Women still secondary characters in comics

A recent paper in presented to the American Sociological Association suggests that female characters in the largest (most read) comic strips in America treat women characters more as props than leading characters. Conclusions in the report are based on studying Blondie, Beetle Bailey, Family Circus, Hagar, Garfield and Dilbert for one full year.

An analysis of six of the most popular nationally syndicated comic strips over the course of a year shows that women appeared less than half the time and when they did the gag was on them, said Daniel Fernandez-Baca, a UF graduate student in sociology. He presented his paper at a meeting of the American Sociological Association this week.

“When they do appear, for the most part, women don’t say anything funny or act humorously, but merely set up the joke and allow men to create the humor,” he said.

Other than being a straight man or foil to the laugh-inspiring male character, women were used mostly to reinforce certain humorous stereotypes, such as the harried or henpecking housewife, Fernandez-Baca said.

The study’s author also reports that accurately depicting female characters in comics is important because it can “can encourage incorrect or misleading perceptions of people” in impressionable children and adolescents who read the comics.

33 thoughts on “Women still secondary characters in comics

  1. It is like the newspaper comics are stuck in a vacuum, not reflecting our current times, at all.

    Oh wait, everyone already knows that.

    Did the study also look at how many non-white characters, male or female, show up in these particular strips? That seems to be just as valid a case especially with these strips.

  2. “…impressionable young adolescent children and adolescents who read the comics”

    First, I’d be shocked and amazed if today’s child or teenager regularly read newspaper strips.

    Second, just because you see your ethnicity or gender properly represented in comics doesn’t mean it’s going to be a more enjoyable experience. I won’t name any by name, but I’ve seen comics put women and ethnic folks in the limelight as the main comedians. They’re still just as boring and unfunny as if a white male had delivered the joke.

  3. And most folks doing stand-up comedy are male. Oh noes!
    And most folks doing comedy writing are male. Oh noes!
    And most folks who do math for a living are male. Oh noes!

    Won’t someone fix this terrible inequity NOW. Seriously, hurry up. Lets change the language or something, that’ll work… πŸ˜‰

  4. Of course, they didn’t study For Better or for Worse, Cathy, Rose Is Rose, Sally Forth, Brenda Starr, Luann, 9 Chickweed Lane, Lola, Mary Worth…

  5. It seems a bit contradictory to say, “women appeared less than half the time and when they did the gag was on them,” and then turn around and say that women “merely set up the joke and allow men to create the humor.”

    Just because the male character is funny doesn’t necessarily mean he was funny at a female character’s expense. For example, I think it’s unfair to say that Blondie is the butt of more jokes than Dagwood.

    But there’s no argument that the strips mentioned are male-dominated. On the other hand, they were included in this study because they’re “popular.” Given that more than half are legacy strips, it’s not surprising that a) they’re written by and for males, and b) they have client papers with large circulations, if not necessarily actual readers of the strips.

  6. While I agree that women are under-represented on the comics pages…

    I don’t think simply choosing strips with a 1500+ newspaper client list is an accurate way in gauging how women are portrayed on the comics pages. I think it’s fairly safe to assume Mr. Fernandez-Baca feels these strips have considerable reach because of the numbers…and they do…but I think there are other factors to consider in researching this topic.

    Out of (ballparking it here) about 225 syndicated strips, he has chosen 6. Of those 6, 4 are titled with a male name…so obviously the strip is going to feature a male character. (Dilbert, Garfield, Beetle Bailey and Hagar) Tallying the number of times a woman appears in 4 “male-protagonist” comics doesn’t really seem to carry a lot of weight in a research paper that is trying to determine women’s portrayal on the comics pages.

    He says, “Compared with the shifts that have occurred in cultural perceptions about sex roles, women in these strips have changed very little, when they are funny, the humor follows predictable asumptions once commonly held about women’s lives.”

    Granted, the women characters in two of these strips may not have evolved in a major way along with “cultural perceptions about sex roles” in other areas but Mr. Fernandez-Baca is completely ignoring the increase and influence of women cartoonists who feature female protagonists within the past twenty years. (And that’s not including such heavy-weights as Cathy Guisewite and Lynn Johnston who have had a huge impact on the comics pages beginning even further back in the 70’s)

    This is not supposed to be a rant, btw…I just think that for a sociolgical study, the research was very narrow.

  7. And this is why webcomics are important, folks.

    I can easily name a handful of webcomics with female leads, let alone comics with multidimensional female characters as part of the cast.

  8. Ridiculous study. Throw those results out, please. This is hardly even a study. The results are from a mere six comic strips, four of which are legacy. The sensibilities in those strips are the same as they’ve always been, so I’m not surprised by the findings there. Those are really more of a lesson in the history of American culture than anything.

    Garfield shouldn’t count, because it’s about a cat. Human characters hardly appear, and when they do, it’s usually Jon. Dilbert I’m okay with being in the study, mainly because it’s newer than the others.

    But… seriously, why only six strips? Is it hard to look at every strip in syndication for a year and see how women are portrayed? It’s not like there aren’t online archives for all of them that anyone can look through and study this. I really hope no one at the American Sociological Association Mr. Fernandez-Baca or his paper seriously.

    Perhaps I’m overreacting, but the way this study was conducted really is outrageous, not only from the perspective of comics and journalism, but from a scientific perspective as well.

  9. Daniel Fernandez-Baca is a goober. But he’s learned his lesson well in academia… carefully pick the source material that will get you the ridiculous, biased answer you wanted all along, then report it as a serious study! Whee!

