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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 10/ 7/2008

The Riff: Is "Beetle Bailey" Like "Mad Men" Without the Wink?

By Michael Cavna

One is a fresh, Emmy-winning show with serious buzz. The other is a hall-of-fame cartoon that is often derided as stale and past its prime. So what could AMC's slick "Mad Men" and Mort Walker's old-school "Beetle Bailey" possibly have in common?

Well, according to one acquaintance, they both put sexism in the workplace under a microscope -- just in different ways.

Miss Buxley: empowered or oppressed? (KFS) Enlarge Comic

Some critics say "Mad Men," set in the early '60s, is able to have it both ways: spotlighting pre-women's rights sexism while mining the mores for rich stories. "Beetle," ostensibly set during the Korean War, is often accused of being straight-up sexist -- although some readers say that sexual stereotypes are actually being lampooned, not celebrated. (If General Halftrack is made to look pathetic or ridiculous by a Miss Buxley rejoinder, the thinking goes, then doesn't that undercut old-boy-network sexism -- not unlike Norman Lear's "All in the Family"?)

Don and Betty Draper of AMC's "Mad Men."Enlarge Comic

Lampoon, not unlike quality, is of course in the eye of the beholder. "Beetle" recently polled among the least popular strips in a Comic Riffs survey -- commenter J. Meahan said flat-out: "Beetle Bailey is a bad comic strip... grandfathered into the paper" -- yet there were five other strips that commenters would sooner see go.

Which gives rise to two questions: How much are outdated worldviews grandfathered into the funny pages -- and where do editors and readers draw the line?

While we're on topic, we're reminded of an anecdote in a recently released book, "Garry Trudeau: Doonesbury and the Aesthetics of Satire," by BYU professor Kerry D. Soper. In this well-researched work, Soper writes of sexist practices by the National Cartoonists Society some decades ago -- including the era that "Mad Men" depicts:

"The overwhelmingly male composition was reflected in sexist rhetoric and practices of the organization: they organized bathing suit contests in which their wives and girlfriends would participate; each year they passed out a booklet containing drawings of their female cartoon characters in the buff. ... Mort Walker (the creator of "Beetle Bailey") and Johnny Hart ("B.C.") [included] in the annual program magazine drawings of their characters, Miss Buxley and "Fat Broad," respectively, in the nude.

"Trudeau described the actions of Walker and Hart as a 'travesty of condescension and sexism' and 'deeply offensive.' "

The National Cartoonists Society, no longer mirroring the mores of Don Draper's ad agency, has thankfully changed with the times. But have all the mainstream comics that hark back to that era?

By Michael Cavna  | October 7, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
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Fat Broad naked? Please pass the mind bleach.

And the names of Hart's female characters says more than you need to know about sexism.

Posted by: yellojkt | October 7, 2008 11:27 AM | Report abuse

The blatant sexism is actually what bothers me the most about Beetle Bailey. Mad Men works because of the "wink". If Beetle is ostensibly set during the Korean War, what's with Gizmo and the persistent presence of computers? The strip models itself as current while embracing standards for the treatment of women that are at least 50 years old.

Oh, and the lampooning of the men is just as bad. It in no way redeems the treatment of the women.

Posted by: Julia | October 7, 2008 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, the idea of Fat Broad naked isn't my cup of tea. Now, Dixie Julep...

Posted by: Wally Wood fan | October 7, 2008 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Gizmo AND the way Miss Buxley dresses both say it can't be the Korean War (any more).

Y'know, I think BC and Gilligan's Island both had the same ratio of male-to-female characters. At least until that Indian and his friend (talk about offensive stereotypes) came along.

Strips are rarely set in a particular time; usually it's the present with few exceptions.

I think The Phantom remained in the 30s or 40s. Red & Rover. BC (duh). Is Id historical? Mostly it was anachronistic, I think.

I remember being jarred when Superman decided he was no longer a '40s character but was now a '60s (contemporary) character.

Blondie and Dagwood have moved with the times mostly. She still dresses '50s-ish, but certainly not flapper-ish.

Sally Forth poked fun at their own time shift a few weeks ago.

Oh.... Dennis and Family Circus are both stuck in the 1300s, when they originated. Both, oddly enough, were based on an idea by John McCain.

Posted by: f2 | October 7, 2008 1:00 PM | Report abuse

What? Naked Buxley! Dirty old men! The guys in my high school stole Dad's old Playboys. I think they thought it was a classy mag 'cause it only showed bosoms.


Posted by: MSchafer | October 7, 2008 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Nah, the Phantom changed with the times. I actually wouldn't mind seeing it in the Post - it's now drawn by the slick superhero artist Paul Ryan. I believe it's still wildly popular overseas as well.

Posted by: Mike Rhode | October 7, 2008 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Please put up more pics of January Jones. Yum!

Posted by: cao107 | October 8, 2008 9:56 AM | Report abuse

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