Thursday, August 12, 2010

Women in Questionable Content: Women-run businesses and Bechdel-passing friendships

Image: Characters from the webcomic Questionable Content by Jeph Jacques. Clockwise from top left: Hannelore, Dora, Marigold, Faye, Tai, Cosette

Check out other entries in my review of Questionable Content: Women in Questionable Content: sexuality and identity; Disability and Comics: How Questionable Content's Faye and Hannelore normalize disability

Questionable Content is rare for a work about women written by a man. Whereas many women in works by men centralize their hetero sexuality, their male bosses, or their something something to dudes, Questionable Content (QC) writer Jeph Jacques focuses on women-only spaces, women-run business and complex friendships between women, and his strips regularly pass the Bechdel test. Though QC’s protagonist is male, the women are fueling the plots and relationships that make up the strip to strip action of the comic.

The action in QC centers around a small business owned and operated entirely by women. The Coffee of Doom is owned by Dora Bianchi and is entirely staffed by the other female characters: Faye Whitaker, Penelope Gaines, Raven Pritchard, and more recently Claudette and Hannelore Ellicott-Chatham. These women are shown to be competent and effective at their job, though they do slack off. It’s not a challenging position, and it does reinforce the idea that women belong in the service industry, but it’s a convenient setting that is realistic for a group of 20somethings.

In an inversion of patriarchal valuation of personality characteristics, the signature attraction of the shop is its employee’s snark. The Coffee of Doom (hereafter CoD) baristas are known and publicized for their witty, haughty putdowns. Whereas women (particularly in service positions) are typically expected to be pleasant and rewarded for docile compliance, the professional requirements for the women in the central setting of QC are quite the opposite.

Women are not only put in authority positions at the CoD, but also at the male protagonist Marten’s place of employment. Tai is a small, lesbian, “Smif” student who hires Marten for recognizing iambic pentameter. Tai is a fun character with whom Marten discusses a lot of tricky subjects, usually fairly respectfully. They discuss gender fluidity and trans men with a fair amount of respect, though the comic has othered and marginalized trans women on a few occasions. And speaking of marginalizing trans women...

Though I didn’t go to Smith, I did attend an all-cis-woman institution, and I really like Jacques’ portrayal of all-women “Smif”. Tai, Cosette, and Lydia are the main representatives of the Smith corollary in QC’s Northampton. There’s a lot of parties, a lot of gals loving on gals, a lot of smart women. The stuffy trustees who pretend not to know what’s going on also ring true. The women at Smith are cis, class, and for the most part race privileged women having fun and occasionally studying - pretty close to what I remember.

Beyond these two strongly women-identified and operated examples of effective business, female characters in QC are shown to have a wide variety of skills and talents. Faye is a talented sculptor whose major patron and advocate is Dora. Hannelore has turned her disability into employment through a one-woman counting business. Marigold is self-employed, though we’re not yet sure how.

Older women in the QC universe are also places in positions of respect and authority - even in marginalized industries. Marten’s mother is a famous fetish model and pornographer. Her accomplishments are presented with minimal stigmatization - there is no slut-shaming or pearl-clutching when her occupation is revealed. Furthermore, she is regarded with respect and admiration by Marten’s friends and girlfriend. And in another area of the sex industry, Dora and Faye have a lovely experience at a woman-run sex shop. Hannelore’s mother, a wheeling and dealing business mogul, is the closest thing to a villain in the QC universe, an intimidating figure who demands respect.

Beyond business acumen, female intelligence is always respected, sometimes in surprising and transgressive ways. Penelope is proudly literate and intelligent, but her predecessor at CoD, Raven, was a stereotypical ditz - coming up with silly answers to simple questions, with a malapropism for everything. But her exit was evidence of her intelligence - she went to study advanced physics - and in retrospect stupidity looks more like effervescence.

Female friendships are also highly valued in the QC universe. They are usually not centered around men, but around work, interests, or each other. Marigold and Hannelore’s social anxiety made up major arcs around strips #500 and #1400. Both women strike out partially of their own volition, and both were encouraged by other women to value themselves. Hannelore particularly helped model healthy social behavior for Marigold, though there was a side of judgement for her sanitary habits.

