This long-running Slice of Life series by Alison Bechdel about the lives, loves, and politics of a group of lesbians in an unspecified midwestern town is one of the most popular of all LGBT comic strips. Originally introduced as a series of one-shot vignettes in 1983, the strip shortly moved to its serialized format with recurring characters. After writing the strip for more than 25 years, Bechdel put it on hiatus in 2008 to concentrate on her graphic memoir Fun Home. She later continued the series of memoirs with Are You My Mother in 2012.
Aborted Arc: In one of the book-exclusive strips, Toni and Clarice decide to try polyamory. It is never brought up again. God admits to forgetting about it.
It is mentioned a couple times when nothing comes of it, and when brought up in couples therapy, Toni says that ever since becoming depressed after the 2000 election, Clarice lost interest in anything sexual.
Acme Products: Apparently the Acme Corporation exists in the DTWOF universe, as the occasional Acme product/company is seen. Acme Floral appears in an early strip, and there's also Acme Imaging Solutions (makers of the "iMRItronic" MRI machine).
Art Evolution: Very noticeable if you get the The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For compilation, especially Lois and Clarice.
Artifact Title: The seed of the strip was a drawing titled "Marianne, dissatisfied with her morning brew: Dykes to Watch Out For, plate no. 27", "as if it were just one in a series of illustrations of mildly demonic lesbians." She drew more and more "plates", and kept the title when it shifted to a strip format about various aspects of lesbian culture, and also when it shifted to the serialized format with recurring characters. As the cast grew to include people of other genders and sexual identities, she lampshaded the title by titling a recent collection of her strips Dykes and Sundry Other Carbon-based Life-forms to Watch Out For.
Author Tract: Bechdel describes the strip as "half op-ed column and half endless serialized Victorian novel," and true to form nearly every strip has some political ranting done by the characters. The angriest sentiments are given a lot of Self-Deprecation - Mo and Clarice always have someone nearby to point out that their excessive anger is not helping anything.
The Bechdel Test: Trope Namer. This was featured in an early strip before the comic moved to the serial format with recurring characters. It passes, by the way.
Bi the Way: A minor early character (Naomi) is bisexual; after she fades from the strip, Sparrow, one of the main characters, begins to identify as a bi-dyke, starts a relationship with Stuart, and eventually has a child with him.
Bland-Name Product: Does this constantly to parodic effect: "medusa.com," "Bounders Books & Muzak," "Bunns & Noodle," "Bed Bath & Bite Me," "Papaya Republic," etc. When Lois, Ginger and Sparrow have a potluck, Sydney brings a bucket of Florida Fried Fowl. This troper's personal favourite was a publishing house, "Furrier Sprout & Genoux."
Breaking the Fourth Wall: The series occasionally has strips where the main characters are aware that they are the stars of a comic strip, discussing past plot developments and suggesting future ones. This is taken to a high meta level in one strip, where Thea complains that she's not being presented as "a whole, 2-dimensional character"; apparently, in the world of comic strip "actors" who lack a third dimension, "two-dimensional" means the same as "three-dimensional" in our world. Alison Bechdel herself also appears in a couple of the meta strips.
Butch Lesbian: More nuanced. Several characters are butch-identified, but are fully fleshed out, nuanced characters, not mere stereotypes.
Caught with Your Pants Down: Mo is having cyber sex with her girlfriend in the bookshop she works in. Then all the employees walk in while she's busy. They seem surprised the Martha Stewart fantasy turns her on. Then her employer walks in and everything just gets better for Mo as she realises her fly is still undone.
Characterization Marches On: Mo has always been neurotic and uptight but in the early days would occasionally sing to herself, something it is extremely difficult to picture Mo of today doing.
Comic Book Time: Averted. Characters age pretty much in real time, including Raffi, and reminisce about the past from time to time with reference to how long it's been, with real time and strip time matching.
