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At Swords’ Point: Humor As Weapon

Turning to another subject, I asked about her reception when she and her agent, two women, called on New York editors. “Did the temperature of the room change?”

“Very, very, very much so,” she said. “I remember one editor who shuffled through my cartoons then tossed them on the desk and said, ‘You gal cartoonists are all alike—you don’t attack and hit hard enough!’ In the same vein, I met cartoonist-publisher Roger Price in Denver one time, and after looking at my work, he said, ‘Isn’t there anything you hate?’

“Aside from stereotypes,” she went on, “—or perhaps along with them—men seem to prefer more aggression, hostility. I wouldn’t come up with very sexist or hostile humor. I don’t really like hate humor. Yet my work would not seem funny to many male editors, and I wouldn’t know the main reason. So how come, as a woman, I sold at all? Never hugely, but some.

“For one thing, I often avoided the stereotype problem because my cartoons were usually about kids,” she said. “But not always. I hate to admit it—even to myself—but I followed some of the same sexist stereotypes. I used gags sent to me by a gag writer, and I chose them because they looked like the kind of cartoon gag I often saw published. Things like the parasite wife who surprises her husband—‘I got you something for your birthday that I’ve been wanting for a long time.’ Or the dumb bride who burbles to her husband, ‘Do you like the steak? I boiled it myself.’

“Would it be funny if the new bride and groom are looking at their apartment for the first time and when he sees the kitchen, he says, ‘What’s this?’”

I said: “The image of women in cartoons seems to me to be a terribly knotty problem just on the face of it. But as you were talking about cartoon women—as soon as they get married they became three feet taller and a hundred pounds heavier—I was thinking about ‘Father Knows Best’ on television, whose wife was very attractive. The father may have known best, but it was really the wife who ran the family. Dagwood Bumstead isn’t the head of that household; Blondie is the only sensible one in the house. She is occasionally portrayed as being a little empty-headed, but there’s a common sense streak there, too.”

“I’d like to say something about Dagwood,” Swords interrupted. “I think he’s a good example of why we should look for a cartoon’s secondary target. First, of course, he’s the butt, tricked by Blondie—poor, dumb, Dagwood, the epitome of the thirties loser, but he comes out as always the good guy. And what about Blondie, who ‘wins’? It’s usually money, not to buy groceries or clothes for a growing family, but hats—for herself. She is still the gold-digger she was before she trapped that ‘wealthy playboy’ Dagwood. Pretty, but a conniving cheat, as well as an airhead who can talk two hours to a wrong number. She is not a likable person—the source of the Japanese stereotype of overbearing American women who run everything. Now that she has a job—cooking! —she has stopped tricking Dagwood out of money.”

“But, still,” I flailed on, “Blondie isn’t stupid. Nor is the mother in ‘Father Knows Best.’ So women aren’t always the victims or the butt of the joke in marriage. These examples may be the exceptions that prove the rule, of course, but what I’m trying to do here is not to defend the status quo but to explore the idea that in a visual humorous medium like this, we’re employing stereotypical images all the time, perpetuating whatever the culture is committed to. How do we get out of that?”

“It takes somebody to start changing,” Swords said. “Something like ‘Grace Under Fire.’ Do you like that tv show? I am impressed with the fact that she does not do easy answers; she does not do the stereotypical thing. She’s far more real. ‘Frasier’ is different, too; so is ‘Seinfeld.’ I suppose it will have to be things like this that will make the changes.”

“But,” I said, “how do you communicate in a culture like this, which is rife with stereotypes, without using stereotypes? Let me give you an example. I was talking to Sergio Aragones, who does pantomime cartoons—no words. That’s his specialty. He said if he did a cartoon in which there was a female doctor, he would dress her like a doctor—in white uniform—and she would automatically be taken to be the nurse. Our culture predetermines that response. Women are nurses. Not doctors. That’s the stereotype. We are limited by the stereotypical vehicle that cartoonists must use under certain circumstances in order to convey fully the idea. So how do we escape that?”

“It’s slow,” Swords said, “but you know, it is changing. I remember an announcer on TV once saying, This is just the thing—every man and woman should have one. And I let out a yell—Hooray! Finally, they’re including us. We’re part of the world.”

“Still,” I said, “the problem with stereotypical images is very complex. It’s difficult to avoid stereotypes—and it’s just as difficult, actually, to do certain kinds of cartoons without working in stereotypes. If you’re going to show a woman whose essential work is in the home, where are you going to show her doing that? It’s probably going to be in the kitchen. If you are going to show a tyrant of a boss, what does he look like and where is he going to be? He’s going to be behind his desk, towering over somebody else—probably standing up and blowing off steam.”

