# The Gender Smog We Breathe: Comics Contribution

I love the comic pages in the newspaper. Some of them are just mildly amusing, but some are bitingly funny and offer real social satire (Pearls Before Swine comes to mind here, as does Non Sequitur). But I was definitely not amused this past weekend when I read the April 19 strip of Foxtrot.

In case you aren’t able to view the strip: the first panel shows a string of numbers, below which is a key. Each letter of the alphabet is represented by a semi-complex mathematical formulation, which must be solved to yield the number, which in turn allows one to substitute letters for numbers in the string above. For example: A is the square root of 121, M = (9×11) – (7×11), and so on. When I was young, I loved solving encrypted phrases like this. I imagine other young kids – girls and boys – might have enjoyed this comics challenge. I imagine in particular one of those young girls who’ve read “Math Doesn’t Suck!” working her way through those 26 little pieces of math…only to be sucker-punched as her reward.

You see, the second panel of the strip shows Jason Fox, the young geeky brother, with his older sister Paige, who we know from past strips to be something of an airhead. Paige is holding a sheet of paper – the sheet we are looking at in the first panel. Jason says “Think of it as a challenge to prove me wrong.” Paige replies, “About what?” with a puzzled look on her face. Of course, when you solve the key and make the substitutions, the phrase is rendered as “Paige Fox is bad at math.” Naturally! Because math is HARD, Barbie! For girls, anyway. Right??!!?!?!

A month or so ago there was a strip (I wish I’d saved it; it’s inaccessible in the archives unless you have a paid account) featuring Paige in which she actually demonstrates her ability to think mathematically in a fairly sophisticated manner for a teenager, in the context of talking about shopping. When she finishes, the family member she is speaking to (I can’t remember if it’s Jason or her father) does not compliment her on her shopper’s savvy or ability to apply math in the real world. No, what he says is “You are so weird.”

Some time ago, Bill Amend announced that he was going to stop doing Foxtrot as a daily strip, moving to a Sunday-only strip. Given its hackneyed stereotypes and retrograde sexism, it would be great if he would come to the realization that he can’t be bothered to even continue with the Sunday strip. We’ve already got plenty of gender smog in the air we’re forced to breathe every day, thank you very much.

Here’s a math problem for Bill Amend: If Bill’s shoe size is, let’s say, 11, what size (in liters) puke bucket should I use to visit upon said shoes the thorough puking they deserve?

1. #1 Ray Ingles
April 21, 2009

Actually, I can’t see the older strip either, but that’s not how I remember it at all. Paige was complaining about a math story problem. Peter (her old brother) paraphrased it back to her in the form of a shopping problem, and she solved it instantly… but the joke was that she didn’t subsequently make the connection back to the math problem.

The point I took from it was that she could do math, but – quite possibly because of social conditioning – she didn’t think she could and didn’t try as hard as a result.

Considering that the strip includes as a recurring character a girl who is Jason Fox’s geek equal in many ways (and superior in some), I think you may be reading a bit more into this strip than was put there.

(At least the strip includes the usual hapless, incompetent, dim-bulb dad.)

2. #2 Change
April 21, 2009

Here’s a math problem for Bill Amend: If Bill’s shoe size is, let’s say, 11, what size (in liters) puke bucket should I use to visit upon said shoes the thorough puking they deserve?

LOL!

3. #3 Ray Ingles
April 21, 2009

Aha, found a link to the older strip:
http://community.livejournal.com/comic_foxtrot/202867.html

4. #4 rb
April 21, 2009

come on, the comic has long running joke that Peter is the lazy older bother (who is not good at anything), Dad is a typical doofus, mom is very with it and smart, Paige is social and not stupid (and not so much can’t do math but can;t do math at the level of the geeky little brother). and jason is the nerd genius. and as mentioned Jason has a FEMALE competitor who generally whips him in math and everything (social life, sports) to humble his character (he also has a geeky genious friend who is a minority).