Cut Short: The series has been on indefinite hiatus since 2008, with no information when (if ever) it will continue. The final strips before the hiatus did not try to wrap up the various storylines in any way. As Bechdel says in the comment that accompanies the last strip she drew:
"The last episode for who knows how long. Nuthiní fancy. No loose ends tied up. Just another strip."
Disabled Snarker: Thea in her first appearance, when Mo is being a jerk about Thea being disabled.
Thea: Yeah, I know itís hard to believe, Mo, but the wheelchair doesnít impair my hearing at all.
Sydney: She wonít break up with me! I have cancer! I can do whatever I want.
Early-Installment Weirdness: The first few years of Dykes to Watch Out For had no regular characters or an ongoing plot; back then the strip was more like a lesbian-oriented version of Life in Hell. The ongoing story started in the late 1980s, with the introduction of Mo and Lois.
Even the Dog Is Ashamed: In the strip where Mo confronts Sydney about selling stories of their sex life to a magazine, the last panel shows their two cats glaring at Sydney.
Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory: An in-universe example occurs when Mo falls in love with a poet whose poems she insists have clever hidden meanings. (They don't really.)
Five-Token Band: The cast includes just about every race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, political view. On purpose: "Yes, this makes for a slightly more utopian community than most of us experience in real life, and I have been accused (albeit in a mainstream publication) of being 'racially diverse to a fault,' but so what? I know from experience the surprised thrill of catching a reflection of yourself in the cultural mirror - even if it's just a cartoon - when you're used to vampiric invisibility." - The Indelible Alison Bechdel
Foe Yay: In-universe example: Soon after Ginger's conservative student Cynthia is introduced, we see her verbally sparring with Ginger and her girlfriend Samia. Lois and Mo comment, "She may think you're traitors, but she wants both of you." "Bad." Cynthia later comes out.
Gay Conservative: Cynthia is a rare lesbian example of this. Earlier strips have touched on Mo's inability to accept anyone being both gay and conservative, and her current girlfriend Sydney is a borderline example- hardly a Republican but enough of a capitalist, materialist and contrarian to serve as a foil for ultra Granola Girl Mo.
Granola Girl: Most of the characters are well into what much of the heterosexual mainstream would consider this side of the spectrum, but it is played straight (for want of a better word). Ironically, in the last couple of years, straight male Stuart is the most Granola Girl character in the cast!
However, the one-shot character called Milkweed, who appeared in a few strips in the 1980s, was a critique of being too much of a Granola Girl. Even the DTWOF main characters (including Sparrow) were irritated by her.
Has Two Mommies: There are five children of lesbians in the strip. The first and most prominent is Raffi, son of Clarice and Toni. His birth came complete with Lamaze Class and Screaming Birth (everyone except Toni, the birth mom, went bananas) featured in a bonus segment in the collection Spawn of Dykes to Watch Out For. When he starts going to school, a fellow student teases him, calling him "Heather." He has been friends since childhood with Stella, daughter of Toni's long-term extramarital crush Gloria and her partner Ana. Mo's ex Harriet decided to have a child, Isabel, as a single mother. Sparrow has a child, J.R. (Jiao Raizel) with Stuart. Finally, Jasmine enters the strip with a child, Jonas, who begins to transition and takes the name Janis; after dating Ginger for a while, Jasmine settles down with Lois and they start raising Janis together.
Raffi and Stella's have a classmate who is the adopted daughter of a gay male couple.
Het is Ew: Lois and Ginger react this way to Sparrow dating Stuart.
Ginger: I knew all this heterosexuality would come to no good.
Hidden Depths: Sparrow started off as "the most cartoony of the characters," a fairly one-dimensional therapy-head and New-Age Retro Hippie; she later came out as bisexual, had a child, became an atheist, and developed a grumpy side to her personality.
Hot for Student: Lois mentions and affair she had with her high school trig teacher, Sydney had a very long running affair with a grad school comp lit professor.
