Blondie and Other Working Women


October 04, 1991|By JIM SIZEMORE

What is all this flap about Blondie getting a job? Blondieannounces to Dagwood that she's going to start a catering business, and the whole world goes crazy. Newspapers herald the event with big, black headlines; the networks do prime-time feature pieces on their evening news programs; weekly news magazines pick up the drumbeat of amazement.

I don't understand what the big deal is because women in the comics have been role models for their sex -- especially in the job market -- since at least 1920, the same year they got the vote. That year, Martin Branner introduced a strip called ''Winnie Winkle, the Bread Winner,'' and it, like much of what appeared in the ''funnies,'' reflected what was happening in American society at the time.

During World War I (1917-18), women began working outside the home in larger numbers than ever before. Most of those women took jobs not because they were ''bored housewives,'' but for compelling economic reasons. Winnie Winkle's reasons were certainly serious; her father was too old and sick to work, and her adopted brother, Perry, too young. Winnie was out there trying to earn a living because the family's survival depended on her wages.

Of course Winnie was single, not married like Blondie. But she was in the workaday world at a time when it was still an unusual place even for single women to be. Winnie exhibited a strong independent streak in other ways as well. When it came to the men she dated, Winnie was quick to let them know she didn't need them to support her. For 17 years she put her family concerns ahead of all else, even love.

Then Mr. Wright came along. In 1937, Winnie married Will Wright, quit her job and settled into dull domesticity. Branner quickly realized that he had made a mistake. In 1940 Mr. Wright mysteriously disappeared, never to be heard from again. After a suitable period during which Winnie searched for her lost husband, she went back to work, free once again to play the field romantically -- as well as resume her role as family provider.

Another popular working-girl strip, Russel Westover's ''Tillie the Toiler,'' appeared in 1921. By those post-World War I years it was taken for granted that a woman's place --in fact and in the funny papers -- was no longer just in the home.

Winnie and Tillie were generally positive in the ways they popularized and dignified the young American working woman, but they were by no means perfect. Both strips contained subtle sexist messages. Reading Tillie today, for instance, we are struck by the fact that she is seldom seen actually doing any real work; mostly we see her on dates, shopping with friends, or conning her short, funny-looking boyfriend (a fellow employee) into completing most of her tasks.

Tillie was a flirt, too. She always seemed to be involved with one or another fast-driving, fast-living handsome stranger. Whenever one of these adventures got out of hand, her faithful boyfriend Mac MacDougall would come to the rescue. But it wasn't all fun and games. During World War II, while Mac was overseas in military service, Tillie volunteered for the WACs, and she also worked in a garage for a while.

Perhaps the big deal about Blondie going to work does turn on the fact that she, unlike Winnie and Tillie, is a married woman. But I doubt it. After all, several years ago Lois, the happily married wife in ''Hi & Lois,'' became a real-estate agent. Not much was made of that. No big headlines, no special news reports, no op-ed page pieces -- at least not that I know of.

Blondie, though, is a special case -- special enough to have been attracting the interest of scholars and journalists for years. Fran Matera, writing in Editor & Publisher, suggested in 1987 that Blondie is special because the strip has appeared in thousands of newspapers all over the world for 60 years. Blondie has become for many millions of women a symbol, and we want our symbols, cartoons or not, to reflect who we are.

Ms. Matera argued that it was time for this model married woman to get a job: ''Blondie Bumstead lives in a timeless era but it is a modern timeless era, and both the late Chic Young and his heir Dean Young have frequently made dramatic concessions to modern times. Dagwood once warbled a current Bruce Springsteen hit from his traditional perch in the bathtub, and the story lines often reflect modern themes. . . . Blondie [is a] youthful, attractive . . . intelligent woman who has marvelous presence and bearing. Her children are grown . . . So what is this lady doing at home all day? Especially when the title of the comic is 'Blondie' and not 'Dagwood'.''

According to Ms. Matera, Blondie's transition into the working world should be as smooth as the transformation Lois made from housewife to real-estate agent. Existing locations in the strip -- from home to diner to shopping center -- all provide opportunities for gags; and of course the sort of humor created in Dagwood's office could be adapted to Blondie's work environment as well.

And now our heroine is up to date and out there working, we can relax and enjoy. It looks like the next 60 years of ''Blondie'' will be as successful for her, and as entertaining for us, as the first 60.

Jim Sizemore, a free-lance cartoonist, teaches the history of American cartooning at the University of Baltimore and at Towson State University.

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