist person” (some could argue that intent isn’t needed to be one). That semantic issue might cloud debates, but is peripheral to the issue.
    – –
    Good luck (genuinely) with continuing to call people out and raise awareness of gendered language and values. This tactic has (arguably) had success stories, I believe it has contributed e.g. to profound changes in the way ethnic minorities are seen in the UK in the last few decades. (Successive governments were also on board with countering racism, but it takes more than government position to actually change a society.)

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