Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Women in Questionable Content: sexuality and identity

Dora hugs Tai. From Questionable Content #1596, by Jeph Jacques
Questionable Content, the long-running webcomic by Jeph Jacques, is pretty hetero-centric. It puts consistent emphasis on relationships between cis men and cis women - I would list all of the pairings of this description in the comic if it wouldn't double the length of this piece. But it is not heteronormative; though Jacques' focus is on typical heterosexual romantic drama, he makes an effort not to erase other sexualities. Though it has major flaws, Questionable Content (QC) is generally very considerate of different sexualities and identities in developing its universe.

While the central relationship of Dora and Marten is heterosexual, not all members of said relationship are quite so straight. Dora is openly bisexual - a fact that has long been established in the script. She talks about being attracted to women, including, uh, Marten’s mom, (a sex worker) and her friends (which gets a little creepy sometimes). Her identification is presented completely with stigma or marginalization; her relationship with Marten does not make her bisexuality less real, and her attraction to women does not negate her partnership with Marten. Furthermore, their relationship also brings them in contact with Marten’s dad, who is getting married to a nice younger man. It would have been nice to see Dora actively pursuing or dating women, but that’s partially a comment on the male-centric world of the first 600 strips, before their relationship began.

The other major non-hetero character in QC is Tai, Marten’s lesbian boss who goes to “Smif”. Tai is a petite young woman with a lot of energy. Her characterization as a young lesbian at a cis* women’s college rings true to me: she is having a LOT of fun and going through a LOT of drama. (She’s also the only major character that can be read as non-white, but I'm planning another post on that in the future.) Like Dora, her sexuality is mostly treated in a matter-of-fact, everyday manner. Her love of women is not her only interest: she is also a lover of crappy romances, a deejay, a Harry Potter nerd.

But her interactions with other characters are often very centered around her sexuality - her ongoing flirtation with Dora, her discussion of her polyamory, her bonding sessions with her subordinate employee Marten. Dora's bisexuality is truly a detail that, in proportion to her appearances in the strip, is not mentioned all that often, whereas Tai's presence usually (though not always) comes with an allusion to her sexuality.While this is understandable in a comic about romance, there is an element of tokenization to her character - like she is the character’s out there wacky queer friend. This is particularly underscored by her lack of a last name, something only one other (white, hetero, male) character lacks.

Tai is one of two promiscuous female characters in the main cast, the other being Raven (who is not featured much these days but could always return). In portraying sex work and promiscuity, Jacques takes a no-shame, sex-positive approach to open sexuality - while still depicting internalized and externalized slutphobia.. Though Raven is occasionally slut-shamed by the acerbic Faye, she is generally quite happy and proud of her life; in responding to Faye's guilt over her commitment-free sex with Sven, Raven once quipped, "I just realized fucking is fun and it's stupid to feel bad about it!"

Jacques does not, however, show all sexual relationships to be healthy or good. His portrayal of Tai's polyamory was seen as flippant by some, though Jacques made a strong effort to temper his portrayal and apologize. There’s a strong degree of judgement in his writing of Sven, Dora’s brother and a lady-magnet singer songwriter who has a rather disastrous friends with benefits relationship with Faye. Jacques’ gender switch in moralizing promiscuity is somewhat transgressive: Sven is shown to be hurting himself and others with his libido, whereas Raven and Tai are basically having fun.

Less active sexuality is usually validated as well. Hannelore exists completely outside of the romantic interactions of the rest of the cast. She is sexual to an extent - mentioning attractions to men - but it’s not something she particularly wants to act upon. Marigold is similarly inexperienced, but it’s a comment on her lack of self-esteem rather than her worth. Additionally, validation of her attractiveness and social worth usually comes from her female friends rather than male interests. As I discussed in my analysis of disability in QC, Faye’s reticence to get involved romantically is framed as a valid choice, and one that she is, in her own way, moving out of.

Cis characters completely dominate the QC landscape, but Jacques' mentions of trans people vary from decent to very flawed. In one strip, Marten asks respectful questions about Tai’s gender identity, to ensure that he is not being disrespectful and uses the right pronouns. The strip is careful and considerate without being heavy-handed. It would be nice if Jacques depicted a trans person instead of just having cis characters talk about trans issues. And there is some broken language, though this strip was written when "MTF and FTM" were still considered politically correct terms. But there is not much cissexist about this particular strip, which is pretty rare for media about trans identities written by a cis person.

Ryan, a trans man and longtime QC reader who lives in the area fictionalized in QC, said that strip was true to his experiences: “A lot of people who met me right when I had started T used female pronouns and I was too shy/polite to correct them, but immediately switched when my voice started cracking because they picked up on [my transition.] At work, everyone who can see my schedule knows that I am trans, but not one person has ever said anything disrespectful to me. I am respected more in the back room of a grocery store versus [a civil rights organization] in Virginia.”

But some other mentions of trans folks have been less respectful; in other strips, trans identities are reduced to punchlines. In one strip directly after Faye begins seeing Sven after a long period of sexual inactivity, Dora comments: “Two weeks later, Faye’s fucked all the straight men in town and has moved on to the transsexuals.” This construction excludes heterosexual trans male identities - in Dora's framing, there are straight men and then there are trans men, who cannot be heterosexual. Ryan took a kinder view of this, saying that the comic had "context specific humor...the idea of Faye sleeping with a trans man in Northampton is not that far fetched at all and probably very likely if she started sleeping with a lot of men.".

