Thursday, December 10, 2009

Family Circus: Since Grandma has been here we haven't sent Daddy out for fried chicken or burgers even ONCE!

Just because Dolly's not willing to cede her own power to her grandparents doesn't mean she's not perfectly happy to partake in the humiliation of her mother for the sake of making old people happy. But there's a lot more going on here than just another one of Dolly's power plays.

On a superficial level, this cartoon is a simple mother-in-law joke. If you don't immediately recognize it as such, it's because it's told from the daughter-in-law's point of view, which is a fair amount rarer than the mother-in-law joke told from the son-in-law's point of view. Underlying the latter variety is just hack misogyny: "Aren't women annoying! Ha ha!" But underlying the former kind of mother-in-law joke is a more complex social critique, which this particular Family Circus cartoon really brings to the fore.

On a basic level, these jokes are about generational conflicts and what should be expected of women within the family and culture more broadly. The cartoon above lays out the dichotomy pretty distinctly. In the foreground, we have the new generation, while in the background, we have the old generation. The new generation wears pants; the old generation wears a dress. The new generation looks harried, despite only being responsible for a single dish; the old generation looks serene, despite having a whole table in front of her. The new generation struggles to control her child; the old generation is in control of the entire table, a symbol for the whole family. And as per the dialog, the new generation often abdicates her wifely duty of cooking dinner for her family every night and forces her husband to perform menial tasks for her, like pick up food from a restaurant; the old generation never does, not even ONCE!*

*(My favorite touch is easily Grandpa standing off to the side reading the paper, just like it's supposed to be. The old generation would certainly never think or dare to interrupt her spouse's hard-earned leisure time.)

This trope generally sides with the younger generation, acknowledging that the world is different now and that the older generation never actually found everything as easy as it tends to claim in the first place. I don't think that's the case here. On the contrary, it seems pretty clear that, despite not being entirely unsympathetic to the younger generation, Keane Inc. is still on the older generation's side. Which, of course, is exactly what should be expected.

The most bizarre thing about all of this is that Thel Keane is the stand-in for the younger generation. Would that be the same Thel Keane who has never had a career of any kind, is generally held up as the perfect stay-at-home mom, and pumps out babies seemingly every year? Yep, that would be the one.

1 comment:

  1. In focusing on the generational conflict aspect of this story, you're ignoring the larger, overarching theme, which is how being subject to patriarchal rule turns women who should be allies against each other.

    What we see here are three generations of women who have a lot in common. None of them have ever held a job or had to worry about their financial security. They all were born and raised (or will be raised) in a securely white, upper-middle-class middle-American suburb where there are no concerns of violence, fear, or loss.

    But what this little vignette really demonstrates is how these three women compete for the affection of Bill, with Grandpa acting as a symbolic stand-in here or, in a more general sense, for the approval of the patriarchal power structure.

    Thel's lacklustre homemaking is normally acceptable in the absence of anything to compare it against. In the presence of another woman, though, who is perceived as being superior in all ways (being that she comes from an older, more oppressive time, and thus has bent her will more completely to the patriarchy, thus making her "better"), Thel is forced to use all her skill in an attempt to win favor. Can't have Bill making unfavorable comparisons of his own wife!

    Dolly, as you mention, is perfectly willing to attack and humiliate her mother. This is merely the opening salvo in what will ultimately be a decades-long struggle for superiority with her mother. "You send dad after food; I would never treat my father that way, because I take after Grandma," she seems to be saying. What is saddest about this is that, again, the basis of the perceived superiority is, in reality, who can defer the most and make themselves most inferior to the man of the household.

    It's clearly not a battle Thel can win, since she's already established a precedent of expecting Bill to obtain food on his own. She's got a lot of digging to do to make up for that blunder.