A couple of us here at Lady Geek Girl & Friends are fans of David Willis’s webcomic Dumbing of Age, a story about college freshmen trying to figure out life. We love it not just because of the great plots and characters, but because of the sensitive, realistic way it addresses real issues that people have to confront in real life, but that often don’t get much representation in mass media. Dom previously wrote about the phenomenon of racism within a mixed-race family in the comic. Today, my focus is going to be on the religious journey of Joyce, the comic’s main character.
I love Joyce to death. While the comic is full of characters I love, some of whom arguably are more interesting than Joyce (for instance, one character dresses up as a superhero and fights petty crime!), the more the comic goes along, the more I’ve come to appreciate her. She is kind, sweet, adorably naïve, unflappably cheerful, and fiercely loyal to the ones she loves. She also grew up in a sheltered, fundamentalist Christian household. Going from that to the huge, diverse, and largely liberal Indiana University was bound to cause some culture shock. But while this clash is sometimes funny, Willis has never portrayed her as a strawman (strawwoman?) parody of a Christian. It is one of the most sensitive, heartfelt stories of religious struggle that I’ve ever encountered in geek media. I feel as if I have a personal stake in the outcome of her journey because I’ve struggled with similar issues. Details—and spoilers—below.
First off, it’s simply refreshing to see a character so unapologetically religious in geek media—while also neither a villain nor portrayed as mentally ill nor even insufferably preachy. Joyce is just like any ordinary girl who grew up in a fundamentalist Protestant environment. Sure, she may disagree with some people about evolution and gay marriage, but she’s no Westboro kid. Willis knows how to depict someone like this accurately, because as he’s said many times, Joyce is a semi-autobiographical female version of himself. He was also raised in a similarly fundie family in the Midwest and homeschooled, with his peer group restricted to church friends and his consumption of media strictly regulated. But after he went off to college, he ended up losing his faith entirely. And that’s why I’m worried sick about Joyce.
But here’s the thing: I think the issues Joyce is confronting for the first time in college—trying to compassionately deal with atheist friends, her own sexuality, and her attitude toward LGBTQ+ people—are actually helping her to become a better Christian, even though it may not look like it on the outside to people from her background, and even though she may be feeling a great deal of cognitive dissonance. This is a super fine line to walk, and Willis has done a masterful job so far.
As illustration of this growth, let’s compare and contrast Joyce’s reaction to atheism. At the start of the year, when she finds out that her new friend Dorothy is an atheist, this is what happens:
Joyce had never even met a real-live atheist before she got to college. But she gives Dorothy a chance and finds that her new friend is kind and super smart. Dorothy even shares her favorite cartoon with Joyce. So Joyce comes to see that atheists are not the cartoon villains she had been brought up to believe they are. And eventually, Dorothy becomes her best friend at college.
Problems arise during Family Visit Weekend. You see, Joyce had been raised to believe that she shouldn’t even associate with “evil” people like atheists. I guess they contaminate you or something. So when her parents find out that her new best friend is an atheist, they tell her to stay away from Dorothy. Joyce’s response? She throws Bible quotes at them:
To them, this probably looks like “cherry-picking” the Bible so it can justify what she’s doing wrong. But to me, this represents something quite different. Joyce has grown to relate to Dorothy as a fellow human being made—just like her and everyone else—in the image and likeness of God. This almost inevitably happens when you actually get to know people in groups that you previously disagreed with or were prejudiced against. You realize that they’re actual human beings deserving of love and respect, who are not defined by the one aspect that makes them “Other” to you. To me, that is a very Christ-like attitude. It shows the triumph of Joyce’s ultimately loving nature against her parents’ bigotry.
In the most recent storyline, Joyce’s faith is tested even more intensely when she finds out that her childhood best friend Becky (also raised in the same fundie environment as Joyce) is a lesbian. When the secret came out, Becky’s parents pulled her out of her Christian college, intending to “fix” her. With no other options, Becky ran away to join Joyce. This was even harder for Joyce to confront than it sounds, because at the time, she had been dating Ethan, a gay man who had not truly come to accept his identity yet, and, aware of his orientation, she was intending to eventually “fix” him too. But when Becky comes out to her, Joyce has to completely change her attitude overnight, or else risk losing her best friend. So she looks up on the internet whether the Bible really says that homosexuality is a sin, and finds some loopholes. Once again, Joyce chooses compassion and love over the “letter of the law”. She successfully reverses a lifetime of brainwashing in response to the real-life needs of a person she loves. But the struggle isn’t over:
That day, Joyce learns about the crisis of homelessness and abandonment of LGBTQ+ youth in her Gender Studies class. She realizes this applies to Becky, a person she knows and cares about, and she can no longer maintain distance from this issue. This causes her to, for the first time, publicly lash out against her church’s opinion on the matter. Another student accuses “fundies” like her of causing and perpetuating the problem to begin with. This drives Joyce over the edge. She rushes out of the class to go looking for Becky, to apologize, and her boyfriend Ethan, to break up with him. She reassures both that they’re fine the way they are, and she’s sorry if she ever implied otherwise.
So is this an example of secularism and relativism “infecting” Joyce and drawing her away from Christ? I don’t think so. Quite the opposite, in fact. Jesus became infamous in his time for his acceptance of those considered “sinners,” whether they were prostitutes, tax collectors, or the woman caught in adultery. Joyce has finally come to see that if her God is truly a God of love, then he loves his people just the way he created them, so if she wants to follow him, she must do the same. To me, the way you treat other people is the strongest way to show your faith. Joyce’s love and compassion toward her friends, no matter what, then, shows me that she has come to see Christ in them, as one should for all people, despite their foibles. And if you recognize Christ in others, then how can you possibly treat them with anything other than the love and care they need? Joyce herself may not realize it, but as far as I’m concerned, she has proven the strength of her faith beyond a doubt.
However, I don’t know how many people agree with me. Certainly on the outside it looks as if these new practical experiences are going to be hard for Joyce to reconcile with her church’s beliefs. But that doesn’t mean atheism is her only other option. There are numerous Christian denominations that are loving and accepting of homosexuality and/or otherwise non-judgmental. I just hope that Joyce finds one of these denominations, instead of sticking too close to Willis’s autobiography.
All in all, Joyce’s journey so far has been a realistic, sensitive portrayal of struggling with faith in the face of real-world challenges. While it may seem as if she is wavering in her beliefs, I think she is in fact strengthening the belief that matters most–that loving one’s neighbor unconditionally is always the right choice. Willis has a good record of respectfully dealing with controversial issues and diversity, so I trust where he’s taking his story. That I care so much about Joyce’s fate is a mark of his great writing! But I’m really hoping that, in the end, Joyce’s story will show that it’s possible to struggle with faith and come out realizing what’s truly important about that faith, without needing to discard it completely. We need more stories like that, because it’s an experience that all people of faith go through at one time or another, and yet we don’t see those stories reflected much in fictional media. Representation matters here just as much as it does in the arenas of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc., because it may help to give hope to readers having their own crisis of faith.