Jerk Ass: Sydney, the "evil women's studies professor," is pompous and supercilious, has terrible spending habits, is incapable of fidelity, has no interest in politics, and screwed over Thea when they were dating years ago. Despite her irritating the hell out of Mo, they have been partners for most of a decade now. Bechdel introduced her because she was "tired of writing such paragons of virtue."
Ladykiller in Love: Lois fell hard for Emma, whom she eventually became her secondary (though Lois preferred to call it "more casual") partner in a triad relationship.
Law of Inverse Fertility: Toni and Clarice tried insemination for half a year before Raffi was conceived, while Sparrow got pregnant by Stuart despite using a cervical cap.
True for Toni, highly debatable for Sparrow. Stuart and Sparrow continue to have an active sex life, but she hasn't gotten pregnant again. She also never got pregnant with the guy she was with in college, a time when it would've been extremely inconvenient, if not traumatic, for her. May or may not have been subverted with Harriet; she wanted a child and had one, but we're not told how much effort or expense it took.
Limited Wardrobe: Main character Mo's tendency to wear a striped top (it's drawn as black-and-white in the strips, but the book covers are in colour and show it as red-and-white) and jeans is repeatedly lampshaded ("Just wear another striped T-shirt and indestructible jeans," "You could get management to pay you enough to buy another outfit," "Here's a fetching striped one"). In one episode, she dresses up to look nice for another character she has a crush on: this involves wearing a black shirt with thinner white stripes.
Magical Negro: Intentionally avoided or inverted in the character of Jezanna, the bookstore owner. Bechdel states in The Indelible Alison Bechdel that she hates "that stereotype of the big, wise black woman who nurtures all the spiritually deprived white people," so she made Jezanna a grumpy and hard-assed (though not mean) boss who runs her bookstore in a strictly hierarchical fashion, and is rather out of touch with her feelings.
Manufacturing Victims: Averted & Lampshaded — As Mo turns into a therapy junkie as a way of avoiding dealing with her life, her therapist actually throws her out (but it turns out that it was all a dream that Mo had after dozing off while waiting for a chiropractic adjustment).
Married to the Job: Evil academic Sydney, whilst researching polyamory, has the epiphany that she is in a polyamorous relationship already — her work is her primary relationship, while Mo is "the other woman". This also happens with Clarice and Toni, with Clarice's job as a lawyer almost immediately putting a strain on the relationship; and ultimately, when Toni cheats on Clarice, it's with Gloria, with whom she's buried in Freedom to Marry activism.
Meaningful Name: A few minor characters have Meaningful Names of varying levels of obscurity. Harriet's girlfriend after Mo, for whom Mo entertains a major hate-on and who later cheats on Harriet, is called Ellen Tufel, "Teufel" being German for "devil" (at one point Mo calls her "that she-devil"). Toni and Clarice had hoped to have their adoption case heard by sympathetic Judge Fairchild, but are instead heard by strict, conservative Judge Booker. Sydney's oncologist, whom Mo finds rather militaristic, is Dr. Rommel. And the creepy joined-at-the-hip perfect couple are named Liz and Beth - complete with daughter Elspeth. Also, Sydney's long-standing bit-on-the-side is a Comp. Lit. professor named Madeleine Zeugma. A zeugma is a figure of speech.
Metaphorgotten: Clarice's attempt to explain the branches of government to Raffi by comparing them to the members of her household.
"Look. Let's say I'm the legislative branch. Mommy's the executive. And you're the judicial. The power's divided up equally between us. Now say I pass a law that Xboxes are illegal and everyone has to get a PS2. Mommy could veto it, but she won't, because her election campaign was funded by PS2. You can rule it unconstitutional. But then PS2 can give money to a lot of senators and Mommy can nominate a bunch of PS2 judges. Then the PS2 senators abolish the right of the Xbox senators to filibuster the PS2 nominees. So the PS2 judges get confirmed, your decision is repealed, and all the courts are packed with PS2 partisans for all eternity. Do you follow?"
And Wii backers can just vote for Ralph Nader.