So I think you over read here. Jason loses lots of battles, he is not the winner in this strip and generally if anything gives geeks a bad name.

5. #5 Laura
April 21, 2009

At least some geeky cartoons get it: http://xkcd.com/385/

6. #6 mpatter
April 21, 2009

Not to detract from the nobility of your struggle, but I think in this case, you’re seeing sexism largely because you want to. To me Paige appears as a caricature of a proudly ignorant, image-obsessed teen, gender unimportant. The comic is hardly an instrument of oppression.

7. #7 Matt Springer
April 21, 2009

Absolutely, #6. Paige isn’t bad at math because she’s a girl, she’s bad at math because she’s Paige. Jason’s summer-camp friend and semi-girlfriend Eileen Jacobson regularly beats the intellectual snot out of him. And the other Fox sibling Peter is worse at math than Paige.

And the wife is considerably smarter than the husband – she’s never lost to him in chess. Really I can’t imagine anyone familiar with the comic strip writing this post.

8. #8 rb
April 21, 2009

Laura, i like this one better (a comic or two after the one you link to)
http://xkcd.com/386/

I wish my son was half as good at math as my daughter….who despite being brilliant at math and science was able to buck all the pressure and follow her love and major in French and Francophone studies. (trust me she has been dissed way more by females, both peers and teachers and professors, for this decision than you would expect).

9. #9 jc
April 21, 2009

#6: “seeing sexism largely because you want to”

Z, we are gonna need a bigger bucket.

10. #10 lurker
April 22, 2009

Some might say that the number of people showing up to correct Z is just evidence that Z is on to something. If she didn’t hit a nerve, people wouldn’t feel the need to show up and start analyzing all the details of the characters in the strip.

The fact that there’s a female minor character who’s good at math doesn’t change the fact that there’s a female main character who’s bad at math.

11. #11 Danimal
April 22, 2009

@lurkey “The fact that there’s a female minor character who’s good at math doesn’t change the fact that there’s a female main character who’s bad at math.”
I am not familiar with the comic. But based on previous comments, I also understand that there is a male main character (older brother) who is much worse at math. So what exactly is your point?

12. #12 Ray Ingles
April 22, 2009

Lurker – If, just hypothetically, Zuska were wrong about a particular case, how would the response differ from what’s been seen here?

13. #13 Scicurious
April 22, 2009

I would like to think that it says something about women these days that I saw the comic and the first thing I did was start playing with the math problems.

14. #14 Matt Springer
April 22, 2009

#10: “Some might say that the number of people showing up to correct Z is just evidence that Z is on to something. If she didn’t hit a nerve, people wouldn’t feel the need to show up and start analyzing all the details of the characters in the strip.”

So if I posted a rousing apologia for creationism on by blog, the ensuing crush of people showing up to set me straight would mean I’m on to something? That’s preposterous on its face.

Some people are bad at math. Some of them happen to be women. To write in such a way so that no female character is ever worse than any male character at anything is the only way to fix your complaint, and that’s just bad writing. FoxTrot takes a much better approach, with dumb and brilliant people of both sexes. Again: Paige is not bad at math because she’s a girl. FoxTrot has several female characters who are even better at math than even Jason. And it’s got plenty of not-very-bright guys – in particular every other male in the Fox family.

15. #15 DrugMonkey
April 22, 2009

Again: Paige is not bad at math because she’s a girl. FoxTrot has several female characters who are even better at math than even Jason. And it’s got plenty of not-very-bright guys – in particular every other male in the Fox family.

yeah, I gotta agree with this analysis. I think Zuska, much as I usually agree with her, got this one wrong, particularly when she jumps from the single strip to criticize the cartoonist and all of FoxTrot.

The caveat is that it is really tough when each comic can be a standalone work. If you are not familiar with the whole strip and the history, Zuska’s analysis is spot on. Just another Math-is-hard strip. You have to have the additional context to judge the overall work of the cartoonist. It’s probably best to acknowledge the impact of the single strip and then, as this comment thread is doing, identify the consistent thematic elements in FoxTrot in making a global judgment.

