Like most people, I collect cartoons and send them to my friends and post them on my bulletin board. I have one by Callahan, on a postcard, that I bought years ago at a feminist bookstore. It shows a guy standing at the information counter of a similar establishment and the woman behind the counter saying, "This is a feminist bookstore! There is no humor section!" Feminists are often accused of being humorless because we don't find the same things funny that men do: jokes about us. Why women should like being the butt of jokes, especially ones that are usually demeaning, while it's okay for men to take offense at them is something I won't belabor. The point is too obvious. But while it's no longer socially acceptable to tell such jokes in mixed company, they still get told. And women, to be fair, have turned the tables and reciprocated in kind, which is not always such a good thing.
Sexist humor, as topics will when they become socially unacceptable, has gone underground or become far more subtle, sometimes to the point where I (and others, I'm sure) don't know whether I'm just being too sensitive or if the artist really meant that the way it came out. Sunday's Sherman's Lagoon was like that. This is such a silly, innocuous comic 99.999 percent of the time that I almost hate to say anything. Jim Toomey, its creator, supports and advertises a lot of ocean conservation organizations on his site, and generally seems like a good guy, without any particular agenda except humor. The cartoon's main characters are an schlumpy Great White shark, Sherman; his wife Megan (who wears pearls!), and their son Herman; a romantically impaired sea turtle, Fillmore; a young, geeky tropical reef fish named Ernest; Thornton the migrating, sunbathing, alcoholic-slushy drinking polar bear; and a misogynist, misanthropic, scamming, naked hermit crab named Hawthorne. Sherman eats vacationing swimmers and boaters, as Great Whites sometimes do, completely without remorse. Honest, it's funny. And silly. Except not so much this Sunday:
In some ways, it's a typical trope about men's gender identity anxiety, and kinda goofy because Sherman and Hawthorne are such typical "guys." Until that last panel. And then I felt just a little sick. This might not have bothered me as much if I hadn't just been thinking about the male urge to deface women's images that I see all the time on subway advertisements: sexy women with teeth blackened out, Sharpie mustaches, bruises drawn around their eyes, or my particular favorite, a crudely sketched phallus and hairy scrotum aimed at their smiling mouths. Sometimes the women's sexual organs have been sketched in at their crotch with the same crude phallus addition, or their nipples blackened in as though their clothes were transparent. And sometimes, with the women's pictures, there's a knife. The faces and bodies are slashed, disfigured, breasts cut out, or a knife or gun is drawn aimed at their breasts or crotch.
Men in the advertisements get the blackened teeth and mustaches and the dangling or erect phalluses but they seem more a sign of extra manliness than violence, a ramping-up of the testosterone that's already exaggerated by body building, steroids, and PhotoShop. With the women's images, it's clearly an act of humiliation or violence, sometimes both. Knock her teeth out, cut her, fuck her, ruin the commodity she's trading on, her beauty and youth, for whatever reason; impugn her gender identity by giving her male characteristics; and the wider message: make sure women know we can put them in their place with violence.
That's why that last panel of the cartoon bothers me. I know it's playing off the fact that Sherman's son is a Great White shark, and that they do attack and eat humans (Hey, I loved Jaws). Sherman himself regularly munches on swimmers (usually men, come to think of it), so I don't think there was any intention by the cartoonist to condone or encourage violence against women. But the image still bothers me, probably because it's one ingrained in the culture and even when it's meant to seem innocuous, funny, or ironic, it isn't.
Take the Barbie Massacre project, for instance. Girls have a love/hate relationship with their dolls, especially Barbie. We know we will never match her impossible physique; we know we will never be as desirable as she is to Ken (and aren't sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing); we hate her because she's beautiful. And stupid. Even when she represents a powerful Superheroine like Black Canary, there's something wrong with her. She dilutes the image because Barbie, face it, is a helpless bimbo. I had the full Barbie set with Ken and Skipper and Madge when I was a kid and quickly lost interest. It was too much like my own life: My blonde best friend got the guys while I was the cute but dateless sidekick or the obnoxious "little sister." That picture of how my life was going to turn out did not appeal to me. So I completely understand the impulse of these six women to mutilate Barbie. It's one many women share.
Nonetheless, the images are deeply disturbing, not least because they've taken tropes from every vicious and bloody slasher flick and turned them on the dolls, who are so often a stand-in for what real women should be like, and just as defenseless as women often are against male violence. Slasher flick violence is whole other category I won't go into here (one that's been handily addressed elsewhere not just by other women including my friend Jennifer on HuffPo but by Joss Whedon), but it also pervades the culture. In the hands of six women, the Barbie Massacre images become a statement, intentional or not; if done by a man, they become threatening. Why? Because they happen in real life, too.
And maybe that's part of my problem with Jim Toomey's cartoon this weekend. He's just the wrong gender to be making cracks about biting the heads off of Barbie dolls. Sorry if that's sexist.