Dumbing of Age and the Importance of a Spectrum

doa cast

So many Dumbing of Age characters wear glasses. It might seem like nothing out of the ordinary and nothing to get excited about, but usually prescription eyewear is designated to only one or two characters out of the cast—and will usually be used as visual coding for what kind of person they are. Orphan Black, for instance, stars a bunch of genetically identical clones who should all have perfect eyesight if one of them does, but Cosima wears glasses so that we know she’s The Smart One. Hey, the nerd girl in Dumbing of Age wears glasses, but… so does the ex-cheerleader, the up-and-coming political student, the party-loving advocate for sexual freedom, the roller derby star, and the alcoholic angry Canadian. Eyesight problems do not discriminate between types of people, kind of like in real life!

[Spoilers for the comic from here on out, mostly to do with who gets together with who]

This webcomic overall has a good tactic going on by filling its cast with different kinds of the same thing, creating a spectrum and avoiding stereotyping. More seriously than the issue of spectacles, let’s look at same-sex pairings—for a while, the main girl-loves-girl relationship in the comic was between Ruth (aforementioned angry Canadian) and Billie (aforementioned ex-cheerleader), and it is… a mess. A well-written, intentional and narratively fascinating mess, but still a horrid and unhealthy thing in-story. Both addicted to alcohol, they vow to detox together, but end up breaking the promise and being angry at each other, then getting back together and entering a weird co-dependent booze-scented love affair.

They joke that they’ve entered “some kind of freaky lesbian suicide pact” but… they kind of have. It’s successfully the most on-again-off-again-sometimes-we-fight-in-the-hallway-to-cover-up-our-dirty-secret relationship in the comic, and possibly that I’ve ever read. It’s by no means a healthy relationship, and that’s okay, because we shouldn’t shy away from writing and exploring unhealthy relationships, whether heterosexual or otherwise. The problem arises when the two women who love each other are in the worst relationship in the comic as compared to most of the romantic straight ones, and are also the only same-sex romance there.billieruth2013

If Ruth and Billie were the only women-loving-women relationship in the story, they would represent all the statistics for women-loving-women in that fictional world, which would mean that all women who love other women are engaged in a bicker-and-kiss back and forth co-dependent alcoholic gross-fest of a relationship. If Ruth and Billie were the only same-sex relationship, then all same-sex relationships in Dumbing of Age would be unhealthy and horrible, which sends the not-so-veiled message that this is what the author imagines all same-sex relationships are like, as this is how they have chosen to represent them.

However, Ruth and Billie aren’t the only same-sex couple in Dumbing of Age. Later on we get Becky and Dina, another pair of girls who like each other, and who are pretty much the opposite of Ruth and Billie. They’re open about their relationship, walking down the street hand-in-hand and discussing it with other people. Their dynamic is based on talking about dinosaurs and sharing jokes. They can hold a conversation together without it dissolving into an argument. It’s more complicated than that, obviously, but they’re adorable. And so suddenly Billie and Ruth’s romantic mess isn’t the only representative of women who love women in the story; suddenly we have a spectrum.

It goes on: Becky’s dad literally hunts her down and tries to get her to pray the gay away, but Dina’s parents promptly put money in her bank account so she can take her new girlfriend somewhere nice for dinner. Ethan is contentedly closeted and wants to get on with his life without everyone knowing he’s gay and the repercussions that might come from it, while Becky loudly announces “GUESS WHAT? I’M A LESBIAN!” (this is not exaggeration). Jocelyn is keeping her trans status a secret and runs a very real risk of being rejected from her family, but Carla is effervescent in character and comfortable in her position, and is (from what we’ve seen so far anyway) fine with people knowing if they aren’t dicks to her about it (and if they are, she will quite happily design and build elaborate revenge schemes, quite the contrast to the quiet Jocelyn). With more than one (in some cases, even more than two, wonder of wonders–there are two other less-prominent but still present gay couples in the comic) examples, you create a broader representation and avoid falling into stereotypes.


Because if you have just one of anything—any “minority” group you’re trying to represent—it falls onto them to be the poster child for that entire minority in your story. If you have only one openly gay character and they’re a terrible person, every openly gay character in your world is terrible. The same way that if, say, for a wild example that’s definitely not pointing the finger at any particular show, your only gay character gets shot… then your story world has a 100% mortality rate for gay people. And that’s not good.

The thing is, gay people (sticking with that example for example’s sake, but of course it extends to any other “minority” that’s featured in fiction) are people. You are, in my opinion, perfectly within your rights to write gay villains, gay antagonists, gay characters that are rude or spiteful or riddled with flaws, and you shouldn’t be afraid of writing them into unhealthy relationships with other gay people if you want to explore that in the story you’re telling. But you should also write gay heroes, who are sweet and kind and likeable, and who are in healthy romances. You need to have the balance, otherwise you run the risk of playing into negative stereotypes and offending the hell out of your gay readership.

