Friday, August 27, 2010

Women in Questionable Content: size and bodily functions

Faye, in comic 1562, with her hand on her hip and a jaunty expression on her face. She is wearing a pink shirt that says "PRETTY PRETTY PRETTY".
It should be clear, at this point in my review of lady characters in the long-running webcomic Questionable Content (QC) that I am, with some exceptions, a fan of how Jeph Jacques approaches his women characters. Faye, Dora, Hannelore, Tai and Marigold are particularly thought-out and relateable characters depicted with respect, attention, and interest. Jacques' approach to fatness and bodily functions is equally refreshing. While QC's portrayal of different sized bodies is in many ways narrow, it is in other ways full and realistic: these women poop and fart with the best of them, and their level of fatness does not correspond to their level of health or percieved beauty.

Body size and shape is a major focal point in the world of Questionable Content; more specifically, Faye's body is of particular concern to pretty much every character heavily involved in the universe. She is explicitly fat, according to herself and others (though the phrase retains much of its stigma in Jacques' use). She is also the central point of romantic and sexual attraction for most lady-loving characters; Marten, Sven, Dora, Tai, and Angus have all repeatedly expressed admiration of her plump pulchritude, and she too seems to like her body as it is. Both Faye and the other fat character, the recently-introduced Marigold, reflect a realistic level of insecurity about their size, but such comments are usually countered - not with denials that they're fat, but with denials that they are anything less than lovely.

Faye's physical health, while not a locus, is not assumed to be terrible because of her fatness. When thin Penelope tricks her and Dora into going to the gym (a problematic move that I read as a reflection of Penelope's proselytizing qualities than of any messages the comic is trying to send), it's suggested more for her mental health rather than her weight - ableism is no better than sizism, but it is different. At the gym, Faye bests skinny Dora in a run-off, subverting the trope that skinny people are automatically healthier than fat people (though there's some ageism later in the strip). Later, Faye eats ice cream, says she doesn't care about losing weigh, and explicitly praises her own size. Fat is not moralized in QC; it's not ascribed to anything in particular except body shape.

Reinforcing the transgressive aspects of size in QC are constant denials that Faye is actually fat. Because she is seen as attractive and because she is on the smaller end of fat, reviewers frequently dismiss or claim not to see her fatness. Faye does tend to fluctuate in size, as most people do, but that's more a signal of the evolution of Jacques' drawing style than of weight loss. As usual, fat is not seen as a descriptive term but rather a negation of any healthy or negative qualities.

But while I generally take a favorable view of size in QC, it is not without its problems. Fat in the QC universe is definitely on the small end of the spectrum; RJ of Riot Nrrd Comics characterized it in our interview as "like the Dove real beauty stuff, where it's good to be chubby! But only chubby enough." For a comic that is often known for its portrayal of diverse body types, the standards of what constitutes attractive is pretty narrow, and not just on the axis of size; this is, as I've discussed in the past, completely about cis people, and it is, as I plan to discuss soon, almost completely about white people.

Jacques' focus on Faye and Marigold's breasts is also a little disconcerting. The size, quality, and loveliness of their mammaries is constantly remarked-upon. Breasts are a constantly sexualized quality in all women, but particularly in fat women, and Jacques falls into a trope by strongly associating Marigold and Faye's beauty with their breast size.

The depiction of fatness in QC has what I believe to be a net positive impact. But what I really like about Jacques' handling of female bodies is the fullness of their functioning. The women in Questionable Content, without exception, talk without shame and positively about their experiences of pooping and farting and burping and menstruating. From the fourth comic on, women use bodily functions as a source of humor and conversational fodder. Most male authors fetishize women's bodily processes, but Jacques handles it with humor and honesty.

Faye is a central figure (once again) in most discussions of the digestive system. She likes to poop and she likes to talk about it. Her frankness about her functions is both familiar - she talks a lot like me and my friends talk about such matters - and strange - few fictional females talk discuss such things. She is also the emblem for frequent farts and burping as communication. While Faye is the most enthusiastic potty mouth, she is far from the only one - Tai, Dora, and Hannelore have all been involved in toilet related gags.

While pooping is not the only function discussed in QC, it is the most prominent, and that brand o function discussion sometimes excludes processes usually identified with women. Pooping and farting so dominate the body humor that periods rarely get any airtime. Periods, of course, are not uniquely feminine and they are not universal to all women. And it is occasionally mentioned in strip dialogue. But the cis women in QC, so given to discussing the messy workings of their body, would likely discuss menstruation a little more often than they do.

Jacques' depiction of women of size as attractive is neither singular nor revolutionary. And his focus on bodily processes may be a little bit juvenile. But in the media of a kyriarchy, there are still stiflingly few representations of fat women as beautiful, and the inner workings of women's bodies are oppressed. Faye, Marigold, and the other women centralized in QC are full-sized and fully-realized, and while this is far from unique, it's still quite rare, and a treat to watch as they develop.

This is the last post in a series on women in Questionable Content. Part one and two are here. I've also written on disability in QC. I'm planning on writing on race and QC at some point in the near future - though not for a couple weeks at least, these are always surprisingly exhausting. (A special welcome to people from the QC forums! Y'all have been my second-biggest link provider of this month, so thanks!) Check back next weekish for a review of my other favorite webcomic, Achewood.


  1. Interesting post... I have not read QC before, but about this bit of your post:

    ...such comments are usually countered - not with denials that they're fat, but with denials that they are anything less than lovely.

    I have always felt torn about reassuring women of whatever looks that they really are beautiful. Shouldn't we just be telling them that their looks don't matter, as long as they are a happy and good person? The whole reason why women develop so much unhappiness about their weight is because we are told from the start that our appearance is what really matters, sometimes the only thing that matters.

    Instead of saying, all women are beautiful, shouldn't we be saying, all women are unique, valuable human beings?

    As far as plus-size acceptance goes, here is something you may be interested in, a pro-plus-size website whose reasons for accepting plus-size women are impressively sexist:

  2. Nobody - I agree that appearance is over-weighted, but I also think that all bodies are beautiful, and that everyone should be reassured of that fact. Physical appearance is a part of existing, and folks of all shapes and sizes have the right to feel good about themselves on that axis.

    If they actively reject beauty and appearance, that's one thing, but that's not the case here.

  3. If only there had people around me with open minded attitudes like the characters in Questionable content when i was growing up. Thanks for the smiles.

  4. I just finished reading this whole series. Amazing! The in-depth analysis is really fascinating. I can't wait to read the one on race.

    (Also, I can't stand Achewood, although I couldn't tell you why. I tried! So I'm interested to see what you have to say about it in this kind of framework.)


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