I was late discovering Dykes to Watch Out For, and the amazing Alison Bechdel. I heard about Dykes to Watch Out For from my friends, and at first, I thought Lois and Mo were fellow students of the women I met for coffee after our seminars. Instead, they were characters from an off-beat strip that ran in various alternative newspapers. One woman told me that she knew when a new episode was out by the number of women hanging outside of the original Amazons Collective bookstore in Minneapolis.
Bechdel’s original Dykes To Watch Out For (possibly better known as DTWOF) strip ran from 1983 to 2008. It is a cultural touchstone and in some ways, a cultural documentary for feminists and lesbians (and political activists) who lived through a era when they were alternately invisible or targets for ostracism. While there is a strong element of soap opera (who’s dating who? who’s sleeping with who? Hey, did she wink at me?) there’s a lot more biting social commentary. Dykes to Watch Out For is the place where the Bechdel Test was born, in a 1985 strip Bechdel titled “The Rule.” An unnamed female character explains that she only watches a movie if it meets the following conditions:
- The movie has to have at least two women in it.
- The women talk to each other.
- About something besides a man.
Most of the characters have an association with a fictitious feminist bookstore called Madwimmin Bookstore; at one point the protagonist Mo, forced to find a new job when the bookstore closes tries working at Bounders Books and Muzak in a parody of a now defunct chain. It’s oddly endearing to look back at a time when social events happened entirely offline, often in coffee shops and cafes and naturally, co-ops. In addition to the relationship problems, we see characters struggle with social roles, gender, politics, war, vegetarianism, fidelity, children and parenthood, over the course of roughly 21 years.
The Essential Dykes to Look Out For contains 527 strips, and an opening essay about how the strip was born. There’s even a convenient character index at the end. Many of these strips were previously collected in a series of twelve or so books previously, but this is so far the most complete collection, including 60 or so strips that haven’t been previously collected in a book. It’s fascinating to look back at strips written during the era when same-sex marriage wasn’t even really a hope, gender fluidity was a mass of tangled issues that we didn’t really have vocabulary to discuss, and to see hard things being talked about with grace and humor. Bechdel has compared Dykes to Watch Out For to a Victorian novel, and she’s not wrong. That said, one of the fun things about these strips are the sly literary allusions, both in the dialog and in the backgrounds.
Did I mention that this collection is exceedingly funny? It is. It’s also true, and it’s a book that you find yourself picking up for a few minutes, and then look up two hours later having been immersed in the lives of Mo, and Lois and Sparrow and Toni and their various friends, children, lovers, spouses and housemates.
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008)