Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Queer Comics: The Politics of Representation in Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For (1983-2008)

By Sophie Lawson

When Alison Bechdel’s comic strip, ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ (DTWOF) first appeared in 1983 it was a novel creation. ‘DTWOF’ follows the lives of a friendship group of lesbian women navigating love, friendship and work in an unnamed city in the U.S in the late 1980s. Published in LGBTQ newspapers, and online in its later years, until 2008, it is one of the longest running and one of the most prominent series featuring lesbians in U.S media and print culture.[1] Whilst providing one of the first representations in comic culture of explicit lesbian passion and inter-racial same-sex relationships, Bechdel’s strip also provides a key insight into contemporary political events through a queer and feminist perspective during a period of conservatism under President Reagan in the 1980s.[2]

The production of comic books, generally low-tech and more democratic than mainstream media, has long attracted a traditionally “marginalised” readership, or at least those outside the mainstream norm.[3] Comic books have also long depicted female same-sex attraction and identity, the earliest, and most famous, example being ’Wonder Woman’.[4] Launched in 1941 as part of propaganda for the war effort, she also infamously had traits many linked to lesbianism, coming from an island only inhabited by women and her signature expression being “Suffering Sappho!” – Sappho being a well-known, historic symbol of female same-sex attraction.[5] However, in the wake of second-wave feminism, the Stonewall Rebellion and a growing lesbian liberation movement, lesbian characters started to feature explicitly rather than implicitly in comic book culture.[6] Trina Robbins’ iconic strip ‘Sandy Comes Out’ was featured in the first issue of Wimmen’s Comix in 1972, followed by an array of titles like ‘Come Out Comix’ (1974), ‘Dyke Shorts’ (1978) and ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’(1983).[7] Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ highlighted the importance of representation of lesbians in texts, namely in academic scholarship, that do not treat lesbian existence as a “marginal” or a less “natural” phenomenon.[8] Similarly, the representation of lesbians in material culture is equally significant in its role in constructing queer identities and histories.  ‘DTWOF’ was not only a product of the lesbian liberation movement of the 1980s but a part of it, grounded in desire for true representation of queer women. As Bechdel herself argues “if people could only see us…how could they help but love us?!”.[9] In Episode 18 of ‘DTWOF’, published in 1987, some of the group are “en route to the march on Washington” when one of the main characters, Mo, overhears a child ask their mother if she was “a boy or a girl?”.[10] Harriet responds to Mo with, “So? You shook up a little kid’s assumptions. It was good for her”, with Clarice adding “…you should try being the first black person one of these corn-fed kids has ever seen”.[11] Reflecting what queer theory and gender theory scholars such as Judith Butler have theorised, Bechdel acknowledges the potential for fluid performances of gender within queer spaces and the need for society to ‘make sense’ of gender in a male/female binary.[12] Moreover, this exemplifies the way in which Bechdel uses humour and the comic genre to challenge stereotypes within the queer community and wider society, such as white-washing of feminist and LGBTQ activism, whilst depicting the everyday challenges queer women have to face, such as being misgendered, challenged or discriminated against in public for their gender, sexuality and race.

A. Bechdel, Dykes to Watch out For Episode 11 ‘On the Road’ (1987): [accessed 12/02/20]

A. Bechdel, Dykes to Watch out For Episode 18 ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1987): [accessed 12/02/20].

Whilst having classic attributes of soap-opera like love-triangles and comedy, ‘DTWOF’ is rooted in the representation of lesbians at the forefront of social justice movements for equality, commenting on contemporary political events.[1] Comic book theorists like Darieck Scott and Ramzi Fawaz have highlighted the potential for comics, produced by illustrators like Bechdel, to function as queer and gender histories.[2] In Episode 11 of the first series of ‘DTWOF’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1987), Bechdel addresses the corporatisation and conservatism of Pride, a debate which is still very relevant to date.[3] The group are at a Pride march when Mo challenges the increasingly “conservative” nature of the march, acknowledging the role of the AIDs crisis and Reaganism in detracting from the origins of Pride as an anniversary of the revolutionary Stonewall Riots in 1969, in response to police brutality against LGBTQ people.[4] With only one FDA drug on the market when Reagan left office in 1989, there was outrage in the LGBTQ community with many arguing that he was intentionally preventing drugs from being released.[5] The diversity of marchers in the strip, from AIDs activists to “Lesbian Investment Bankers” provides a unique queer woman’s insight into the divergent agendas, conflicts and struggles within the LGBTQ movement and Pride in this period.[6]

Bechdel’s ‘DTWOF’ highlights contemporary struggles surrounding racial, gender and LGBTQ equality through a contemporary queer woman’s perspective. It challenges stereotypes of lesbianism and womanhood, whilst humorously poking at the state of 1980s America, providing a queer women’s history through comic books.

[1] M.A Abate, K.M Grice, and C.N. Stamp, ‘Introduction: Suffering Sappho!: Lesbian content and queer female characters in comics’, Journal of Lesbian Studies 22/4 (2018) 329-335, 330.

[2] H. Malinowitz, ‘Hot, Throbbing Dykes to Watch Out For’, The Women’s Review of Books 15/2 (1997), 6-7, 6.

[3] D. Scott and R. Fawaz, ‘Introduction: Queer about Comics’, American Literature 90/2 (2018), 197-218, 201.

[4] Abate, et. al, ‘Introduction’, 329.

[5] Ibid, 329-330.

[6] Ibid, 330.

[7] Ibid, 330, Malinowitz, ‘Hot, Throbbing Dykes’, 6.

[8] A. Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980)’, Journal of Women’s History 15/3 (2003), 11-48, 13-14.

[9] J. K Gardiner, ‘Queering Genre: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home’, Contemporary Women’s Writing 5/3 (2001), 188-207, 196.

[10] A. Bechdel, DTWOF ‘On the Road’ (1987): [accessed 12/02/20]

[11] Ibid.

[12] J. Butler, Gender Trouble (New York, 1990), 6.

[13] Malinowitz, ‘Hot, Throbbing Dykes’, 6.

[14] Scott and Fawaz, ‘Introduction’, 199.

[15] N. Kumar, ‘The Double Edged Sword of Corporate, Commercialised Pride’, Them (June 2019), [accessed 12/02/20].

[16] Bechdel, DTWOF, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1987): [accessed 12/02/20].

[17] L. Richert, ‘Reagan, Regulation and the FDA’, Canadian Journal of History 44/3 (2009), 467-487, 469.

[18] Bechdel, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1987): [accessed 12/02/20].