However, Dora’s comments are sometimes disturbing to me. She frequently teased Faye for her weight, and seems to occasionally sexually harass Faye - commenting on her ass and boobs, occasionally groping her. It’s playful, to an extent, but given her thin privilege and status as her boss, her comments have a slightly sinister edge.

Jacques’ Questionable Content universe is populated with independent, interesting women; women who work for and employ other women, women with talent and intelligence. Though his writing of these character is not particularly diverse - all of these women are white, cis, and middle class - it’s productive, and contributes a cartoon vision of women not usually found in the male-dominated world of webcomics.

Check out the second installment of Women in Questionable Content, focusing on sexuality and gender identity:


  1. I always assumed Tai was non-white. Maybe not though? An interesting analysis regardless!

  2. I am fairly sure that there are no references to it in the canon (the comic and twitter). I would be very, very happy if someone could prove me wrong though.

    From Jeph's formspring:
    What is Tai's ethnic background? (by verbingthenoun)

  3. Great read, but being a regular reader of the comic I noticed something I have to nitpick about:

    "Marigold and Hannelore’s social anxiety made up major arcs around strips #500 and #1400."

    Neither character was introduced before #500; that's when Faye told Marten about her father's suicide. (Hannelore was introduced in #515, Marigold in #1413.)

    As for Tai's ethnic background, I'd say she's "all of the above".

  4. Thanks for the details and for stopping by! :) I'm actually kind of impressed with how close I came since I didn't look their debuts up specifically. The archives are a little hard to handle if I'm not reading straight through (which I find myself doing every so often since I began reading in '06).

    I'd be interested to see how others read Tai's race since I'm preparing to write a post on race in QC.

  5. Great post! I like QC a lot and while there are a fair amount of webcomics with good female characters out there, few are written by men. The biggest thing that bothers me about the women of QC is the way they dress. They all wear t-shirts and jeans almost everyday. There's nothing wrong with that but I just wish he'd let some of them play with fashion a little. Accessories, skirts, dresses, interesting silhouettes. This is one of the reasons I found the Scott Pilgrim series so refreshing, it was written and drawn by a man but the girls were really fashionable!

  6. I always read Tai as non-white, but when I read your post and the subsequent comments, I looked back at some QC strips and I'm not so sure now what gave me that assumption. Perhaps her name lead me to interpret other features of her personality as "non-white"? Gosh, that sounds terrible.

  7. If you're doing something on race in QC, don't forget the minor (but still pivotal) characters;

    Lydia (Sven's Intern), African-American

    Meena (one of Steve's ex-lovers), Indian (or thereabouts)

    And on the male side, there's

    Amir (middle eastern), and

    Dale (seems African-American).

    Dale is still "in process" as a character, and may become more central.

    For research, you may be interested in the complete cast list, and the strip-by-strip index, both maintained by a forum member. There's also a QC Wiki.

    And in addition to race, there's all the gender identity and gender bending, both with people and the anthro-PC's. There's probably a thesis in there somewhere...

    Have fun!

  8. Thanks, Carl! I am well aware of all those characters - though you've forgotten Dr. Corrine and Bailey.

  9. Hullo, came here from Feministe.

    Even though this was posted a few days ago, there's still time for a legion of QC fans to notice it and for a few to comment saying "OMG you pointed out the problems with something I like, bitch!". This is the internet, after all :-D

    Therefore, I'm duty bound to give my positive opinion. This is a great post. Hadn't thought that way about Dora's comments to Faye, till now. :-/

  10. Olli- Thanks for the kind words! I hadn't really thought of Dora's comments in that sense until I wrote this, actually.

    And the QC fans did find it and post it in their forum, but they've been quite friendly and kind and are most welcome here. They've actually helped me rethink my assumptions about Tai's race, which will help me with a post on race in QC I've been considering :)

  11. I know I'm really late on this post but there's a good reason for this. When I saw the series of posts you wrote on QC this summer, I'd heard about the comic but wasn't really familiar with it. I thought your analysis was really interesting and it made me want to read the comic from the beginning. Which as you can see took me a while. I thought you'd like to know that. :-)
    How is that post on QC and race coming along?
    Also, I'm really glad that since you pointed out that Faye seemed to be unable to get involved in a relationship, she and Angus finally got together.

  12. Just want to say, there is now a trans woman and a black woman interning at the library where Tai and Marten work.


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