    He has a stellar future at either CNN or the Washingon Post.

  10. I find it interesting that in the webcomic world not only are there plenty of female characters and creators, but some of the BEST characters and creators are female.

    I wonder if this has something to do with anonymity on the internet.

    Just check out this partial list:

    Octopus Pie
    Cat and Girl
    The Devil’s Panties
    Girls with Slingshots
    Hark a Vagrant
    Girl Genius
    The Phoenix Requiem
    My Cardboard Life
    Templar, AZ

    and the list goes on…

  11. @Rachel – The only multidimensional female character I can think of off the top of my head is Jenny Everywhere πŸ˜›

    Lots of good ladycentric webcomics out there. Once the white male syndicate editors start dying off we’ll probably see more women in print comics (assuming newspapers still exist by then).

  12. Women aren’t secondary characters in OUR syndicated comic strip, where both the male and female protagonist have traded off being the butt of gags for nearly a decade. Take that, Patriarchy!
    By the way, Jules Rivera, in my experience, kids and teens enthusiastically read daily comic strips, at least when they’re around.

  13. Studying comics that are “most popular” but still based in the 1950s will give pretty predictable results. These strips were created with men in the center of all stories and their basic premises will never really change.

    Studying strips that were created since 1970, when the second wave of feminism influenced the creation of Cathy, For Better of For Worse, and Sylvia, and now include Between Friends, Stone Soup, Tina’s Groove, Pajama Diaries, Six Chix and more, would yield a different result.

    Sorry we “gals” don’t make his list of most popular. We are stuck trying to make headway in a very old fashioned medium where strips from 60 years ago still reign, and therefore do not reflect modern life in any real way.

    The strips I’ve named all have female lead characters and largely female casts. There are more of us than ever. All this study really proves is that newspapers have antiquated comics pages. No wonder fewer and fewer kids read them.

  14. That is a study biased from the beginning and designed to provide a result already desired. No credibility at all.

  15. >>Studying strips that were created since 1970, when the second wave of feminism influenced the creation of Cathy, For Better of For Worse, and Sylvia, and now include Between Friends, Stone Soup, Tina?s Groove, Pajama Diaries, Six Chix and more, would yield a different result.<<

    Absolutely. Not to mention a result that was relevant.

    …the criteria (1500+ newspapers) used for exploring this study is ridiculous.

  16. I don’t know what’s more “antiquated” – today’s comic pages or the notion that “sexism” has something to do with the lack of quality comics produced by women.

    I have never seen an editor reject a good comic strip because it was produced by a man. On the contrary- they go out of their way to reach out to all demographics.

    Sylvia? Baldo? Mallard Fillmore?

  17. Both of my King Features strips feature women as the undisputed lead characters: Wendy in “On the Fastrack” and Samantha in “Safe Havens.” In “Kevin & Kell,” Kell may get second billing but she’s equal to Kevin in every possible way. πŸ™‚

  18. Strips featuring women characters, such as On the Fastrack, Safe Havens, Edge City, Lola, Agnes, etc. should have figured into this study as well. Each of these features and more have contemporary women figures in them. This just reinforces how irrelevant the research is…Mr. Fernandez-Baca has ignored the huge chunk of the comic page that addresses his topic.

    Mostly, I’m just amazed that someone would present a university level research paper (from what I understand he is a student working on his Masters) about how women are portrayed in the comics and virtually ignore every female comic strip character that exists.

  19. Good point, Sandra. I’ll add: “Cathy”, For Better or For Worse…strips that feature have featured women as main characters for decades. Speaking of that, it’s interesting that they chose to study four (out of six) strips that are over 60 years old…some of them well over. The premises of those four strips are antiquated. What’s next, a study of the sexism in “I Love Lucy” and “The Brady Bunch” — which are both actually newer than those strips and the characters within them.

  20. I’m not sure if it’s correct to call it sexism if male editors are a bit biased towards male-produced strips. Men and Women experience life differently on several fundamental levels, so a strip a female editor might really like wouldn’t necessarily get much of a reaction from her male counterpart.

    Study does seem biased to push the ‘men are bastards and it’s still the 50s’ agenda though.

  21. At least men are still portrayed as idiotic, infantile slobs who rely on their patiently wise, all-knowing, mature wives to tell them what to do in 90% of TV commercials and sitcoms. I would say that it is some kind of conspiracy, but most of the writers of those ads/shows are probably men too, so it must be more about what they think will sell to their target audience.

  22. This study is laughable. If it had been taken say, 40 years ago, it may have had a bit of importance. Instead,thank god for social progress, and doubly so for the internets so that those who once were labelled “lady cartoonists” can just get on with it and create.

  23. It should be 50% comics for women, 50% comics for men , ( there wil be a crossover of strips that are enjoyed by both sexes), there shouldn’t be a situation where it becomes 90% of strips are for men or 90% for women

  24. It “should be” just what it is. It is a popularity contest, determined by the folks who are running a business using whatever method they choose, however arbitrary. If “what sells” happens to be ANY percentage favoring ANY gender, that’s great because THAT’S where the money is.

    Political correctness hasn’t sold a single newspaper yet…

  25. The article on the study has Fernandez-Baca noting that, “Compared with the shifts that have occurred in cultural perceptions about sex roles, women in these strips have changed very little.” Well, isn’t it safe to say that practically everything has changed very little in these strips? And isn’t that why these strips keep running and running and running and running and…?

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