Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
Not sure what to say about this:
For those who don’t recognize it, this is a recent strip of a comic called “Stone Soup”. It’s a “crazy family life” comic in which the middle-aged parents deal with the whacky antics of their kids, relatives, and co-workers. It’s pretty middle-of-the-road, though far from “Family Circle” or “Cathy” territory. You’d have to look hard to find a political edge to it, but it has a kind of “post-feminist” sensibility: both of the main female characters work while rasing kids as single moms (one has since married), there is a grandmother and a nephew living with the sisters as extended family, the father character really wants to be involved with his step-kids . . . . The bio of the strip creator (Jan Eliot) says she majored in Women’s Studies and raised two kids as a single mother for years while trying to get her comic strip off the ground; from all this I expect more of a “Go, Girl!” edge to the comic than it really seems to have.
So, about a week ago, the strip started a story arc in which the married sister becomes unexpectedly pregnant – and is clearly hating it. Neither she nor her husband planned for or want another child (they are raising two who are depicted as typical comic-strip-child succubi). She spends the next few strips becoming increasingly frantic about the burdens and disruption another child will cause, as every single one of her relatives, neighbors, and co-workers chimes in with unwanted commentary. Yesterday, she burst into the above freak-out, and continues it today:
This seems a little more resigned than before, but both of them clearly wish things were otherwise. So the obvious question is: why shouldn’t they be? But that’s the one thought nobody in this strip seems to have entertained in the slightest degree.
I would venture to say there is no fictional female two-dimensional newspaper comic strip character in America right now who more desperately needs an abortion than this woman. But she shows no sign of even considering it. She, her husband, her semi-progressive mother, and the legions of nosy neighbors have all assumed without the slightest consideration that “inconveniently pregnant against your will” obviously entails “having and raising an unplanned child you don’t want and can’t deal with” – and that that is not only obligatory, not merely right for you whether you think so or not, but, in fact, so inevitable that the alternatives literally don’t exist. The pregnant character precisely articulates all the reasons why she doesn’t want to have a baby and shouldn’t, but never once articulates the idea that she doesn’t choose to have a baby and won’t for just those same reasons. She willingly stereotypes herself with misogynist biological myths (“Pregnancy makes me crazy”; “Hormones are flying”; being unhappy with pregnancy is “abnormal”) and bows her head to the yoke. (Her sister helps by commiserating with the man in her life that she’s “high maintenance”.)
I may be obsessing a bit too much over an obscure comic strip, but I don’t think so. It has been widely remarked what a visceral impact Doonesbury‘s ongoing story of B.D.’s Iraq-war injury has had, on the public and on veterans. Fully 34 years ago, almost to the week, the TV show Maude made history by presenting a strong female character’s choice to have an abortion; the episode provoked a predictable outrage from the predictably outrageable, but it was brave and helpful for them to do it. Popular entertainment has always drawn from real life, and often to exemplary effect . . . all of which is to say that comic strips and comdey shows are and have been very good places for sharp analysis of the strains that make up human lives. Stone Soup could be part of that history if Eliot chose to make it so.
It’s true that Doonesbury and Maude included characters with much more openly political sensibilities than Stone Soup, but in giving her character an unwanted pregnancy Eliot is forcing her into just as politicized a situation as Maude’s or B.D.’s – she is just choosing to let her character fall into an unwanted solution to her problem by refusing to acknowledge or address her more controversial options. Apparently the Women’s Studies major has to be reminded, in the 21st century, what Normal Lear knew without having to be told in the 70s – that the personal is political whether you like it or not.
I would like to see the Stone Soup character come to her senses and have the abortion she obviously wants. I’d like to see the letters of complaint and subscription cancellations. I’d like to see the right-wing fruitcakes pontificating about yet another fictional failure to live by their rules (remember Dan Quayle’s grandstanding over Murphy Brown‘s decision to have a child? – I really want to see them shit themselves over a cartoon character’s decision not to). I’d like a few hundred thousand people to read that decisions are a part of life and that having the freedom to make them is central to living as an adult with a life of one’s own. The more those obvious truths become a part of life in every place we see it – on TV, in the funny papers, and elsewhere – the less entrenched becomes the idea that women’s freedom is some sort of aberration. That would put a smile on my face.
UPDATE: I e-mailed Jan Eliot, asking for her reaction, and she sent me a polite reply. Her major point was this:
Well, you’re a man. Women understand the mixed reaction to pregnancy. It doesn’t mean they don’t want the baby. It’s hormones, hormones, hormones on top of surprise and getting used to the idea of something unplanned. Lots of us were unplanned, lots of our children were unplanned. It’s not always something we’d reverse.
Those are points well taken (though I still think “hormones, hormones, hormones” is both a sloppy stereotype and a well-worn sexist trope). She also declines to torpedo her own strip by inviting a contoversy that could result in cancelled subscriptions, in which regard again she has an understandable point. But as I noted, others have done so, and I keep wanting to see in this strip an antidote to the saccharine conservatism-by-default that marks most comics, especially in regard of their female characters. I mean, Garry Trudeau can’t carry the whole load forever.
But Eliot makes an important statement above: “Women understand the mixed reaction to pregnancy. . . . [L]ots of our children were unplanned. It’s not always something we’d reverse.” One of the more frustrating mental gaps endemic among anti-choicers is their inability to understand that women can have mixed feelings about abortion without making it a bad choice – that one can regret the necessity of a choice one very much endorses, or indeed even wish things could be otherwise without undercutting the validity of the decision made in the circumstances at hand. It’s important then to realize the same can be true in the case of a decision made to bring an unplanned pregnancy to term. The fact that this character didn’t want to be pregnant, or is, even, overwhelmed by the enormity of the changes it comprehends, doesn’t mean she can’t choose to follow through with it. It is characteristic of anti-choicers to insist that only one choice, in the face of an unwanted pregnancy, can be right; the pro-choice position requires recognizing that imperfect outcomes can still be valid, no matter which direction the woman in question decides to go.
As a closing note, I still don’t see anything in the strip that suggests this character really is embracing her pregnancy even with reluctance, or that she has given any consideration to ending it. And that does still seem like conservatism-by-default, to me, but, as Eliot notes, that is not the same as an invalid or unsupportable outcome.
12 Responses to “Forced Pregnancy in the Funny Papers?”
Leave a Reply
Logged in as . Logout »
|« Oct||Dec »|
Theme copyright © 2002–2013Mike Little.