Jun 30, 2010

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For collects the best of twenty-one year’s worth of Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip. The strip mainly follows the life and times of a group of lesbian friends in an unspecified location in the USA. But as time passes, some straight and/or male characters are also introduced.

Over the course of nearly four hundred strips, we get intimately acquainted with the politically conscious and slightly neurotic Mo (I think of her as the main character, but possibly this is mainly because she looks like Bechdel herself); with Clarice and Toni, an interracial couple who are the first to consider becoming parents; with Lois, Sparrow and Ginger, who share a “home for wayward adults”; with the sarcastic and somewhat pretentious but ultimately loveable Sydney; with Jezanna, the owner of Madwimmin Books, a feminist-lesbian bookshop, and the rest of her staff; etc. These are the regular characters, but the cast also includes transgender teens, a very unconventional straight couple, Mo’s friends’ parents, and so on.

Dykes to Watch Outt For
(Mo and Sydney with their cats, Vanessa and Virginia. It’s all about the details.)

Bechdel herself has referred to Dykes to Watch Out For as “half op-ed column and half endless serialised Victorian novel”, which is pretty much the perfect description. The fact that we follow the characters for so long makes it inevitable that we’ll grow immensely attached to them; the op-ed column bit refers to the fact that they’re all highly engaged with the social and political issues of their time. They’re political activists who rarely miss a LGBTQ demonstration; they debate how to conjugate their ideals and their daily lives; they constantly scrutinize race and gender and how these impact their lives; they work at domestic abuse shelters, or alternative bookshops, or as college professors, or as environmental layers; they examine their own prejudices and their privilege; they feel betrayed when one of them gets involved with a man and then realise that this reaction goes again everything they believe in; they write theses on how literary representations of hypersexual lesbians and women of colour contrast with their actual experiences of desire; they ponder monogamy and polyamory, etc. And whatever else they’re doing, they never lose the ability to laugh at themselves.

While these may sound like issues that are very specific to a community of liberal lesbian feminists, the main appeal of The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For is actually how very universal and how human it is. Anyone who struggles to be the best person they can be and to live according to their ideals, whatever these may be, will probably be able to relate to these characters and their conflicts. Bechdel says in her introduction to this volume (which is itself a brilliant comic) that her goal in writing the strip was, first of all, to make lesbians visible; and secondly, to “explode essentialism” by portraying them as complex and diverse human beings. She succeeded brilliantly – Mo and company are nothing if not completely human.

Dykes to Watch Out For
As you can tell by now, I grew to really love these characters, to the point that I was very depressed when the book ended because that meant I wouldn’t get to spend more time with them. What makes them all so loveable is exactly that they’re not perfect. They make mistakes, and yet they do the best they can. Take Mo, for example. She was the character I could relate to the most, and not just because she eventually goes to library school. This is embarrassing to admit, but I could see a lot of myself in her least appealing traits. Mo is, to put it bluntly, a whiner. She talks too much and doesn’t listen nearly enough. She tries her friends’ patience by going on and on about her own worries and rarely ever remembering that they might have troubles of their own. The curious thing, though, is that it would be immensely unfair to call her self-centred. A lot of what keeps her up at night are social problems that don’t affect her directly. So in the end, despite the fact that she tends to neglect those who are closest to her, it’s difficult to think of her as self-absorbed or to refrain from loving her.

Dykes to Watch Out For
(Click to enlarge)

One thing that occurred to me as I read The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For was that it’s possible that someone with different political inclinations than my own will see the same Keep Out neon-signs here that I saw in Narnia. It’s easy for those who care about feminism, the environment, diversity, etc. to feel right at home in this book. But anyone who holds views contrary to those the characters constantly voice might feel alienated. With this in mind, I thought it was interesting that towards the end of the book Bechdel introduced a new character, Cynthia, whom she describes as the “stalwart voice of educated, right-wing sensibility in a sea of bleeding-heart, knee-jerk liberals.” Cynthia is one of Ginger’s students, and though she starts out as a voice of dissent, she turns into an interesting person in her own right. Of course, it’s very easy for me, someone whose sensibilities are very close to those of Mo and her friends, to point to a sole character and to say that her existence means that the book is not, in fact, alienating. But Cynthia’s presence is at least a sign of Bechdel’s willingness to humanise her ideological opponents, and that’s something I really appreciate.