16. #16 JustaTech
April 22, 2009

My SO and I had fun with this comic (who doesn’t love math before breakfast), but I think we’ve all missed something. How many high-school freshman can *do* an integral? Even if Paige were good at math, she would still have trouble with this “quiz”. It’s all about Jason being a smart-ass, and demonstrating his need to be smarter than his older sister.

(Had the math been simpler, I would be more inclined to agree. And I think that it could have been equally funny if it had said “PeterFoxIsBadAtMath”, but then Jason would have gotten beaten up, because that’s a boy thing.)

17. #17 sinned34
April 23, 2009

It’s somewhat related to the topic in this thread, and if you haven’t seen this before, I apologize in advance for ruining your day:

Michael Coren’s April 18th opinion column titled Caring for Karine – it’s about a female Canadian soldier recently killed in Afghanistan.

18. #18 ELR
April 23, 2009

Since sinned34 linked to that article it’s also relevant to note the Sun papers are not to be used even to wrap fish, lest they leave their cruddy stink on the fish.

19. #19 nails
April 23, 2009

“Some people are bad at math. Some of them happen to be women. To write in such a way so that no female character is ever worse than any male character at anything is the only way to fix your complaint, and that’s just bad writing. FoxTrot takes a much better approach, with dumb and brilliant people of both sexes.”

I am not so sure I buy this. The main characters, the ones that you actually get to know, fall in line with stereotypes. It is hard for me to think of it as a coincidence when it regurgitates the same characters that we have all seen everywhere else.

“Again: Paige is not bad at math because she’s a girl. FoxTrot has several female characters who are even better at math than even Jason. And it’s got plenty of not-very-bright guys – in particular every other male in the Fox family.”

I am having a hard time imaging the women characters who are better at math than jason not being there for outrageousness, at least as far as jason in concerned. The take home message from that kind of thing isn’t that girls are good at math too, its that girls who are good at math are weird. I doubt the stupid men in the comics stray far away from the stupid dad stereotypes, where the men are stupid in a very specific way and about specific things. I can think of at least 5 movies off the top of my head where the punchline is that men can’t engage in childcare or homemaking well. The issue isn’t who is shown as smart or stupid when, it is the stereotyping of everything we do into weird categories like that. Even if you think that there isnt a problem with portraying men and women that way…. you could admit its sloppy writing.

I am also having a very hard time thinking that the stereotypes have nothing to do with the punchlines. Jokes based on stereotypes are easy to make because everyone knows this stuff and it is something people get.

20. #20 sup
April 23, 2009

@lurkey “The fact that there’s a female minor character who’s good at math doesn’t change the fact that there’s a female main character who’s bad at math.”
I am not familiar with the comic. But based on previous comments, I also understand that there is a male main character (older brother) who is much worse at math. So what exactly is your point?

That the male characters are permitted to have varying personalities, so far as stereotypes count as personalities. Older brother Peter is a “jock.” Jason is a “nerd.” Paige is just a “girl.”

21. #21 Danimal
April 23, 2009

@nails: As I stated in my first post, I do not follow the comic. My judgment is based on commentary of those that are, that posted in this thread. Based on your statements I assume (make An Ass out of You and Me) you are not familiar with the comic either. So why read so much into it? If you are a feminist and skeptic as you blog suggests, why not familiarize yourself with the comic and then form an opinion? I see nothing wrong with dumb male or female characters. But I cannot judge the artist of this cartoon as being anti-feminist based on the only strip I have ever seen.

22. #22 Zeno
April 24, 2009

When I saw the Foxtrot strip I immediately grabbed a pen and decoded the message. As previously noted, it said that Paige is bad at math, not girls in general. Since tormenting his older sister is one of Jason’s principal hobbies (and since he is also a math geek), the punch line was quite unsurprising and even rather tame.