“Why not have a woman executive?” Swords asked.

“Yes, a good question,” I said. “But my point is that there are stereotypical images that are part of the visual language of our society.”

“Okay,” Swords said, “the woman in the kitchen should be dressed in street clothes, office clothes, because more than half of all wives and women work outside the home. So she comes home and she cooks dinner. She may still be wearing her hat.”

I shifted the subject somewhat: “Are there cartoons or comic strips that are doing a creditable job these days of steering clear of stereotypes?” “Sally Forth by Greg Howard is wonderful,” she said. “I think that’s terrific. Lynn Johnston—hers is a different kind entirely. I think her natural humor is very good. But Sally Forth is funny, and it certainly presents everybody’s point of view but more closely the women. I sent Howard a fan letter, saying how much I enjoyed it. To have the best feminist cartoon being done by a man is impressive. He said, ‘I’ve got a wife and two teenage girls who keep me honest.’”

Some don’t have that kind of support, though, Swords told me. “I’ve had conversations by mail with Cathy Guisewite, and she said she cannot make wise cracks in her strip Cathy. She cannot have Cathy answer back, be clever, be funny—do any put-downs—because the syndicate says that’s not like Cathy. So Cathy comes out looking like the teenage cartoon girls they used to have who want nothing but dates and dresses and diets. The only difference is that the character holds a responsible job. She couldn’t possibly hold if she were really that nutty. And they phased out her feminist friend—who was a member of NOW. And the two often did things together. But her friend has got married and had a child and changed entirely. No more feminist material there at all.”

Swords is a charter member of the Denver NOW chapter, which started in the summer of 1970.

“When they were getting it started,” she said, “I knew I had to stand up for what I believed in. I was a traditional married woman with children, and I wrote and did cartoons, but I was not a rabble-rouser—until I got into it.”

I laughed: “And then you became a rabble-rouser!”

She laughed, too: “We worked within the system. We were trying to change the system and bring about equality for women. My sister thinks what I do is fine, but it’s difficult for her to see it. Sometimes. Sometimes not. We were at a jumping frog contest in a little town near here, one of those things that the junior chamber of commerce puts on. And these young fellows were out there—‘C’mon, get yourself a frog and name it after your mother-in-law and jump the old bat.’ And my sister turned to me indignantly, ‘Well—say something; you’re the feminist—say something!’”

Swords laughed. “Well, if I said something then, it wouldn’t have done me a bit of good, and I’d have been hooted down by all those men. But whenever something like that happens, I try to reverse it. In this case, I waited and then went up to the young man when no one was within earshot and said, ‘You know, I was interested in how you did that, but wouldn’t it have been just as funny if you’d said, ‘Name it after your father-in-law and jump the old goat.’ And he understood right away. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry; I didn’t mean it.’ And he didn’t.”

“There’s a whole lot of unmeaning meaning that goes on,” I said.

“Right, and I think it’s a good idea to speak up.”

Swords objects to the idea that women have no sense of humor. Without a sense of humor, she says, the average wife and mother simply wouldn’t make it. “Women have to have a good sense of humor, or they couldn’t live with men. Or with children!” But the way to test the proposition—and at the same time to see if men have a sense of humor when they are the butt of the joke—is to practice reversal. And Swords had one great success with the old switcheroo. She’d sold several cartoons to Robert Marshall at Changing Times, including a series on back-to-school-night. “Then I came up with a new notion for the changing times that the magazine was chronicling,” she said, “—a woman political candidate. I proposed the idea to him, and he wrote back, saying, ‘The board talked it over and didn’t think it sounded very good, but if you think it can work, send me some ideas.’

“I liked that,” she said. “He was giving me credit for having a sense of humor. And he also was giving me credit for knowing what I was doing, for thinking that I had something—and obviously, as it turned out, I did—but the men on his board hadn’t thought it could be funny.

“Well, in two days,” she continued, “I had a hundred and forty-nine wonderful ideas—every one of them a beautiful switch. I sent them in, and Marshall wrote back, ‘You really did it.’ And in the October 1972 issue, they gave me a two-page spread—my first; and three colors, another first for them also. I made more on that, but to me it was important because it was where my feelings and my cartooning came together. I felt I was making a difference by forcing people to recognize the ridiculousness of the objections to women candidates, helping the great increase in women elected that year. I saw Pat Schroeder the night the magazine came out. She told me she spoke at a Kiwanis Club that noon, where one of the men told her, ‘You’ll never believe what’s in Changing Times today!’ After the election, I wrote Marshall to tell him my woman candidate won, too—‘and for a bigger job than just the city council!’”