Nobody over 50 Is Gay: Averted; several minor characters are older lesbians, and most of the characters are now in their late forties.
No Ending: The comic was put on hiatus and never given a proper ending.
"Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: Thanks to Bechdel's use of parodic newscasts in the background, she had to use one of these when recording General Wiranto of Indonesia publicly singing "Feelings." The following news item, in turn, gets a "Made Up" disclaimer. And when Mo is babysitting Raffi, she watches The 700 Club and there's a disclaimer saying "All 700 mClub dialogue guaranteed overheard".
Or So I Heard: Clarice back-pedaling after letting it slip that the bookstore's competition has good coffee, thus admitting that she had shopped there.
Cynthia: The evidence speaks for itself. On a faculty of 250, there are only 15 openly Republican professors.
Ginger: What are you proposing? Ideological diversity through affirmative action? Thatís real conservative.
Cynthia: Iím proposing that impressionable students hear all sides of the issues. Does that threaten you?
Ginger: If all sides includes creationism and Holocaust denial and the novels of Ayn Rand, then yeah, I guess it does.
Cynthia: 4:21 pm. Professor Ginger Jordan mocks one of my intellectual heroines.
Cynthia: Iíll just post this little incident to the Academic Freedom Complaint Center.
Ginger: Cynthia, if you really want more Republicans on the faculty, try getting our salaries quadrupled.
Pride Parade: Several issues have a foreground plot about the main character's personal lives and a background plot of them arranging various demonstrations, including pride parades. Mo is a proponent of Shame parades, protesting the corporatization of the LGBT community.
Soapbox Sadie: Why Mo has been described as "challenging" by her friends.
The Smurfette Principle: Inverted. Originally, all the characters were female, not just because it was a lesbian strip but also because Bechdel wanted to force male readers to identify with the women in the strip, as women are frequently forced to identify with male characters. However, after she decided to make Clarice and Toni's child a boy, she started to introduce more male characters, such as Carlos and his boyfriend Trevor, Jerry, and most prominently Stuart.
Slap-Slap-Kiss: Mo and Sydney's courtship. When they first meet, they can't stop arguing (well, Sydney can't stop baiting Mo). Sparks fly. Matters progress.
Spotlight-Stealing Squad: Cynthia, Jasmine, Janis and Stuart (ironically, one of the strip's few straight males). None of these characters are particularly disliked, but fans have lamented that they miss the older characters like Sparrow and Lois.
Strawman Political: In the character of Cynthia, one of Ginger's students, who began as a one-note right-wing conservative gadfly. Over the course of her Character Development she comes out as a lesbian, becomes conflicted about her upbringing, and is gingerly welcomed into the main characters' circle, but does not drop her conservative beliefs.
Sydney: The TV's blaring, the place is littered with cutesy little angels and bears and now they'll have the Christmas crap up too. I think the entire collectible kitsch industry is kept afloat by chemo nurses.
Transsexual: A trans woman character named Jillian was introduced in 1994; she hung out for a few strips. Later, a atrans man character named Jerry was introduced; Lois developed a crush on him, which later moved on to a fairly durable friendship. Finally, Jasmine's child Jonas became more and more insistent about identifying as a girl, and eventually started living full-time, taking hormones, and identifying as Janis, with Lois's support. Also, for a while, irritated by Mo's transphobic attitude, Lois lets her believe for a short time that she is transitioning, asking to be called "Louis." After Mo slowly comes to accept this, Lois tells her the truth, although she does identify as genderqueer. ("I enjoy being a girl... in a perverse kind of way.")
Viewers Are Geniuses: With two characters being academics, and Bechdel herself a bibliophile, there are many academic and literary references well outside the usual Small Reference Pools. Quite a few theories and writers mentioned in the strip crop up in real gender theory classes. The occasional latin pun crops up as well, and many political issues get discussed in depth. Occasionally averted: Cotton Mather gets the footnote ďold puritan dude.Ē