Sığın on Kirtley, 'Typical Girls: The Rhetoric of Womanhood in Comic Strips'

Susan E. Kirtley
Aykut Sığın

Susan E. Kirtley. Typical Girls: The Rhetoric of Womanhood in Comic Strips. Studies in Comics and Cartoons. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2021. 268 pp. $134.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8142-1457-2; $36.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8142-5793-7

Reviewed by Aykut Sığın (Aksaray University, Faculty of Science and Letters, Department of Sociology) Published on Jhistory (November, 2022) Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

Printable Version:

Comic books are a big part of many people’s lives. Fervent discussions about whether Superman could beat the Incredible Hulk or whether Jean Grey belongs with Cyclops or Wolverine as well as inquiries into the dark existence of Spawn or the tragic past of Batman hold meaning in many youngsters’ lives worldwide. That said, comics are not merely tales “for kids” (or boys), as they constitute a whole industry whose consumers are people from all walks of life, from the young European girl to the middle-aged American man. Comics are “twice-told stories” with graphics and texts combined that frequently touch on the realities of human life in their fictional worlds and relay the intended message twice as impactfully when compared to plain text. Therefore, comics in general could prove to be important academic materials.
Susan E. Kirtley initiates her book Typical Girls: The Rhetoric of Womanhood in Comic Strips with an anecdote from her childhood where she was told that “girls do not read comics” and that was the reason she started reading comics: to protest against such discourse. While it is true that comics in general are traditionally considered a male-dominated medium, things began to change in the 1970s for the American audience, with women comic creators gaining a greater role in informing national opinion as part of the women’s rights movement. Kirtley’s research, therefore, focuses on a time period for which change can be documented. Throughout the book, Kirtley aims at understanding women as both creators of and characters in comic strips by way of placing them in a wider sociocultural context. The book involves a sample of newspaper comics created by women during and after the women’s liberation movement, but parallels can be drawn to other media, such as comic books and graphic novels, and to different cultures and times. While the audience of the book is the American society at large and the data are comic strips produced by women creators in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s in particular, I, as a Turkish reader, felt incentivized to consider the case of the Turkish comics studies community and woman comic creators, few in number.
Kirtley’s love for comics is apparent in the entirety of this well-researched book—with twelve pages of works cited—as it tries to analyze the interactions of women, womanhood, and the feminist movement through comic strips. Unlike much academic research, which is stuck in the traditional media era and predominantly shaped by the citing of print books or journals, Kirtley’s study makes good use of different sources of reference such as blog posts and interviews. The book provides an in-depth discourse and semiotic analysis of comic strips by such prominent woman comic creators as Lynn Johnston, Cathy Guisewite, Nicole Hollander, Lynda Barry, and others. In this context, the book caters not only to academics interested in media and gender studies but also to casual comic book readers who would like to read comic strips through a different, more professional lens.
Not counting the introduction, the book consists of seven chapters. It should be noted here that the book draws heavily upon the idea that the sociocultural dynamics of a society are reflected in comic strips produced in a given period of time. This can be seen fairly well in the book’s first chapter, which is dedicated to Cathy Guisewite’s semi-autobiographical comic strip series “Cathy,” first published in 1976. Kirtley provides her thorough insights on Cathy as a female character by means of questioning gender stereotypes. In the second chapter, the popular comic strip “For Better or For Worse” (1979) by Lynn Johnston is put to test through the challenged and reinforced gender stereotypes in it. The third chapter details Lynda Barry’s background for such creations as “Ernie Pook’s Commek,” first published in 1979, and “Girls and Boys,” originally published in 1981, and explores the community she created for and with her readers. In the fourth chapter, dealing with Nicole Hollander’s “Sylvia” (1980), the character is discussed in terms of how she resisted dominant narratives revolving around womanhood in her bathtub. “Dykes to Watch Out For” (1983) by Alison Bechdel, is the subject of the fifth chapter, where the lesbian stereotype is investigated through the said comic. The sixth chapter focuses on Barbara Brandon-Croft’s “Where I’m Coming From” (1989), where the monolithic representation of womanhood is regarded as an issue for black women, reminding the reader of discussions of intersectionality in feminist theory. Jan Eliot’s “Stone Soup,” with the launch year of 1995, is the topic of the last chapter. It is another detailed analysis of a selection of comic strips also referring to the real lives of woman comic creators. All these comic strips are in line with the rhetoric of womanhood produced in their respective times of publication and as such, serve as hard data on gender issues.
A very welcome addition to comics studies and gender studies, this study is a comprehensive historical analysis of representations of womanhood in an understudied medium. The chapters are independent of each other and are thus not repetitive, yet they all build on the same claim: that the media products created in a given period of time reflect, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the issues of the said period, with which I agree. If I were to criticize anything about the work, it would be something as trivial as the lack of a general conclusion. Kirtley does wrap up her remarks at the end of the seventh chapter, but I am of the opinion that a dedicated new chapter of greater length would have been preferable to this otherwise very informative work. The discussions on the comic strips (and their creators) are concluded in their respective chapters. On the other hand, the general discussion on the rhetoric of womanhood in comic strips is condensed in one (long) paragraph at the end of the last chapter, on “Stone Soup.” Here, Kirtley concludes her work by discussing the underrepresentation of female characters, characters of color, and the LGBTQ+ community as well as the overwhelmingly stereotypical representation of women when they are included in these comic strips. Kirtley then extends these arguments, noting that it is not only comic strips today that are mostly unchanged in their depiction of women, since the society itself remains sexist, misogynist, racist, and homophobic, a good way to show how comics do reflect social life. However, the conclusion left me wanting more.

Citation: Aykut Sığın. Review of Kirtley, Susan E., Typical Girls: The Rhetoric of Womanhood in Comic Strips. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL:

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