Dykes to Watch Out For
(Click to enlarge)

They read it too:
Nothing of Importance
Athyrium filix-femina (The Lady Fern)

(Have I missed yours?)

34 comments:

  1. It saddens me that my library doesn't have this as I've been wanting to read it for some time; however, it did have Fun Home, and I really enjoyed that.

    The seitan strip makes me laugh in an evil way :s

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  2. It's nice that Bechdel put in a right-wing character to provide a voice for "the other side" (oh dear, I've made it sound so polarizing!). I'm wondering if I'd feel like it had worked, though - I remember when I was watching The West Wing, I wasn't overimpressed with Sorkin's token conservative character. She was intelligent and articulate, but she got overruled nearly every time she spoke up, so I wasn't sure how much her voice was really meant to be heard.

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  3. Oh Ana...this review was perfection! "I grew to really love these characters, to the point that I was very depressed when the book ended because that meant I wouldn’t get to spend more time with them."...Yes! I know exactly what you mean! In fact, you've so made me want to go pull this off the shelf and start reading it again...and I seriously think I will. :)

    What you said about the Keep Out signs. I definitely think if my worldview were different, I would have felt "left out" of this book. And I remember thinking that as I read the book. And yet, I hope that wouldn't have made me stop reading. (And it's something I need to keep in mind when I find myself in the midst of a book that so diverges from the things I hold dear.) Because the book held such honesty and the characters were so human in their imperfections. You know, as it, yes--the vast majority of these characters had a left-wing sensibility but that didn't make them perfect human beings, it didn't mean they were always right, it didn't mean they didn't make mistakes and learn and grow up. And getting to know people as people, not solely as any particular belief they hold, is really what makes being a part of this human community so incredible.

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  4. I wonder if my library might have this one too. I really enjoyed Fun Home and this sounds like it has fabulous characters in it.

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  5. Having just finished Fun Home recently, I was thrilled to see this review. (My library does not carry it, unfortunately.) I think the lady is brilliant and easy to like with her "take me as I am" persona, and have no doubt she creates her characters to be the same way. I love the fact that she created a character to show the opposing view. I'll have to search this one out somehow.

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  6. I think you'll be seeing a lot of comments that say "my library and/or bookstore doesn't carry this!" ...which is so unfortunate!!! I didn't know about Cynthia - I have to seek this out and see what she's all about!

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  7. I absolutely need to read this. I mean, even the Bechdel Test is a part of my life- time to see where it came from!

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  8. This sounds really interesting, but also interesting how you point out that others might be alienated. I'm also glad to see that she made an effort to include the other side and portray them as human and not 'evil', but I can see that not everyone would enjoy the collection. Still, sounds like something I would enjoy :)

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  9. And also, if EVERYONE liked a book that would probably mean it didn't actually make a point, because there will always be people who disagree, right?

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  10. I put this on my list right after reading Fun Home, so I'm excited to see that you've read it and enjoyed it.

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  11. I've always enjoyed reading the Dykes to Watch Out For strips when I've spotted them around, and know I would get a kick out of reading the whole story from beginning to...well, wherever this collections ends. I like that she has a certain wry humor about her subculture - it's also basically my subculture, so those laughs at our own expense are some of the most enjoyable for me. :-)

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  12. Wow, I've never heard of anything like this! I love the style of illustration, and the comic as a whole sounds really interesting and relatable.

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  13. Oh, this one goes on the list for sure! I loved your review and the thoughtful analysis that you gave this book. I think that although I am not a art of this community, I share some of the ideals and ideas that would make this an interesting read for me. I also love the artwork in this book. It seems like every time I stop over here I am introduced to a new and exciting book that I just have to have! Wonderful review, I am so getting this one!

