A young researcher came over to chat the other day, about the subject of her research, which is, Women In Cartoons. As it so happened, about five years ago, I was asked to choose a subject for an illustrated talk and that's what I spoke about.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find the text of my speech, though I have all the pictures I used to illustrate it, taken from my 'archives' -- my collection of books about illustrations and cartoons. But the subject is dear to my heart, as it WOULD be, considering my comic strip featured a character of the female persuasion (i.e., SUKI) and I was often in the position of having to answer questions about "what is it like to be a woman cartoonist?' Of course, this is all in the past, since I ceased producing my strip in late 1997.
Questions like that don't really go anywhere, as most cartoonists know -- it's hard enough to say what it's like to be a human being, never mind one of the rarefied sub-species.
Talking about female cartoon characters is a whole lot easier: there are so many, and yet, in some ways, there are so few -- so few VARIETIES, that is. Female cartoon characters fall into a range that usually does not go beyond young-sexy, old-not-sexy, middle-aged-sexy, child-sexless. It is rare indeed to see an adult female character whose breasts are not very prominent -- Popeye's Olive Oyl is practically unique in that she is clearly Popeye's love-interest, and yet she displays absolutely no recognizable sexual characteristics. Popeye's quite a gargoyle himself -- he really is amazingly ugly while also managing to be dashing and manly -- he has only one eye, he smokes that smelly pipe 24 hours a day and has that remarkably scrawny build with the bulging forearms ... Yet he's The Man, when it comes to saving the world from destruction.
The point is, very few female characters inhabit strips as 'just people' with no special agenda aside from hanging out in the strip. Most girls and young women are on the verge of relationships, most grown women are looking out for relationships or marriage, and are represented as wives or mothers or grandmothers or obsessive house-keepers or even (as in Calvin) the Much Hated Other. Little girls who are central to their own strips have the most autonomy of all female characters -- Little Nancy (or was it just 'Nancy'?) comes to mind -- it's like childhood is the only time that a female character is permitted to be interested in the world in a neutral, non-sexual, non-romantic way.
On the other hand, I have sometimes wondered whether my character Suki's lack of popularity (oh, she had her handful of loyal devotees, all-17-and-a-half of them) was exactly because she was such a blank in feminine terms. She looked reasonably female, and once in a rare while, her mother twitted her about getting married, but most of the time, she dangled about in an extremely abstract, gender-neutral space. She apparently had no need of a job, had no interest in domestic affairs, and though she clearly lived inside a home of some sort, which had at least a beanbag to sit in and even her own back-talking cleaning lady, she wasn't defined by her home or never seemed to care about it much.
In the early days, in the Bombay version of the strip, she had a bunch of male friends based on my real-life friends (gt, who has visited this blog and posted learned comments about 'laterality' was one of them!!). She even had a sort of boyfriend (with a character based loosely on journalist/writer Dhiren Bhagat who died tragically young -- I did NOT know him well, but just used his rather beautiful presence in the strip) but the relationship didn't go anywhere and then, after a while, it became increasingly clear that she preferred the company of non-human characters like the Frog, the Alien, the Python, etc. I didn't plan to make her so disconnected from real life, she just evolved that way and I didn't try to control her.
So ... who knows? If only I'd been a little more savvy, given her the right kind of curves, dressed her in chiffons instead of baggy kurtas, got her to obsess about hunks instead of frogs and made her conscious of hair gels and skin creams, maybe she'd still be in business ...
Or, to put it differently, if only I'd had a brain transplant, maybe I'd be rich and famous instead of spending half the night posting to this crazy little blog!