Adventures in Post-Proposal Reading: The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For
First off, I want to apologize to my vast legion of followers across the Internet for the long break between posts. The main reason that I’ve been gone has been the fact that I was spending a lot of time obsessing over my dissertation prospectus, which I finally defended last week. With all that fear and trembling momentarily abated, I’m planning to write a series of intermittent posts about books not directly related to my doctoral research.
Right now, I’m about halfway through award-winning graphic novelist Alison Bechdel’s Essential Dykes to Watch out For. This was not how I planned to start my summer reading. I who had such dreams of finally getting around to devouring War and Peace, In Search of Lost Time, or the collected works of Perry Anderson. That said, this twenty-year soap opera chronicling the ups and downs of a group of lesbian friends living in a town loosely based on Minneapolis has proved a good a place to start as any.
Dykes to Watch out For was a comic strip that ran in alternative weeklies between 1983 and 2008. The strip centers on Mo, a radical feminist, voluble neurotic, and women’s bookstore clerk, and her racially diverse group of friends, who work to advance social justice in battered women’s shelters, environmental law, and academia. They also have a lot of drama in their romantic lives.
It’s fascinating to read the series’ take on the development of the gay rights movement, which Mo already berates for its apparent rightward turn as early as the 1987 March on Washington. As self-declared gay conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan began to gain prominence in the early 1990s with calls for society to accept gays as “normal” rather than advocating for radical social change, Mo’s expresses increasing frustration. Wasn’t being queer about challenging the confines of traditional patriarchal society? Wasn’t it also about attacking hierarchies of class, race, and gender more generally? Mo complains that she will explode next time she hears the phrase “we’re just like everybody else.”
The tension between a queer politics based on challenging social injustice and one that advocates for wide social acceptance underlie some of the best moments in Dykes to Watch out For. For all her radicalism, Mo recognizes that the desire of her friends to raise children, get married, and lead middle class professional lives outside of the closet challenges deeply held heterosexist conventions about what gay people should and should not be. For all her emphasis on subversion, Mo strongly believes in gay rights and gay equality. The series also does a nice job showing how radical lesbians themselves sometimes had difficulty accepting difference into their ranks. In a 1994 strip about including bisexuals and transgendered people in her reading series, Mo admits that she’s “still trying to adjust to lesbians using dildos! What am I supposed to make of a man who became a woman who’s attracted to women?!” Eventually, she comes around.
All in all, this is a fantastic series and the perfect politically pointed, funny, and dramatic antidote for the crass commercialized “feminism” of Sex and the City Part II. Highly recommended.