But the reader can't really tell if it's intended to refer to trans men, because trans people here are robbed of their sex. They are not trans men or trans women or non-binary people - they are "transsexuals", and as far as Dora's concerned, that's all they are. Transsexual, an adjective, has been turned into a noun that completely erases their gender and personhood.

This is not the only instance in which Dora marginalizes trans identities - though she's well-meaning, cissexism seems to be a realistic part of her characterization. In one strip, she demonstrates jealousy by worriying that Marten wants "a girl with a penis". While I think there are some not-awful aspects of this ("girl" and "penis" are not framed as mutually exclusive) this is not a positive depiction. It's still exoticising and othering trans identities. Marten's flippant "with the right hormones..." joke is also not the worst joke that's ever been made about trans people, but it conflates trans masculine and trans feminine identities, and thus undermines them.

Questionable Content is a very well-meaning comic - it is clear that Jeph Jacques does not actively want to hurt, exclude or marginalize people in his depiction of sexuality and gender. In contrast with other big comics such as Achewood or Penny Arcade, Jacques gives a shit about not hurting people. And though his portrayal of diverse sexualities is pretty successful, his depiction of trans identities is mixed - he is sometimes considerate and sometimes harmful.

Related reading:

Women in Questionable Content: Women-run businesses and Bechdel-passing friendships
Disability and Comics: How Questionable Content's Faye and Hannelore normalize disability
Interview with RJ of Riot Nrrd Comics, in which QC and Jacques are discussed
Comics and disability: XKCD and dyslexia, Natalie Dee and Tourette's syndrome

Check in later this week for yet another post on women in Questionable Content. The next post will focus on body and bodily functions.


  1. I'm a little confused why you identify only Tai and Raven as promiscuous, especially when you (more or less) seem to acknowledge that Sven is as well in the next paragraph. (And although he doesn't turn up much, that guy who's friends with Marten - whose name eludes me at the moment - probably could reasonably take the label as well.)

  2. Thanks for pointing out that discrepancy - since this is about women in QC, I was focusing just on the two promiscuous ladies. I'll fix it so it's more specific.

    What's a less-judgey word for promiscuous? Highly sexually active? If anyone wants to chime in, I'd be happy to change my word choice.

  3. I've never seen promiscuous as a particularly judgey word. I've always used it as a non-judgmental term, as the other options were offensive to many (slut, skank, man-whore, etc.) or cumbersome ("So-and-so has had a lot of sexual partners.") Ones like the latter are essentially definitions of 'promiscuous' anyway.

  4. I think promiscuous (or slutty, even) is one of those words like fat, where the intent, social context, and person using it is way more important than the word itself.

    I've known a lot of people who called themselves promiscuous affectionately, and even more who identified as sluts (often particularly to ally themselves with The Ethical Slut and its implications).

  5. Faye and Flutterby: Great responses. Faye, I've actually used slut/whorephobia recently on this blog, so I think you're right.

  6. hey RMJ, i love your posts about QC so far. i think you're very knowledgeable about the subject matter (gender, sexuality, labor, body politics--i haven't read your post on disability yet).

    just wondering what you meant by your critique of marten's joke "with the right hormones"? what do you mean by his joke "[conflating] trans masculine and trans feminine identities, and thus [undermining] them"?

  7. While I can see how you would interpret Tai as a "token queer character" I have to disagree that her character can be dismissed so easily. I think that Jeph has written a very realistic college student who is active in the LGBTQQPIAA community. Tai is younger than the other characters, and thus may not be as secure in her sexuality. Also, someone who is active in the queer community, as Tai clearly is, tends to bring those issues up frequently, especially when they are in a safe space. I don't think that Tai's frequent remarks about queer culture marginalize her anymore than Martin or Faye's comments about obscure music would marginalize them.

    Also, the talk about QC's attitude toward trans issues may be a bit too harsh. Even within the Queer community there are a lot of people who don't use the appropriate terminology when discussing trans issues. For characters like Dora and, to an extent, writers like Jeph, who probably aren't keeping up with intersex/ genderqueer publications, they are just using the terms that come naturally to them to get their point across. Also, in terms of character portrayal, while I would be very surprised if Tai were to make a Queer Theory faux-pas I wouldn't be surprised at all if one of the other QC characters did, especially as they are all older than Tai and are not active in the Queer community.

  8. @Caroline - Thanks for the kind comments. I can see your confusion with that particular line - it's a bit of a fine point to make. What I basically mean is that since Dora as a cis woman would never be a trans woman (a girl with a penis, though not all trans women have penises), any kind of transition would not be to becoming a trans woman. He's referring to trans people as a monolithic property rather than individual people with legit genders. As I said, not the worst comment, but it is othering.
    I'm not sure if that's less confusing, but I hope it helps.

    @Anon: Good point about Tai. AS for this:

    Even within the Queer community there are a lot of people who don't use the appropriate terminology when discussing trans issues.

    That's part of the point I'm making - his mistakes and his characters' mistakes are often reflective of cissexism in everyday society. Jacques is generally MUCH better than any other popular cartoonist about trans issues, but since I'm praising him, I think I should point out the flaws that are there.

    As with all of my posts here, I think that Jacques is way on the right track, and I'd just like to see him take a couple of steps further.


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