As for me, I would like to object to the cruel stereotype that young math geeks all wear glasses. I was certainly a math geek in my youth and never wore glasses till I became a middle-aged math geek.

23. #23 Nepenthe
April 24, 2009

Jeez, Zuska, why are you looking for things to be offended about? Haven’t you considered the possibility that the author of Foxtrot might be some sort of alien who creates his comic in a vacuum free of cultural influences? Perhaps he’s really a vicious anti-glasses-ist, shouldn’t we be protesting THAT!?

If we feminists run around accusing everyone of reflecting cultural biases, how are we ever going to get men — I mean people — to listen to us!?

Did I cover everything?

24. #24 SKM
April 24, 2009

The main characters, the ones that you actually get to know, fall in line with stereotypes….I am having a hard time imaging the women characters who are better at math than jason not being there for outrageousness, at least as far as jason in concerned. The take home message from that kind of thing isn’t that girls are good at math too, its that girls who are good at math are weird.

I am also having a very hard time thinking that the stereotypes have nothing to do with the punchlines.
–nails

This is how I see it too. And yes, I have read the strip before.

@Nepenthe: lol/sob!

25. #25 Ray Ingles
April 24, 2009

Nepenthe – I’ll ask you the same question I asked lurker: If, just hypothetically, Zuska were wrong about a particular case, how would the response differ from what’s been seen here?

26. #26 Deen
April 24, 2009

When she finishes, the family member she is speaking to (I can’t remember if it’s Jason or her father) does not compliment her on her shopper’s savvy or ability to apply math in the real world. No, what he says is “You are so weird.”

It was Peter, actually. I also think that the “you are so weird” didn’t refer to her being able to solve the shopping problem, but rather about Paige not realizing that calculating shopping prices (which she clearly could do really well) and her math homework are somehow related. At least, that’s how I read that particular one.

27. #27 Brandon
April 24, 2009

If you really want a comic to be offended about, look up the Lockhorns.

And I have to agree with the general consensus here. If the Foxtrot family didn’t reflect my own family so eerily well, then I might be more offended. Don’t blame Bill Amend for the fact that math nerds with glasses sometimes have older sisters that like to shop.

April 25, 2009

I have been reading Foxtrot for many years, and there is no question that it embodies stereotypical patriarchal gender norms.

The daughter is vacuous and clothes- and boy-obsessed. The younger son is a brilliant geek. The older son is a jock, which makes it cute that he is a doofus, and not pathetic.

In the domestic sphere, the mom is organized and with-it, while the father is a doofus. The father is meant to be the future of the older son. The fact that the father can’t get out of his own way when it comes to the domestic sphere is portrayed as “cute”, because all the household shit is women’s work, dontcha know. It’s AOK to be a dumb jock, because women will take care of mundane shit you are too lazy and disorganized to deal with.

Every single one of the Foxtrots themselves represents absolute conformity to patriarchal gender norms. And the characters who are not part of the family who appear to violate those norms serve the patriarchal narrative purely as foils. “Wow! Look at that! A brown-skinned kid who is smart! How bizarre!” “Whoah! A math-whiz girl! How surprising!”

C’mon. This shit is not difficult to decode.

29. #29 SKM
April 26, 2009

C’mon. This shit is not difficult to decode.

Nope. But denialism is a very powerful force, alas.

30. #30 Danimal
April 26, 2009

@Comrade PhysioProf: So you are saying the comic reflects real life?

31. #31 becca
April 27, 2009

Danimal- only xkcd and phdcomics reflect real life. The former in a somewhat over-the-top way, the later so disturbingly genuinely as to make me cry. And laugh. And cry again.

At least, only these comics reflect *my* “real” life. Calvin and Hobbes could always represent my fantasy life. But I recommend staying away from lives that other comics reflect.

32. #32 NJ
April 28, 2009

Nope. But denialism is a very powerful force, alas.

So is pareidolia. Which is the point of the whole discussion.