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Comic Strip / Dykes to Watch Out For

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From left to right: Mo, Clarice, Toni, Carlos, Jerry, Lois, Jezana, Sparrow, Stuart and Jiao, Samia, Ginger, and Sydney

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 memoirs Fun Home and Are You My Mother? The comic strip began to make a return in 2016, and has updated sporadically since.

Trope Namer for The Bechdel Test, the rules listed here.


  • Aborted Arc: In one of the book-exclusive strips, Toni and Clarice decide to try polyamory. It is only mentioned a couple times more when nothing comes of the idea. 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).
  • Added Alliterative Appeal: Bechdel sometimes indulges in this, take these three examples using the letter "P": the narrative caption "Mo's pulchritudinous pal performs her puerile poetry", the title of one of Sydney's papers, "Polysemous Perversity: Paradigms of Pleasure in the Pornographic Purview", and one of Mo's early rants: "We're living in a Protestant police state and all I'm worried about is getting a job so I can help perpetuate the paranoid patriarchal death culture!"
  • Alphabetical Theme Naming: Mo's cats are called Vanessa and Virginia.
  • Analogy Backfire: In one of the last strips (December 2007), as the cast attends Stuart's winter solstice ritual:
    Stuart: People created solstice rituals because they were afraid the sun would never come back to the sky. And lemme tell ya, after seven years of Bush, I know how they felt... [...] ... and as the lengthening days triumph over darkness, may peace triumph over war, may...
    Sydney: Stuart? D'you really want to apply that solar model to human behavior? After all, darkness triumphs over the light in June. Unless you mean that war is inevitable, a kind of cyclical, Bataillean squandering of excess energy — a view with which I'm inclined to agree. (everybody glares at her) I'm just saying.
  • Animated Actors
  • 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.
  • Bland-Name Product: Does this constantly to parodic effect: "," "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.
  • Bold Inflation: Especially prevalent in the earlier comics.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Janis, a trans example of the trope.
  • 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.
  • Cast Full of Gay: Exactly as it says on the tin.
  • 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.
  • Comically Missing the Point: On the January page of the 1990 Dykes To Watch Out For Calendar, Mo's then-girlfriend Harriet takes a look at Mo's New Year's resolutions (reading out numbers 22 to 25 of a very long list), and when asked about her own resolution says she hasn't made any. Mo immediately springs into action:
    Mo: Aw, don't worry, sweetie! I'll help you make your list! Your first resolution could be to ask for a raise at work. You know they don't pay you what you are worth! And number two could be to become more politically active!
    Harriet: Okay! And make number three to find a new girlfriend who isn't controlling, anal-retentive or driven by liberal guilt.
    Mo: There you go! See, it's easy once you get started! Does 'anal-retentive' have a hyphen?
    Harriet: (rolls eyes).
  • 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 went on indefinite hiatus in 2008 with no information if it would continue, but began to make a return in 2016. 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. Nuthin’ fancy. No loose ends tied up. Just another strip."
  • Daddy's Girl: Sydney in her competitive relationship to her father; ironic, since she was raised practically single-handedly be her mother.
  • Decomposite Character: Naomi, a Jewish lesbian, was initially set up as a major character, but quickly fizzled out, and a plotline around her coming out as bisexual similarly went nowhere. To compensate, later strips reveal Thea is Jewish, and Sparrow eventually discovers she's bi.
  • Disabled Snarker: Thea in her first appearance, when Mo is being a jerk about Thea being disabled.
    Thea: Yeah, I know it’s hard to believe, Mo, but the wheelchair doesn’t impair my hearing at all.
  • Disability as an Excuse for Jerkassery: Sydney invokes this, although her level of jerkassery remains pretty much constant before and after she is diagnosed with cancer.
    Sydney: She won’t 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.
  • Emo Teen: Raffi as he enters his teen years.
  • Erotic Eating: It's been known to occur in the bonus story sections of the collections, which could devote more space to such things than the regular installments. For instance in Hot, Throbbing Dykes To Watch Out For Sydney prepares a tiramisù to entice Mo on one of their early dates (once Mo overcomes her misgivings against dairy, sugar and chocolate, things take off quite satisfyingly), and in Post-Dykes To Watch Out For Clarice and Toni can be seen cavorting in bed with vanilla ice cream and maple syrup.
  • 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 and 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
