‘ahems and ahahs’

Literature, & Etc.

For Worse

with 2 comments

Ok, here goes. I have a long history with this comic strip. For those unaware For Better of For Worse is a long running family comic by Lynne Johnston. The comic ran for 28 years and one of its signature elements is that it aged the characters in “real” time. So as time progressed in our world, so too did it in the characters, a young couple whose family grows and passes through various generations. Her comic is noted for tackling tough issues: marriage, parenthood, homosexuality, death, birth, etc. [ How well it tackles these issues is another matter all together. ]

The comic runs very much like a family sitcom. I think I noticed this comic in my newspaper back when I was a young adult and I would glance at the panels and usually would move on. It never struck me as anything significant, as a child I preferred Peanuts & Marmaduke. About 5 or 6 years ago I was sitting at Chapters during one of my breaks and I picked up a massive anthology of her work, a compendium of 20 years of strips and it somehow infected me. I found myself pouring through the various collections she had released throughout the history of the strip. I found myself looking forward to the events of the family. “Farley is getting old, what’s up with that?” … “Wow, he just came out to his friend, interesting.” … “She’s working with Native Americans up north, didn’t realize they had it so poor.” While the strip is not always politically correct, I mean lets face it, who among us is without a single prejudice or bias; still Lynn Johnston tackled some fairly heavy subjects and it is nice to see a Canadian work of art so popular throughout the world examining the minutia of small town family life.

Recently though, the strip has changed and is not as “progressive” as it once claimed to be.

The comic began in September 1979, and ended the main story on August 30, 2008, with a postscript epilogue the following day. The various family members, all grown up and with children of their own was given some closure. Then, beginning on September 3, 2007,[3] For Better or For Worse changed to a format featuring a mixture of new, old and retouched work, which allowed Johnston to “keep alive her partly autobiographical comic while not having to devote as much time to it.”[1] On September 1, 2008, Johnston began what she calls “new-runs”, restarting her storyline with new art and jokes. The time frame appears to be 26 years before the present day.

Stephen Pastis comic artist and writer of one of the best strips ever made: Pearls Before Swine [ Which I urge you to seek out and enjoy. comics.com & gocomics.com ] made this joke about the new format: In the strip, Pig referred to For Better or For Worse as “that great strip that was gonna retire, but then didn’t, then started running repeats, then didn’t, then ran new ones, but then fixed up the old ones, and now is gonna run new old un-new new ones”.

Ok, so why this blog post on FBoFW you ask? With the new format I and I am sure a few others thought, this will be nice. Her character who started off as a young 20 something wife/mother ended up as a retired book seller, so this “reboot” of her strip into the “classic” era would put Elly back in a more youthful place, providing some more commentary on young women who juggle family and work.

This is not what has happened. One thing that I have noticed throughout this strip is the firm adherence to the “nuclear family” model. Yes, yes, fans will cite the those historic panels and moments where she did tackle issues: homosexuality with Lawrence a friend of Elly’s eldest child Michael who came out to his mother:

week1

I’ll let you reflect on the way that Mrs. Johnston tackles this issue yet still conforms to basic stereotypes of how heterosexuals view homosexuality. Look at the last strip, oh you’re so witty Michael 😦 Ugh!

Anyways, you can see from this series of panels that she does indeed bring up subjects that people encounter every day and for the most part it is done well. I’m not saying it’s perfect but there you go.

Now with this reboot, she was afforded the opportunity to go back and let a whole new generation see how Elly transformed herself from a young house wife whose sole occupation was the household, to a woman who balanced a hectic lifestyle of work (at a bookstore, and subsequently bookstore owner), along with her husband, and children, and grand-children. It was a nice thing to watch her character grow and as much as the Nuclear Model was still emphasized, it did show a woman in the work force and not simply in a domestic capacity.