“We made a story out of the cartoons,” she said. “I was having her run for the state legislature. But they wanted her to run for something not quite so big—city council. And I said, ‘Okay—but she’s going to win!’ Almost every cartoon is a complete reversal. One of them is a man and his wife watching tv, and the man says, ‘I suppose you’ll vote for her just because she’s a woman, when we know she’s running against a Brother Elk.’”

A year or so later, Swords participated in another overtly feminist project. This was the Male Chauvinist Pig calendar for 1974. She worked with two other Denver residents, Robert and Peggy Hurley, who had produced a similar calendar the year before. The idea for the calendar was born in Robert’s classroom at a local community college: in discussing the discrimination faced by blacks and chicanos, he found his students didn’t understand that women are also discriminated against until he asked them to list instances of discrimination in their own lives. Their examples were so telling, he felt, that he decided to use them on a calendar as a daily reminder.

In developing the calendar for 1974, Robert worked with his wife and Swords, and they initially came up with about 150 ideas, which they struggled to trim to the desired dozen. Sold throughout Denver, the calendar attracted considerable attention in both broadcast and print media. The Women’s Political Caucus used it as a fund-raiser, and also sold it through an ad in MS magazine. The originals were auctioned off at a New York fund raiser.

“Not all the cartoons are directed at men,” Swords observed at the time the calendar was published. “We are also against women who are destructive in some sense. We don’t like men or women who exploit the liberation movement or idiot women who allow themselves to be exploited.

“Humor is a personal thing,” she said, “and some people won’t like all of the cartoons. Some people don’t want to be presented with reality. This is a very personal thing for us. We made a statement and we stood behind it, and we didn’t just follow the stereotypes.”

It’s pretty clear that Swords was never a stereotype. Even her cartoon sales didn’t produce a typical response. “When I was a gag writer,” she recalled, “I thought the greatest thrill would be to have a gag of mine in the Saturday Evening Post—written and drawn by me. But when it happened, it was nothing. Oh, I was thrilled, but there was no great clamoring at my door, brass bands and crowds yelling, Author, author! In fact, when I would casually drag my published cartoonist status into the conversation, the listener usually responded by saying, ‘Oh? That’s nice. Say, my little boy Donald can trace Mickey Mouse just perfectly—you should see.’”

She chuckled. “People who knew that I had a cartoon in a particular magazine would phone and ask what page it was on and what name I used to sign my work. But people don’t ever really look at the names of the cartoonists. You can sign your cartoons, but nobody reads those names. Except for Vip. He was the one. Everyone knew him. And so when someone asked me how I signed my cartoons, I said, ‘Vip.’”


Excerpts from the precis for Betty Swords’ Humor Power

* The male images of women created by cartoonists were accepted as the truth about women. For example: The woman driver is the safest driver, according to the National Safety Council—but not to the National Cartoonists Society. To them, she’s the quintessential “dumb driver,” an idea so set in the concrete of comic tradition that it’s become a humor shorthand: when we see a cartoon of a woman driver, we know automatically that she’s a dumb driver. Just ask a man which he believes—the Cartoonists Society or the Safety Council?

* Humor’s Role in History. Man creates society in his own image. Our unique culture, and our early tall tale humor, grew from feelings of inferiority—to the British and to the awesome wilderness. The British called the colonists “uncouth savages.” America’s first settlers couldn’t claim culture, so they made fun of it. We still ridicule the “eggheads” and the “absent-minded professors” who, supposedly, lack the “gumption.” Glasses remain the humor symbol for a wimp: he reads! The arts remain suspect as a haven for wimps—or worse. Early Americans chose for the hero of their early tall tale humor that boozing, brawling, boasting, wenching, anti-book-larnin’ son-of-a-gun, the Frontiersman. He lives on in John Wayne and Rambo, and in a president who admires them both. In Funnyland, no Real Man attends a concert or ballet. And President Reagan felt it necessary to note that his ballet-dancing son was really “all man.”