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  14. While this is one I've wanted to read for a long time now, I'm afraid I have the same problem with comic collections as I do with short story collections - I just get overwhelemed after a few strips/stories and then rest stops sticking with me. :(

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  15. I love this. Must get myself a copy. Takes me back...

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  16. Great review. It's been a while since I've read this book - I ran upstairs to get it after reading your review, because it's been sitting in the bookshelf at the top of the stairs for so long, but then remembered my husband industriously packed away all the upstairs books last week! Now I'm feeling the urge to go through all the books and dig it out.

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  17. Isn't this by the same author who wrote Fun Home? I started that one a few months ago and got distracted with other things. I need to finish that one and add some of her others to my list. I'm hopelessly behind with my reading in the graphic novel genre!

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  18. "Anyone who struggles to be the best person they can be and to live according to their ideals, whatever these may be, will probably be able to relate to these characters and their conflicts." <-- This is exactly how I felt about Fun Home, which is still one of my all-time favorite books. I've got to track this one down! I've yet to read anything else by her.

    Can I just say that my TBR list is growing much more quickly since I started following your blog?! But don't worry, that's a good thing :)

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  19. The funny thing is my library used to have this book. I just tried to put it on hold, but it's not in the system. So I just asked my library to buy another copy for check out! I love Bechdel's Fun Home. Can't wait to read this.

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  20. After reading Fun Home I definitely want to check out more of her books. I need to see if my library has this one! Thank you for the reminder.

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  21. I've been seeing everyone loving her book "Fun Home" and I wonder if this might be an even better introduction to her work ... and then on to "Fun Home."

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  22. This sounds so wonderful!! And it makes me think of Dewey so much. Did she review this? Every time I think of this book I think of her. I really need to get my hands on this one. And I absolutely love the title!! Best title ever :)

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  23. Lovely review, Ana! I have to add this book to my 'TBR' list. I have heard about Alison Bechdel before but I didn't know that she has written comics for 20 years! How come she has been doing that and I haven't read any of her stories even once!!

    I found this sentence of yours, quite interesting - "they debate how to conjugate their ideals and their daily lives". I have rarely seen the word 'conjugate' being used, and it was nice to see it being used so beautifully :)

    I saw your comment on Narnia, and found it quite interesting. I read something about this recently and so I am going to read your review of 'The Magician's Book' now, and comment on it :)

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  24. Chris, yes, she did review it. It was the first time I had heard of this book and it's been on my wish list ever since.

    I have a feeling that when I eventually will read this, it will go straight into my all time favourites.

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  25. I actually just finished reading Bechdel's Fun Home last night. How ironic. I think your comment about finding an inroad to this if you're a person that is interested and politically aligned with ideas of diversity, etc. to be absolutely true. I find that encountering commentary like I found in Fun Home to be really enlightening, because I've studied issues of gender a lot in the past. I realize though, that if I introduced her book to some of my friends or family, they might completely miss the heart of what she is trying to say. Others might view her work as a bit in your face, while in reality she seems to be addressing a truth that was revealed for her, that we get an inside view of. It's so interesting.

    Thanks for your review of this book. I'll have to see if I can get my hands on it. Thanks!

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  26. Ok, I will read this if you promise to read Strangers in Paradise (but you have to read the whole series, and believe me, you will want to).

    :)

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  27. I love Alison Bechdel - espcially when I see movies. Is the Bechdel rule strip in this book?

    The Bechdel Rule: A good movie must satisfy 3 basic requirements: 1, it must have at least two women in it
    who, 2, talk to each other about, 3, something besides a man.

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  28. Man, you are so lucky! I have been wanting to get my hands on this for so long but I can't seem to find it anywhere.

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  29. Claire: I'd lend you my cope if only it weren't such a heavy hardcover :( I hope your library gets it soon! And I laughed too :P

    Jenny: Yeah, I'm not sure how much it'd have worked if I weren't me. I always worry about being insensitive and just dismissing things that might make me feel excluded if I were a different sort of person, but it can really hard to guess how I'd feel in that case. The most I can say is that Cynthia felt like a real person, and she was never ridiculed.