This “reboot” is what pisses me off. I think Mrs. Johnston has gone senile in her old age and has reverted back to a 1950’s Ward & June Cleaver idealization of the home. Her current strips reflect the standard: HUSBAND WORKS, WOMAN CLEANS AND COOKS model. Let me post a few strips from the past few months and you reflect on what kind of a message she sends to readers and young adults everywhere. Please, post some commentary and lets get some discussion going, it pisses me off so much. Cheers.

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Why work when you can clean and cook, forget your dreams...right?

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You can't be married and feel beautiful about yourself.

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I just sign shit, I cannot think or read or pay bills, I'm only a housewife."

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You know it's your fault for not keeping yourself pretty for me.

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Housewives are desperate and lonely.

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Translation: You're good enough to be a hooker tonight.

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Having a good education and career are nothing unless you're a MRS.

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I think your friends are hot and I've missed the point of this conversation. I'm an idiot husband/man.

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I'm the provider, just ask for your allowance and I'll consider it, now back into the cage with you.

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Cook, Clean, Lather, Rinse, Repeat!

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I think your son might be gay. He's crying a lot, so not manish, he's what 7 or 8 now, shouldn't he be out working and womanizing by now.

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(Loss for words and caption for this one.)

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This one is interesting. In the original series, Michael meets a girl in university who he falls in love with, they end up married and having kids. Lynn has seen fit to go back and rewrite Michael's childhood so that they once encountered each other and "liked" each other, completing that fantasy of the childhood sweetheart, it's nice when things fit into neat little boxes and packages, life is just this simple and uncomplicated isn't it.

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Don't ask me, I'm just a man and can't possibly understand "womanish" feelings and junk.

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You're doing that "thinking" business again, what have I told you about that.

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Your mom was ugly, and not tv ugly, but ugly ugly.

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Written by thebeliever07

July 10, 2009 at 9:14 am

2 Responses

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  1. I’m torn. Some of them, I think, are just offensively reductive: the discovery of Deanna & Michael’s previous history, John telling Elly she’s rented, Elly claiming not to understand bills, etc. Though occasionally I think, by Elly’s reaction — usually a glum or horrified look on her face — that Johnston is attempting to critique or parody the gender expectations John holds (the fact that he consistently expresses these thoughts, though, is a purely reductive representation of the male gender).

    I think I would be happier with the strip if more of them did end with panels like the one where Elly thinks “maybe that’s why I feel so empty sometimes.” This response at least shows Elly’s awareness that she is dissatisfied with the limited role in which she’s found herself: being a mother, she, _of course_, can’t do anything else with her life (note the sarcasm of that last phrase). After all, we know, that over the years, she does become more independent. Perhaps this time around Johnston is showing us Elly’s motivation for becoming a retired entrepreneur. It does bother me that most of the time she doesn’t actually verbally express her dissatisfaction to John or her friend Connie. Strips like the bill-reading one show her, somewhat inconsistently, espousing the gender expectation on her own behalf.

    I think, as Lawrence attempts to tell Michael, gender roles and sexuality are more complicated than an either-or slotting of orientation and desires (as an aside, I do think Lawrence’s frustration in the final panel of that last strip, in response to the shop/watch football remark, does work as a successful critique of Michael’s reductive thinking). Sometimes Elly believes and reproduces stifling gender roles, sometimes she silently allows herself to be bullied into them, and occasionally, very occasionally, she speaks out against them. It would be nice, though, to see a bit more of the last, though maybe we will see more challenging responses from Elly as the comic progresses.

    daughterofben

    July 10, 2009 at 10:05 am

  2. I always liked FBoFW – in fact my friend and I used to e-mail each other about Liz’s relationships (my friend said she would stop reading if Liz & Anthony got back together etc etc – cut us some slack, neither of us have TVs so this was our soap opera for the day). I stopped reading with the “reboot” as you call it – it was annoying me. I think it would have been better for the story to just end the way it did. I will say that I was already under the impression that Deanna and Michael knew each other from elementary school and met up again in college.

    melanie

    July 10, 2009 at 12:26 pm


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