In a post entitled Sweet, Sweet Baby Blues, blogger Livesay discusses just what it is that makes this 26 year-old comic so lovable. The consensus, it seems, is that the strip is honest, realistic, and relatable. It’s no doubt true that many parents can identify with Darryl and Wanda MacPherson, especially given that the show is based on the real-life parenting experiences of its creators. The cartoon does embrace both the touching and the disgusting, and is in many ways an excellent representation of family life. As for me, I grew up with the strip. There’s been a book of Baby Blues cartoons in the house as far back as I can remember, and there are many aspects of the comic that I find delightful. The older I get, however, the harder certain things have become to ignore. The children have always been the heart of the strip, but I found myself becoming far less comfortable with Zoe and Hammie’s portrayal as they aged alongside me. Both kids, I was disappointed to see, grew right out of babyhood and directly into perfect representations of stereotypical masculinity and femininity. Rather than taking an opportunity to explore the benefits of raising boys and girls the same, or to critique the confining nature of normative gender roles, co-creators Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott revel in the supposedly “innate” differences between boys and girls. The contrasts between the two children are shown less as being “how Zoe and Hammie are,” and more as “how boys and girls are.” Zoe has no “tomboy” friends, and Hammie’s friends are as much caricatures of masculinity as he is, if not more so. Zoe refuses to go out in public with even the tiniest stain on her clothing, and Hammie is “afraid” of unicorns. Their parents do nothing to encourage a broadening of interests for either child, and instead continue to model, as adults, what they seem to regard as “natural” behavior. What’s more, Hammie’s destructive behavior, including disrespect for his sister and for girls in general, as dismissed and excused as being a natural sentiment, rather than a problem that could stand to be addressed.
Meanwhile, both Hammie and his father take threats to their masculinity very seriously. Both often refuse to interact with Zoe or participate in her activities if they consider them too feminine and her interests themselves often become a strip’s punchline.
In the above comic, Zoe is excited to teach her father and brother a game that she plays with his friends. The game is admittedly a bit over the top, but the suggestion seems to be that young girl’s interests are inherently funny in their ridiculousness. In fact, Darryl and Hammie actually bond over their rejection of femininity, and seems evident that Hammie will not learn respect for his sister from his father. The implication is clear: women and girls are different from men and boys, and the sexes should not waste their time trying to bond, or even interact, with one another. Instead, sitting on the couch with a bowl of chips is shown as the favorable alternative to spending time with your eight-year-old daughter.
The strip that has perhaps most distressed me, even as far back as my own childhood, is one published on January 8th, 2006
Looking at Hammie’s original “self-portrait” causes Daryl noticeable distress, even openly grimacing at his son’s drawing in the bottom left panel. His reaction to Hammie’s “real” self-portrait, an alarmingly disturbing and gory picture for a child, is one of intense relief. Even framed in the context of a joke, the message is clear: any man would be happier with a violent, stereotypically masculine son than a “feminized” one.
While I still often enjoy the comic, Baby Blues appeals to me far less than it once did. The older I get, the more tired I become of its bland, predictable approach to representation. Jokes or not, I’d challenge such a popular and successful strip to look deeper for its sources of humor and to recognize that “girls” alone are not a punchline. I’ve seen the series at its best, and I know that it’s capable of more than these strips have to offer.