  • 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.
  • Gaydar: Played with. Stuart always fell in love with women who turned out to be lesbians (or in one case, transsexual), including his eventual partner Sparrow, who still identified as lesbian after becoming his partner. This leads to a scene after Ginger first met Samia and her dog Anubis:
    Lois: When are you going to stop lurking here by the petunias waiting for the dog woman to go by and ask her out already?
    Ginger: Ask her out? I don't even know if she's a lesbian.
    Stuart: Hey, Ginger, look sharp, here comes that gorgeous woman with the golden retriever.
    Lois: Given his track record, I'd call that as good as a signed affidavit.
  • 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.
  • 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. And her father Paul left his wife and married Jennifer, a former student of his.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Seven of the twelve book collections are titled [Descriptor] Dykes to Watch Out For. Parodied in the Cartoonist's Introduction for the omnibus collection, Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, which depicts Bechdel's workspace as being cluttered with such volumes as NASCAR Dykes to Watch Out For, Precambrian Dykes to Watch Out For, and Rococo Dykes to Watch Out For.
  • Jerkass: 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."
  • The Lad-ette: Lois.
  • 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. The latter is debatable though. 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. It 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 and 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.
  • Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy: Stuart and Sparrow.
    "I think I am a Butch Lesbian in a man's body."
    "Soft butch. Maybe."
  • May–December Romance: Sydney's father Paul Krukowski and his second wife, former student Jennifer.
  • 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.
  • 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 Club dialogue guaranteed overheard".
  • ...Or So I Heard: Clarice backpedaling after letting it slip that the bookstore's competition has good coffee, thus admitting that she had shopped there.
  • Orphaned Series: Bechdel put the series on indefinite hiatus in 2008 so she could focus on her second graphic novel. Said novel came out in 2012, but no new Dt WOF material has come out, except for one strip in 2016 and in 2017.
  • Politically Motivated Teacher / Strawman U: Played with – Cynthia campaigns against what she sees as the liberal bias of her university, with much skepticism from the other characters.
    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? That’s real conservative.
    Cynthia: I’m 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.
    Ginger: ?!
    Cynthia: I’ll 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.
  • Print Long-Runners: One of the longest-running LGBT comic strips ever, at 25 years.
  • Put on a Bus: After Madwimmin Books closes down, Jezanna and Thea pretty much disappear from the strip.
  • Soapbox Sadie: Why Mo has been described as "challenging" by her friends.
  • Shout-Out:
    • One partner that Lois describes in passing, Babette, is recalled as "a feast."
    • The cover of The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For (the current page image pictured above) is based on Norman Rockwell's The Gossips.
  • 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.
  • Sickeningly Sweet: Sydney's in-universe opinion of her chemo clinic.
    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.
  • Tertiary Sexual Characteristics: Averted with many characters. Mo, who has a fairly boyish figure, is occasionally mistaken for a male; on one funny occasion this was when at the launch of a new Harry Potter novel at Madwimmin's she read the new book out to a group of children who thought she was dressing up as Harry and complained that she was lacking his trademark scar. Lois on the other hand, enjoys dressing up as male, and her drag king costumes will obviously involve the masculine version of this trope.
  • 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 “old puritan dude.”
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: After Lois humiliates Emma by kissing her in the public, she is never seen or mentioned again (except in one panel in one of the Breaking the Fourth Wall strips mentioned above).
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The name or the exact location of the (fictional) city the strip takes place in is never revealed, though one official description of the strip refers to it as "may or may not be Minneapolis."
  • You're Cute When You're Angry:
    • Other characters occasionally tell Mo that she's cute when she's angrily ranting about politics.
    • At one of their first meetings, Sydney obliquely praises Pat Buchanan in order to provoke such a rant from Mo. After Mo stomps off, there is this conversation:
    Ginger: Why'd you bait her like that?
    Sydney: Don't her ears turn an entrancing salmon hue when she's apoplectic?