[Update: See commentator Chris's remark below. Turns out the comic was drawn by an admirer of Watterson, based on some comments Watterson gave in a speech, not by W. himself. My apologies. I do, of course, stand by my point that the comic is tacitly, in fact almost matter-of-factly, feminist in its view of the relations of the sexes and that Christian conservatives should at least make some objection to this in approving of the comic.]
A couple of my friends on Facebook have linked this cartoon recently, apparently with approval. I don't quite have the 'net savvy to figure out how long ago Bill Watterson drew it. Is it new or old for him? Don't know.
Now, the reason everybody, including my Christian friends, likes this cartoon is because it glorifies staying home with the kids and because it warns against materialism. In the abstract, these points do have value.
But it bothers me a leetle bit that the evangelical world, at least, has become so inured to feminism that the unstated egalitarian/feminist message of this cartoon goes unnoticed and isn't even permitted to color their enthusiasm for it. Not even to the point of putting a little caveat at the beginning to the effect, "It would have been better if it were the wife that quit her job to stay home and have the baby, but I still like the message." And one friend did put a caveat when he posted it, but only about the phrase "invent your own life's meaning." I will grant that that has an ominously "sweet mystery of life" sound about it, but c'mon, what about the elephant in the room?
Let's parse this: I won't even call the man in the cartoon "Bill Watterson," though I presume it's supposed to be autobiographical. But let's just call him "the guy." So the guy is bored in his job drawing for a big advertising company. He's tired of climbing the corporate ladder. His co-workers are shallow, and people expect him to work his tail off doing stuff he doesn't care about and then get drunk with the boys at the office at the end of the week. (I don't know if getting drunk the minute the clock strikes five is really all that common in the corporate world, but I'll take Watterson's word for it.) So he quits his job to "create his own meaning" by drawing dinosaurs. Thing is, his wife is pregnant. Heavily pregnant. But not to worry. The wife doesn't say, "You what? You quit your job to draw dinosaurs? But we're just about to have a baby!" No, his quitting his job to have a baby (ahem) is apparently just the same as her quitting a job to have a baby. We're supposed to ignore the fact that, y'know, he's not actually having a baby; she is. No, she puts on her power suit and trots happily off to her job. Apparently her job doesn't bore her like his job bored him. The baby's neonatal infancy is tactfully skipped over. Presumably Mom was able to get back into her power suits lickety split after the baby was born and felt not the slightest tension with her maternal instincts about going off and being the breadwinner. After all, Mr. Mom was at home drawing dinosaurs and taking care of Baby.
We're supposed to applaud all of this as anti-materialist just as we would presumably approve it as anti-materialist if a woman quit her job to focus on her family. Ain't that sweet? Nobody says, "Look, buddy, your wife is pregnant. Man up and draw the jeeps, already. What? You expect her to have the baby and support you, too?" Nah. That would be crass and, I guess, materialist. Not to mention insufficiently egalitarian. I guess his income was just providing unneeded extra cash or something.
I fully understand that perhaps the guy's marriage really is egalitarian, and perhaps his wife really would not have wanted to quit her job, and perhaps they really could do just fine as far as supporting themselves on her income alone.
But I think that Christians who also happen to be political conservatives should at least notice the cartoon's assumption that men and women are simply interchangeable in their roles in the home and in the workforce. It's certainly true that we conservatives applaud if a woman quits her job to stay home with her kids and the family is supported on the husband's income alone. And it's also true that it would be tacky under those circumstances, when hearing the wife rhapsodizing about how much more fulfilling it is to be home with the baby than to be climbing the corporate ladder, to ask how her husband is enjoying climbing the corporate ladder himself. Why? It would be tacky because he's the husband, and she's the wife. She's supposed to stay home with the kids, which of course plenty of women don't think is fulfilling. We're glad to hear of one who does think it's fulfilling. And, yes, that may mean that the husband has to do something that isn't his "dream job." We applaud him for that, too. We don't suggest that he should have stayed home instead, or that they should have flipped a coin to decide which one would continue to work at the boring job. That's because men and women are different.
Watterson thinks of the whole thing solely in terms of the anti-materialist meme, and he presents it as such. It's true that conservatives have rightly appropriated that meme to advocate the one-income traditional family, the family that tightens its belt so the kids don't have to go into daycare or public school. But when we start mindlessly holding on to the anti-materialist meme and cheer heartily for the one-income non-traditional family, and worse, don't even seem to notice that we're doing so, then we have a bit of a problem. Then we're veering towards becoming the semi-conservative, pro-family feminists.
The Watterson cartoon is nice. It's sweet. Really. I say that without intending snark. Better for the little girl to be home with Daddy than to be in daycare. And hey, maybe he'll even home school her. I suppose the feminist, semi-hippy, anti-corporate types might have something in common with us countercultural conservatives after all. But one still has to feel it a bit odd that Mommy is apparently not working in a hippy-owned natural foods store. She looks like she's working in the despised, materialist corporate world! Well, maybe somebody has to in their family to put food on the table. Maybe there'd be a problem if they tried to go back to the land. I'd be the last one in the world to blame them for drawing that conclusion. But at that point the question, "Why the mom and not the dad?" cries out to be asked.
Watterson cheerfully evades that question by having it serendipitously turn out that both parents can "follow their dreams." Not to mention the fact that back in the real world those Watterson dinosaurs proved to be pretty successful in material terms after all. A happy surprise.
Lots of people in the real world don't get to follow their dreams. So they have to ask who works the job and who stays home and changes the diapers. Which means they can't evade the gender role question forever. We might as well face that question now, even if it means not being entirely enthusiastic over Watterson's high-quality, pro-family, anti-materialist cartoon.