May 14, 2017

The 40 Years of Comics Project - Day 809: Archie's Girls Betty and Veronica #248, August 1976

So we're going to have a week of the most sexist-ly titled comic of all. Well, I'm sure that's not entirely true. I've seen some of the porn comics out there. But for an all-ages, ostensibly all-American mainstream comic, the title of this one is pretty egregious. Not unlike the state of gender politics in the U.S. now, actually.

Archie comics are a wonderful lens through which to observe changes in the American cultural landscape over the last 80 or so years. They deal with issues like Women's Lib, homosexuality, the Occupy movement...and lots of tennis, strangely. Every now and again I wonder if David Foster Wallace was a secret writer for these comics. The problem with these depictions of social forces is that, by and large, they're written and drawn by men. And, even though this is a comic about two young ladies, they seem to be written and drawn for men. These comics of the 70s tend to paint the girls as bumbling and headstrong, and things always backfire for them. This isn't a surprise when it comes to tales about Archie himself - that's kind of his jam. But for Betty and Veronica, the usual voices of...well, not reason, but not quite Archie-level shenanigans, it's a bit odd to see them played as the clowns.

Especially as the brunt of that clownishness is very often at the expense of their gender.

Like many young men, I assume, Betty and Veronica were amongst the first representations of women in popular culture that I found alluring in a way that I wasn't even really previously aware. Even now there's a little bit of an adolescent thrill when I pick up one of these comics from the 70s and early 80s. But reading them now, a little older and (I like to think) wiser, the problems the stories in many ways eclipse the aesthetic concerns that I once found so pervasive. In today's comic, for example, each story is about Veronica and/or Betty vying for Archie's affection, usually by either looking prettier than the other, or by using domesticity as an enticement for affection. Be a good sewer, and your man will stick with you. Show a lot of leg, and you'll get the man you want. I occasionally give these comics to my wife to read, as she grew up reading them as well, and she's appalled at the attitudes in their pages. If nothing else, these old comics explain in the plainest of terms how we've come to the state of affairs within which we find ourselves. These comics, these ostensibly most innocent of childhood entertainments, reinforce the most crippling of gender stereotypes and disguise it as all-ages comedy.

Now, this is not to say that there are not things to enjoy in the comic. The Archie artists are remarkably good at what they do, and the physicality of their humour is matched only by the most expert of draughtspeople in the industry. But these old comics...they don't age well. Which is likely to be a trend for the week, I think.

To be continued.

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