* Humor helped establish stereotypes. Humor perpetuates these always derogatory images once they are set in the concrete of comic tradition. Even social scientists accepted the black stereotype of the lazy, thieving, stupid “coon” set by minstrel show jokes. Stereotypes are wonderfully useful in a pluralistic society: you don’t have to actually know a black or a Jew to know what they’re really like. What stereotypes are, of course, are lies, invented to keep certain people “in their place.” Ideas, as well as people, are the victims of stereotypes when their advocates are ridiculed as “kooks” or “crazies.” Stereotypical jokelore becomes folklore and affects our attitudes and even our laws.

* Our history helps explain why women are the chief target of American humor: women represented culture and civilization to our tall tale hero—the enemy of his freedom—while allowing every insecure male to feel superior to someone.

* Men are victims, too, of the stereotype they chose for themselves: that brawling, boozing, wenching, anti-intellectual frontiersman. ... No other stereotype is so rigorously policed by jokes and ridicule--and it’s a killer, inflicting tremendous emotional and physical damage on the men who can’t live up to this rough-tough image, and on those who try to rise above it.

* It’s humor which perpetuates the myths that deny minorities dignity and self-respect. So it was vital that minorities develop a private coping humor to stand the pain, to put down their persecutors—and so to raise themselves.

* Feminist humor hopes to make changes by bonding with people, instead of laughing at them: the pick-up instead of the put-down.

* When you’re the victim of jokes, don’t just die there. Do something. Responses range from simple assertiveness to aikido, a kind of verbal karate which turns the thrust of the humor weapon back on the wielder.

* The larger the audience, the more conservative the humor, so newspaper funnies also reflect a static status quo made up of stereotypical humor myths—as does the press in general, newspapers and mass market magazines. Humorists are mostly merchandisers of the status quo; they must uphold the values of their audiences, especially if they’re large ones. (Political cartoonists and columnists are allowed more freedom). And yet, humorists are usually dissenters, who see the world slightly askew and ask us to share their laughter at its oddities.

* If humor has the power to help shape society—and given that our society is one of growing violence and alienation—can we not alter and improve society, at least our corner of it, by changing our humor?  Only when we recognize humor’s power—for good as well as for evil—can we control that power for positive purposes in both our personal and professional lives.


TO THE BEST OF MY KNOWLEDGE (now, in 2011), Swords’ book was never published. But her theories of humor were validated in other ways, she told me: “A professor Browning read a precis of mine on humor power while in Denver on a speaking engagement and asked me to come to Washington, D.C. and deliver a paper on it the next year. He was presiding over the International Conference on Humor in D.C. in 1983. Another paper of mine was accepted for delivery in 1986 at the ICH at the University of Arizona in Tempe. My subject was the damage man-made humor can do to men, too, by establishing such a tough-rough stereotype that’s hard to live up to.

“I was asked to speak about humor’s role in so many areas—marriage, violence, minorities, plus examining each minorities’ humor—that I felt I had enough material for a college course. I applied to three colleges and was accepted by all three! Later, a fourth. Two were credit courses; two, adult courses. That was more validation, that helped make up for a book that didn’t get published. I had a good agent who was gung-ho about it, but it was a ‘mid-market’ type book when the publishers were only buying Best Sellers. I did interest a textbook publisher, but he required an incredible amount of work: pages of questions, including all the courses that might use the book, and what publications did their professors subscribe to? Maybe clowns always want to be taken seriously.”


8 Responses to At Swords’ Point: Humor As Weapon

  1. antony says:

    Those are some lovely cartoons! Gorgeous line-work and her character designs are fantastic. Informative piece on someone who I was quite unfamiliar with.

  2. antony says:

    Great spotted blacks, too!

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  4. Alex says:

    This is a most informative article on several levels. Not only does it gove insight into the creative process for a particular artist, it shed some light on the life experiences of a woman in the comics industry during a particular era. I know of at least tow others who had to blaze their own tough trail through a male dominant world, and one woman had to contend with being the only black woman to be syndicated at that time. More articles of this type and caliber would be useful not only to professional comics pros and fans, but also to those who might be considering this field as a career choice. Somethings have changed and some have not. And as the old saying goes, “You can’t know where you are going, until you know where you come from.”

  5. Bella says:

    Fantastic article. It was wonderful to feel Swords’ personality in her words.

  6. Kyle Gray says:

    I loved reading about Swords!

    ….I just wished the article was more about her.

    Too many “I’s” in this to make it enjoyable.

  7. agy wilson says:

    I wish the author of this article would consider Kickstarter or self publishing for a book about Sword or Sword’s book. They are both necessary, and should have the opportunity to shine in the pantheon of books…

  8. Annelie says:

    This is wonderful, so interesting. Thanks to Kate Beaton for rebblogging this, which is where I found it.

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