    Debi: Yes, I agree that they weren't perfect, and that still still made mistakes. And yet they were so loveable. Makes em think there might be hope for the likes of me :P Also, I love this: "And getting to know people as people, not solely as any particular belief they hold, is really what makes being a part of this human community so incredible." :)

    Vivienne: Fingers crossed that it does!

    Sandy: Boo! Clearly more libraries should have it!

    Jill: Your prediction was correct! I wonder if the title might make some libraries hesitate to carry it? If so, it's very unfortunate :\

    Clare: Sadly, that strip wasn't included! Such a shame.

    Amy: I agree with you when it comes to non-ficion, but I don't like to think of stories as setting out to deliberately make a point, you know? At least not a single one anyway. I see fiction as always being about so much more than conveying a single idea. Anyway, I think you'd really enjoy it, yes!

    Trisha: I have little doubt that you will too!

    Emily: I felt the same way. I loved that she poked fun at all the in-fighting in feminist and leftist circles. Those disagreements are usual about things that matter to me, but that doesn't mean we can't laugh at ourselves :)

    Emidy: Yes, I really love Bedchel's style :)

    Zibilee: Yes, same here. My knowledge of the LBGTQ subculture is that of an outsider, but I can still really identify with their ideals, which make me feel right at home.

    Amanda: Aw, that's too bad :( If it helps, even though each strip is self-contained there's definitely some continuity, so it reads a bit like a novel.

    Jack: I can't believe it took me this long to read these strips!

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  30. Belle: I hope it doesn't prove too hard to dig out!

    Kathleen: Yes it is! You do need to finish Fun Home! I hope you manage to read more of the medium [it's strong than me! :P] soon.

    Breena: I'm glad to hear it's a good thing :P If you loved Fun Home I have no doubt you'll love this too :)

    Vasilly: Oh no! I wonder what happened to it.

    Iliana: I hope you find it!

    Jenners: Fun Home is shorter, but other than that, I think both would work great as an intro.

    Chris: Yes she did! Not this collection, as it only came out around the time she passed, but some of the individual issues. Like Valentina, that was where I first heard of them.

    Vishy: Yes, she's been around for a long, long time! I can't believe it took me so long to get to these either. And "conjugate" is probably a result of my crappy English :P I use a lot of Latinate words because as a speaker of Portuguese, they look completely natural to me, and I forgot how unusual they actually are in English :P I will respond to your Narnia comment very soon!

    Valentina: I think it will!

    Becky: Can I just say I love your comment? I notice that people (and I don't exclude myself) do tend to dismiss people who unapologetically voice views different than their own as too loud/shrill/in-your-face, which can be such a shame. I love that inside view you mention.

    Daphne: Deal! When September comes I'll look for Strangers in Paradise in my new library system.

    Lorin: Sadly it isn't! I can't believe she didn't include it - it's such a classic.

    Rae: I'm sorry to hear it! I was very lucky indeed, as a good friend got it for me as a gift.

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  31. This was one of my best book purchases of the year, and a book I'm proud to own. I know I will keep reading it over and over. One of the few books I'd rather NOT have to return to the library!

    Thanks for your wonderful review, as always. I thought the main character's name is 'Mo' though (short for Monica)?

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  32. I've been meaning to come back and comment on this forever. I like that you acknowledge that the book might alienate others with a different worldview, but I'm glad there was inclusion of one. It's hard to do that, as a creator, to create a really humanized version of the other.. :)

    But I had to laugh at what Jenny said...there was a show I used to watch where the conservative characters were not really very conservative at all. I often felt disappointed the writers didn't have the nerve to give them the opposing viewpoints and also make it seem reasonable they would hold those views. It told me that the writers couldn't stomach loving a character who thought/felt differently in many significant ways. It just made me sad.

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  33. I remember reading this post when you posted it and just wanted to stop by and say that I read her first Dykes to Watch Out For and loved it. :) I'll link to this when I write MY post. Thanks!!

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  34. I just read this and sadly I didn't love it very much. I'm not sure why it didn't resonate for me but it just didn't, although I can see all of your points. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for it.

    I do hope you'll read SIP when you can! It is totally different than this and completely wonderful.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.