It shouldn’t be news to anyone that Garry Trudeau’s long-running Doonesbury strip regularly tackles controversial current events and has done so for decades; last year the Washington Post finally ran a strip about Watergate that its editors had vetoed in 1973. But one Post reader was surprised enough by a recent storyline alluding to campus sexual assaults that she wrote a letter to the editor claiming that “the comics are not safe anymore.”
Debbie Shelton of Manassas, Virginia specifically objected to the use of the term “gang rape” in Trudeau’s December 28 strip. Shelton explained that she only allows her 9-year-old daughter to read the children’s section of the Post and the Sunday comics as it is, and “should not have to censor the words of a comic strip in order to share the paper with my children.”
Actually, Shelton’s sentiments seem to match those of Trudeau’s characters, and presumably the cartoonist himself. The strip in question comments on the very difficulty of finding anything funny to say about sexual assault, but it is a topic that comes up in the news with unfortunate regularity and obviously Trudeau felt he (or Boopsie) needed to address it.
Michael Cavna of the Post’s own Comic Riffs column covered the strip the following day, but primarily to explore the issue that jumped out at most readers: the mention of a specific case at the University of Virginia featured in a Rolling Stone article that the magazine retracted on December 5. The Doonesbury strip was submitted prior to the retraction, Cavna found. He also mentioned incidentally that Universal UClick Syndicate offered a substitute strip for December 28 for any newspapers that “might have balked at the campus-rape” story. Only four took them up on the offer: the Chicago Tribune and papers in Bergen, New Jersey; Providence, Rhode Island; and Evansville, Indiana.
Of course, it’s quite possible that those newspapers chose not to run the strip because the UVA story has been retracted, not because they didn’t want the word “rape” on their comics pages. In fact the comics editors of the Washington Post have in the past exhibited what the paper’s own humor columnist Gene Weingarten referred to as “Victorian standards,” choosing to substitute or edit strips when no other paper in the nation did so. Perhaps they give Doonesbury and other multi-panel political strips a bit more leeway, figuring that young readers like Shelton’s daughter will most likely skip over them anyway. Whatever the case, presumably Shelton now realizes that Trudeau can and does address a variety of current events in his strips, and if she wants to shield her children from topics that are in the news (as is her right!) she may indeed find it necessary to preview the Sunday comics.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.