How would you feel if the only character you could see yourself in, in a sea of straight people, was the abusive, awful villain, or the one in an inescapable cycle of despair? If you’re also given the opportunity to see yourself in the amicable, caring hero, then you have a choice. You don’t have to be the token gay, who’s just in there because the author kinda felt like the story should have one, you can be whoever you want out of a varied cast. And other people get the opportunity to see gay characters as more than one type of character too, again, reflecting reality that sexuality is not actually assigned based on personality traits or high school archetypes. Spectrums are important, guys, spectrums are crucial. This isn’t even me making a pun about the LGBTQ+ flag being a rainbow.


Filed under Fun with Isms

11 responses to “Dumbing of Age and the Importance of a Spectrum

  1. mythos2

    I just started marathoning the comic after your recommendation and I’m surprised you didn’t use this strip for the article. 😛 It fits so perfectly for the glasses discussion!


    I enjoyed your ideas on representation and I’m loving the comic itself. Thank you!

    • “We’re alllllll wearin’ glasses~~” beautiful. Billie is the great orator of our times

      I’m glad you’re enjoying it! Any favourites yet?

      • mythos2

        I’m only a book and some change of the way through the series but so far I like Dorothy and Amber a lot as characters, particularly with how stable and multifaceted they are. I also pretty much die every time Dina is in the story somewhere. The way she behaves and expresses herself is just too good. XD

        Weirdly, Mike reminds me of a nicer version of someone I roomed with in college. It’s a little jarring, actually. Joyce, as well, is creepily similar to people I know, particularly because I’ve lived in the Bible Belt for so long. However, I’m glad to see how well she’s treated, even if she is very ignorant of things. I’m interested to see how she opens up in college life.

        Really, I’m enjoying the cast as a whole with the exception of Joe but he’s kind of made to be the douche of the story for comedic effect and because everyone knows someone like him. Though he has some very small redeeming moments which is kudos to the creator for rounding him out like that.

        I’m not too far in so I’m excited to see how everything turns out. I’m very impressed with how well the creator is balancing all of these characters and each one’s progression and interactions. It’s a wonderful ride that’s had me glued to my screen for the past two hours. 😛

  2. mythos2

    In retrospect, and with newer information, I retract my statement of a certain character being stable but that is simply because they’ve become even more multifaceted with more characterization and a very tragic but wonderfully written backstory.

    • Heh, their instability is just another part of what makes them fascinating. Amazi-Girl surprised me by being a really complex part of the story and character arc, when I initially expected her to be a kind of quirk of the campus. But no… here we are…

  3. modulusshift

    Wow, you’re a great writer, it’s always nice to find a new voice for representation in media. 🙂 I subscribed, and I usually like to comment, so I guess you’ll be seeing me around sometimes.

    The thing is with Willis is that the relationships in his comics have only about a 50% success rate or so. Like, if I had to bet, I think Billie and Ruth will likely be fine soon, but Dina and Becky might not be. There’s hints of both of those, but there’s also little hints that the opposite could happen, Billie and Ruth might not be able to recover from this and Becky and Dina will slowly learn what their relationship really means in their lives. Amber and Danny is very similar, because Danny also has a good rest state with Ethan by the end of the comic if necessary, but then also, Ethan (in the alternate universe) went through like four relationships in about as much time as we’ve had with Dumbing of Age so far. Including dating a girl shortly for a promotion. Yes he was still gay.

    Seriously, though, I don’t think there’s a single completely healthy relationship in the entire series. Which, I mean, is lifelike. But you could sit down and write a paragraph about every single relationship in the comics and everything that’s wrong with it. Which, in many cases, would be missing the point, because Willis is showcasing everything in their lives as they are right now, not as they should be or will be. That’s really pretty beautiful.

    • Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the article! DoA was my first experience with Willis’ comics, and I only recently found out that they’re all basically alternate universes starring the same characters. With that in mind I’m really interested to see how they’re portrayed and what goes on in other comics. Could be a whole new post in and of itself…

      In any case, I need Dina and Becky to end up happy, whether that’s together or apart. I need it like vitamins.

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  5. Well, you just confirmed in writing that you were doing exactly what I thought you were doing all along. And that those people who complained of there being too many gay/transgendered/bespectacled people in your comic don’t realize that the goal is not to provide a proportional representation of the entire population. Otherwise you would have to introduce a person who communicates primarily in Spanish before you introduced one who communicates primarily in ASL.

    • Oops. I misunderstood who “you” are–I saw this piece on Willis’ tumblr and just assumed it was written by Willis. I now see you are an external reviewer. So I would edit my post to say “You seem to see the same thing in Willis’ intentions that I do.”

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